My article, “Zebel and Salome, the Virgin Mary’s Midwives: Doubt, Faith, and the Miraculous in a Medieval Legend,” now appears in Midwifery Today 131 (Autumn 2019), 44-46.
“The birth of Jesus is perhaps the most famous birth in the world. It is called the Nativity (meaning “the Birth”) and represented in homes, churches, and communities by iconic Nativity scenes at Christmastime, when it is celebrated by Christians (and many non-Christians) worldwide. Nativity scenes recall figures from the birth and infancy stories of Jesus preserved in the gospels of Matthew and Luke as well as extra-biblical sources, including Christmas carols: a stable with a star shining over it; domesticated animals like the ox, ass, and sheep; angels, shepherds, and Magi (also known as the Wise Men or Three Kings); and Joseph and Mary, come from Galilee to Bethlehem to participate in a Roman census, and of course, the baby Jesus lying in a hay-filled manger.
“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed –
the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head;
the stars in the sky look down where he lay –
the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.”
“Away in a Manger” (late 19thc.)
Figures that we almost never see depicted in Nativity scenes today are Zebel and Salome, the midwives who were long believed to have attended Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. That’s because no midwives are named, or even mentioned, in the Nativity accounts in the biblical Gospels of Matthew and Luke. But in the late-antique and medieval periods, several well-known written documents and visual sources depict two midwives with Mary when Jesus was born. These midwives, Zebel and Salome, play a vitally important role in such depictions: their doubt and faith, their practical knowledge and spiritual authority, are used to verify the miraculous nature of the virgin birth.”