The Oil Lamp
The earliest oil lamps from the Biblical world are believed to have been either pottery dishes or shells into which oil or animal fat, and a wick were placed. Some of these would have been shaped by hand, others made on a potter’s wheel.
At some point potters realized that creating a pinched spout would hold the wick in place more effectively. Many early lamps had four spouts. It is thought that these early lamps used fish oil, which does not burn as brightly as olive oil. It is possible, that four wicks were used to increase the brightness of the lamp. However modern experimentation has shown that these ‘four spouted’ lamps burn oil quite quickly, and it was possibly the frustration of needing to continually fill them that led people to instead use single wick lamps.
The oil lamp was a brilliant little invention, providing clean safe light throughout the year. For many millennia, all across the Mediterranean region, people relied on oil from the olives to provide them with light late into the night. The technology involved was incredibly simple: a pottery vessel, a linen wick, a dose of olive oil and a way of getting the flame started.
Over time, changes were made to the single wick saucer lamps. The pinched spout became more defined and the bases were made a lot flatter. This was the style of lamp used at the time of King David.
You, Lord, are my lamp; the Lord turns my darkness into light. 2 Samuel 22:29
Some 500 years later, Greek lamps began to show some new and interesting innovations. The Greeks produced a lamp with a closed-in body which decreased spillage, and a covered spout which prevented the wick from burning up as quickly. They also glazed many of their lamps, preventing the oil from seeping through the pottery, and thus being wasted.
Over time, lamp design continued to change. Lamps used by the Jews at the time of Jesus were extremely plain. These Herodian lamps lacked any decoration as the pious Jews banned the use of most images on their objects. They did however still retain the functional innovations of the Greeks. On several occasions, Jesus mentions lamps in his teaching. For example, In Matthew 25:1-13, he tells this parable about ten virgins:
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
The image above shows a Herodian oil lamp, and Iron Age lamp filler used to carry extra oil. Our experiments have shown that a replica Herodian lamp filled with olive oil will burn for around 4-5 hours, and would run out at about midnight, just as the foolish virgins discovered.
While many Jews stuck to plain, undecorated lamps, the Romans created some beautiful mold made lamps with numerous depictions of plants, animals, gods, goddesses and people on them. This one (image left) depicts a gladiator battle.
The use of lamp molds (image right) enabled the mass production of intricate and creative lamps. The clay was pressed into the two parts of the decorated lamp mold, and the two halves joined together to form the lamp. As Roman lamps were exported and traded across the Empire, some crafty entrepreneurs began making cheap imitations of the luxury originals by constructing a mold around a lamp and then making copies from the mold.
During the Byzantine and Islamic eras, many lamps continued to reflect the religious beliefs of their users. Jews would depict on their lamps images of grapes or the Menorah (the 7 branch candlestick). Christians would choose crosses, the Chi-Rho symbol or even the face of Christ (image left - lamp with Chi-Rho symbol). Some of the later Islamic lamps are free of decoration, due to their religious prohibitions against using images.
Archaeologists have also discovered a variety of lamp holders and lamp stands. The lamp holder, depicted right, was possibly used for carrying a light at night.
As we have visited various museums around the world, we have been impressed by the creativity and humour that has gone into constructing some lamps, turning functional everyday objects into clever and often fun works of art.
The most common fuel used for lamps at the time of the Bible was olive oil. The olive is an evergreen tree that grows up to 8 meters high and can live for many years. Some olive trees on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are thought to be as old as 1500 years. The trees remain productive as long as they are pruned well. The olive tree has an extensive root system which means it can tolerate drought effectively.
A successful olive harvest was a time of great rejoicing. The olives would be harvested in autumn (September – November) and would be used for many purposes in the year ahead. The Greek writer Homer called olive oil ‘liquid gold’.
The first step in harvesting olives was the beating of the tree:
“When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.” Deuteronomy 24:20.
The olives were then gathered up, and the majority crushed to produce oil. While the fruit had a limited lifespan, the oil kept for much longer. The oil was traditionally released from olives using a heavy crushing wheel (image left), which crushed the oil rich olive stones. These crushing wheels could be turned by people or animals.
The crushed olives were then placed in baskets and compressed using a weighted lever to extract the oil (see image of device right). The oil amounts to 50 percent of the weight of the olive. The first pressing produced the best oil (Extra virgin olive oil), with lesser quality oil being extracted in subsequent presses.
Olive oil had many uses. It was used widely in cooking as well as lighting. It was also used as a cleanser, and was often rubbed onto the skin of athletes to clean off after competitions.
Oil was also given as an offering to God for use in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple.
“Command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light so that the lamps may be kept burning.” Exodus 27:20.
Both the Tabernacle and the Temple had elaborately designed lamps. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the Romans recorded on the Arch of Titus (image left) some of the items taken from the Temple. One of the images shows a seven branched candlestick, probably a depiction of the one that was used in the Temple at the time of Jesus.
Ross and Sarah Nightingale images: Lamp Mould (Carlos Museum, Atlanta, USA); Chi-Rho lamp (Landesmuseum, Trier, Germany); Lamp and lamp holder (Altes Museum, Berlin, Germany); Foot lamp, (Naples Museum, Italy); Face lamp (Naples Museum, Italy); Selection of lamps (Carlos Museum, Atlanta, USA); Boat lamp (British Museum, London); Face lamp (Carlos Museum, Atlanta, USA); Two spouted lamp (Naples Museum, Italy); Olive tree (Sepphoris, Israel); Olive crusher (Nazareth Village, Israel); Reconstructed olive press (Hazor, Israel); Arch of Titus (Rome, Italy)
Bibleworld Images: Lit replica oil lamp; Four spouted lamp; Iron Age Lamp; Two Greek lamps; Herodian lamp; Herodian lamp and lamp filler.
Wikipedia Commons Images: Gladiator lamp; Black olives.