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LAMP. An instrument used for artificial lighting. Lamps are often mentioned in Scripture, but no description of their form and structure is given. Archaeology has recovered many specimens in a great variety of forms, from the early simple, shallow, saucerlike bowl (with one side slightly pointed for the lighted wick) to the later closed bowl (with only a hole on top to pour in the oil, a spout for the wick, and a handle to carry it). Lamps for domestic use were generally of terra-cotta or of bronze. KJV often has “candle” and “candlestick” and NEB has “standing lamp” where NIV has “lamp” and “lampstand.”

The common household lamp is never described in the Bible, although the twisted flax wick is mentioned (Isa 42:3) and olive oil as fuel (Exod 25:6; 27:20; Matt 25:3, 4). Palestinian tombs and excavations of towns, however, have provided innumerable lamps from the time of Abraham onward, so that the archeologist can carefully trace the development of lamp forms. While Scripture alludes to their common daily use (e.g. Prov 31:18; Jer 25:10), lamps also are mentioned with rich symbolical meaning.

Lamps found in Pal. from the OT period were made almost entirely of pottery. In some cases certain features indicate that metal prototypes were copied. In the Late Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages (3300-2100 b.c.) shallow round-based bowls for holding the oil seem—from marks of wicks burning on the rims—to have been used as lamps. Probably the incoming Amorite tribesmen c. 2000 b.c. (MB I) introduced the first true lamps; these are invariably fourspouted (i.e., the rim is pinched in four places to form wide lips for holding wicks). From c. 1850 b.c. onward the ordinary lamp had a single lip. This became increasingly pinched together.

When the Israelites entered the Promised Land they simply copied the Canaanite lamp shapes for many centuries. In the time of the prophets potters in Judah added a base to make the lamp more stable. While the lip became more elongated, through the Pers. period the lamp remained an open vessel, with always the danger of the oil slopping over when carried.

Imported Gr. lamps were so practical, however, that in the Hel. age local potters soon switched from the open saucer lamp to the wheel-made lamp with a central filling hole in the top of the round, enclosed body, to which a long projecting nozzle was attached. In the Rom. period, the so-called Herodian lamp became popular in Jerusalem and the hill country, simple and small with round body and short, flaring nozzle. Undoubtedly Jesus had this style in mind in His parable of the woman who lighted a lamp to search for her lost coin (Luke 15:8), and in the parable of the ten virgins who were awakened at midnight and arose to trim their lamps, i.e., adjust the wicks (Matt 25:7).

The form of the individual lamps (Exod 25:37) on the menôrāh, the golden lampstand (q.v.) in the Tabernacle, is suggested by a correct understanding of Zechariah 4:2. The envisioned gold lampstand consists of a large bowl, elevated on a stand, with seven lamps, each having seven lips (RSV, tr. Heb. mûṩāqôt) or spouts (KB, p. 505), arranged around its broad rim. Such seven-lipped lamps have been found in tombs and house ruins at many Iron I and Iron II sites in Pal., so that the style was enjoyed by commoners as well as in the sanctuary. Lamps of this type seem to have originated around Ras Shamra in Syria, where they have been excavated from the Middle Bronze level. It can no longer be held that the concept of a sevenfold light source was a priestly invention of the 5th cent. b.c.

In practice, the ordinary lamp in OT times held enough oil to burn through the night, but the wick had to be adjusted every few hours as it burned down. Hence, the virtuous housewife (Prov 31:18) needed to arise once or twice during the night to “trim” her lamp lest it go out and there be no pilot flame to light her fire in the morning. Lamps prob. were placed in concave niches in the walls of houses, as they were in walls of tombs and of water tunnels. If lampstands were used, as the lychnía of Matthew 5:15; Luke 8:16; 11:33 (KJV candlestick), they were prob. made of wood, for ceramic and metal stands have been found only in ruins of shrines. Candles were unknown in Bible times; hence every KJV reference to a candle is incorrect and should be a lamp.

In 2 Kings 4:10 the menôrāh prob. refers to a pottery lamp of a different style from the common nēr. It may have been the “cup-and-saucer” lamp, a high cup in the center of a small bowl, all made in one piece by the potter (BA, XXVII, 14-17). More likely it was a pedestal lamp, a seven-spouted lamp on a terra cotta pedestal in the form of a stylized tree, having religious significance and thus suitable for a “holy man of God” (BA, XXVII, 23f.).

The OT lamp was not adapted for night travel. Therefore torches were used whenever light was needed, as in Gideon’s attack on the Midianite camp (Judg 7:16, 20, RSV). Psalm 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path,” may depict two images, lamplight for one’s walk in his home and torchlight for his journey out-of-doors. By NT times actual lanterns (phanoi) were available as well as torches (lampádes) for the Temple police going to arrest Jesus (John 18:3; see BA, XXIX, 6f.).


R. H. Smith, “The Household Lamps of Palestine in OT Times,” BA, XXVII (1964), 1-31; “ Intertestamental Times,” BA, XXVII, 101-124; “ NT Times,” BA, XXIX (1966), 1-27.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

1. Forms and History:

Lamps were in use in very remote times, though we have few allusions to them in the early history of Egypt. There are indications that they were used there. Niches for lamps are found in the tombs of Tell el-Amarna (Archaeological Survey of Egypt, Tell el-Amarna Letters, Part IV, 14). Lampstands are also represented (ibid., Part III, 7). Torches were of course used before lamps, and are mentioned in Ge (15:17 the Revised Version (British and American)), but clay lamps were used in Canaan by the Amorites before the Israelites took possession. The excavations in Palestine have furnished thousands of specimens, and have enabled us to trace the development from about 2000 BC onward. The exploration carried out at Lachish (Tell Hesy) and Gezer (Tell Jezer) by the Palestine Exploration Fund has given ample material for the purpose, and the numerous examples from tombs all over Palestine and Syria have supplied a great variety of forms.

2. Figurative Use:

"Lamp" is used in the sense of a guide in Ps 119:105; Pr 6:23, and for the spirit, which is called the lamp of Yahweh in man (Pr 20:27), and it of course often signifies the light itself. It is used also for the son who is to succeed and represent his father (1Ki 15:4), and it perhaps is employed in this sense in the phrase, "The lamp of the wicked shall be put out" (Job 21:17; Pr 13:9; and perhaps Job 18:6).

The early Canaanite or Amorite lamp was a shallow, saucer-like bowl with rounded bottom and vertical rim, slightly pointed or pinched on one side where the lighted end of the wick was placed. This form continued into Jewish times, but was gradually changed until the spout was formed by drawing the rim of the sides together, forming a narrow open channel, the remainder of the rim being rolled outward and flattened, the bottom being also flattened. This was the early Hebrew pattern and persisted for centuries. The open bowl was gradually closed in, first at the spout, where the rim of one side was lapped over the other, and finally the whole surface was closed with only an orifice in the center for receiving the oil, and at the same time the spout was lengthened. This transformation is seen in lamps of the Seleucid period, or from around 300 BC. These lamps have usually a circular foot and sometimes a string-hole on one side. The next development was a circular bowl with a somewhat shorter spout, sometimes being only a bulge in the rim, so that the orifice for the wick falls in the rim, the orifice for filling being quite small at the bottom of a saucer-like depression in the center of the bowl. There is sometimes a loop handle affixed on the side opposite to the spout. Sometimes the handle is horizontal, but commonly vertical. This form is called Roman, and the bowl is often ornamented with mythological human or animal figures (Fig. 5). Other forms are elongated, having numerous wick holes (Fig. 6). The mythological and animal forms were rejected by the Jews as contrary to their traditions, and they made lamps with various other designs on the bowl, such as vine leaves, cups, scrolls, etc. (Figs. 7-11). One very marked Jewish design is the seven-branched candlestick (Ex 25:32) of the temple (Fig. 12). The lamps of the parable of the Ten Virgins were probably similar to these (Mt 25:1 ). The latest form of the clay lamp was what is called Byzantine, the bowl of which has a large orifice in the center and tapers gradually to the spout (Fig. 13); they are ornamented commonly with a palm branch between the central orifice and the wickhole, or with a cross. Sometimes there is an inscription on the margin (Fig. 13). The words on this read Phos ku(riou) pheni pasin kale,"The light of the Lord shines to all (beautifully?)." Others read, "The Lord is my light"; "beautiful light," etc. These inscriptions determine the period as being Christian. In Roman times, and earlier also, bronze was much used for the finer lamps, often with covers for the orifice and sometimes with chain and ring for hanging. Very elaborate designs in this material occur.

These terra-cotta lamps are found in the tombs and burial places throughout Palestine and Syria, and they were evidently deposited there in connection with the funeral rites. Very few are found in Canaanite tombs, but they become numerous in later times and especially in the early Christian centuries. The symbolism in their use for funeral purposes is indicated by the inscriptions above mentioned (see PEFS, 1904, 326 ff; Explorations in Palestine, by Bliss. Maclister and Wunsch, 4to, published by the Palestine Exploration Fund). These lamps were used by the peasants of the country down to recent times, when petroleum has superseded olive oil for lighting. The writer has seen lamps of the Jewish and Roman period with surface blackened with recent usage. Olive oil was commonly used, but terebinth oil also (Thomson, LB, III, 472).