Article of the Week | BYU Studies

Article of the Week

February 21, 2017
Article of the Week
The Virgins' Lamps: Shine Beautiful!
Marti Lu Allen

This daily feature is the introduction to a full article by Marti Lu Allen which was published in issue 36:3. To read the full text of this article, follow the link below.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, hand-sized lamps made of baked clay were used to light one's way after dark. The equivalent of the modern day light bulb, clay lamps were also an essential part of the ancient household and are among the most common articles found during archaeological excavations. Their nozzles held a burning wick fueled by oil, and they cast a dancing, flickering light like a candle or lantern. The essential parts of the lamp structure were a reservoir or cavity to hold the fuel, usually olive oil, and a wick rest or feature to anchor the wick, which could be a length of tightly twisted flax or other fiber. The reservoirs held sufficient oil to keep the lamp burning throughout an entire night, although the wick had to be shifted every few hours.

The Bible makes many references to lamps, most frequently in association with offerings made at an altar and in connection with a golden candelabra. They may not have been the earthen lamps in common usage in antiquity. In at least one instance, however, the Bible almost certainly refers to hand-sized clay lamps. Jesus relates the parable of the ten maidens who needed oil lamps to light their way to a midnight marriage. Only five of the young girls witnessed the spectacle, as Jesus relates: "Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps."

What would these lamps carried by the five wise virgins have looked like? Were they beautiful? Or were they ordinary, everyday things? How would they have compared to lamps used by other people in the Holy Land? Were similar lamps used at Masada? Did pagans, Christians, and Jews use the same kinds of lamps? This article will enable the patient reader to ponder these questions for him- or herself. It attempts to condense a very large body of (sometimes esoteric) literature on the topic of lamps in the Holy Land from about 2000 BC through the first century AD.