The Lamps Of Khirbet el-Maqatir -- By: Brian N. Peterson

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 26:4 (Fall 2013)
Article: The Lamps Of Khirbet el-Maqatir
Author: Brian N. Peterson


The Lamps Of Khirbet el-Maqatir

Brian N. Peterson

“A lamp is called a lamp, and the soul of a man is called a lamp”
(Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30b)

A Brief History Of Ancient Oil Lamps

Whether we realize it or not, lamps can tell us a lot about ancient peoples. According to ancient Jewish tradition, lamps were the most important household “appliance.” The Mishnah (e.g., Bava Metzia 7:1; Kelim 3:2; Shabbat 2:4), Jerusalem Talmud (e.g., Shabbat 2:1), Babylonian Talmud (e.g., Berakhot 60b; Shabbat 23b, 29b, 30a), and Tosefta (Ketubot 5:8; Shabbat 1:13) are replete with sayings focused on the importance of the oil lamp in daily life and Torah study (Westenholz 2004: 8). For example, because daylight was so important for outside activities, most Torah study was done by lamp light after the sun went down. There can be little doubt that this importance placed upon lamps is what sparked biblical verses such as “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Ps 119:105) and “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a container” (Lu 8:16).1

In ancient societies, the oil lamp was the most efficient form of light. Vegetable oils, bituminous oils such as petroleum, and olive oil (the most common for Israel) served as fuel. In the Mediterranean region, it was the latter that was the most sought after and used by the wealthiest individuals because of its purity (Israeli and Avida 1988: 9).2 Wicks for lamps consisted of woven fibers, with the best wicks being made from flax.

Lamps also provided a symbiotic connection between the living and the dead. They were used as light for digging tombs, and then were buried with the deceased in burial rites to light the way into the afterlife (Israeli and Avida 1988: 9; Westenholz 2004:15; Sussman 2007: 2-3, 43). As early as the LB I period, in pagan contexts, lamps were placed in foundation offerings usually with an infant sacrifice (Sussman 2007: 43).

During their earliest production, lamps were most often made of clay on a potter’s wheel, although metal (e.g., bronze and iron), glass, and stone lamps are also attested, though very rare (Rosenthal and Sivan 1978: 156-64; Hadad 137-41; Sussman 2009: 80-81; Xanthopoulou 2010: 1-316), as are terracotta-figurine lamps (Chrzanovski 2000: 15; Israeli and Avida 1988: 9; Westenholz 2004:11). Beginning as early as the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods lamps were flat and saucer shaped (Sussman 2007: 7-9, 176, 406). Along the edge of th...

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