Introduction to Ancient Oil Lamps

Lamps in the Ancient World

oil-lamp-9.jpgDuring the time of the Bible lamps were used, in order to illuminate the house or any building there were lamps. The most ancient lamps that have been discovered in archaeology were actually made of stone, and people filled them with animal fat. They placed a floating wick inside the bowl which was made of plant fibers finely twisted.


John 8:12 Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, "I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life."


Clay Pottery


As time progressed people started making their lamp bowls with pottery and used  olive oil for fuel and these were the lamps mentioned in the Bible.


Olive Oil


Olive oil was actually a very desirable fuel in the ancient Near East because it did not produce much smoke, it burned smoothly, and the smell was desirable which was not the case with other oils and animal fat.


Lamp Shapes


Throughout time lamp pottery changed from an open bowl to a more closed shape, sort of like a pear and a smaller end was used to contain the wick.




Inside the home lamps were burning all day and all night. It was very convenient when someone needed to light a fire.




Lamps were usually placed on a lampstand, or somewhere high to illuminate the house. Lampstands were usually very ornamental, sometimes made of wood, bronze, silver, or even gold as in the case of the Tabernacle and Temple. The seven branched menorah had bowls in the shape of flowers at the top of each branch, which  offered a wealth of symbolism for Israel reminding them of the coming Messiah who would be the light of the world and the desire of the ages.




There have been many thousands of lamps discovered from the ancient world in the land of Israel. Excavations of tombs, and even cities have uncovered myriads of lamps dating back to the time of Abraham  and throughout biblical history. Every age revealed different lamp shapes which helps archaeologists in dating various finds.


Archaeologists generally conclude that lamps began to develop around 2000 BC which was near the time of Abraham. They were handmade clay lamps which were bowl shaped with floating wick. After they were shaped like a saucer or pear and later with the nozzle, and then the ball was pinched closed with one end forming a spout.


The Bible often talks about lamps:


Psalms 119:105 Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.



NOTE (This is part of the BKA Series)

BKA 280  Ancient Oil Lamps

Thank you for downloading BKA 280 Ancient Oil Lamps. This Bible Knowledge Accelerator program contains a brief overview of the subject of ancient oil lamps. You can download more detailed studies concerning various topics by visiting Bible History Online.


The Bible Knowledge Accelerator series is brought to you by Bible History Online.



Ancient Oil Lamps Oil Lamp from the Neolithic Period Oil Lamp from the Chalcolithic Period Oil Lamp from the Early Bronze Age Period Oil Lamp from the Middle Bronze Age Period Oil Lamp from the Persian Period Oil Lamp from the Iron Age Period Oil Lamp from the Hellenistic Period Oil Lamp from the Herodian Period



Chart of Archaeological Periods


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Heart Message


Ancient Oil Lamps

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oil-lamp-9.jpgThere is no clear description of a lamp in the Bible but many have been discovered from the ancient world, especially in Israel. We know the lamps that were in use during the time of Jesus, and we also know the lamps that were in use by the Hebrews in early Egypt because of archaeological discoveries.


Oil lamps were made of common pottery and first began to appear in Israel during the Neolithic Period. Throughout the centuries the shape of oil lamps changed a great deal, and more elaborate designs were being implemented.


In the ancient world people did not have electricity like we have today, in fact the inside of the home was about as dim as a 40 watt light bulb. Most homes would contain several oil lamps because olive oil was in abundance and therefore not expensive. There was also an oven that provided a little bit of light, but the oil lampswere the main source of light in every home.


The King James Version of the Bible translates the word for lamp "candlesticks," but that is not an accurate translation because in ancient world they did not use candles. Even the seven branches on the menorah within the Tabernacle and the Temple were actually lamps that held olive oil and wicks.


Ancient lamps were oval shaped, and flat on top. They actually had small bowls on one end, with the other end pinched real tight which formed a groove to hold the cotton or flax wick. One end of the wick would even float in the olive oil. Some of the lamps had a lid over the bowl. They were usually made of clay, but the more expensive lamps were made of bronze and sometimes even of gold. Some of these were very beautiful and would contain very elaborate decorations, manyRoman lamps had images of their gods.


In order to light a lamp they had to rub sticks together, or they would strike stones to make sparks. Olive oil was available in abundance and therefore lamps were left on for long periods of time, and also gave off a sweet scent.


The Bible often talks about lamps:


Psalms 119:105 Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.


Jesus often spoke of lamps and light in His teachings:


Luke 15:8-10 "Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!' Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."


John 8:12 Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, "I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life."





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