Eugenia L. Nitowski is the assistant curator of the Andrews University Archeological Museum and a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame.


THE EARLY Christian church of Syria-Palestine was in many ways a secret society, largely because it had to compete for adherents with the flourishing Eastern mystery cults. Its secretive nature and its elaborate and some times exotic rites were meant to give the Christian convert a lifelong conversion experience. 1

The "secrets" of the church were manifested in many forms, among them a family of small pottery oil lamps called (by modern scholars) "Luchnaria." 2 These lamps carry, around their filling holes, Greek inscriptions. The most common formulas include: "Saint Elias," "The Mother of God," "The light of Christ shines for all," and "The light of Christ the Lord shines for the servants of God." This kind of lamp may have been used as early as the late fourth century, when the secretive nature of the church was at its height, and certainly continued to be used until the late seventh century, when it died out. The progression from secretive to open may be seen in the lamp typology. The typologically earliest forms carry inscriptions that seem illegible (see Fig.1), the later forms are clear and perfectly readable (see Fig. 2), while the last in the family have the inclusion of an Arabic word, Allah, or "God," in its formula (see Fig. 3). 3

In the late nineteenth century, when these lamps first began to appear in chance finds and archeological excavations, the distorted inscriptions were explained as being the result of at tempts by ignorant potters to copy what they did not understand. Allah was not recognized as being an Arabic word, but called an unintelligable scrawl. 4

It now seems that the distortion in the inscriptions was intentional. Only recently has a link been made between the secretive nature of the church and the distortion in the lamp inscriptions.5 Through a number of years of research it was found that all the distortions in the inscriptions followed a pattern—a pattern with a key. Once the key was discovered, the inscriptions and the nozzle designs began to make sense, clearing up a series of problems.

The first problem was the proper typology or order for the inscriptions. It was previously thought that the clear formula slowly degenerated into the unreadable inscription through ignorance. The second problem was that the distorted formulas always contained a menorah (candlestick), called a palm branch by many, on the nozzle (Fig. 1), while the clear, readable formulas in variably carried a Byzantine cross as the nozzle design (Figs. 2, 3).

The solutions came in the following way: when the distorted formulas yielded their "key," it was possible to begin thinking about a reverse-type sequence—that is, distorted to clear, rather than clear to distorted, texts. The texts then provided two more clues: those that were distorted were shorter, while the longer inscriptions were clear. One of the first axioms a student of textual criticism learns is that the shorter of the readings is usually to be preferred as original. It was then noticed that among some of the longer, clear texts, an Arabic word was added. This immediately suggested the last form in the sequence, because Arabic did not become a widely written language until the seventh century, when the family of lamps came to its end.

The nozzle design was always a source of debate. It was from the symbol illustrated in Figure 1 that the family took its popular name, "candlestick" lamps. It was suggested that since the lamps began in the late fourth century, the identification of the symbol as being a candlestick, or menorah, would be impossible, since Jewish influence in the church was dead by this time. The alternate proposal was that the design was the Christian palm branch. This seemed all right until it was realized that many of these so-called palm branches appeared to have tripod bases, a typical part of a menorah.

If we had accepted the old theory that the lamp with a clear inscription and a cross on the nozzle came first, then progressed to a lamp with distorted inscription and palm branch, and finally ended with a lamp that had a formula containing an Arabic word and cross, it would have made no typological sense. Why, over a period of several centuries, would Christians have started out with a cross, then given it up for a palm branch, and eventually returned to a cross? On the contrary, by starting with the distorted formula and menorah, then progressing slowly to a clear inscription with a cross, and ending with the Arabic addition with a cross, we arrived at a logical sequence.

But what is the explanation for the early distortion? As one progressed through the initiation into Christianity as a catechumen, he was allowed to learn the secrets or mysteries of the church in stages. A new believer was entrusted only with what he could handle; as he showed himself capable, more was given, culminating in final revelations of doctrine after baptism and admittance to holy communion. 6 The lamps may have been part of the initiation. At some stage the catechumen attained the level at which he was given the key to reading the lamps, learning, as one formula reads, that "the light of Christ shines for all"—an appropriate message for us, too.


1 A good discussion on the rites of the early church, especially in regard to baptism, may be found in Edward Yarnold, The Awe-inspiring Rites of Initiation (St. Paul Publications, 1973).

2 See the discussion in Eugenia L. Nitowski, "Inscribed and Radiated-type Byzantine Lamps," Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. XII, no. 1, January, 1974.

3 The logical typological progression suggested here still needs confirmation by careful stratigraphical field excavation.

4 It was Sylvester Sailer who first translated the Arabic word in these inscriptions; see his book The Archaeological Setting of the Shrine of Bethphage (Jerusalem, 1961).

5 Again, see Nitowski, AUSS, January, 1974; the author is currently working on a book that will explain the lamp history and its connection with the church.

6 Admittance to communion was given only after baptism. Catechumens, as well as unbelievers, were put out of the church, and the doors were guarded to prevent their hearing the sacred mysteries. See Yarnold, pp. 51, 52.


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Eugenia L. Nitowski is the assistant curator of the Andrews University Archeological Museum and a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame.

November 1977

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