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In Matthew 25:3-4, in the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, Jesus explains, "For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps." (ESV emphasis mine)

Other translations use the word "vessel" or "jar" instead of flask. What does the Greek of this verse indicate, and how precise a size for this container can we determine?

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    Had there been a purpose in knowing the volume, Jesus would no doubt have mentioned it. You might as well ask what colour they were or who actually made them. – Nigel J May 15 '18 at 19:46
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    I'm trying to imagine why you might need to know... Evidently Jesus was not saying carry one or five or fifteen litres of oil with you if you want to be saved. But maybe you're wondering whether the flasks would have contained enough to share, and hence whether the refusal is more on principle than actual insufficiency? Help us out. – Luke Sawczak May 15 '18 at 20:25
  • Hmm... the very first link in the site tour seems to vehemently disagree with you. Direction to "stop short of application", as well as explanation that "WHY Jesus would have taught ..." is specifically out of scope for this site. It appears that you are needed, in order to fix the scope and purpose of the site. Please do participate in the discussion! – CWilson May 16 '18 at 20:13
  • @Dionne Smith: Ms. Smith, I may not be the official welcoming committee, but I think your question was an interesting one. I hope that you do not feel too unwelcome, and I hope that you will consider continuing to contribute to the improvement of our little community by asking questions. People who read the tour before asking their first question are in need. I am still not convinced that this question fits best in this site or a different one (hard for everyone here), but respectful discourse and sincere questioning is strongly in need everywhere. Hope you will stay, and have a look around! – CWilson May 17 '18 at 2:11
  • I took my own advice, and made this question into an impetus for a Meta discussion here. Please do participate in the discussion! – CWilson May 21 '18 at 15:44
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The size of the "jars" in Matthew 25:4 can be roughly worked out by the convergence of two factors: (1) the semantics of the Greek word used; and (2) the nature of the light-source needing oil.

(1) Semantics

A glance at the Liddell-Scott entry for ἀγγεῖον = aggeion suggests this kind of receptacle could range somewhat in size, the examples provided include things "for masons' use, ... pails or buckets used by firemen", and so on. So we're probably thinking of something rather larger than a jam jar.

(2) Light-source

The Greek for the "light source" here is usually translated "lamps", as in OP's citation, or the NIV link I have provided. There is a good reason for this: the Greek is λαμπάς = lampas! But we too easily think of the small "dish" type lamp into which a wick was laid:

Hellenistic and Roman lamps

But that's not what we should have in mind here. While lampas can refer to a variety of light sources (including these small oil lamps), its predominant meaning is to refer to torches, including as "used in festal processions". And that's what we have here. According to Craig Keener, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 596:

Wedding processions from the bride’s to the groom’s home, accompanied by song and dancing, normally happened at night, hence requiring light. The lamps here are not the small, hand-held Herodian period lamps, which would generate very little light, but torches (as in weddings in the rest of the Mediterranean world — Eurip. Daughters of Troy 343-44: Virg. Aen. 4.338-39; 7.388; Culex 246; Ecl. 8.29: Ovid Metam. 1.483. 763; 4.758-59; 6.430; 10.6; Lucan C.W. 2.356; Plut. R.Q. 2, Mor. 263F; Ach. “the 211.1; cf. Safrai 1974/76b: 758). In poorer villages these torches may have been sticks wrapped with oiled rags, as in traditional Arab weddings (Jeremias 1965b; idem 1972: 174-75; followed by Gundry 1982: 498; pace Edersheim 541).

This now starts to form a picture of what is going on with these processional women in the parable. As described by R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICGNT; Eerdmans, 2007), pp. 948-9,

The portable torches for outdoor use ... would be bundles of cloth mounted on a carrying stick and soaked with oil. (The same word is used in John 18:3 for the torches carried by the arresting party in Gethsemane. ...) The jars held the oil into which the torch was dipped before lighting. A torch without a jar of oil was as useless as a modern flashlight without a battery.

The estimated burning time was thought to be about fifteen minutes.

Conclusion

So, how big were the "jars" of Matthew 25:4? Big enough to hold enough oil to soak the rags for burning as torch light. It would be reasonable to think in terms of a small pail or bucket, then.

bucket

  • Good use of Greek, sourcing, and commentary, but you already knew that. You also know that I already agree with your conclusion. But I want to better understand how you got there. How can I better reconcile the 15 minute burning time and the present tense of σβέννυμι in verse 8 (going out)? Do you (or Keener/France) have any insight there? As to the amount of light Herodian oil lamps generate, I can't argue that point since don't have one and can't measure it, but others have disagreed. I am, however, open to the idea that κοσμέω (trim) could refer to wrapping torches instead of setting a wick – CWilson May 24 '18 at 18:23
  • I'm not sure I have much more to add (or rather, do feel free to explore the commentaries on these matters yourself! :) The thing about ἐκόσμησαν is that κοσμέω doesn't mean "trim", it means "to prepare, put in order". If you think you're dealing with "wicks", then the English for that is "trim" -- but that's not at all required by the Greek. Hope that helps. – Dɑvïd May 30 '18 at 13:17
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The New American Standard translates G0030, ἀγγείοις (angeíois) as 'flask', so I assume that is the translation you used. The KJV, for example, translates as the less descriptive 'vessel', and I have also seen 'receptacle' or 'container' in this verse. For fun, Wiktionary also includes the definitions jar, vase, pail, bucket, box, reservoir, coffin, sarcophagus, and body cavity. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that 'body cavity' is probably not what was meant.

For me, though, the most useful information is that this same word was used in Matthew 13:48 as well. Here, the NAS and KJV translators decided on the same English word, 'vessels'. Of the research that I have heard, I do not see anyone disputing that chapters 13 and 25 had different authors or wildly different time periods, so perhaps we can assume that the word had the same or similar meaning when it was used in each case?

In Matthew 13:48, Jesus is telling another parable, just like chapter 25. This time, the 'vessels' are large enough for at least one fish, and logically would be large enough to hold multiple fish. I can not say (someone can, just not me) what size fish the listeners were accustomed to seeing at that time, but the previous verse mentions 'every kind', so, again logically, the 'vessel' would have to be large enough to hold at least one of of the largest fish that the listeners would assume would be caught in the sea by net. I personally don't think we are talking Jonah large, but I really don't think we aren't talking just sardines either. So, how big was the vessel for the fish? The translation 'pail' seems to fit here, doesn't it?

And, if the same word, said by the same person, recorded by the same person, in the same culture, in the same time period, to similar sized groups, to people with similar mindsets, to teach a similar topic, is used, can we assume they have similar meanings? Let the reader decide.

Either way, I feel safe in assuming that the 'flask' of Matthew 25:4 would NOT fit on my key ring.

  • Now, mind you, if this question had been on another site, one discussing the culture of the time, like say [Mi Yodeya](judaism.stackexchange.com) or [History](history.stackexchange.com), I might have answered the question completely differently, discussing the recent technological advancements at the time in "Herodian oil lamps", the archaeological evidence as to their sizes and common fuels, the length of time a full lamp with the most likely type of fuel burnt, the volume of the lamp itself, and how many refills would have been required to keep such a lamp burning all night. <cont1/4> – CWilson May 17 '18 at 2:01
  • <cont2/4> I then might have cited archaeological evidence for the types of vessels used to transport fuel in the Roman Empire at the time, and how much each of them full might have weighed, or perhaps the relative likelihood of a listener to the parable owning one of those vessels. I might have gone on to discuss the likely carrying capacity of one described as a 'virgin' in this story, other items she might have been laden with, and culturally what she might have expected to do with all of her belongings later on that evening. <cont2/4> – CWilson May 17 '18 at 2:01
  • <cont3/4>All that together would give me a picture of the likelihood of the various vessels that have been found by archaeology or have lasted through the years, and I would probably pick a few as being what I thought most likely. Lastly, I would probably attach some pictures of those vessels, which are not difficult to find online. But, such an answer isn't really hermeneutical, is it?<cont3/4> – CWilson May 17 '18 at 2:01
  • <cont4/4>On the other hand, real scientists have actually devoted their lives to answering this very question, pottery in 1 Century CE Israel. Let’s not call a question poor or foolish, just because we have never thought of it, or think it is not worth knowing. Instead, please encourage interest in the general topic that is apparently already of interest to you, even if this particular detail isn’t. – CWilson May 17 '18 at 2:02
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The volume of the flask has not been supplied by the text and cannot be determined.

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    I am not trying to say that this is a great example of an Hermeneutics question, but saying that it 'cannot be determined' might be a bit of an exaggeration. Is it not possible that there is cultural or technological norm at the time the story was told, that could lead one to come up with a likely understanding of size by the original listeners? Not saying that it is supplied by the text, but perhaps migration is better than downvote and claiming the question unanswerable. – CWilson May 15 '18 at 17:57
  • @CWilson That's my story and I'm stickin' to it! :) – Ruminator May 15 '18 at 18:34
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    @CWilson Agreed; the term itself could even normally refer to a certain range, the same way you could get a sense from English's "flask" vs. "vat" or something. – Luke Sawczak May 16 '18 at 17:52

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