Matthew 5:14-16 in detail,  a city and a lamp

1. Parallel passages

1.1 Mark 4:21

21He said to them, “Is the lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Isn’t it put on a stand?  22For there is nothing hidden, except that it should be made known; neither was anything made secret, but that it should come to light.  23If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.”

(Mark 4:21-23 WEB)

Sandwiched between the conclusion of the parable of the sower (Mark 4:20) and and admonition to be careful how you hear (Mark 4:24), the context here is firmly on correctly receiving the wisdom of God.

1.2 Luke 8:16

16“No one, when he has lit a lamp, covers it with a container, or puts it under a bed; but puts it on a stand, that those who enter in may see the light.  17For nothing is hidden, that will not be revealed; nor anything secret, that will not be known and come to light.  18Be careful therefore how you hear. For whoever has, to him will be given; and whoever doesn’t have, from him will be taken away even that which he thinks he has.”

(Luke 8:16-18 WEB)

Again following the parable of the sower, but this time preceding a statement that his true family were those who hear the word of God and act on it (Luke 8:21). Matthew’s “to all who are in the house” (Matt 5:14-16 WEBplaces its emphasis on being part of Israel, but Luke’s version is, as is typical of his gospel, more inclusive, placing its emphasis on entering the house (Vermes 2004, 81).

1.3 Luke 11:33

33“No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, that those who come in may see the light.

(Luke 11:33 WEB)

After commenting that those who hear the word and keep it are blessed (Luke  11:28), Jesus warns that they will receive no sign but that of Jonah. He then notes how the Queen of the South came to hear Solomon’s wisdom, but he has been ignored (Luke 11:31). The parallel passage is then followed by comments on the light-within that echo another section of the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 34-36). As in Mark 4:21, the context is again clearly one of hearing godly wisdom.

2. Provenance

Vermes (2004, 80-89, 423) questions the provenance of this passage, suggesting that verses 14-15 are a later editorial addition. However, the thinking and the metaphors used here are consistent with Judaism during the early first-century and with the thrust of Jesus’ early ministry. The passage’s implicit criticism of the arrest of John the Baptist (see below) is entirely appropriate to its implied context, i.e. part of Jesus’ inaugural discourse as he responded to the arrest of John the Baptist and sought to carry forward John’s nation-saving agenda. 

3. The historical context

3.1 In the Hebrew Bible

The commandments, God’s light; the righteous man, God’s lamp

Genesis 1:1-3 portrays God as the ultimate revealer of truth, implying that, had God-Most-High not chosen to speak, there would have remained the dark chaos of a myriad competing possibilities. Yet, speak he did; time and again bringing the light of revelation and revealing his judgments through words, commandments and laws, delivered by human agents, upheld by divine interventions, and recorded as a testimony. The purpose of all this divine speech was to ensure that humanity knew how to enter into life. Psalm 119, an extended meditation on God’s word, puts it like this “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light for my path” (Ps 119:105 WEB). Proverbs also portrays commandments and laws as a lamp when it says “For the commandment is a lamp, and the law is light. Reproofs of instruction are the way of life” (Prov 6:23 WEB). Similarly, David was able to sing of his God as a Lamp that illuminated his darkness (2 Sam 22:29). and Isaiah proclained that God’s judgements would be a light to the nations (Isa 51:4).

The Hebrew Bible pictures all men as having a measure of light (Prov 29:13), by which to understand themselves (Prov 20:27) and the world around them. For the righteous this shines brightly, but for the wicked it goes out (Prov 13:9) leaving them confused and in the dark. For the righteous it is God that keeps light in their lamp (Ps 18:28) and allows it to grow in brilliance (Prov 4:18-19), by contrast the lamp of the wicked is evil (Prov 21:4), forcing God to remove what little light they have (Jer 13:16) until their lamp is finally extinguished (Job 18:5-6, Prov 24:20)

The bushel

Both Greek and Hebrew borrowed the word modios from Latin (modius). It described a large dry-measure of grain (Vermes 2004, 80), of about 8 litres, and by implication the device used for measuring it. Whilst there are accounts of the military use of clay jars for concealing fire (Jud 7:16), in that case it was desirable for the fire to be concealed.

A city on a hill 

Tom Wright presumes that Jerusalem was the city on a hill (Wright 2001, 289) and he was right to do so, for the word rendered “hill” in these verses is more generally translated “mountain” elsewhere. Thus Jesus spoke of a city on a mountain and, within Judea, Jerusalem best fits that bill. According to Isaiah, “It shall happen in the latter days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it.” (Isa 2:2 HNV) . Each year pilgrims from a multitude of nations would flow to the house of the Lord (the temple) in Jerusalem for Judaism’s major festivals, thus Jerusalem was, at least metaphorically, a city on a mountain. 

City and lamp

The symbolism of a lamp in juxtaposition with a city on a mountain, would have reminded Jesus’ hearers of God promise to King David that he would always have a lamp in Jerusalem, the city of David. This promise is mentioned in several places, including Psalm 132:17, in which the psalmist speaks of the lamp prepared for the Lord’s anointed, and 1 Kings, where it says

34 “‘However I will not take the whole kingdom out of his hand; but I will make him prince all the days of his life, for David my servant’s sake whom I chose, who kept my commandments and my statutes; 35 but I will take the kingdom out of his son’s hand, and will give it to you, even ten tribes. 36 To his son will I give one tribe, that David my servant may have a lamp always before me in Jerusalem, the city which I have chosen me to put my name there.” ’

(1 Kgs 11:34-36, WEB)

God’s holy mountain was where the Lord installed the heirs to David’s throne (Ps 2:6). In other words, Jerusalem was the place from which David’s promised lamp should shine. Isaiah anticipated that the mountain of the lord would rise higher (i.e. be more important) than any other, that it would shine and attract the nations (Isa 60: 1, 66:20). Therefore, Jerusalem could not be hidden, because its purpose was to provide light to the nations.

A shining people

An association between the descendants of Abraham and the stars arose when God took Abraham outside. ‘“Look now toward the sky, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” He said to Abram, “So shall your seed be.”’ (Gen 15:5b WEB). That was the beginning and the same imagery is repeatedly encountered at later points. For example, it was applied to Jacob’s sons, as Joseph declared “Behold, I have dreamed yet another dream: and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me” (Gen 37:9 WEB). A similar metaphor lies behind the prophecy of Balaam, where the advent of David’s reign is depicted as the rising of a star (Num 24:17). The imagery of the menorah serves to unite the picture of God’s servants as stars and their function as lights. For, according to Jewish commentators, the seven branched menorah lamp-stand symbolizes God’s chosen people, being a symbolic tree of light evocative of the tree of life (Richards 1996, 69).  Indeed, the Jewish Historian Josephus (Wars 5.217) claimed that the lamps on the menorah in the temple represent the seven moving stars (i.e. the moon and the six planets visible with the naked eye, Mercury to Uranus inclusive).

3.2 In the centuries that preceded Jesus

From some time in this period comes First Enoch, a work that claims that the “light of uprightness” is “established forever before the Lord of Spirit” (1 Enoch 58:6, Charles).

The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, which probably dates from the second or third century B.C.E. (Ladd 2002, 157), envisages the Levitical priesthood with a role providing light to the gentile world, as follows:

3 For as the heaven is purer in the Lord’s sight than the earth, so also be ye, the lights of Israel, (purer) than all the Gentiles.
4 But if ye be darkened through transgressions, what, therefore, will all the Gentiles do living in blindness? Yea, ye shall bring a curse upon our race, because the light of the law which was given for to lighten every man this ye desire to destroy by teaching commandments contrary to the ordinances of God.

(T. Levi 14:3-4, Charles)

Another manuscript has verse three as “My children, be ye pure as the heaven is (purer) than the earth: and ye who are the lights of Israel, shall be as the sun and moon” (T. Levi 14:3, Charles).

Later in the same document, alluding to the prophecy of Balaam and speaking of the advent of a priestly Messiah figure, a passage extols his righteousness as like a great light, stating:

18:1 And after their punishment shall have come from the Lord, the priesthood shall fail.
2 Then shall the Lord raise up a new priest.
And to him all the words of the Lord shall be revealed;
And he shall execute a righteous judgement upon the earth for a multitude of days.
3 And his star shall arise in heaven as of a king.
Lighting up the light of knowledge as the sun the day,
And he shall be magnified in the world.
4 He shall shine forth as the sun on the earth,
And shall remove all darkness from under heaven,
And there shall be peace in all the earth. 

(T. levi 18:1-4)

3.3 In first century Judaism

Stars, lamps and lights

The 1st Century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandrian reflects on the star-like quality of the wise man, the eye as a window on his soul, and the lamp-like character of a person’s judgment. Of Abraham’s heirs he says “Thus shall thy seed be,” says God,” . . . “most thoroughly like the stars, beautifully adorned, having an arrangement which knows no deviation, but which is always the same and proceeding in the same way.” (Heir 87, Yonge) . Then, to building his case for the superiority of the intellectual over the senses, he asserts that “the objects of the intellect are infinitely superior to those of the outward senses; for the eyes in the body are the smallest imaginable portion of the eye of the soul; for the one is like the sun, but the others only resemble lamps, which are at one time lighted and at another extinguished” (Heir 89b, Yonge).

Also from first-century Egypt comes the book of second Enoch, in which the guardians of hell are portrayed with faces like extinguished lamps (2 Enoch 42:1).

That the idea, of the soul as a lamp-like source of light, was entrenched within Judaism is suggested by a passage in the Talmud from a much later period.

“As a certain Galilean lectured before R. Hisda [active in the second half of the third century C.E.]: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I put a rebi'ith of blood in you;  therefore I commanded you concerning blood. I designated you the first;  wherefore I commanded you concerning the first.  The soul which I placed in you is called a lamp, wherefore I commanded you concerning the lamp.  If ye fulfil them, 'tis well; but if not, I will take your souls.”

(Šabb. 31-2, Epstein)

The Talmud also contains discussion of one Rabbi Baba ben Buta’s part in persuading Herod to re-build the temple. Herod, having slaughtered most of the Rabbis, then repents and asks Baba what he should do. Whereupon Baba responds “As you have extinguished the light of the world, [for so the Rabbis are called] as it is written, For the commandment is a light and the Torah a lamp, go now and attend to the light of the world [which is the Temple, of which] it is written, And all the nations become enlightened by it (B. Bat. 4a, Epstein).

Second Baruch, a work from toward the end of the first century (Charlesworth 1996, 1:120), claims that Moses “brought the law to the seed of Jacob, and lighted a lamp for the nation of Israel?” (2 Bar 17:4, Charles)., then continues: “‘He that lighted has taken from the light, and there are but few that have imitated him. But those many whom he has lighted have taken from the darkness of Adam and have not rejoiced in the light of the lamp.’” (2 Bar 18:1–2, Charles).

Later in that same book, we find lamps used as a metaphor for the wise and godly within Israel, as follows:

13 For the shepherds of Israel have perished,
And the lamps which gave light are extinguished,
And the fountains have withheld their stream whence we used to drink.

14 And we are left in the darkness,
And amid the †trees of the forest†,
And the thirst of the wilderness.’

15 And I answered and said unto them:
‘Shepherds and lamps and fountains come from the law:
And though we depart, yet the law abideth.

16 If therefore ye have respect to the law,
And are intent upon wisdom,
A lamp will not be wanting,
And a shepherd will not fail,
And a fountain will not dry up.

(2 Bar 77:13–16, Charles)

The pseudepigraphical work called 4 Ezra also dates from the late first century C.E. (Stone 1996, 611). In it we find that people describe the prophet as “a lamp in a dark place” (4 Ezra 12:42). Then later God promises Ezra that he will reveal the divine law to him and “light the lamp of understanding in thy heart” (4 Ezr 14:25), until the prophet’s task was complete.

The motif of word as lamp is also found in 2 Enoch. The book is of uncertain date, but included here as it was either known by the New Testament writers or influenced by them. Charles (2004) gives two versions of 2 Enoch, both based on relatively late manuscripts. In the complete version we find: “But whoever increases his lamp before the Lord’s face and make not true judgement, the Lord will not increase his treasure in the realm of the highest” (2 En 45:2, Charles). Whilst in the slightly earlier incomplete version has: “He who multiplies lights before the Lord’s face, the Lord will multiply their storehouses” (2 En 45:2, Charles).

A bowl over a lamp

A Talmud entry lists, amongst several permitted sabbath activities, inverting a bowl over a lamp to prevent the beams catching fire (Šabb. 107a). The discussion appears to post-date the events of 70 C.E., so it having been influenced by Jesus’ saying cannot be ruled out. However, it is clearly citing an older ruling, so the reverse remains possible. It is tempting to imagine some first century Rabbi, on being told of the fervor over John the Baptist, wryly suggesting that a bowl should be put over him to stop the whole house (i.e. religious establishment) burning down.

5. From beatitudes and salt to lamps

The beatitudes envisage the rewards of returning to a way of life that acknowledged the wisdom of God’s judgments. However, for this to happen the lamp of God’s justice had to be uncovered and allowed to shine, precisely as envisaged by this passage.

One technique for producing a brighter flame on a traditional oil lamp was to add salt to the wick (Elwell and Comfort 2001, 797). As this was just adding salt to combustible material and oil, adding salt to the sacrifices no doubt had a similar effect. Jesus’ earlier comments on salt in Matt 5:13, therefore lead quite naturally to the topic of lamps and their visibility.

6. The implications of covering a lamp

It is noteworthy that baskets were placed over animals to capture them (Sir 11:30) and the scriptures even portray people imprisoned in them, for, in Zechariah, a basket is used to hold the personification of wickedness (Zech 5:7-8). John the Baptist had been a shining lamp (John 5:33-35), but as Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, that particular light had recently been incarcerated in prison (Matt 4:12). John the lamp, in his prison cell, was like some captured animal, caged under a bushel. God had not lit that lamp only to have it hidden, so the light must continue to shine, as it would, through Jesus and his disciples.

There are some natural associations, through Joseph’s interpretation of the baker’s dream (Gen 40:18-19) and Jehu’s slaughter of Ahab’s sons (2 Kng 10:7), between baskets and beheading. However, to suggest that Jesus already had in mind the eventual fate that John would suffer (Matt 14:10) may be going too far.

The alternative device used for covering the lamp in Luke 8:16 is a bed. In most homes a bed would have been constructed from dried plant matter and so was readily combustible. Similarly the bushel measure may have been lightly constructed basketwork rather than stone and would also have easily caught light. Therefore, Jesus’ picture may have a secondary meaning, serving as a warning of the potential consequences of trying and hide the light that had just been lit, for the outcome could be destructive fire (cf. Isa 10:15-17, Rom 1:18, Heb 10:26-27).

7. Related new testament texts

John 5:33-36, John the Baptist as a lamp

John the Baptist, like any true servant of the Lord, was a light to the nations (cf. Isa 42:6). Hence, Jesus described John as follows -

33 “You have sent to John, and he has testified to the truth. 34 But the testimony which I receive is not from man. However, I say these things that you may be saved. 35 He was the burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. 36 But the testimony which I have is greater than that of John, for the works which the Father gave me to accomplish, the very works that I do, testify about me, that the Father has sent me.”

(John 5:33-36, WEB)

 Hence, in Jesus’ mind, John the Baptist was a lamp of the very type of which he speaks in Matt 5:16.

John 8:12, Jesus as self-proclaimed lamp

Jesus’ greater testimony would make him a brighter lamp than John, indeed he claimed to be the ultimate lamp when he declared “I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12 WEB). His actions confirmed that testimony and in the Sermon on the Mount he is concerned that the same should be true for his disciples. Therefore he instructs them to let their light (their testimony to the truth) be seen, then their good works, like his, would confirm that testimony and bring glory to God (cf. Isa 60:3).

1 Peter 2:12, a reminder of the purpose of good works

The Sermon’s reminder that the purpose of the lamp shining was for good deeds to bring glory to God (Matt 5:16) is revisited by 1 Peter:

11 “Beloved, I beg you as foreigners and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul;  12having good behavior among the nations, so in that of which they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they see, glorify God in the day of visitation.” 

(1 Pet 2:11-12 WEB)

2 Peter 1:19, a lamp shining in a dark place

2 Peter revisits the idea that a prophet’s words are like a lamp, bringing illumination:

19We have the more sure word of prophecy; and you do well that you heed it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns, and the morning star arises in your hearts:  20knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation.  21For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit.
Here God’s historic word provides the light that guides the disciple until they realise that Jesus was the Messianic star, he comes into his proper place in their life, and day dawns.

(2 Pet 1:19-21 WEB)

8. Some church perspectives

For France (1995, 112), the role of light of the world, prophesied by Isaiah (Isa 42:6, 49:6) and fulfilled in Jesus (John 8:12), then passed to his disciples as suggested by Acts 13:47.

Vermes (2004, 81) suggests that Matthew’s Gospel, by having the light revealed to “all the house” rather than sticking with “those who enter” as in Luke (Luke 8:16, 11:33), implies that the light is only for the house of Israel. I prefer to see these differences arising from Luke trying to avoid wording that might antagonize a Roman audience, by selective choice of versions or toning down in translation he was avoiding the more overtly nationalistic elements that were integral to Jesus’ original message (see notes on Luke 6:20-49, the Sermon on the Plain). However, as Vermes observes (2004, 81-2) there is clearly a tension between the open proclamation envisaged by Matt 5:14-15 and the concealment of teaching in parables (e.g. see Matt 13:11). Vermes, pointing to the behaviour of the Teacher of Righteousness anticipated in the Qumran texts, resolves the tension by envisaging a transition from one mode to the other, then assuming any later references to open teaching to be later additions. I prefer the idea that both can happen simultaneously.  The wise words of God to his prophets, whilst first uttered in the secret place and only then openly declared, take the form of publicly proclaimed parables and esoteric sayings, so all may hear them, but only those who are prepared to come to the light will understand their depths (cf. Isa 6:9, Mark 4:11-12)

9. Influence in later Judaism

The image of leaders as lights persisted within later Judaism, for in the Talmud we find “Light of Israel” used as a term of address for a prominent Rabbi (Polano c1876, 291). However, this was almost certainly just a continuation of a stream of thinking that went back way beyond Jesus. However, the Talmud reports one incident that is more directly related to this passage. It describes how Rabbi Gamaliel II (grandson of Gamaliel the Elder and leader of the Sanhedrin following the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E.) sought to expose a corrupt judge (Šabb. 115-6). The report appears to be an early witness to a document containing at least part of the Sermon on the Mount, but as the text is quite difficult to follow I reproduce it below, from Epstein (2010, n.p.) but with my annotations interleaved. 

“Imma Shalom, R. Eliezer's wife, was R. Gamaliel’s sister. Now, a certain philosopher lived in his vicinity, and he bore a reputation that he did not accept bribes. They wished to expose him,”

[The report concerns the plot devised by Gamaliel and his sister to expose a corrupt judge. The translator’s footnote suggests that the word here rendered philosopher may also be used of a sectarian.]

so she brought him a golden lamp, went before him, [and] said to him, ‘I desire that a share be given me in my [deceased] father’s estate.’ ‘Divide,’ ordered he.”

[Given the significance of Christian judges being like lamps (which she alludes to later), Imma brings a symbolic gift. The judge then gives the ruling that she inferred that she wanted.] 

“Said he [R. Gamaliel] to him, ‘It is decreed for us, Where there is a son, a daughter does not inherit.’ [He replied], ‘Since the day that you were exiled from your land the Law of Moses has been superseded 3 and another book 4 given, wherein it is written, ‘A son and a daughter inherit equally.’”

[The trap is then sprung as Gamaliel steps in and, reminding the judge of the Law of Moses, challenges the judge to justify his ruling. The corrupt judge then appeals to the gospel having superseded the Law of Moses. Indeed, one manuscript, the Cod. Oxford, even replaces “and another book given” with “and the law of the Evangelium has been given”.]

“The next day, he [R. Gamaliel] brought him a Lybian ass . Said he to them, ‘Look at the end of the book, wherein it is written, I came not to destroy the Law of Moses nor to add to the Law of Moses, and it is written therein, A daughter does not inherit where there is a son.’”

[Now Gamaliel arrives with a bribe, in the form of an ass. Whereupon the judge promptly changes his tune. He tells Imma and Gamaliel that when you look in the end of (i.e. consider all of) the book that claims Jesus did not come to destroy the Law (Matt 5:17), there is written support for Gamaliel’s assertion. From this we discover that this  “another book” was in written form, and that a Matt 5:17-like statement was so key within it that it was known for that within Judaism.] 

“Said she to him, ‘Let thy light shine forth like a lamp.’  Said R. Gamaliel to him, ‘An ass came and knocked the lamp over!’”

[Imma, apparently aware that there is no such statement in the book in question, reminds the judge that he is supposed to bring God’s judgments. Moreover, she does so using the sentiments of Matt 5:16, a gesture that looses much of its impact if Matt 5:16 and Matt 5:17 were not in close proximity within this anonymous book. Gamaliel then observes that his gift has overturned hers, so the judge is clearly open to bribery.]