What was meant by the charge: “the upsetting of the lamp”?
First of all, here is the full text of Justin Martyr’s First Apology:
Chapter 26. Magicians not trusted by Christians
And, thirdly, because after Christ's ascension into heaven the devils put forward certain men who said that they themselves were gods; and they were not only not persecuted by you, but even deemed worthy of honours. There was a Samaritan, Simon, a native of the village called Gitto, who in the reign of Claudius Cæsar, and in your royal city of Rome, did mighty acts of magic, by virtue of the art of the devils operating in him. He was considered a god, and as a god was honoured by you with a statue, which statue was erected on the river Tiber, between the two bridges, and bore this inscription, in the language of Rome: — Simoni Deo Sancto, To Simon the holy God. And almost all the Samaritans, and a few even of other nations, worship him, and acknowledge him as the first god; and a woman, Helena, who went about with him at that time, and had formerly been a prostitute, they say is the first idea generated by him. And a man, Menander, also a Samaritan, of the town Capparetæa, a disciple of Simon, and inspired by devils, we know to have deceived many while he was in Antioch by his magical art. He persuaded those who adhered to him that they should never die, and even now there are some living who hold this opinion of his. And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator. And he, by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies, and to deny that God is the maker of this universe, and to assert that some other being, greater than He, has done greater works. All who take their opinions from these men, are, as we before said, called Christians; just as also those who do not agree with the philosophers in their doctrines, have yet in common with them the name of philosophers given to them. And whether they perpetrate those fabulous and shameful deeds — the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh — we know not; but we do know that they are neither persecuted nor put to death by you, at least on account of their opinions. But I have a treatise against all the heresies that have existed already composed, which, if you wish to read it, I will give you.
Well, we all know that a few things will happen if one were to upset the lamp! Lamps in ancient days were used to create light by mean of burning a wick with an oil base. Now upsetting the the lamp would create a fire 🔥 and generate a general appearance of confusion. This is a big deal, but definitely not the correct interpretation.
Not finding an adequate definition to the meaning, one must look at the historical references to flush out an interpretation.
It would seem, that upsetting of the lamp would mean to upset the light of the true faith so that acts that were sacrilegious, immoral and evil could flourish.
Moreover, to deliberately upset the light could simply mean to put out the light, even figuratively, so that evil may flourish in the dark! Evil seems always to flourish in the night! The Acts of Philip tends to support this last interpretation:
Sexual Slander as Evidence of Women in the Clergy
The Acts of Philip demonstrates the way that sexual slander, which was used by both pagans and Christians, was leveled against Christian communities with female clergy.17 The Acts of Philip’s author described people being tortured in hell because they had “blasphemed” male and female clergy—male and female priests, male and female deacons, eunuchs and virgins—“with lies about debauchery and adultery.”18 This passage, which portrayed these blasphemers undergoing awful tortures, was almost certainly the author’s literary revenge against opponents who had slandered clergy in the author’s own community.
This type of sexual slander often included a charge of deliberately “upsetting the lamp” during an evening service so that an orgy could take place in the dark. Justin Martyr of Rome is the first known to have used this particular sexual slander against other Jesus followers. He described it as “the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse.”19 This kind of “lies about debauchery and adultery” was probably what the Acts of Philip’s author was complaining about, and indeed, Justin appears to have had in mind communities which had both men and women clergy. In any case, Justin leveled this slander against the followers of two men, Simon and Marcion, both of whom were known to have evangelized with a woman. Without question Justin knew that Simon evangelized with a woman, because in the same passage that he reported that Simon and Helena evangelized together, he sexually slandered Helena, calling her a prostitute.20 Although Justin did not mention the woman who worked with Marcion in Rome, he probably also knew about her, because Jerome (374–420), who lived in Rome, knew Marcion had worked with her.21 Suggesting that Justin Martyr likely knew that women in their community performed priestly duties, including baptism, and that was why he sexually slandered them, only a few decades later, Tertullian, writing in Latin North Africa, apparently knew this.22
Sexual slander was arguably most damaging to women, because their reputations were more at stake in an accusation of inverting the gender roles of good wife and mother. Some writers even leveled the charge of blood libel—killing a baby to bake the Eucharistic bread—against Jesus communities known to have women leaders. For example, Augustine of Hippo (354–430) leveled blood libel against New Prophecy, the Jesus movement which Epiphanius recorded ordained woman bishops and priests, or presbyters,23 and which Bovon suggested could have been the community of the Acts of Philip’s author.24 In a passage where Augustine invoked the names of New Prophecy’s three most famous prophetesses—Priscilla, Maximilla, and Quintilla—he complained, “They give such great positions of leadership to women that women even receive the honor of priesthood among them,” and said, “They are reported to have gruesome sacraments, for they are said to confect their Eucharist from the blood of a year-old infant which they squeeze from tiny punctures all over its body; they mix it with wheat and make bread from it.”25 Justin Martyr may have been the first to reference this blood libel, for he said that the communities of Simon and Marcion performed “the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh.”26
One thus can understand the social dynamic behind the author of the Acts of Philip writing about people who had been condemned to hell because they “blasphemed against male and female priests, eunuchs, deacons, deaconesses, and virgins with lies about debauchery and adultery.27 Bitter conflict appears to have arisen between communities that had male and female priests, deacons, and other clergy, and those which did not. People who did not have female clergy accused Christians who did of upsetting the lamp, having orgies, and making Eucharistic bread with baby blood—and these Christians in turn said that people who opposed women clergy were blasphemers.
It is uncertain in which century the Acts of Philip was composed; most scholars suggest the fourth, but Bovon suggested perhaps earlier, commensurate with his identification of its composition within the New Prophecy movement, which was closely associated with Philip and also very active in the second century.28 Whenever it was composed, whether second century, third, or fourth, it preserves the favorable memory of a woman named Mariamne who was called an apostle, the commonplace of male and female clergy in the author’s community, and also, the witness of a bitter conflict with another community over women clergy.
In fact, this last interpretation is even supported by Marcus Minucius Felix:
On a fixed day they assemble together, children, sisters, mothers, people of both sexes and of all ages. After much feasting, a dog, fastened to the lamp, is encouraged by some pieces of meat thrown to it to spring violently beyond the length of its chain. The lamp, which would have been an inconvenient witness, is overturned and extinguished ; after this riot and indecency reign supreme.
Thus we can see that Justin Martyr making such statement see evil desires to flourish in darkness and not be seen by the light which for the Christian is Christ himself.
Christians are to display the virtues of true Christian living, so that all may see the righteousness of their lives.
There is no need to live a life of debauchery and in darkness, so the light must distinguished. Our live must be one of purity and evangelical holiness.
The faithful have no need to ”upset the lamp” to perform our misdeeds away from the light. We are the people of the light which in Jesus Christ, Our Redeemer.
"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. The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore when your eye is good, your whole body is also full of light; but when it is evil, your body also is full of darkness. Therefore see whether the light that is in you isn't darkness. If therefore your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly full of light, as when the lamp with its bright shining gives you light." - Luke 11: 33-36
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