Archaeology and the Seven Bowls of the Wrath of God
Revelation 15:7 describes seven angels who are given seven bowls full of the wrath of God which are to be poured out on the earth. The concept of pouring out a bowl is foreign to most modern readers, but it was a very well-known religious concept in the 1st century AD.
The practice of offering liquid or “drink” offerings is known from a very early period. Genesis 35:14 records that Jacob poured out a drink offering on a pillar that commemorated the place where God spoke to him at Bethel. Wine in particular was a regular part of offerings in the OT sacrificial system (e.g. Ex 29:40; Deut 32:38; 2 Kgs 16:13). A similar custom was practiced by the Greeks and Romans, who regularly offered wine to their gods by pouring it onto the fire of an altar, and this custom is almost certainly what would have come to mind when John’s readers heard of a bowl being poured out.
The custom of pouring out a libation had such a long tradition within the Greco-Roman world that they developed a specially shaped bowl for this purpose. This kind of bowl, known to the Greeks as a phialē, and to the Romans as a patera, had a raised indent in the center of the bowl.
Although this looks odd, it had a function–it allowed the bowl of liquid to be grasped and poured with only one hand, since the thumb could grasp the rim and the longer fingers could grasp the indent. And this is the way libations or drink offerings are always depicted in Greco-Roman art. Revelation 15:7 specifies that the bowls given to the seven angels were made of gold. Golden libation bowls are rare, of course, but some have been discovered, including the beautiful example shown here.
The photos below illustrate the common way such bowls were used to pour out a libation.
Although they are not as common, some libation bowls were also equipped with a handle, providing another option for how the bowl was held. At the same time, they retained the characteristic indent in the center of the bowl that identified them as libation bowls.
The wine poured from the libation bowl was typically supplied from a small vase (oinochoe). Sometimes depictions show a second person supplying the wine, as shown here, but more often the offerant held both items.