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Language Studies

Aramaic Thoughts


Camels, Needles, and Conventional Wisdom - Part 2

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Other approaches to the interpretation of this text have been taken. Some have suggested that there is an Aramaic wordplay between camel (gamal) and acts of charity (gemiluth), though if so, it is hard to imagine what can be gained by such a word play. Rather, it would seem to confuse the issue.

Some of the late textual witnesses record another sort of word play, this between the two Greek words kamelos (camel) and kamilos (rope). A few of the later texts have rope, rather than camel. Metzger, in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, characterizes this evidence as "an attempt to soften the rigor of the statement." It is certainly possible that a scribe might attempt to soften the statement, or he may simply have seen "rope" as a more natural term to fit with the figure of speech. A rope going through a needle's eye is still hyperbole, and a rope is closer to thread than a camel is. It may also be that this switch comes from texts that were copied by scribes who wrote as the text was read out to them, rather than copying directly from another manuscript. There are a number of textual difficulties in the New Testament that seem to reflect a situation where the copies were made by dictation rather than by having a manuscript in front of the copyist. This scenario is made even more likely when we consider that the two words were pronounced alike.

This confusion between rope and camel is sometime represented as coming from Aramaic (gamal for camel and gamil for rope). However, such a word for rope does not appear in the standard lexicons either for Aramaic or for Syriac. If the word gamil for rope does occur in either Aramaic or Syriac, it was probably borrowed from Greek.

There is some evidence from Jewish sources that in Babylonia, where the largest beast of burden was an elephant, that Jewish teacher would use "an elephant passing through a needle's eye" was proverbial for something being impossible. Thus in Palestine, where the camel was the largest beast of burden "a camel going through the eye of a needle" may also have been a common saying for that which is impossible. [For those readers with greater curiosity, I will include some bibliographical references next week on this and related verses.]

As a conclusion to this investigation, I think the following can safely be said. First, Jesus probably said, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." He meant it as a humorous hyperbole with a serious point—it is impossible for a man to enter the kingdom of God apart from God's making it so. In this Jesus attacked the common theology of the day that held that wealth and status in society were a reflection of God's blessing. Notice that the disciples shared in this view, as is indicated by their response: "they were greatly astonished, saying, who then can be saved?"

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Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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Meet the Author
Dr. Shaw was born and raised in New Mexico. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico in 1977, the M. Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1980, and the Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1981, with an emphasis in biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament and Targumic Aramaic, as well as Ugaritic).

He did two year of doctoral-level course work in Semitic languages (Akkadian, Arabic, Ethiopic, Middle Egyptian, and Syriac) at Duke University. He received the Ph.D. in Old Testament Interpretation at Bob Jones University in 2005.

Since 1991, he has taught Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a school which serves primarily the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where he holds the rank of Associate Professor.
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