The camel and the eye of the needle
Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24)
For the last two centuries it has been common teaching in Sunday School that there is a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle through which a camel could not pass unless it stooped and first had all its baggage first removed. After dark, when the main gates were shut, travellers or merchants would have to use this smaller gate, through which the camel could only enter unencumbered and crawling on its knees! Great sermon material, with the parallels of coming to God on our knees without all our baggage. A lovely story and an excellent parable for preaching but unfortunately unfounded! From at least the 15th century, and possibly as early as the 9th but not earlier, this story has been put forth, however, there is no evidence for such a gate, nor record of reprimand of the architect who may have forgotten to make a gate big enough for the camel and rider to pass through unhindered.
Variations on this theme include that of ancient inns having small entrances to thwart thieves, or the story of an old mountain pass known as the "eye of the needle", so narrow that merchants would have to dismount from their camels and were thus easier prey for brigands lying in wait.
There are some differences in the transmitted Greek. The needle in Matthew and Mark is a 'rafic' (ιραφις̀ι). In Luke it is a 'belone' (ιβελονὴι). But both are synonyms for needles used in sewing, but Luke's is more likely to be used by a surgeon than a seamstress.
Another possible solution comes from the possibility of a Greek misprint. The suggestion is that the Greek word 'kamilos' (ικαμηλος̀ι, 'camel') should really be 'kamelos', meaning 'cable, rope', as some late New Testament manuscriptsF1 actually have here. Hence it is easier to thread a needle with a rope rather than a strand of cotton than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. A neat but unnecessary solution!
A variation on all of the above is that the needle was a 6 inch carpet needle and the rope was made of camel hair- but this is again clutching at straws or camel hair, and is an unnecessary emendation.
An alternative linguistic explanation is taken from George M Lamsa's Syriac-Aramaic Peshitta translationF2 which has the word 'rope' in the main text but a footnote on Matthew 19:24 which states that the Aramaic word gamla means rope and camel, possibly because the ropes were made from camel hair. Evidence for this also comes from the 10th century Aramaic lexicographer Mar Bahlul who gives the meaning as a "a large rope used to bind ships".
Some have even suggested a pun in Aramaic between camel and gnat or louse from the Aramaic kalma 'vermin, louse'.
Just as the apocryphal Acts of Peter and AndrewF3 refers the saying to a literal camel and needle, so we are not meant to reason away the apparent difficulty of getting a camel through a needle's eye. For the difficulty is not apparent it is real, and not be solved by textual trickery but by taking the ludicrous language at face value.
What we have instead then, I believe, is a beautiful Hebrew hyperbole, as in the tree sticking out of one's eye whilst one is removing a speck in another's eye! Indeed, Jewish Talmudic literature uses a similar aphorism about an elephant passing through the eye of a needle as a figure of speech implying the unlikely or impossible:
"They do not show a man a palm tree of gold, nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle."F4
This first instance concerned dreams and their interpretation and suggested that men only dream that which is natural or possible, not that which is unlikely ever to have occurred to them.
"… who can make an elephant pass through the eye of a needle."F5
In this case, the illustration concerns a dispute between two rabbis, one of whom suggests that the other is speaking "things which are impossible".
The camel was the largest animal seen regularly in Israel, whereas in regions where the Babylonian Talmud was written, the elephant was the biggest animal. Thus the aphorism is culturally translated from a camel to an elephant in regions outside of Israel.
The aim is not, then, to explain away the paradox and make the needle a huge carpet needle for, elsewhere, the Jewish writings use the "eye of the needle" as a picture of a very small place, "A needle's eye is not too narrow for two friends, but the world is not wide enough for two enemies."F6 . The ludicrous contrast between the small size of the needle's eye and the largest indigenous animal is to be preserved for its very improbability.
Jesus' hearers believed that wealth and prosperity were a sign of God's blessing (cf. Leviticus and Deuteronomy). So their incredulity is more along the lines that, "if the rich, who must be seen as righteous by God by dint of their evident blessing, can't be saved, who can be?". Later Christians have turned this around to portray wealth as a hindrance to salvation, which it can be — but no more so than many other things, when the message is that salvation is impossible for all men for it comes from God alone.
But beyond impossibility is possibility with God for, elsewhere, a Jewish midrash records:
"The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle's eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and [camels?]"F7
In other words God only needs the sinner to open up just a crack for him and God will come pouring in and set up room for an oasis. God only needs a 'foot in the door', so to speak.
This is similar to the Talmudic use of two Hebrew letters, one which represents God holiness ('Q' Qoph, as in qadôsh 'holy') and another representing evil ('R' Resh, as in ra' 'evil'), in a story told for the purpose of teaching the Hebrew alphabet and Jewish morals. It is said that 'q' has a separated opening in order that should 'r' repent he may enter into God's holiness through the small opening.
A brief survey of sermons or search on the Internet reveals how many perpetuate the myth of the small gate in Jerusalem. Victorian travellers to the Holy Land even claim to have been shown it. The inaccuracy may appear harmless but it is neither good scholarship nor good exposition. The exaggerated and contrasted size is deliberate and is not an overt judgement on riches or poverty. Jesus reflects on how hard it often is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. The riches are a distraction and hard to share if one is too attached to them. The disciples' incredulity is that if even the rich cannot be saved, who can? But the verdict is that even the rich, not only the rich, will find it impossible to save themselves — but with God all things are possible.
F1: Mainly 11th century or later, and in one 9th/10th century manuscript, however all early manuscripts and quotations in the church fathers from the 3rd through to the 8th centuries have 'camel' not 'rope'.
F2: The New Testament according to the Eastern Text, George M Lamsa, 1940, p.xxiv and note on Matthew 19:24.
F3: "13 There was a rich man named Onesiphorus who said: If I believe, shall I be able to do wonders? Andrew said: Yes, if you forsake your wife and all your possessions. He was angry and put his garment about Andrew's neck and began to beat him, saying: You are a wizard, why should I do so? 14 Peter saw it and told him to leave off. He said: I see you are wiser than he. What do you say? Peter said: I tell you this: it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Onesiphorus was yet more angry and took his garment off Andrew's neck and cast it on Peter's and haled him along, saying: You are worse than the other. If you show me this sign, I and the whole city will believe but if not you shall be punished. 15 Peter was troubled and stood and prayed: Lord, help us at this hour, for thou hast entrapped us by thy words. 16 The Saviour appeared in the form of a boy of twelve years, wearing a linen garment 'smooth within and without', and said; Fear not: let the needle and the camel be brought. There was a huckster in the town who had been converted by Philip; and he heard of it, and looked for a needle with a large eye, but Peter said: Nothing is impossible with God rather bring a needle with a small eye. 17 When it was brought, Peter saw a camel coming and stuck the needle in the ground and cried: In the name of Jesus Christ crucified under Pontius Pilate I command thee, camel, to go through the eye of the needle. The eye opened like a gate and the camel passed through; and yet again, at Peter's bidding. 18 Onesiphorus said: You are a great sorcerer: but I shall not believe unless I may send for a needle and a camel. And he said secretly to a servant: Bring a camel and a needle, and find a defiled woman and some swine's flesh and bring them too. And Peter heard it in the spirit and said: O slow to believe, bring your camel and woman and needle and flesh. 19 When they were brought Peter stuck the needle in the ground, with the flesh, the woman was on the camel. He commanded it as before, and the camel went through, and back again. 20 Onesiphorus cried out, convinced and said: Listen. I have lands and vineyards and 27 litrae of gold and 50 of silver, and many slaves: I will give my goods to the poor and free my slaves if I may do a wonders like you. Peter said: If you believe, you shall. 21 Yet he was afraid he might not be able, because he was not baptized, but a voice came: Let him do what he will. So Onesiphorus stood before the needle and camel and commanded it to go through and it went as far as the neck and stopped. And he asked why. 'Because you are not yet baptized.' He was content, and the apostles went to his house, and 1,000 souls were baptized that night." (Acts of Peter and Andrew vv.14-21, The Apocryphal New Testament, M R James, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924, p459).
F4: Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth, 55b
F5: Babylonian Talmud, Baba Mezi'a, 38b
F6: Source not traced but cf. Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 1.3
F7: Midrash Rabbah, The Song of Songs, 5.3; cf. Pesiqta R., 15, ed. Friedmann, p.70a; Soncino Zohar, Vayikra 3, p95a
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