Camels in the Eye of a Needle

Someone I know drew my attention to an exhibit at the Micro Wonder Museum near Budapest in Hungary, precisely because one of the minuscule works of art is an Egyptian scene – specifically, camels and a pyramid – in the eye of a needle:

I am certain that the artist, Mykola Syadristy, was aware of the biblical saying about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, and was inspired by that saying to create this work of art.

His creation, however, helpfully illustrates the limits of biblical literalism. As an illustration, it may be that this becomes meaningless, once it is a simple matter to 3D print either print a very tiny replica of a camel – or even multiple camels – within the eye of an ordinary-sized needle, or to print an enormous needle the eye of which a full-sized camel – or, again, perhaps multiple camels – could pass.

Jesus is recorded as having said that what is impossible with humans is possible with God, but it seems that what was impossible for humans in New Testament times is possible for humans now, and that changes the meaning of the illustration.

Of related interest, the story of the Gerasene or Gadarene demoniac in the Gospel of Mark is geographically situated (regardless of which of those two variant readings of the place name you opt for) miles from the sea, and so a literalist approach might say that “when pigs fly” has already happened, two thousand years ago, when Jesus performed a miracle! But that illustrates nicely, I think, the way literalism founders on picturesque turns of phrase. “When camels pass through the eye of a needle” and “when pigs fly” are both similar in this sense. Neither is a challenge for people to figure out how to accomplish what is described, or to appeal to God to perform a miracle involving animals. The point is simply to say that something is impossible.

That is also sometimes inspires creative artwork is simply an added bonus…

 

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  • Gary

    I think the camels should be one-humped to fit the geography. Besides, I think Jesus said “It’s easier to get one hump through the eye of a needle, than two!” Not even theologians can argue that.

    • Gary

      Of course, Star Trek’s transporter ought to do the job, one molecule at a time.

    • Gary

      I should have said that Jesus probably never saw a two humped camel in his entire life.

  • John MacDonald

    (1) I like the image. If the camels and the pyramid were very far away, you could look through the eye of a needle and see the camels and pyramid within the eye.

    (2) Dr. Dennis MacDonald has some interesting ideas about The Gerasene Demoniac (Mark, 5:1-20):

    MacDonald argues Mark has mixed together materials from scripture and from the Odyssey to create the pericope. The core of the story seems to derive from Odyssey 9:101-565. Odysseus and his men come to shore in the land of the hulking Cyclopes, just as Jesus and his disciples arrive by boat in the land of the Gerasenes (or Gergesenes, supposedly the remnant of the ancient Girgashites, hence possibly associated with the mythical Anakim/Rephaim, who were giants). Goats graze in one landscape, pigs in the other. Leaving their boats, each group immediately encounters a savage man-monster who dwells in a cave. The demoniac is naked, and Polyphemus was usually depicted naked, too. The Cyclops asks Odysseus if he has come with intent to harm him, just as the Gerasene demoniac begs Jesus not to torment him. Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name, and the latter replies “Noman,” while Jesus asks the demoniac his name, “Legion,” a name reminiscent of the fact that Odysseus’ men were soldiers. Jesus expels the legion of demons, sending them into the grazing swine, recalling Circe’s earlier transformation of Odysseus’ troops into swine. Odysseus contrives to blind the Cyclops, escaping his cave. The heroes depart, and the gloating Odysseus bids Polyphemus to tell others how he has blinded him, just as Jesus tells the cured demoniac to tell how he has exorcised him. As Odysseus’ boat retreats, Polyphemus cries out for him to return, but he refuses. As Jesus is about to depart, the man he cured asks to accompany him, but he refuses. As MacDonald notes, it seems that sheer copying from the source is about the only way to explain why Jesus should be shown refusing a would-be disciple. Psalm 107, whence details of the stilling of the storm were borrowed, has also made minor contributions to this story as well. The detail of the demoniac having been chained up seem to come from Psalm 107’s description of “prisoners in irons” (v. 10), who “wandered in desert wastes” (v. 4) and “cried to the LORD in their trouble” (v. 6), who “broke their chains asunder” (v. 14). It is also possible that Mark had in mind the Exodus sequence, and that he has placed the story here to correspond to the drowning of the Egyptian hosts in the Sea.

    • Gary

      “As Jesus is about to depart, the man he cured asks to accompany him, but he refuses. As MacDonald notes, it seems that sheer copying from the source is about the only way to explain why Jesus should be shown refusing a would-be disciple….”

      I don’t think “the only way”.

      Two possible points:

      1. Gerasenes was largely non-Jewish. If the guy was not Jewish, I doubt if Jesus would want him as a disciple. (Not till Paul times, post resurrection).

      2. If he was Jewish, since the guy was living in a tomb (dead people there), Jesus would use the same approach as he did with the guy with leprosy (unclean) in Mark 1:44, “go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” Since the pig guy was unclean, he’d have to do the cleansing bit in the temple first, to be a Jesus disciple.

      I think it is kind of presumptuous to assume that the ONLY way to explain something is that it was copied from a Greek myth. Kind of convoluted. But just my opinion.

      • John MacDonald

        Yes, my wording may have been overly dramatic, but I think the two stories line up on so many points that it seems reasonable there was literary mimesis going on.

        • Gary

          Maybe.

          • John MacDonald

            Considering your two points, there is nothing in the text to suggest rejecting the man as a disciple because he was not a Jew, or that the man needed to see a priest before he could become Jesus’ disciple (especially since there is no account of the man joining up with Jesus later after seeing a priest). All we hear is that :

            – “Return home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and had mercy on you.”
            – And he went out and began announcing in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him, and everyone was amazed.

            It seems that the similarities between Homer and the demoniac episode are too dense and distinctive to be attributed to accident (Parallels with the Circe episode appear in square brackets):

            Od. 9 and 10 / Mark 5:1-20
            1. Odysseus and his crew sail to the land of the Cyclopes [and of Circe]. / Jesus and his disciples sailed to the region of the Gerasenes.
            2. On the mountains of the Cyclopes “innumerable goats” grazed. [Circe turned people into swine] / On the mountain “a large herd of swine” grazed.
            3. Odysseus and his crew disembarked. / Jesus and his disciples disembarked.
            4. They encountered a savage, lawless giant who lived in a cave. / They encountered a savage, lawless deminiac who lived among the caves.
            5. Polyphemus usually was depicted nude. / The demoniac was nude.
            6. [Circe recognized Odysseus and asked him not to harm her. Odysseus: “Swear me an oath (orkon) not to plan another plot to hurt me (mai ti moi).”] The giant asked if Odysseus had come to harm him. / The demoniac recognized Jesus and asked him not to harm him. “I adjure [orkizo] you by God, do not torment me [mai me].”
            7. The giant asked Odysseus his name. / Jesus asked the demoniac his name
            8. Odysseus answered, “Nobody.” / The demoniac answered, “Legion.”
            9. Odysseus subdued the giant with violence and trickery [Circe had turned Odysseus’ soldiers into swine]. / Jesus subdued the demons with divine power and sent them into the swine and then into the lake.
            10. The shepherd called out to his neighbors. / The swineherds called on their neighbors.
            11. The Cyclopes came to the site asking about Polyphemus’ sheep and goats. / The Gerasenes came to the site to find out about their swine.
            12. Odysseus and crew embarked. / Jesus and his disciples embarked.
            13. Odysseus told the giant to proclaim that he had blinded him. / Jesus told the healed demoniac to proclaim what God had done for him.
            14. The giant asked Odysseus, now aboard ship, to come back. / The demoniac asked Jesus, now aboard ship, if he could be with him.
            15. Odysseus refused the request. / Jesus refused the request.
            16. Odysseus and his crew sailed away. / Jesus and his disciples sailed away.
            17. Odysseus awoke during a tempest in the episode immediately “following” the story of the Cyclops. / Jesus awoke during a tempest and calmed the wind and sea just “before” exorcising the demoniac.

          • Gary

            To reiterate,
            “it seems that sheer copying from the source is about the only way to explain why Jesus should be shown refusing a would-be disciple….”

            None of the disciples were non-Jewish.

            Mark 5:20, “So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed”

            Commentary: “The liberated man carried the good news about Jesus’ actions into the wider Decapolis, the district of “ten cities” in the Jordan Valley and in Transjordan. They were Hellenistic in character, with a largely non-Israelite population.”

            None of the disciples were previously demon possessed (with the exception of Mary – but since she wasn’t a disciple, that’s another discussion).

            Mark copied from a Greek myth?

            Possible, but nothing to do with rejection of a demon possessed Gentile as potential disciple.

          • John MacDonald

            Gary said:

            “Mark copied from a Greek myth?”

            As I’m sure you’ll agree, it is beyond question that there is mimesis (imitation) going on in the New Testament. For instance, Matthew invents material to present Jesus as the new and greater Moses. Given all the points of comparison Dr. Dennis MacDonald points out in the Gerasene Demoniac pericope (Mark, 5:1-20) with the story of Odysseus, surely that is what is going on here as well. Whereas Homer presents Odysseus as defeating Polyphemus through violence and trickery, Jesus heals the demoniac with divine power. The plain meaning of Mark 5:1-20 here seems to be that Mark is portraying Jesus as greater than Odysseus.

          • Gary

            “As I’m sure you’ll agree, it is beyond question that there is mimesis (imitation) going on in the New Testament.“

            I agree. I agree.

            Although, saying

            “The plain meaning of Mark 5:1-20 here seems to be that Mark is portraying Jesus as greater than Odysseus.”

            Might be a little stretch. If Mark was that much into an action hero like Odysseus (warrior, killer eye poker of giants, sleeps with hot women, married), why would he be so enthusiastic to compare Jesus (unmarried, doesn’t sleep around, nonviolent, kind of a, excuse the expression, wussy, in ancient times), to Odysseus?

            But maybe you are right. I don’t know.

          • John MacDonald

            Homer’s writings were highly revered in the ancient world. Ps.~Heraclitus in “Homeric Questions” 1.5-6 famously said

            “From the earliest age, children beginning their studies are nursed on Homer’s teaching. One might say that while we were still in swathing bands we sucked from his epics as from fresh milk. He assists the beginner and later the adult in his prime. In no stage of life, from boyhood to old age, do we ever cease to drink from him.”

            We can assume the New Testament writers would have known this (they wrote in Greek, after all). Dr. Dennis MacDonald further comments that:

            “Greek education largely involved imitation of the epics, what the Greeks called mimesis; Romans called it imitatio. Homeric influence thus appears in many genres of ancient composition: poetry, of course, but also histories, biographies, and novels … By evoking literary antecedents, authors sought to impress the reader with the superiority of the imitation in literary style, philosophical insights, or ethical values. Literary mimesis often promoted a sophisticated rivalry between the esteemed models and their innovating successors (Dennis MacDonald, Mythologizing Jesus, pg. 3).”

          • Gary

            I think there are enough differences between the Jesus and Odysseus stories, to totally overwhelm the similarities, when their entire stories are compared. You are zeroing in on only a small portion of the stories, on a selected basis – selected specifically for their Odysseus similarities. So I think your database is biased.

          • John MacDonald

            You’re a tough nut to crack, lol. Okay, we’ll agree to disagree.

          • Gary

            Good comparison. Odysseus was a nut cracker. Jesus was a nut lover (I think we can agree that the demon pig guy was a nut).

          • John MacDonald

            Such is the way with mimesis in the New Testament. For instance, some scholars suggest Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”) had to be taken out of context to provide a pedigree for the fact of Jesus’ childhood sojourn in Egypt – but if you think about it you can see what the message is.

  • arcseconds

    I think everyone here can distinguish between a picture and the thing of which it is a picture, so presumably no-one’s actually fooled into thinking that tiny tiny depictions of camels in a needle’s eye actually invalidates the saying.

    (Also, it’s always been possible to build a giant needle-shaped piece of architecture with an ‘eye’ big enough to walk a camel through. This is no more an actual needle than Mount Rushmore is actually a grisly collection of decapitated heads.)

  • Some Patheos writer (i assume it wasn’t you?) pointed out two meanings for the eye of the needle saying, which many here have probably heard (some of this info i copied from Wiki to make it easier):

    1) The “Eye of the Needle” has been claimed to be a gate in Jerusalem, which opened after the main gate was closed at night. A camel could only pass through this smaller gate if it was stooped and had its baggage removed. This story has been put forth since at least the 15th century, and possibly as far back as the 9th century. However, there is no widely accepted evidence for the existence of such a gate.[6][7]

    2) Cyril of Alexandria claimed that “camel” is a Greek misspelling; that kamêlos (camel) was written in place of kamilos, meaning “rope” or “cable”.[2][3] More recently, George Lamsa, in his 1933 translation of the Bible into English from the Syriac, claimed this as well.

    The first one makes sense because the rich would have to stoop/humble themselves and divest themselves of all their “baggage” before they would be able to enter the realm/domain of God. However, this is not really impossible, unless Jesus is trying to say that human will isn’t really strong enough to rid ourselves of all of it.

    The second one about the rope makes more sense to me, as the fishermen that Jesus knew used big fat ropes with huge knots in them, and this is very descriptive to me of the bondage and knots in our lives. Or something like that. Anyway i like the points of your article. 🙂

    • It may well have been me – I’ve noted these options before, especially highlighting that the first one lacks all historical evidence and seems to be an attempt to change the meaning of the saying. It is entirely possible that Jesus said “camel” precisely because it sounded like “rope” and so took a natural image – a “thread” too big for a needle – and made it more outlandish.