Filtered Camels

I spent three weeks in the West Bank and Israel back in 1990 as part of a student tour. We stayed at the Intercontinental, on the Mount of Olives just east of Jerusalem.

Our official tour guide was a little bald man named Tony. He looked like an Armenian version of Danny DeVito. Standing outside the Lion's Gate to the Old City, I asked him about another famous gate in Jerusalem — one I'd heard about my whole life growing up in evangelical Christianity. Now that I was there, I wanted to see it for myself.

"Where's the 'Eye of the Needle' gate?" I asked.

If you've never heard of it, I should explain. In Mark 10:25, Jesus 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."

This, it had been explained to me countless times, was a reference to the smallest of the gates in the walls of Jerusalem. This passage was less a gate than a single door, just large enough for a man to walk through, but too small to afford a breach to a hostile army.

The Eye of the Needle was too small for a camel to walk through — particularly if that camel was laden with worldly goods. If the other gates were closed, however, it could be managed. First, everything had to be taken off of the camel. Then the beast would be made to kneel, almost to crawl, to duck through the tiny gate. And then, on the other side, it could again stand up and everything could be put back on the camel.

So, OK, back to 1990.

"Where's the 'Eye of the Needle' gate?" I asked.

Tony laughed. "Always, always Americans are asking to see this Eye of the Needle gate. There is no such gate. I do not know where this idea comes from."

Where does this idea come from? Like most urban legends, it's an appealing, colorful story. But it is a bit strange that such a story should become so prominent among people who are so devotedly committed to a "literal" reading of the Bible. A literal reading here seems too disturbing — an actual camel could never pass through the actual eye of an actual needle — so the legend provides some comfort.

The key I think is the end of the story, after everything is taken off the camel's back and it is made to crawl through the legendary narrow gate. Then everything is put back on the camel.

That's what we want to hear. That's what guarantees that this urban legend will continue and that, for years to come, American tourists in Jerusalem will be asking to see the Eye of the Needle Gate.

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  • moonbiter

    Just reading this passage from Matthew right now for the first time, the idea of a “Eye of a Needle” gate strikes me as a very, very strange way of trying to explain what the phrase means.
    It is no mystery what the parable is saying here. To be good, follow the commandments — and if you want to be super-extra-good, sacrifice everything that you have for the needy, and take up their cause.
    More to the point, folks with more than they need should give that excess away to folks who don’t have enough.
    Or even more to the point: Help the poor out a little bit, you rich dumbasses! ::smacks rich folks on the back of their collective heads::

  • ninjanun

    I think Jesus was making the point that the Rich Young Ruler was asking the wrong question: “What must I do to be saved?” is inherently a self-interested question. Jesus seems to turn it on its ear by saying, “Be concerned with others’ suffering, and save them from it, you self-absorbed prick.” [Except of course Jesus wouldn’t have said that last bit, I don’t think.]

  • pharoute

    Interesting that Jesus’ response to the question wasn’t “Accept me as your personal Lord and Savior.” Just saying….

  • Skyknight

    I always thought the Needle’s Eye Gate story had more to do with camels’ legendary recalcitrance than anything else (“You think I’M going through that way-too-small door just on your say-so?!” {SPIT}). In other words, rich people of the sort Jesus had just shot out of the sky would classify as neck-stiffness elementals…Not terribly likely to achieve holiness true on the first words.

  • bulbul

    bellatrys: wow. I am actually familiar with all of your sources, but I would never have put it together in such brilliant manner. I bow to you :o)
    Just today I came across an old volume of Folia Orientalia (1998) with an article on the genre Gospel of Matthew. The author was revisiting the question of whether Matthew wrote a biography or something else. I browsed through the volume really quickly and didn’t even think of borrowing it. I will get it the next time and report back to you.

  • L

    So I continue to believe that Catholicism rejects the notion that good deeds **alone** are sufficient for salvation.
    It does. Grace is always required, however received. But you’re backing away from your original statement, I see, and at concede that for at least some unbelievers salvation is possible according to the teaching of most Christians. (You had originally said, “Of course, this idea of ‘salvation by works’ is a heresy to all the main Christian demoninations – their doctrine is actually that people who believe in Jesus go to heaven and everyone else goes to hell.” Belief in “Jesus”, as opposed to the abstract Logos — an idea that’s startlingly common in the world’s philosophies, by the way — cannot be reasonably imputed to Socrates: his faith is inferred from his works, like St. Paul’s example of the unbeliever with the Law written in his heart.)

  • Duane

    like St. Paul’s example of the unbeliever with the Law written in his heart
    Yup, Saint Paul made up a lot of dumb shit.

  • burritoboy

    Jesus has a great deal in common with the depiction of both Socrates and the great Cynic Diogenes – a wandering philosopher who has little or no wealth (no household or oikos, in the classical conception), bearing only his cloak and wallet, largely avoiding the customary behavior of the time and advocating communism (which was the stance of Socrates, Diogenes and Jesus).
    Platonism’s influence over Judaism was very marked by the time of Jesus – the chief ambassador of the Alexandrian Jewish community to the Emperor Caligula in 40CE was the noted Platonic/Stoic philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Josephus, himself influenced by Stoicism and intermarried into the Alexandrian community, called Philo “a man eminent by all accounts” and “skilled in philosophy”.

  • none

    Perhaps Jesus simply meant that you can’t take the stuff with you – not that a rich man can’t get into heaven, but that he won’t be rich there. That there are no rich men in heaven like there are no atheists in hell. ;) He didn’t say to the young man “you will be saved if you give away all” he said “you will own a treasure in heaven” which sounds as extra perks in addition to being saved.

  • Erick Oppeen

    Another take on this could be that Jesus was telling the RYM that to gain eternal life, he had to die first. After all, when you die you leave _everything_ behind, do you not? (At least, unless you are an Egyptian Pharaoh; then you take it with you until the tomb robbers/archaeologists come a’calling).
    Personally, ever since I read Greek mythology, I’ve been leery of the idea of eternal life. There was this mortal (I think his name was Tithonus;I’m not sure and can’t be arsed to look it up at this unGhodly hour) with whom a goddess fell in love. The goddess petitioned Zeus to give this man eternal life—and he did so. Unfortunately, he didn’t give the mortal eternal _youth_…and he got older, and older, and older, until he became a cricket. D’oh!
    Or, there’s always “‘He who drinks of my blood shall have eternal life’—Vlad Dracula.”
    Now, if we were talking eternal youth, I’d be very interested indeed. But an eternity of geezerhood? Puh-LEAZE! Most old people I’ve ever known spent all their time either doing a good imitatation of a hassock, or disapproving of everything that had happened since some particular date—somewhere between 1945 and 1965, usually. Phooey on _that_ with bells on!

  • linklog 060312

    linklog 060312

  • J

    Personally, ever since I read Greek mythology, I’ve been leery of the idea of eternal life.
    Verily. Indeed, why stop with either Greek mythology OR the Bible for our source material on eternal life when we can go a further 1500 years earlier:
    “Gilamesh, where are you roaming?
    You will never find the eternal life
    That you seek. When the gods created mankind,
    they also created death, and they held back
    eternal life for themselves alone.
    Humans are born, they live, then they die
    this is the order that the gods have decreed.
    But until the end comes, enjoy your life,
    spend it in happiness, not despair.
    Savor your food, make each of your days
    a delight, bathe and anoint yourself
    wear bright clothes
    let music and dancing fill your house,
    love the child who holds you by the hand,
    and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
    That is the best way for a man to live.”
    “Yes, Gilgamesh: the gods took Enkidu’s life.
    But man’s life is short, at any moment
    it can be snapped, like a reed.
    The handsome young man, the lovely young woman–
    in their prime, death comes and drags them away.
    And yet we build houses, make contracts, brothers
    divide their inheritance, conflicts occur–
    as though this human life lasted forever.
    Then the river rises, flows over its banks
    and carries us all away, like mayflies
    floating downstream: they stare at the sun,
    then, at all once, there is nothing.”

  • J

    Or, if you prefer something more up-to-the-minute:
    “There’s only us
    There’s only this
    Forget regret
    Or life is yours to miss
    No other road
    No other way
    No day but today…
    There’s only now
    There’s only here
    Give into love
    Or live in fear
    No other path
    No other way.”

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Why have I suddenly got musical numbers from Corpse Bride two-stepping through my head? “Die, die, we all pass away…”
    Getting eternal youth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either. After the story about the cricket comes an encore in which this sister Goddess–Selene, I think–was smart enough to ask Zeus to give her loverboy the life-and-youth package, which Zeus obligingly granted by throwing in Eternal Sleep to make it work. Thus, Endymion’s gorgeous but totally unconcsious smile.

  • J

    I still haven’t seen that (Corpse Bride). But I should.

  • J

    Incidentally, I am a little tired of movies being pitched to me as “A look inside the mind of Tim Burton.” After Edward Scissorhands, Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, Planet of the Apes and two iterations of Batman I think we are all sufficiently familiar with the contents of Tim Burton’s mind.
    Although . . . am I the only person on the entire planet who liked Ed Wood?

  • wintermute

    J: Ed Wood was great!
    Though I’m also a fan of Ed Wood’s movies (ah, Bride of the Atom!), so I’m probably biased .

  • J

    I heard they recently found the cans with the long-lost hardcore film he did in his waning days.

  • Captain Slack

    To be honest, it sounds like you were just looking for an excuse to shout “I ARE A LIBERTARIAN KTHX” at everyone.
    Sure looks that way to me.

  • Nazza

    I gotta get out of here,can you help.

  • Zone 2012 the End….

    Good by my friend, have you heard the one about finding the needle in the haystack?