Camel Through The Eye Of A Needle? Or Have You Been Reading The Bible Wrong?

Camel Through The Eye Of A Needle? Or Have You Been Reading The Bible Wrong? February 23, 2017

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Have you been reading the Bible wrong this whole time? Probably– but I’ll try to help sort that out for you.

One of the most famous sayings of Jesus is “It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (This quote is found in Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25.)

I remember this verse well from my childhood, and remember Sunday School teachers explaining the meaning to me as if these well-intentioned souls were biblical scholars– and the explanation they gave is one that many people today have accepted in regards to this passage.

The explanation usually goes like this: There were gates to the entrance of the city that had small openings called “needles” and in order for camels to pass through, they had to get down on their bellies and wiggle themselves through the eye of the needle. The basic application of this exegesis was that rich people face a lot of barriers to becoming Christian.

However, there are a few major problems with this understanding of the passage.

First and foremost we have no evidence that in the time of Jesus, any such a gate existed in Jerusalem. In fact, there’s a much stronger case that such a gate with an “eye of the needle” did not exist at that time. On the surface, this would at a minimum lead us to believe that Jesus was using an exaggerated metaphor of a camel passing through a sewing needle.

But even that understanding is problematic in my opinion.

Earlier today I was reading a piece on biblical literacy by Andy Gill. In the piece he references this, and correctly notes that some translations don’t use the word camel at all, but translate it as “it is easier to put a rope through a needle.”

This, in my opinion, was more along the lines of what Jesus was saying. Let me explain:

Translation obviously isn’t always an exact science when you’re working with dead languages (languages not used anymore), and when you’re working from ancient manuscripts that have textual variants. It’s why decent seminaries will force you to undergo painful years of working to master these ancient languages.

In this case we have an even bigger issue: the New Testament is written in ancient Greek, but Jesus most likely would have spoken Aramaic most of the time (though he likely knew three languages that were all important in first century Palestine).

First, in Greek there are similarities between the word for rope and camel, which is why there is debate over the correct translation of the passage (though when dealing with Greek, the word camel often wins the day). But if we go deeper into ancient languages we see even more similarities—- in some cases the difference between rope and camel is just one letter– making the case for the argument that Jesus didn’t use the word “camel” at all, even stronger. The reason why the tie breaker between camel and rope should go to rope, is because of context.

Theodore R. Lorah explains that the word for rope in these ancient languages actually speaks of a rope used to anchor a massive ship (a hawser). The hawser would often be braided, and likely would have been the thickest size of rope that anyone at that time could have imagined. Lorah writes, “The image of the oceangoing vessel with a heavy, braided rope hawser holding to the anchor or tying the ship to the pier makes the image much stronger…” in reference to this exaggerated metaphor.

So here’s where we’re at: in both Greek and Semitic languages the difference between camel and a ship’s hawser is so similar that it makes total sense there would be translation confusions. Rendering the verse as a “camel through the eye of a needle” would potentially make sense if we had any evidence that a gate with a needle’s eye existed at the time, which we don’t. However, when we add in the fact that Jesus lived in a fishing village and that his first disciples were fishermen, rendering the verse as “It is easier for a ship’s hawser to pass through the eye of a needle” makes more sense.

As Lorah summarizes:

“As they used their hand-held needles and thread to mend (fishing) nets, Jesus said: “It is easier for a hawser to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The logic is inescapable, and the language moves in that direction, as soon as one looks to the Semitic tradition behind the Greek text, working in the languages which Jesus fluently read and spoke.”

Even though in both cases it is exaggerated metaphor, the word we choose does change the impact of the passage. A camel passing through the eye of a gate is hard, but not uncommon. A ship’s anchor rope passing through a sewing needle?

That would be both impossible and unheard of.

Kind of like a rich person wanting to join a Kingdom where the poor are the ones who are blessed.

So, have you been reading the Bible wrong all this time?

I believe so– and I believe that the best translation of this passage doesn’t involve animals at all.

unafraid 300Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. 

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