The Eye of a Needle

The Eye of a Needle August 5, 2016

The page The Christian Left shared this image on Facebook, and a couple of comments that were made on it there deserve responses. First, you will sometimes hear that the Eye of the Needle was an actual gate in Jerusalem which a camel could indeed pass through, on its knees and leaving any goods it was carrying behind. This is simply not true. There is no evidence for there ever having been such a gate, no evidence whatsoever, and so it appears to be something that was made up to change the meaning of Jesus’ saying.

Second, you will sometimes hear (often connected with the name of George Lamsa) that Jesus’ saying was mistranslated from Aramaic, and that he probably spoke of a rope passing through the eye of a needle, and this was mistaken for the similar Aramaic word for camel. This is not impossible, but it is unlikely that such a translation error would be spotted by a modern person and yet not occur to anyone in the ancient church. More likely, therefore, is that Jesus spoke of a camel passing through they eye of a needle precisely because it made a pun on the word for rope. I am trying to think of analogies that would work in English to illustrate the point. Something about it being easier to add an antelope to your fruit salad than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God? Or it being easier to pass Fred through the eye of a needle…?

At any rate, there have been a lot of attempts to avoid having Jesus say something that meant it is impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. It is perfectly understandable why we, who historically and globally speaking are rich, would try to do so. But it is better to be honest about what Jesus said and wrestle with the consequences, than to try to make him say something more palatable.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    It is staggering how many sermons on Jesus’ sayings about the rich and money are dedicated to making sure you understand he isn’t saying anything radical about the rich or money. After such explanations, you wonder why Jesus would have bothered saying anything about it at all, since his point was so mild or, in some cases, even nonexistent.

    Cf. the love of money being the root of all evil

    • “the love of money being the root of all evil”

      That’s pseudo-Paul, not Jesus.

      Good comment, anyway.

  • jekylldoc

    It’s an example of the contortions generated by an authority-based approach to love, caring and empathy. Similar to the “but WHO do I have to treat as my neighbor?” whine to which the story of the Good Samaritan was a response.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    Given the probable absence of rhinos or elephants in 1st century Galilee the two objects described are the largest known animal and the smallest known hole. I would have thought that a pun that only works in Greek seems rather a stretch for 1st Century Galilean peasants.
    Edit: I realise I have got this wrong about the pun. I am muddling it up with yet another unnecessary explanation as a mix up between kamilos (camel) and kamelos (cable) in Greek. (I still think I’m right about the elephants, though.)

    • Then perhaps it was intended for late first century Greek Christians rather than early 1st century Galilean peasants. It wouldn’t be the first invention of the gospel writers.

      • How many camels were there in Greece?

        • Enough for there to be a Greek word for camel:


          • That’s directly borrowed from the North Semitic word. Doesn’t mean there were any camels in Greece.

          • Yes, most languages borrow words from other languages, but I’m not sure what point you’re making by trying to enumerate camels in Greece.

      • Iain Lovejoy

        See my edit of my original post. Oops.

    • zonmoy

      you do realize that the pun was in Aramaic, not greek, Aramaic was the regional language of that time.

      • Actually, both greek and aramaic puns have been suggested:

        But the text of the gospel source is Greek.

        • But the pun between camel and rope is in Aramaic, not something that works in Greek.

          • But you think the pun is unlikely?

          • Not at all.

          • Oh yes, I misread you in the post.

          • Interestingly, there is a saying attributed to Jesus in which a word play on “camel” in Aramaic is very likely – “you strain out a gnat (galma) but swallow a camel (gamla).” The background is the willingness of rabbis to allow the drinking of something in which a gnat had fallen, despite the impurity that did or could result from this unclean insect (which could also be dead by the time you manage to remove it, adding corpse impurity as well). The image plays on that, having someone remove a tiny fly and then gulp down an enormous unclean animal. These comical elements seem to be present in a few of Jesus’ sayings. I wonder whether this sheds any light on the camel and the eye of the needle. Did Jesus do a complete set of material that involved camels?

          • That’s a fun idea!

            A Pharisee, an ass, and a camel walk into a bar …

      • Iain Lovejoy

        Oops. See my earlier reply to James McGrath. My bad.

    • Which pun would only work in Greek?

      • Iain Lovejoy

        You’re right, I’ve got myself muddled with yet another attempt to explain away the parable with another purported explanation of the parable as a confusion between greek kamilos (camel) and kamelos (cable) which I had already heard. Re-reading your post I didn’t realise it worked in aramaic too.

    • PorlockJunior

      I learned many years ago in Russian class (hence this statement lacks proper authority) that the Russian word for camel is derived from the Greek elephantos. Hey, they were both big animals, right? And both quite scarce in Russia. Which is sort of an example of your point.

      (BTW the Russian for elephant is slon — to a foreigner it seems almost an insult to the impressiveness of an elephant.)

  • Ian

    Great to see this discussed, such a significant passage.

    Here was my attempt to cover the same:

  • John MacDonald

    It would make sense that Jesus demonized wealth. Jesus and his original disciples were poor, so it would make sense Jesus would demonize wealth as “sour grapes:” The Fox and the Grapes is one of the Aesop’s fables, numbered 15 in the Perry Index. The story concerns a fox that tries to eat grapes from a vine but cannot reach them. Rather than admit defeat, he states they are undesirable.

    Nietzsche takes it one step further and views Christian ethics as a transvaluation of values, valorizing the poverty and meekness that reflected their social class, and demonizing wealth and power.

    • John MacDonald

      And as a possible corollary of that, it would make sense Jesus would advocate “loving your enemy” and “giving back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” understanding the might of Rome at the time.

  • Steven Waling

    There’s another aspect to this. I’m glad to learn about the pun because it illustrates a Jesus who uses humour (and yes, Americans, that’s how you spell it…) in his parables and sayings… It is, of course, a deliberately, almost surreally, absurd comparison. I don’t know if it would have had them rolling on the floor, but they would at the very least be startled by it. And I think that was deliberate.

    • The mental image conjured up by the guy with a beam in his eye trying to help the person with a speck of dust in his is also comical.

      I just discovered that the blog post I wrote about Jesus’ sense of humor was nine years ago – it may be time to revisit the topic!