Jokes about Camels and the Historical Jesus

Jokes about Camels and the Historical Jesus September 3, 2018

Jesus’ saying about a camel passing through the eye of a needle, it has been suggested, reflects a misunderstanding of what Jesus actually said in Aramaic, since the word for camel is similar to the word for rope. But I wonder whether in fact it was an intentional play on words, much as a punster today might say that it is time to talk about the sycophant in the room, expecting hearers to know that “elephant” makes more sense and was to be expected in the sentence, and getting laughs (or groans) as a result. Indeed, this professor will probably at some point say, on a day of the semester at the height of flu season, that I prefer to view the class as half full…

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 or comedic 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? Has anyone ever treated Jesus’ sayings about camels under the umbrella of a single academic study – whether in connection with their humorous character or not?

Related to this topic, see my earlier blog posts about both the camel through the eye of the needle saying, and Jesus’ sense of humor. Robert Funk famously suggested that Jesus “was perhaps the first stand-up Jewish comic. A comic savant is a sage who embeds wisdom in humour.”

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  • Nica

    Good one! Strange, I never, ever considered this in terms of food prohibitions….

  • Josh Mitchell

    I feel like we need to be careful with teachings like this. It may provide additional justification for pastors making terrible puns during their sermons – and no one needs that!

  • The Mouse Avenger

    Interesting! ^_^ I never thought of it like that before! 🙂

  • John MacDonald

    It would be ironic if the historical Jesus, as an apocalyptic prophet, predicted the destruction of the temple, and years later the temple was actually destroyed, and so this was the impetus for Mark writing his gospel, thinking the destruction vindicated Jesus as the chosen one of God. lol