A Caravan of Camels Through the Eye of a Needle
Many of you might know that I am teaching a class on the New Testament as Literature. A couple days ago in class, the infamous “Camel going through the Eye of a Needle” passage surfaced, a discussion that illustrated just how weird interpretation of the Gospels can be. In this instance, what does it mean when Jesus says, “It’s easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy person to enter the Kingdom of God?” A student tried to tell me that first-century Jews would have understood the parable better because they were familiar with the “Needle’s Eye” gate in many cities.
However, scholars generally agree that the tradition of referring to a “Needle’s Eye Gate” was initiated in the Medieval period, at least 800 years after the Gospels were written. As the story goes, there was a small pedestrian gate to the entrance of many cities. After a certain time of day, the main gate closed, and only the small “Needle’s Eye Gate” remained open. If camels got stuck outside, their owners had to remove the saddle and other packages that might be on the camel’s back. Camels had to duck down very low, and entering this gate was a difficult process. Thus, Jesus meant to recall an image of a camel struggling, but eventually making it inside the city walls. So rich people can get to heaven afterall!
However, after much historical analysis and archaeological research into how ancient cities typically functioned, scholars find no evidence at all that anything like a “Needle’s Eye Gate” ever existed. Rather, the earliest known invention of the gate concept is from the Medieval allegorist Paschasius Radbertus (ca. 829). The gate interpretation circulated through many widely used Medieval commentaries on the Bible (see Modern Language Notes, v. 66, p.550).
Many famous interpreters, including Erasmus, thought this interpretation was an old wives tale. But still, some people try to make some sense out of the metaphor by saying that the people who copied the original Gospel text made a mistake. Apparently, the Greek word for rope is kamilos and the Greek word for camel is kamelos. The copyist accidentally misread one letter and wrote camel, instead of rope. It makes a lot more sense to say that it’s impossible to get a rope through the eye of a needle than a camel, right?
Clearly, this interpretation is just as speculative as the Medieval invention of the “Needle’s Eye Gate.” The real issue is, perhaps, people’s inability to grant the parable’s face value point: it’s impossible for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God. The next verses do say that “with God, all things are possible.”
Regardless, the interpretation history here is one example of many in the Gospels of people coming up with crazy readings in order to demystify the Gospel. Who knows, maybe some of them are right, or maybe it is possible to put not just one camel, but a whole caravan of them through the eye of a needle.