Skip to content

A Caravan of Camels Through the Eye of a Needle

August 30, 2007

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?

camels1.jpg

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.

Advertisements
8 Comments
  1. Josh permalink

    Nice work, Andrew! This passage’s interpretation seems to be just another way that the clear condemnation of greed and wealth in the Bible has been toned down to appease the wealthy in this country who don’t see the clear contradiction between a Christian and a Capitalistic ethos. I recently read a letter to the editor here where someone tried to say that capitalism was basically a Christian economic system. Yikes. How can contemporary Christians continue to support an economic system that perpetuates competition, idolization of $, usury, etc.? Let me know if the issue ever comes up in class.

  2. Josh,

    I will! After teaching “Bartleby, The Scrivener” this summer, I realized more than ever that nothing runs as contrary to the ethic of Christ as the rules of the marketplace

  3. nevin permalink

    nice write up. i too have read about the various interpretations about this particular passage, the above said effort to ‘demystify’ the gospel and make it sound more ‘rational’.

    hope to come by more such refreshing thoughts. cheers!!

  4. Susie McElroy permalink

    I don’t know if the camel is right or the rope. I do know all things are possible with God. One mistake people make is thinking that the kingdom of God always means going to heaven. It almost never does. It means as christians we should bring heaven to earth since we have Jesus in us. The kingdom of heaven is feeding the poor, living like Jesus did, which in turn would give us the best life. Abundant life. It doesn’t mean rich people wont go to heaven. Everyone who believes Jesus is God and admits they are sinners in need of a savior will go to heaven. But they won’t experience heaven on earth. Or be able to bring heaven to earth for those around them if they are greedy. Only one person in the bible was condemned to hell. The rich man because he was greedy. And two were killed by God, Annanias and Saphira. They were in charge of keeping the money for the poor. They stole from the poor. We Christians are the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus also said He loved Him. He said you will have riches in heaven, not your going to hell if you don’t.

  5. Carlos permalink

    Susie,
    You have a few facts wrong. Rev 21:8 says “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.” That sounds like a lot more than just one person. The Bible makes many references to people being cast into hell.
    Also, Ananias and Sapphira were by far not the only two people that God snuffed out for sin. Don’t forget the time that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, or when He caused the earth to open up and swallow Korah and his followers or the time that God slew Jehoram with a sickness that caused his bowels to fall out .
    Again in reference to Ananias and Sapphira, they were not in charge of keeping the money for the poor. Their story does involve money but they weren’t in charge of it. And it wasn’t for the poor. What they did was this: They sold a piece of land and decided to give the money to the apostles to do the work of God. After selling the land they decided to keep part of the money but lie about how much they got for the land. That way, they would have some extra money and the apostles would think they gave everything they were able to give. Keep in mind that they weren’t obligated to give this at all. Their sin was not that they held back part of the money. Their sin was that they lied about it. Peter told Ananias he had lied to the Holy Ghost and Ananias fell down dead. Sapphira came later and Peter asked her what the land sold for. Sapphira, not knowing of her husband’s death, went along with the lie her husband had told. Then she died.

    • john b butts permalink

      “and it wasn’t for the poor” take a look at John 12.5 : “why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence and given to the poor.”

  6. Carlos permalink

    Note that when I say the money was not for the poor, I realize that the money was distributed according to needs but the Scripture explains in Acts 4 that no one lacked anything and they had all things (possessions) in common. This money was laid at the apostles’ feet to be used and distributed at their discretion. It wasn’t just a “charity fund.”

  7. Chrispen permalink

    Enlightening

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: