Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Eye of the Needle

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24, Luke 18:25)

When I first heard this phrase in Sunday school, I thought it was nothing more than a bit of hyperbole illustrating how difficult it is for a rich person to get into heaven. However, when I got to seminary, I was taught that this phrase actually referred to an anti-smuggling gate in the city wall of Jerusalem called "The Eye of the Needle" which was so narrow, a camel couldn't pass through unless you removed its packs. Victorian tourists to the Holy Land even claimed to have seen this gate.

The phrase suddenly made more sense. A rich man can enter heaven, he just has to leave all his possessions behind to do so. A variation of this explanation states that the camel can only pass through the gate on its knees like a repentant sinner. Some have said the phrase refers to a small gate for pedestrians on the side of the larger gate through which camels would pass. Some say the gate was only used at night. In another version, "eye of the needle" refers to a mountain pass so narrow that merchants had to dismount from their camels to get through. Another explanation is that it referred to ancient inns having small entrances to thwart thieves.

The problem with this explanation and all its variations, however, is that there's no evidence that such a gate ever existed. A gate to Jerusalem being called "the eye of the needle" is an urban legend which began in the Middle Ages.

So what does this phrase really mean? An explanation that's been put forth is that the Greek word for camel (kamilos) is a misprint of the Greek word for a ship's cable (kamêlos), which some late New Testament manuscripts actually use. Since dialects change over time, the two words probably would have been pronounced the same way at some point. A camel passing through the eye of a needle is pure nonsense, but someone trying to thread a needle with a large rope, while still nonsensical, at least makes more sense. A rope at least belongs to the same class of objects as a thread. This explanation is certainly possible, but is it the most probable?

Another possible explanation relies on the theory that the Gospels were originally Aramaic, not the Greek of all our surviving manuscripts. In Aramaic, the word for camel and rope are both spelled the same (גמלא). Since ropes were sometimes made of camel's hair, the Aramaic word "gamla" can mean either "camel" or "rope" depending on the context. Again, this is possible, but since the evidence for the Gospels originally being written in Aramaic or based on an Aramaic oral tradition is quite weak, this explanation is unlikely.

Some say that the needle spoken of in the phrase is a six inch carpet needle and "camel" refers to a rope made of camel hair. "A rich man getting into heaven is as easy as passing a rope through a big needle" doesn't sound so difficult.

All these explanation are interesting, but ultimately unnecessary. They're all based on the assumption that the phrase as it is can't be right. Is it really so hard to believe that there would be an ancient saying discussing a camel going through a needle's eye? We use sayings today that would seem quite nonsensical to people living a thousand years in the future. If we put this phrase in the context of other sayings of the time, it suddenly doesn't seem so out of place:

They [dreams] do not show a man a palm tree of gold, nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle. - Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth, 55b (i.e. Men only dream of things which are possible, not things which are impossible such as an elephant going through the eye of a needle.)

Rabbi Sheshith answered Rabbi Amram, "Maybe you are from the school at Pumbeditha, where they can make an elephant pass through the eye of a needle." - Baba Metzia 38b (i.e. Rabbi Amram is making an argument so convoluted that he's able to convince himself of the impossible.)

A needle's eye is not too narrow for two lovers, but the whole world is not wide enough for two enemies. - Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Mibhar HaPeninim, c.1050, #281

The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle's eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and [camels?] - Midrash Rabbah, The Song of Songs, 5.3

The largest animal in the regions where the Babylonian Talmud were written was the elephant. The elephant was virtually unknown in Israel, so the largest animal they would be familiar with is the camel. Basically what the phrase is saying is that it's impossible for the largest known animal to pass through the smallest known opening. Today, we'd say something like a rich man getting into heaven is like a whale slipping through a water purifier.

While the other explanations offered are possible, they are unnecessarily complicated. If the simplest explanation is most likely to be the correct one, then my initial Sunday school interpretation which took the phrase at face value is correct and we've come full circle.

"Slipping the rich through the eye of a needle is easy as getting a camel to heaven." - Meat Puppets

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