A Camel through the Needle’s Eye

I received a note in the question box asking if I could expound on this statement of Jesus: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25). Understanding this phrase properly is well worth our time, especially as there are a couple of false ideas about the meaning of these words that are quite popular today.

The two prevalent views concerning the meaning of Jesus’ fascinating statement are these: 1. the eye of the needle was the name of a short gateway into Jerusalem that was almost too small for a camel to enter. 2. The word “camel” was a copyist error and a similar Greek word that means “ship’s cable”, or an Aramaic word that means “rope” is the correct word. Either of these views sound good on the surface, but a closer look will reveal that the true meaning of Jesus’ words is found elsewhere.

The idea that Jesus was referring to a short gateway into Jerusalem as “the eye of a needle” sounds intriguing, and maybe that is why this explanation of Jesus’ statement has become so widespread, but there is one clear problem with this idea… there is no gateway that is called “the eye of a needle”. The gates of ancient Jerusalem and their names are well known and have been recorded in history, but not one of them can be identified as a small entryway known as the eye of the needle. Further, there is no reference to it in the vast amount of ancient Jewish writings, nor in the writings of the so-called Anti-Nicene fathers of the first few centuries A.D.. In fact, this belief that there was a small gateway called “The Eye of the Needle” came a thousand years after Jerusalem was destroyed! The Middle Ages brought a new interpretation to Jesus’ words and the gate that never existed was born.

The other theory is that an early copyist made an error and used the Greek word for camel (kamelon) instead of the word for a ship’s anchoring rope (kamilos). This theory is based solely on the fact that this other word (kamilos) would fit really well in the text (a matter of opinion), but there is no evidence to support the supposed misspelling, or copyist error. As far as I have seen, the Greek manuscripts are consistent, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s account are consistent. Others have said that the Aramaic word for camel (gamla) could have been slang for rope, but once again, there is no evidence for this. Why stretch for an idea out of reach? When reading Jesus’ words, there is nothing wrong with what He said; there is no red flag that something must be wrong with the words He used.

I think that any Bible reader would be most pleased to hear that the meaning of this statement of Jesus is exactly what it sounds like, and exactly what they read in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

This “take it for what it says” approach is really the only viewpoint that carries historical evidence. For instance, the Talmud, a collection of Jewish writings and recorded oral traditions, mentions that some Jewish rabbis use the phrase “an elephant going through the eye of a needle” when speaking of something impossible or unthinkable. Likewise, also in the Talmud, there is a statement that referenced the unjust judges of the city of Pumbedita, saying, “are you from Pumbedita, where they push an elephant through the eye of a needle?” Similarly, in the rabbinic writings, there is a point made concerning the possibility of any sinner to be saved, it is put this way: “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.” What shall we say concerning these references, but that it was not uncommon in the Jewish culture to speak of an impossible feat by using the metaphor of a sizeable animal going through the eye of a needle.

When looking at the context, this colorful metaphor from our Lord fits well with the point He is conveying. This all began with the rich young ruler, who was too attached to his earthly treasures to accept the wonderful invitation from Jesus to “come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Jesus makes two comments concerning this situation: first, that “it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”; second, that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”. At no point does Jesus say that it is impossible for a wealthy person, or anyone for that matter, to enter God’s kingdom, but the exaggeration of the camel hyperbole certainly gave the apostles that idea, for they responded, “who then can be saved?” And Jesus answered, “with men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Thus, Jesus taught that salvation is certainly possible with God, but the difficulty of being saved lies not with God’s power but with man’s ability to abandon the things he loves that make him so big, too big to fit into a place he could have fit into if he was humble and giving.

Article by Tanner Campbell