A Camel through the Eye of a Needle

All three synoptics recount an episode during the Perean ministry of the Saviour where a rich young man (called a “ruler” in Luke) approaches Jesus and asks what he can do to have eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, and in response to a request for clarification refers to the Ten Commandments. The young man replies that he has kept these from his youth, and then asks what yet he lacks. The reply is to sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. The young man then walks away sadly, because he had great possessions.

Following this story is a section where Jesus utters the now famous proverb, which I will quote below as it is given in each gospel:

“And again I say unto you, 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.” (Mt. 19:24)

“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.” (Mk. 10:25)

“For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 18:25)

This saying does not appear in the Gospel of Thomas.

These statements are virtually identical in English. There is a little variation in Greek; in particular, the needle in Matthew and Mark is a raphis, while in Luke it is a belone. This is not a significant difference, however; both refer to needles used for sewing.

In my experience teaching in the Church, this verse is a “hot button,” and when it is read in class it will almost invariably elicit some sort of comment. The comment might be a generic defense of riches, for instance, to allow the fortunate bearer of such to build up the kingdom of God. More likely, one of two very specific comments will be offered.

The first is something to the effect that there was in the city wall of Jerusalem a narrow gate known as “The Eye of the Needle.” It was very difficult for a camel to pass through this gate. I have heard variations on this explanation; according to one, the camel would have to be unburdened before it could pass through, while according to another, the camel could only pass through on its knees (!). People are very fond of this explanation, but there is one small problem with it: there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that there was such a gate. As Hugh Nibley puts it in his own inimitable way, this gate idea was “invented by an obliging nineteenth-century minister for the comfort of his well-heeled congregation.” See CWHN 9:168. This is one of those notions Nibley calls a “para-scripture”: a tale that is widely but wrongly circulated among the Saints as scriptural.

Well, if we cannot enlarge the size of the opening, the other logical way to rationalize the passage is to reduce the size of the object that must pass through it, and we see this in our next common comment on this passage. The Greek word for camel here is kamelos. This is based on Semitic gamal, and is recognizable as English “camel.” There is another Greek word, only one letter different, kamilos, which means “hawser, ship’s cable [IE a large rope],” although this word does not otherwise appear in the NT. In fact, as Greek pronunciation changed from the “common” dialect of the New Testament toward what would eventually become the modern demotic Greek, at some point in time the two words would have been pronounced the same way. The idea, therefore, is that the text originally read kamilos “rope,” which was corrupted over time to kamelos “camel.” Lamsa posited a similar argument based on the Aramaic gamla, which he said could mean either “camel” or “rope,” depending on context (apparently from ropes made of camel’s hair). This “rope” suggestion is adopted by John Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, 117.

Unlike the narrow gate notion, the “rope” argument actually has some ancient evidence to support it, as a number of manuscripts do in fact read kamilos here. The earliest such evidence is found in the Armenian and Georgian versions (which are obviously translations), both of which date to the fifth century C.E. It also appears in the uncial S (949 C.E.) and a number of miniscule manuscripts of the Byzantine tradition, including 13, 59, 124,130, 437, 472 and 543, all dating considerably after the turn of the millennium. Three considerations, however, make it highly unlikely that kamilos was the intended text. First is the limited nature of the textual attestation for “rope,” which includes (1) the small number of manuscripts supporting that reading, (2) the lateness of those manuscripts, and (3) the narrowness (both geographically and in text type) of that evidence. Second is the principle commonly referred to as lectio difficilior, which is that in the absence of other deciding factors, the reading that is more difficult from the standpoint of language and subject matter is more likely to be the earlier reading. (I realize this is contrary to the common assumption among Latter-day Saints that scribes actually preferred, gremlin-like, to make the text more difficult as they did their work.) Third, the meager textual evidence that does exist is most likely to be accounted for by the influence of a number of Church Fathers, who had speculated about just such a possibility. See Origen, Catena, frgs. in Matt. 19.24 (Griechische christliche Schriftsteller 41.166); Cyril of Alexandria, Comm. in Matt. 19.24 (Patrilogia Graeca 72.429D); and Theophylact, Enarr. in Matt. 19 (PG 123.356D). For a bibliography of secondary literature, see Joseph Fitzmyer’s Anchor Bible commentary on Luke, ad loc.

Well, now we are in a pickle. How are we to interpret this passage in a way that makes sense? I will suggest three possibilities here; you make the call which you prefer, or mix and match if you like.

First is what I would call the “consecration” interpretation, which is favored by Nibley. That is that Jesus really meant it; you have to give up everything and follow him. I can tell you that this does not play well in wards such as mine, which are frequented by captains of industry, but God bless Hugh Nibley for staking out the high ground so effectively.

The second is to recognize the camel saying as an example of hyperbole; that is, an intentional exaggeration for rhetorical effect. Dummelow at p. 689 quotes the following illustrations: Rabbi Sheshith to Rabbi Amram: “Perhaps thou art one of those of Pombeditha, who can make an elephant pass through a needle’s eye.” From the Greeks: “It is easier to hide five elephants under one’s arm,” and from the Romans: “More easily would a locust bring forth an elephant.” Reading the proverb as hyperbole requires us to trust that the preceding verse articulated the real meaning of the saying, as in Matt. 19:23: “a rich man shall hardly (duskolos “with difficulty,” but not impossibly) enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Of course, our linear western logic demands that the saying match the principle, but it does not. Rather, it describes an impossible process, not one that is difficult only. Thus all the gyrations to try to modify the meaning of the proverb. Given the tremendous amount of discussion and soul searching this verse has engendered over the centuries, if it were intentional hyperbole, in my estimation it was fabulously successful.

Third is what we might call the “grace” interpretation. Recall that when they heard the saying, the disciples “were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?” This shows that they recognized it as a difficult saying, and is further evidence against the softening explanations described above. Jesus answers: “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” That is, the camel saying really is supposed to describe an impossible process, because it has not yet factored God into that process. Once God is factored in, it becomes indeed possible for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven (but even then only with difficulty).

However one chooses to understand the saying, it should not be cheapened by the easy rationalizations that have accrued around it over time. It is intentionally a hard saying, and to contemplate it requires hard thought, study and prayer.

Comments

  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    It isn’t just Nibley–the gate theory was actually debunked in the Ensign; the links never work for me but the citation is:

    “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Mar. 1985, 28

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I can never make the Ensign links work, either. Thanks for the cite.

  3. The trick in Iexplorer is to right click the article title in the left menu and click “copy shortcut.” Or I think you can hold the shift key down when you click the article title and it will open in a new window with the correct URL.

    I was looking for a nice Muslim quote I read about this phrase once, but couldn’t find it. But I did find this explanation which makes a couple interesting observations from a Hebrew perspective.

    I also found this SNL skit on the topic….

  4. Harold Curts says:

    I think he was simply making a comment about keeping the tenth commandment. Thou shalt not covet.

    Clearly the man had been told directly to give up everything and follow. He didn’t. He coveted his own things. Therefore….how likely is he to enter the kingdom.

    Do all rich covet their own things?

  5. Elisabeth says:

    This is very interesting, Kevin. I appreciate your analysis of the text, because I tend to think the “eye of the needle” scripture is one of those difficult scriptures no one likes to hear, but nevertheless clearly speaks the truth. Jesus himself certainly didn’t have any riches, and He didn’t seem to need much money to build His earthly kingdom.

    Having experienced both poverty and riches, I think I agree with the difficult interpretation of this scripture, i.e., that you can’t take it with you, and that time spent selfishly accumulating and enjoying material possessions is decidedly unchristian. (now what exactly “riches” are could be the topic of another discussion).

  6. Third is what we might call the “grace” interpretation. Recall that when they heard the saying, the disciples “were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?” This shows that they recognized it as a difficult saying, and is further evidence against the softening explanations described above. Jesus answers: “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” That is, the camel saying really is supposed to describe an impossible process, because it has not yet factored God into that process. Once God is factored in, it becomes indeed possible for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven (but even then only with difficulty).

    I’ve always read it that way from the context.

  7. Kevin,

    Thanks for the analysis. And thanks to Julie and Robert for the Ensign mention; I oughta print up that Ensign piece and carry it with me. :P

    E.,

    “You can’t take it with you, and that time spent selfishly accumulating and enjoying material possessions is decidedly unchristian.”

    Wow. That may be the best explanation I’ve seen of this principle. Thank you.

  8. I prefer interpreting the camel passage in light of this well known other passage of scripture:

    “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”

    Unfortunately I can’t find the exact cite for this scripture at the moment, perhaps Kevin can give us the original Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew, as well as a history of some of its hermeneutical exegesis over the centuries by rabbinical scholars and the early church fathers.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Fui dives et fui pauper. Dives melior est.

  10. As Hugh Nibley puts it in his own inimitable way, this gate idea was “invented by an obliging nineteenth-century minister for the comfort of his well-heeled congregation.” See CWHN 9:168.

    Was this simply a joke of Nibley’s or is there some evidence that this idea came out of the nineteenth century?

  11. Jared E. says:

    Kevin, I really enjoyed your post. A little while back I went through and read many of the writing of the early Christian fathers, Clement, Ignatius, etc… What struck me time and again was how outspoken they all were against, not the love of riches, but riches. I don’t have the text anymore, so I can’t provide quotes, but I remember 1st Clement most especially leaving me with this impression. To me it appears the primitive church’s conception is that of Nibley, that of consecration.

  12. As Hugh Nibley puts it in his own inimitable way, this gate idea was “invented by an obliging nineteenth-century minister for the comfort of his well-heeled congregation.

    This idea is far older than the 19th century. Both Anselm and Aquinas used it. You can find references in Austin Farrer and also, I think, Henry Barclay Swete.

    The Gospel of Peter also has Peter miraculously enlarging a gate, just to show how God could do it.

  13. cantinflas says:

    Can it be read to simply state that death is the great equalizer, and there will be no riches in heaven? Inevitably the rich man, like the poor man, must leave his worldly posessions and be rich no more.

    I suppose the fact that the Savior told the rich man to leave everything he has can argue this reading, but it still makes sense to me Maybe the rich man in the bible story was just to show this same principle, and not the specific principle of leaving riches.

  14. Seth R. says:

    I don’t mind the Sunday School rationalizations of wealth (which aren’t logically or doctrinally implausible). Agree or disagree as you will.

    What does bother me is the flippant attitude people have about wealth.

    Wealth is essentially toxic and hazardous waste. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t ever safely handle toxic waste. Nor does it mean that toxic waste has no uses (some of it can be recycled to make disposable picnic plates, or even nice jackets).

    But that doesn’t change the fact that the stuff is filthy, loathsome and inherently dangerous and might just be the end of you if you don’t maintain a healthy fear of it.

    This attitude is, as far as I can tell, completely absent from most Gospel Doctrine classes. Be honest – who among you really fears his stock market portfolio? Who among you is genuinely worried that her nice home is trying to kill her spirit?

    We are far too familiar with our wealth, and many of us are being slowly poisoned.

    When Christ told his disciples that one would betray Him, you’ll note that they did not start looking suspiciously around the room. Instead they asked: “is it I?”

    Honestly, I’m sick of the financial apologists. The last thing our world needs is more forced excuses.

  15. I would favor the “consecration” reading in light of Matt. 6:33 and Jacob 2:18-19. The reason the rich man cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven is because he worships his mammon. The disciple of Christ uses their riches to serve others, and this is service, or worship, to Christ, per Matt. 25:40. This is the person who enters into the Father’s Kingdom.

    Does Jesus expect us to literally give everything away and live in poverty and squallor? No. The Lord has promised us comfort and bounty if we keep the commandments, so there is nothing intrisically wrong with that. Does he expect us to actually live the Law of Consecration, as we have committed to do? Yes. When we pay our tithing, give generous fast offerings, and deliberately keep our personal expenses down and use our disposable income to serve others, that is a person who fits what Jacob 2:18-19 is talking about.

  16. Amri Brown says:

    I’m not certain Christ isn’t asking us to give up everything we have and live in relative poverty. He spent all his time with the poor. He invited them to be his apostles, he said they were the ones who would see God, inherit the kingdom of God, that they would get in before anyone else. If that’s the case, then it seems that it’s not just the humble in spirit but that it really is humble in ownership as well. We’re supposed to be like children too and they got nothin’. Unless they rule their parents.

    Remember that story Kimball tells in Miracle of Forgiveness? About the wagon drivers driving close to the edge or close to the mountain? In every gospel principle we’re supposed to hug the mountain right? Stay as far away from sin as possible. So why is wealth one with which we can face with wild abandon? Drive our money making wagon as close to the edge as possible? It just doesn’t make sense to me. I think we’re supposed to cut back on our consumption extraordinarily or else we won’t know Christ.

  17. Elisabeth says:

    Wow, Amri. Great comment!

  18. DavidH – my Google exercise only gives credit for the phrase “I’ve been rich and …” to Sophie Tucker, a vaudeville star from the early 20th century. Another site gives it to Mae West.

    I’m sure it’s a rationalization on my part, much of my life seems to be, but I like what Kevin alluded to near the of the essay – that although it would be very difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, Christ never said it would be impossible. And so we must conclude that it takes greater effort on the part of a rich man or woman to do so.

    Certainly we all know “rich men” who are kind and generous and who use their wealth for good purposes. I didn’t serve a mission myself but I am told that our missionaries have much greater acceptance by the poor and humble people of the world than they do tracking in the affluent suburbs of major cities. I suspect most rich men have the same thoughts I often do when things are going well in my life – it is because I am such a smart and clever person. But eventually, and thankfully, something happens in my life to bring me back down to earth and help me realize that I owe the very breath of life to God and His benevolance.

    I believe that regardless of what is in a person’s bank account, God knows the content of their heart and that will ultimately be the deciding factor in their entrance to heaven.

  19. OK DavidH – you got me. I see from your comments on T&S that you are the sarcastic one. I’m old and slow today.

  20. cchrissyy says:

    Lamonte,
    While the heart matters most, I must agree with hugh Nibley, that if a person lives and dies rich, their bank account is a relavent judgement against them- they kept more than they needed, they hoarded resources that were meant to be shared.
    You can’t promise “all with which the Lord may bless you” to Him, and then keep it for your own rainy day. Nibley wrote that a person who keeps more than they need is coveting and stealing from the poor, who we are repeatedly commanded to give to.

    I think a fat bank account shows a heart insufficently concerned with our brothers’ welfare, therefore lacking in obediance to scripture and covenants, and also lacking in love and charity. And without these, how could we bear to enter heaven?

  21. black francis says:

    I certainly agree that money easily corrupts people and institutions. However, there are good reasons for dying with substantial savings stashed away. I see no evil in having a desire to pass a significant income on to one’s progeny or to ensure that you have more than enough money to cover a realistically comfortable retirement. You’d be nuts not to plan to have much more than enough.

  22. Cchrissyy,

    If you have a big bank account, it doesn’t mean that you “hoarded” resources. Quite the contrary, it means that you chose not to consume resources, even though you had the opportunity to do so. It is quite possible to go through life living very frugally (living in a small house, eating inexpensive food, wearing old clothes) and end up with a very big bank account. This behavior leaves more of the nice clothes, food, and housing for other people to consume. If you want to find people using more than their share of resources, you should look at what they consume, not what they invest.

    What happens to your financial savings when you die is another question…should you leave it to your kids, donate it to charity, or what?

  23. I have a comment and a question, first the comment.

    The Book of Mormon seems to suggest that the way to deal with wealth is to acquire it, and then use it to bless the poor. If being rich was inherently evil, why would the Lord continue to bless the Nephites with it? I would add though, that if this is in fact how riches are to be viewed, mormons as a whole are doing a miserable job. Sure the Church helps those in need with fast offerings, but when was the last time the average church member was involved in easing the suffering of the poor?

    Now the question…

    Why does it seem that every stake president and many of the bishops I’ve known live in huge ostentatious houses?

    (I guess there are three questions in this post, but the first two are rhetorical, so they don’t count.)

  24. Amri Brown says:

    #19 Theologically, you’re right. God knows the intents of our heart. He judges on those and you can have money and have good intentions. I have a problem with the continued exposure over time.

    I think every American to some degree is addicted to money, wealth, spending whatever you want to call it. Say I am a porn addict or alcoholic or drug addict but am a very good person with earnest intentions, a love of God, and other people but simply have an addiction. If I were to hang out on a computer all day with full access to any porn I wanted, spend all my time with alcoholics or use my time making meth one would reasonably assume that to be a bad idea. Why? I am a good person with good intentions and God knows the contents of my heart.
    Money is the same to me. I think a lot of it over a long time changes a person. The further we get away from it the better. I also think you can live on very little and still save for your future.

  25. #24 Jared E – for the record, I served as bishop and I live in a townhouse. The fact that I live in suburban Washington DC means that it is worth more than many more ostentatious houses in other cities where real estate is less valuable but among the houses here in Northern Virginia it is quite modest.

    I will tell that for a portion of my life I found it hard to pay tithing. I lived in much more humble circumstances at that time. But since I have become a full tithe payer I have been blessed with greater wealth. I know it’s a cliche in the church to point out such a fact but it’s still hard for me to understand that, as quoted by a firend of mine, “90% of X is greater than X.” Maybe that accounts for your perception of the living quarters of stake presidents and bishops.

  26. cchrissyy says:

    I understand living frugally and conserving brings savings. If you choose to *keep* the savings for yourself, rather than *passing it on* to those who need it now, that’s hoarding. It’s selfish. It’s the oposite of giving all you have to building up Zion.

  27. I thought I’d add that part of the “who then can be saved” question is the presupposition that the rich are beloved of God and surely they, of all people, are going to be saved.

  28. Lamonte,

    The question of whether it’s theoretically possible for the well-off to attain the Celestial Kingdom is not that interesting to me because it seems pretty obvious that it is possible. Most people like to distance this issue from themselves by intellectualizing the whole thing, showing how much good rich people do, what righteous people they are, and maybe giving a few scriptural or real-life examples.

    But this misses the point. The question in Gospel Doctrine should not be “does wealth corrupt?”

    The question should be “Has it corrupted you?”

    When this question is asked, the listener is denied all the stock Mormon answers. No more intellectualizing, no more dry hypotheticals, no more remote annecdotes.

    Is wealth a good thing?

    Who cares!

    Is it a good thing for YOU? Is it a good thing for me? That’s what I’m after.

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