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.