">">
Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

Camel Through The Eye Of A Needle? Or Have You Been Reading The Bible Wrong?

Have you been reading the Bible wrong this whole time? Probably– but I’ll try to help sort that out for you.

One of the most famous sayings of Jesus is “It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (This quote is found in Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25.)

I remember this verse well from my childhood, and remember Sunday School teachers explaining the meaning to me as if these well-intentioned souls were biblical scholars– and the explanation they gave is one that many people today have accepted in regards to this passage.

The explanation usually goes like this: There were gates to the entrance of the city that had small openings called “needles” and in order for camels to pass through, they had to get down on their bellies and wiggle themselves through the eye of the needle. The basic application of this exegesis was that rich people face a lot of barriers to becoming Christian.

However, there are a few major problems with this understanding of the passage.

First and foremost we have no evidence that in the time of Jesus, any such a gate existed in Jerusalem. In fact, there’s a much stronger case that such a gate with an “eye of the needle” did not exist at that time. On the surface, this would at a minimum lead us to believe that Jesus was using an exaggerated metaphor of a camel passing through a sewing needle.

But even that understanding is problematic in my opinion.

Earlier today I was reading a piece on biblical literacy by Andy Gill. In the piece he references this, and correctly notes that some translations don’t use the word camel at all, but translate it as “it is easier to put a rope through a needle.”

This, in my opinion, was more along the lines of what Jesus was saying. Let me explain:

Translation obviously isn’t always an exact science when you’re working with dead languages (languages not used anymore), and when you’re working from ancient manuscripts that have textual variants. It’s why decent seminaries will force you to undergo painful years of working to master these ancient languages.

In this case we have an even bigger issue: the New Testament is written in ancient Greek, but Jesus most likely would have spoken Aramaic most of the time (though he likely knew three languages that were all important in first century Palestine).

First, in Greek there are similarities between the word for rope and camel, which is why there is debate over the correct translation of the passage (though when dealing with Greek, the word camel often wins the day). But if we go deeper into ancient languages we see even more similarities—- in some cases the difference between rope and camel is just one letter– making the case for the argument that Jesus didn’t use the word “camel” at all, even stronger. The reason why the tie breaker between camel and rope should go to rope, is because of context.

Theodore R. Lorah explains that the word for rope in these ancient languages actually speaks of a rope used to anchor a massive ship (a hawser). The hawser would often be braided, and likely would have been the thickest size of rope that anyone at that time could have imagined. Lorah writes, “The image of the oceangoing vessel with a heavy, braided rope hawser holding to the anchor or tying the ship to the pier makes the image much stronger…” in reference to this exaggerated metaphor.

So here’s where we’re at: in both Greek and Semitic languages the difference between camel and a ship’s hawser is so similar that it makes total sense there would be translation confusions. Rendering the verse as a “camel through the eye of a needle” would potentially make sense if we had any evidence that a gate with a needle’s eye existed at the time, which we don’t. However, when we add in the fact that Jesus lived in a fishing village and that his first disciples were fishermen, rendering the verse as “It is easier for a ship’s hawser to pass through the eye of a needle” makes more sense.

As Lorah summarizes:

“As they used their hand-held needles and thread to mend (fishing) nets, Jesus said: “It is easier for a hawser to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The logic is inescapable, and the language moves in that direction, as soon as one looks to the Semitic tradition behind the Greek text, working in the languages which Jesus fluently read and spoke.”

Even though in both cases it is exaggerated metaphor, the word we choose does change the impact of the passage. A camel passing through the eye of a gate is hard, but not uncommon. A ship’s anchor rope passing through a sewing needle?

That would be both impossible and unheard of.

Kind of like a rich person wanting to join a Kingdom where the poor are the ones who are blessed.

So, have you been reading the Bible wrong all this time?

I believe so– and I believe that the best translation of this passage doesn’t involve animals at all.

Follow BLC:

Join the discussion on Facebook & in the comments below:

Books from BLC:

It's not the end of the world, but it's pretty #@&% close. Trump's America & Franklin Graham's Christianity must be resisted.

Join the resistance: Subscribe for posts and updates from BLC!

Subscribe to posts & updates from BLC!

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is a cultural anthropologist, public theologian, writer, speaker, global traveler, and tattoo collector. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell with graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies, and went on to receive his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus. In addition to his blog, Formerly Fundie, his work has been regularly featured by a wide array of media outlets such as TIME magazine and CNN, among others.

BLC

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is a cultural anthropologist, public theologian, writer, speaker, global traveler, and tattoo collector. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell with graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies, and went on to receive his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus. In addition to his blog, Formerly Fundie, his work has been regularly featured by a wide array of media outlets such as TIME magazine and CNN, among others.

Maybe it's not the end of the world...

Days
Hours
Minutes
Seconds

But let's be honest-- this is pretty #$@%! close.

Trump's America
&
Franklin Graham's Christianity must be resisted.

Join the fight: Subscribe to new posts and updates from BLC:

It might not be the end of the world...

But let's be honest-- this is pretty #$@%! close.

What People have to Say about blc

Testimonials

That Mean the Most


"Benjamin L. Corey demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the Gospel." - 12/14/2014
Robert Jeffress
Director of Idolatry for President Donald J. Trump
"Benjamin L Corey is a supposed professional writer?? I shake my head!!!"
- 3/22/2017
Ken Ham
Boat Enthusiast & Animal Lover
John Hagee
Astrologer & Believer in "You Say it Best When You Say Nothin' At All"
What you think

Post Comments:

  • Jon Erickson says:

    NICE!!!! I have heard that explanation of the gate so many times before and knew it was B.S. I will hold this explanation dear to my heart. Now if only the people who need to hear it can and will.

  • JimA says:

    I love that you posted this. A great many years ago, I (a layman, FWIW) ran across that alternative and lesser used “rope” translation for the “camel” word somewhere. For all this time, I thought maybe I was the only one in the whole world (and maybe for all time?) that saw the likelihood of rope-and-needle being the intended imagery. It sure made more sense than some of the gymnastics and fictions surprisingly universally offered to illuminate this passage. Nicely done!

  • Timothy Weston says:

    This makes me think what other sections of the Bible are based on misspellings or mistranslations (like in the creation story)

  • Iain Lovejoy says:

    Most MSs have camel, not rope, and as a scribal error assuming correcting the text to the more “logical” rope makes more sense than from rope to camel.
    I agree the gate explanation is bogus, because the expression is actually very simple to understand: the very biggest animal (no elephants in 1st century Judea) passing through the very smallest hole. No further explanation is required.

  • ashpenaz says:

    “Arsenkoites” and “malakoi” are also mistranslated as “homosexual.” The word “homosexual” was not coined until the mid-19th century, so that could not possibly have been what Paul was thinking about.

  • Guy Norred says:

    Whatever the metaphor, I think it really comes down to how one defines “rich”. (If there is any further specificity to the ancient languages, chalk it up to my not knowing any of them.) Richness is relative. What it means to be rich varies greatly by time and place. I have come to consider richness to be enough wealth that one relies on it first, looks to it for comfort in stress, or takes if for granted in ways that suggest it is deserved (specifically if deserved more than others). In that way, most people I know, not least of all myself, probably fall into the category at one time or another. Entering the Kingdom is about relying on God and looking out for others. I have known people who held their relative great wealth lightly and exemplified the Kingdom much more than most people without their resources, but I have also known them to be exceptional in this. Wealth, by creating the illusion of self sufficiency, blinds us to the many things.

  • David says:

    The story of a camel going through a small gate and having to get on its knees after unloading all the baggage is a great analogy of coming to God in humbleness.
    The argument there may not have been a small gate called the needle at the Temple during Jesus time does not seem significant to me. When we read the scriptures in the context of their time we understand Jesus is a Jew and speaking to Jewish followers. He often refers to Old Testament scripture and ideas. Note the book of Nehemiah lists ten different gates while other gates are listed in later times. If there had been such a gate in the memory of the Jews of Jesus day they would have known it. So my point is we cannot look at Jesus’ words according to his specific time.
    The idea of a hawser for a large ship also does not connect since we are looking at the fishing villages you speak of being around the Sea of Galilee which is a fresh water lake approximately 13 miles long by 8 miles wide. But the idea of a smaller rope which would be used for smaller fishing vessels going through a needle makes more sense. Also if we think not of a small sewing needle but a large wooden needle for repairing fishing nets we are more on track for the fishing industry you mention.
    I think Jesus could very well be speaking of a needle such as those used for fishing nets or he could have been talking about a smaller needle for clothing or even a small portal in a gate. Either way I find no difficulty in the use of an animal such as a camel to make the point it would be impossible for man but only possible by God.
    Thank you for your writings, I always enjoy your point of view and the new ideas you present.

  • MichaelElwood says:

    That’s interesting, Benjamin. There’s a similar verse in the Quran:

    “Surely, those who reject our revelations and are too arrogant to uphold them, the gates of the sky will never open for them, nor will they enter Paradise until the camel passes through the needle’s eye. . . .” [Quran 7:40]

    However, about a decade ago, Prof. Martha Schulte-Nafeh and Edip Yuksel suggested that the word translated as “camel” should be translated as “rope”. In the footnote for this verse, they wrote:

    “If the word jamal is read as jummal (rope), then it changes the meaning of the phrase to ‘until the rope passes through the eye of a needle.’ The Bible uses the same metaphor. ‘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.’ (Matthew 19:24 ; Mark 10:25 ; Luke 18:25).”

    And about two decades before Schulte-Nafeh and Yuksel’s translation, Muhammad Asad also preferred the word as rope instead of camel in his translation of the Quran.

  • K.W. Leslie says:

    Y’know you can pass a camel through the eye of a needle… if you grind him up finely enough.

    But yeah, I’ve heard the theory it’s κάμιλον/“cable” instead of κάμηλον/“camel.” (It’s listed as a textual variant in the NA26.) In modern Greek pronunciation they sound exactly alike, so there’s every chance if the gospels were copied using dictation, the error could’ve crept in. Especially as “camel” is way more memorable.

  • >