Wednesday, 14 March 2012

How can a camel go through the eye of a needle?

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:24 = Mark 10:25

Scholars have been aware of the difficulty of this verse for many years. They have suggested the ‘eye of the needle’ may be a place name, or more specifically, one of Jerusalem’s gates that allowed a camel to pass through, but only without its burden. However, there is no evidence at all that a proper place name was intended either in Aramaic or in Greek, and furthermore there is no record of any gate in Jerusalem called the Needle Gate.

Therefore, if the phrase ‘eye of the needle’ is literal, then it means no rich people can be saved; which must have been bad news for the wealthy followers of Jesus including Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus:

The potential condemnation of Joseph of Arimathea seems particularly ironic since he had given his tomb for the burial of Jesus after His Crucifixion:

Matthew 27.57-60 When evening had come, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be given to him. When Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and departed.

Fortunately, the Aramaic gives a much clearer image, for while gamla does mean ‘camel’, gamala, with an extra a, means ‘heavy rope’, but both words in the actual text would appear exactly the same way as G-M-L-A.

In order to understand why ‘heavy rope’ is the right translation, we need to look at the situation that precipitated the comment about the ‘heavy rope’ in the first place:

(Jesus said) ‘If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give them to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come; follow me.’
Matthew 19:21 = Mark 10:21

Can a heavy rope pass through such a small opening as the eye of a needle? The answer is yes, but only if it is undone one small strand at a time. The rope ‘unravelling’ represented the rich man ‘unravelling his dependence on his fortune’.

Sadly, and tragically, the mistranslation of this verse has led to centuries of misunderstanding about what Jesus taught….and it has led to decisions about what to do with one’s wealth that have been wrong decisions.

The misunderstanding of this verse contributed to the idea of the poverty of monasticism, partly to secure one’s salvation. How tragic. The issue was and is not to get rid of one’s wealth…but to get rid of one’s dependence on wealth. They are two very different ideas.

It is easier for a heavy rope to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:24 = Mark 10:25

1 comment:

  1. Excellent interpretation. Will use this in my church lesson today. Thank you and may the Lord bless you!