Faith Promoting Rumors - Exploring Latter-day Saint Myths and Culture

Through the Eye of a Needle

Episode Summary

Matthew 19 24, Mark 10 24, Luke 18 24 Watch this episode with visuals on YouTube. Video credit: "Christ and the Rich Young Ruler",

Episode Notes

If you’ve read from the New Testament, you may have come across a teaching that is somewhat puzzling. Three of the four Gospels relate what the Lord said after a certain encounter with a wealthy ruler.

“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.”

What a striking image, and one with powerful implications. Is Christ is saying that heaven is populated only with those who in life were poor and destitute? Well, get enough people together in a Sunday School and somebody is bound to give this alternate explanation.

Ancient Jerusalem was surrounded by a huge, stone wall with heavy gates. During the day, the gates were left open for merchants and travelers to come and go as they pleased. But at night, they were shut so that marauders couldn’t just storm in and wreak havoc. The only way in or out of the sleeping city was through a certain passageway called the “Needle Gate”. This entrance was small and narrow, much like the tiny hole of a sewing needle, and only allowed for one person to pass at a time.

It was theoretically possible to squeeze a camel through the Needle Gate but it would not be easy. One would first have to remove all the baggage and goods from the animal, then coax it to stoop down and crawl through on its knees.

Ergo, a rich man still has hope in gaining a mansion in heaven; it just requires him to relinquish his worldly possessions and humble himself before God. There’s just one problem—the Needle Gate is a lie.

There is no evidence to suggest that such an entryway existed or that it was ever named after a sewing implement. It seems this whole idea may have been made up so that prosperous Christians could feel better about themselves.

Don’t feel bad for believing it though, because this myth has been around for at least 600 years. But centuries of oral tradition aside, there’s no disputing that Jesus was talking about a sewing needle, not some hole in the wall.

Now as for the camel, there may be some wiggle room there. Some scholars suggest that there may have been a mistranslation in the early Bible manuscripts, and that a scribe may have accidentally copied down the wrong letter, unwittingly transforming the Greek word “Κάμηλος” (meaning camel) into “Κάμιλος”, an almost identical word meaning cable or hawser, a thick rope used in sailing ships).

There are some strong arguments for this ‘ancient typo’ theory. Most of the twelve disciples were fishermen, so it would make sense for Jesus to use a nautical analogy. They would have used this thick kind rope every day and known how hard it would be to try to thread it into a tiny pinhole.

Jesus had a knack for hyperbole. He scolded the Pharisees for straining at gnats and swallowing camels; he warned his followers against fixating on the mote in their brother’s eye when there’s a beam in their own. But in these analogies, it’s the scale that’s absurd. A mote and a beam are both chunks of wood. A gnat and a camel were both prohibited to swallow. It’s just that one is commonplace and the other is ludicrously huge. So, threading a needle with a massive sailing rope is a metaphor in keeping with Jesus’ style.

Some linguists go even further, positing that the ambiguity doesn’t just lie in Greek, but in the underlying Semitic languages. Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew all have words that can be translated as either camel or hawser, likely because ropes could be made from camel’s hair. The Qur'an even has a similar passage that is confusing for this reason.

Other scholars argue that Jesus really did mean an actual camel. Camels were a common site in Jerusalem and they were the largest living thing around, so it would be a good choice to compare to a well-off tycoon. The Talmud uses a similar analogy of an elephant passing through a needle’s eye to describe something that only could happen in a dream, so the evidence suggests that Jesus may have been adapting a common Persian saying.

Camel or Cable—the issue’s unsettled. But either way, the proverb means the same: You can’t fit it through the eye of a needle. But isn’t that the essence of the parable? Going back to the New Testament, we read that the apostles were astonished by what Jesus said. “Who then can be saved?” Christ gives the answer. “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” Nobody, rich or poor, can reach heaven by themselves. It’s not that it’s really hard and we have to sacrifice and contort ourselves to get there; it’s that it’s literally impossible and we all depend on the atoning grace of God.

So, whoever concocted this ‘hidden gate’ rumor back in the 15th century or before... It seems they focused so much on the eye of the needle, they missed the point.