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What is the opinion on Jesus's use of the phrase "the eye of a needle" in Mark 10:25:

And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?”—Mark 10:23-26 (ESV)

Could it refer to the small gate which required a camel to unladen and cross through on its knees or could it be an extreme analogy?

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A follow up question on this topic relating to the historical aspects and modern Jerusalem has been raised over on Christianity. –  Caleb Apr 30 '12 at 9:47
    
Jesus was known to say "verily, verily" (truly, truly) and tell stories and parables. Hyperbole is another technique He likely used to make His message stick. –  jasoncomely Mar 10 at 1:16

4 Answers 4

up vote 36 down vote accepted

The idea of the "eye of the needle" being a gate apparently had its origins in the Middle Ages.

From The Straight Dope:

Next, the history and archaeology. The notion your Baptist friend has picked up apparently comes from a single ninth-century commentary which asserts that in first-century Jerusalem there was a gate called the Needle's Eye which a camel could only get through on its knees. (Sort of like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: "only the penitent man will pass...") A cute allegory, but there's no archaeological or historical evidence for the existence of such a gate.

Instead, this passage should probably be understood as hyperbole underscoring the point that this is impossible for humans to accomplish on our own.

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If it did refer to something that was merely difficult, the immediate reaction of the disciples would be incomprehensible:

26And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, "Then who can be saved?"   ESV

As would Jesus' response:

27Jesus looked at them and said, "With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God."   ESV

It seems clear enough that Jesus has deliberately chosen an extreme example of something utterly impossible for his hearers to imagine actually happening.

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(+1) Great answer. I love your approach of interpreting the meaning of the phrase by the context in which it is used - that's solid hermeneutics. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 30 '12 at 20:08
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Also, the actual Greek words for the phrase “eye of the needle” are different between Mathew and Mark. It seems unlikely the wording would be different if they were taking about the name/title of a specific gate. –  Josh Mar 10 at 1:57
    
Thanks @Josh I didn't know that –  Jack Douglas Mar 10 at 7:22

The letter gimel has the meaning of a 'rich man chasing after a poor man' (1) and camel is gamal, an obvious pun.

The rich young ruler had just chased after Jesus (a poor man) and played a game of threading the needle. This is where the law is defined by the individual so that he finds himself narrowly avoiding a violation of the law in his own eyes. Jesus had just told him that by Jesus's definition of the law there were none good:

17 And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.

His response is that he has kept the commandements:

20 The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up:

It is apparent that his definition of the law justifies him, where Jesus's definition of the law makes no one good but God.

It takes great justifications to say "I am worthy" when standing before God.

So the camel had just threaded the needle of the law. By making the rich man into a camel by way of the pun, Jesus was mocking the attempt at self-justification. What was easy for the rich man, so he thought, was proclaimed by Jesus to be an impossibility by the pun.

(1)
"Our Sages teach that the gimel symbolizes a rich man running after a poor man," http://www.inner.org/hebleter/GIMMEL.HTM

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Because Jack is correct. It just happens that the extreme example was also done with very clever word play. This cleverness was part of a bigger dialog between the Father and the Son. But I haven't broached that topic yet. –  Bob Jones Nov 17 '11 at 23:23
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-1: The letter gimel does not have this meaning. You made it up. –  Ron Maimon Apr 9 '12 at 16:30
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"Our Sages teach that the gimel symbolizes a rich man running after a poor man," Tell that to the Jewish sages. Googling "rich man running after a poor man" would have given you the source as the third listing. –  Bob Jones Apr 16 '12 at 13:25
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@Ron: Wikipedia also would have verified Bob's assertion if you had taken the time to look at it. Bob: thanks for the link and a very belated +1. –  Jon Ericson Apr 16 '12 at 15:45
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This Hebrew word-play is happening in a Greek manuscript quoting someone possibly speaking in Aramaic? –  Gone Quiet Jan 31 '13 at 19:04

I found out that "camel" in Aramaic can mean "thick rope made out of camel-hair". This seems like a natural interpretation to me, because the rich man is like a coarse rope, and the entrance to the kingdom of heaven is like a small needle, and the coarse rope will not pass. It makes the parallel more explicit, and it is more eloquent (although less impossible than passing a camel, passing a thick rope is still completely impossible, so the disciples' astonished reaction is still reasonable).

However, the text is not ambiguous in Greek--- it is saying "Camel", not "camel-hair rope". In order to make sense of this, the saying would have had to be translated from Aramaic, missing this nuance of Aramaic speech. To me, this reasonable evidence that the sayings of Jesus have an Aramaic original, and were not composed in Greek.

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+1 Especially for the link. –  Jon Ericson Apr 9 '12 at 17:37
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I'm not sure how to vote on this. Great link, and interesting speculations, but flawed logic. You say both a "camel" and a "rope" would signify impossibility, but then say "in order to make sense" of the saying, it has to mean "rope". It's an interesting speculation, but your conclusion doesn't seem very "concrete" - either interpretation "makes sense" given the sayings of the time, and either would ultimately lead to the same understanding in the hearers. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 30 '12 at 19:57
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@Jas3.1: But the rope interpretation is just a better metaphor--- the things being compared are of a similar nature. "Camel" and "thread" aren't similar enough to make a parallel construction naturally, which is why this verse is considered jarring, while "Camel-hair rope" and "thread" are naturally parallel. I think it reads better as "camel hair rope", and I think this is reasonable evidence to give for an Aramaic original for Jesus's sayings--- something I didn't believe existed until I found this quote and the explanation. I thought it was all composed in Greek. –  Ron Maimon Jul 10 '12 at 7:45
    
@RonMaimon But yet the (very interesting) argument you linked in your answer disagrees with you. It claims that similar phrases were in use at the time, such as "elephant through the eye of a needle", and that the camel-hair interpretation is unwarranted and unnecessary. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 10 '12 at 8:03
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@Jas3.1: The disagreement is only apparent--- the Babylonian Talmud (where the quote is from) post-dates the new testament by a century, and the authors would have been familiar with this saying of Jesus about camels and needles. The mangling of the Aramaic in Greek would give a plausible etymology for all these sayings. –  Ron Maimon Jul 15 '12 at 8:20

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