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I'm looking at Matthew 19 (New American Standard Bible), specifically at the interaction Jesus had with the young man who wanted to obtain eternal life (v. 16ff).

In verse 24, Jesus tells the disciples that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom. (NOTE: the bit about a small gate in the wall called the Eye of the Needle is, as far as I have been able to discover, merely a preacher lie, generated for sermon material to illustrate a point.)

Multi decades ago, as a young adult Christian, I read a book on humor in the Bible, and it said this was a pun by Jesus. The punch was that there was a saying about a rope going through the eye of a needle, and that the word for 'rope' was similar to the word for 'camel.' Jesus was taking the expression about something that was already impossible, and by word-play, showing it was really, REALLY impossible.

I liked that explanation for two reasons: first, because I love the idea of Jesus using humor; second, because it demonstrates why He would use such a strange comparison.

However, today I'm looking up the word for "camel" in Tyndale House Greek New Testament, and I get "κάμηλον."

I can't come up with a word in Greek, that would be used for a rope that's similar to "κάμηλον." However, my resources for English to Greek are limited to google, and they only use modern languages. Also, my koine proficiency is scant, scant, scant. I took a year of Greek in 1978-9, and while it was beneficial, I am no longer able even to read something as simple as the Gospel of John without resorting to resources.

Thus, I've exhausted my ability.

So, language scholars: Is there a word, in a language Jesus might have used, that links the greatly impossible camel with a still impossible cordage?

  • The question is whether κάμηλον the recorded word of Matthew, reporting the word of Jesus, could bear the meaning 'rope'. I don't see what Aramaic has to do with the Greek record with which we are provided. – Nigel J Nov 6 at 18:52
  • A non-rich man goes through an entrance into the kingdom of God. But rope through a needle is nothing like the same concept as a camel passing through the 'entranceway' of the eye of a needle. The concepts are so totally different that the idea of 'rope' falls down. The threading of a rope, instead of a thread, is not at all the same concept as the eye of a needle being seen as an entrance of restriction. The mere coincidence of the words kamelos and kamilos being similar is irrelevant. 'Word play' does not work if the concepts are diverse. – Nigel J Nov 6 at 22:35
  • 1
    Nigel J, you said " 'Word play' does not work if the concepts are diverse. " I do not follow. A modern example of this type of word play can be found in Malcolm X's 1964 speech "The Ballot or the Bullet." It is the diversity of concept that makes the wordplay memorable. – Papa Pat Nov 7 at 23:59
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You have the Greek word κάμηλος meaning camel.

You have the Greek word κάμιλος meaning rope.

In the Talmud (BT 6, 601, 1. 16) we read that the people of Puimbedita deemed themselves so clever that they could put an elephant through a needle's eye…
Some later MSS read in Mark 10, 25 and the two parallel passages κάμιλος, cable, instead of κάμηλος, camel.
–– Paul Haupt: "Camel and Cable", American Journal of Philology 45, 3 (1924), pp. 238-259

Wikipedia: Eye of a needle

The Armenian bible also prefers rope:

Դարձեալ ասեմ ձեզ. դիւրին է մալխոյ մտանել ընդ ծակ ասղան, քան մեծատան յարքայութիւն Աստուծոյ մտանել։

As does the Peschitta:

Matthew 19:24 - ܬܘܒ ܕܝܢ ܐܡܪܢܐ ܠܟܘܢ ܕܕܠܝܠ ܗܘ ܠܓܡܠܐ ܠܡܥܠ ܒܚܪܘܪܐ ܕܡܚܛܐ ܐܘ ܥܬܝܪܐ ܕܢܥܘܠ ܠܡܠܟܘܬܐ ܕܐܠܗܐ ܀ (analyze)

Matthew 19:24 - Again I say to you, It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
(Dr. George Lamsa's English Peshitta translation)

Matthew 19:24 - Opnieuw zeg ik jullie dat het voor een kabelzie Marcus 10:25 eenvoudiger is het oog van een naald binnen te gaan, dan voor een rijke om het koninkrijk van God binnen te gaan."
(Egbert Nierop's Dutch Peshitta translation)

Since these two are very old in their textual basis and the Byzantine tradition of Greek iotacism makes the pronunciation identical, it doesn't get much clearer.

And towards Aramaic:

Matthew 19:24 Some scholars of the Peshitta and the Greek New Testament claim that in Matthew 19:24 as the Aramaic word for 'camel' is written identically to the word for 'rope.' an error occurred due to the translator's limitations when the original scrolls were being transferred into Greek. This would mean Matthew 19:24 commonly translated as, '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.' Would read 'rope' instead of 'camel'. To support this they claim that rope, is much more in keeping with the imagery of a needle, and that it is probably what Jesus said, and what was originally recorded. Saint Cyril in his commentary on the Holy Gospel according to Luke (Luke 18:25) says that camel is the term used by those versed in navigation for a thick rope, thereby both stating that the term camel is the right one and that its meaning is that of a rope and not the animal. This suggests the Lamsa 'rope' translation is the more accurate "meaning" translation and 'camel' is the more accurate 1st century "slang" translation.

So Aramaic 'gamla' can also be translated camel or rope. But one may make a distinction between ܓܐܡܠܐ (gamlo) and ܓܐܡܠܥ (gamla).

(For example in Nicholas Awde, Nineb Lamassu, Nicholas Al-Jeloo: "Aramaic (Assyrian/Syriac) Dictionary & Phrasebook", Hippocrene Books, 2007, p66, 67, 89, 157, 226, 235, 272, 277) Or Christopher Lancaster and Paul Younan: "Semi Split Words in the New Testament, Suggest Peshitta Primacy – Part 1" (PDF)

As already Cyril of Alexandria insists:

“By “camel” here he means not the living thing, the beast of burden, but the thick rope to which sailors tie their anchors. He shows this comparison to be not entirely pointless (as a camel would be), but he makes it an exceedingly difficult matter; in fact, next to impossible.”
–– Cyril of Alexandria (376-444) in Fragment 219

Nice summaries of interpretations:

–– Klaus Berger: "Ein Kamel durchs Nadelöhr?: Der Humor Jesu", Herder, 2019. (p 61–72).
–– Michael Neuhold: "Eher geht ein Kamel durch ein Nadelöhr", 24. Aug. 2019.
–– Theodore R. Lorah: "Again — Camel or Rope in Matthew 19.24 And Mark 10.25?", 1996. (PDF)

  • In both instances camel or cable we don’t know the size of the needle’s eye but if it’s comparative to today the point is the same, it’s impossible without shrinking down (or humbling oneself). Thank you for the references – Nihil Sine Deo Nov 7 at 12:42
  • "But one may make a distinction between ܓܐܡܠܐ (gamlo) and ܓܐܡܠܥ (gamla)." Any reference for this? As far as I can tell, ܓܐܡܠܥ isn't a word in Syriac (no entry here) – b a Nov 7 at 22:05
  • Indeed, the only source for a word "gamlo/gamla" meaning "rope" is a reference to a 10th century lexicographer. The usage doesn't seem to have been widespread, as it doesn't appear in any of the regular dictionaries, and we don't know if the 10th century lexicographer is even cited correctly, or if he may be engaging in a bit of exegesis himself (i.e. trying to explain why this word was used in this place in the Peshitta). Even if the quotation holds true, we have no idea if the sense he describes in the 10th century existed already in the 1st century. – pinnerup Nov 9 at 0:40
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The word חבל, pronounced chevel (the "ch" is pronounced like that composer Bach) means rope in Biblical Hebrew (1 Kings 21:30). It is also chevel in Modern Hebrew.

In Aramaic, it is written חבלא. It is pronounced chavla. One example would be the Talmud in Shabat 54B:

תניא ובלבד שיגביה מן הקרקע טפח כי תניא ההיא בחבלא דביני ביני:

Chevel sound close to Camel if you ask me!

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  • The question is about the word which Jesus used : κάμηλον and whether that word could be translated 'rope'. – Nigel J Nov 6 at 18:51
  • oooh. This is embarrassing 😂 – Big Mouth Nov 6 at 19:31

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