If you’re in Jerusalem for a religious pilgrimage and want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa to the chaotic tourist hotspot Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you’ll come across the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Alexander Nevsky. You may not realize it, because the church gives the architectural feel of a luxury hotelbut this baroque church claims to have the gate of Judgment through which Jesus was accused walk and also a rather out of place looking hole in the wall. The latter is said to be the “eye of the needle,” a small entrance that some say is the subject of one of Jesus’ most famous, mysterious, and controversial statements.
In the three canonical gospels—Mark, Matthew and Luke—Jesus struck up a conversation with a rich young man who wanted to know what he must do to gain eternal life. The young man kept the commandments, but Jesus raised the stakes. Jesus told him, “Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then comes, follow me” (Luke’s version is bolder and insists that you sell “all” that you own). The young man was shocked and frustrated and wandered off in a daze. Then Jesus turned to his established disciples and explained that it would be difficult for those with money to enter God’s Kingdom. It was a simple statement, but the disciples were confused, so he explained it using a vivid simile: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
This famous claim has caused more problems than its fair share. After all, it’s hard to thread some cotton through a sewing needle (and the Gospel Greek here refers to a tailor’s needle); The only part of a beard that fits properly is a beard. As the disciples said, if that were the standard, who could be saved? For those of us who are reluctant to part with homes, clothes, and 401k, this is a tall order.
One of the famous The tourist and Sunday School interpretation that “the eye of the needle” is a euphemism for a small gateway used to enter Jerusalem at night. This theory holds that after hours the main gates of the city were closed and a small side gate remained open to pedestrians. Although the small gate isn’t a problem for a pedestrian on foot, a loaded camel would have to be unloaded, stooping, and inching its way through the gap. In this sense, a camel can get through the “eye of a needle” with only considerable difficulty.
This interpretation, that is attribution by the medieval church doctor Thomas Aquinas and his equally erudite colleague Anselm of Canterbury, created a cluster of pilgrimage sites. There is a hole in the wall that was mentioned in Church of Saint Alexander Nevsky (to be honest, even the slimmest baby camel struggles to get through) as well as other little “needle-eye” gates Pilgrims follow Christianity claimed to have visited. But there are some significant problems with this explanation.
The first is that there is no archaeological or literary evidence for an “eye of the needle” portal from the life of Jesus. There were gates in medieval Europe called this way and some medieval art shows camels inching step by step through a small gate above their knees, but this appears later. In fact, as Vincent Pontius explains about Blog, the earliest evidence of anyone thinking the eye of a needle was a portal is from the early medieval period. Perhaps the heaviest evidence against this hypothesis is anatomical: camels can bend their knees and do so when they sit down and stand up, but they do not crawl. They are famous for having stiff knees (The Apostle James is said to have Knees as hard as camels from his constant prayer) but couldn’t get them to crawl. In fact, employment Camel backwards bent forelegs is considered by many to be a form of animal abuse.
If the eye of a needle is not a gate, what do we do with the saying? Well, we’re not the first to have problems with the walkway. At least one Christian copyist had trouble with it and attributed the text to a typo. He changed a letter in the Greek text to camel (kamelon) was changed to a thick rope or ship cable (kamilon). This interpretation was adopted by some early Christian commentators, who held that a thick thread was a more logical image than a large animal.
The fact that the original scribes read the passage this way shows that they knew nothing about gate theory. But we should note that the image of a seamstress (or fisherman) trying to thread a piece of string or cable through a needle also evokes an impossible (and possibly stupid) task. .
However, it is worth realizing that there are other versions of the saying in the Jewish and Muslim traditions that also involve animals. Talmud of the Babylonians use simile of the “elephant through the eye of a needle” while the middle part of the Song says that if we open a small space with the eye of a needle, God will open a space large enough for camels pass. . The second example is striking because it occurs in a discussion about God’s ability to save sinners. In one interpretation in the gospel saying, the Quran writes that the proud reject the revelations will “Do not enter Paradise until the camel has gone through the eye of a needle.” These examples demonstrate that animals and needles had a metaphorical relationship in antiquity. As Yale Divinity Professor Emeritus, Adela Yarbro Collins writes of her comment about Mark, “the power of the saying lies in the fact that it conjures up the mental image of a large camel and a small needle with its smaller eye.” It’s the hype of big animals jostling through the little things that grab our attention.
What is interesting about the historical interpretation of this passage are the ways in which the reader tries to avoid the confusing consequences of Jesus’ statement. This strategy began as early as the early third century, the Alexandrian theologian Clement, who followed the fine ancient philosophical tradition, declare that wealth is acceptable, as long as one is not morally corrupted by one’s wealth. Perhaps Clement was a pragmatist who realized that it was in everyone’s best interest to keep the wealthy members of the community in the group. Both then and now, the reason to change the meaning is to try to make it easier for the rich to become rich. Jesus made it clear that this could happen if God did, but you cannot negotiate a percentage of it. After all, the moral obligation to share one’s resources with those who are suffering is the most consistent moral teaching in the New Testament. The logical gaps in interpretations that attempt to assert otherwise are more than enough to accommodate a camel metaphor.