By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘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.’ This famous biblical quotation is found in the Gospels, in Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25. Jesus speaks these words, but in what context – and was he actually referring to camels?
Let’s take a look at these words as they appear in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 19. In verses 16-26 we find the following exchange between a rich young man and Jesus (I quote from the King James Version):
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
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.
He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
This exchange reminds us that, as Jesus says elsewhere, in Matthew 5:17, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.’ In other words, he has come to fulfil the Ten Commandments rather than overturn them and replace them with new teachings.
The man responds to Jesus:
All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
And again I say unto you, 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.
When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?
But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.
The image of a camel trying to fit through the eye of a needle, that small opening through which a fine string is threaded, is obviously meant to suggest something difficult. Indeed, not just difficult, but impossible.
And this image relates to the second half of Jesus’ remark: ‘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.’
In other words, as hard as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, such an act is nevertheless still more likely than a rich man making it into heaven when he dies. Riches are a distraction from God’s message and a rich man should give away his money so he can make himself spiritually pure and focused on preparing himself for heaven.
The image works well in this particular context because camels are beasts of burden, famously used in the Middle East to convey bags full of goods – including riches, jewels, and other fine things – across the desert. Jesus’ utterance suggests that the rich man will have to jettison all of his worldly possessions in order to be welcomed into the kingdom of God.
Several alternative theories have been proposed for Jesus’ ‘camel’ reference. The most famous is the theory that the ‘eye of a needle’ referred not to a literal needle but to a gate in the city of Jerusalem, which opened after the main gate was closed at night. A camel could not pass through the smaller gate, the Eye of a Needle, unless its baggage was removed from its back.
This is a neat idea, and would again work well with the notion of camels as beasts of burden and a rich man having lots of physical ‘baggage’ weighing him down.
The only problem is there’s no evidence that there was such a gate in Jerusalem, or that any gate in the city was known as the ‘Eye of a Needle’. Such a theory was, perhaps concocted by believers who wished to ‘explain’ Jesus’ remark in such a way that would enable them to keep hold of their riches with a clear conscience.
However, this isn’t the only alternative theory for the origins of the ‘camel through an eye of a needle’ comment. It’s also been suggested that ‘camel’ is down to a mistranslation, because the Aramaic word gamla meant both ‘rope’, and this was confused for the camel. Thus – the theory goes – Jesus was really talking about the impossibility of threading a rope through the eye of a needle, which would make sense in terms of attempting to thread something.
But there’s no evidence that this is the case. Indeed, if we turn to other, earlier scriptural passages, we see that ‘camel’ appears to have been exactly what Jesus meant.
The Babylonian Talmud, for instance, talks of an elephant passing through the eye of a needle. To explain that dreams reveal the thoughts of a man’s heart and are the product of reason (rather than the absence of it), some rabbis say: ‘They do not show a man a palm tree of gold, nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle.’