A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

More on camels passing through the eyes of needles

Dear Straight Dope:

I just read Dex and Diane's writeup in MAILBAG about the meaning of Jesus' teaching about the camel going through the eye of a needle.  There is another possibility, however. The greek word for camel "kamelos" is very close to the word "kamilos" which means cable or rope. Some interpreters believe that there was a corruption in the pre-Gospel oral traditions, or possibly a copyist's error that switched these two words. If this is true, the proverb would read "It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." This, they believe, would be a much more reasonable and easily understood metaphor.

Well, perhaps, but the preponderance of scholars would say no. The word used is "kamelos" (camel) in all of the early manuscripts up to about 400 AD. After that point "kamilos" (heavy rope) turned up in a handful of manuscripts, a few translations, and some commentators' notes.

The confusion may arise partly from the fact that Greek vowel sounds were changing during this period. The "eta" (e) was now pronounced the same as the "iota" (i). Nonetheless, the early manuscripts are unanimous in reading "camel."

There's a principle in New Testament studies that when ancient manuscripts differ slightly in their wording, the manuscript with the most *difficult* reading is probably correct. We often hear what we expect to hear; so a copyist would be more likely to mistakenly substitute an unsurprising word for an odd one than the other way around. For example, if the original reading were "rope," and a copyist accidentally wrote "camel," that would be a jarring enough mistake to be caught the first time you read it. But a copyist might read "camel" and think, "that can't be right--they must have meant 'rope'"--and thus introduce an error, thinking it was a correction. So, while "rope" is more reasonable and more easily understood; that's an argument against it being the original thought!

More likely Jesus was using intentionally grotesque language, like later rabbis who spoke of an elephant going through the eye of a needle.

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