A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the meaning of Jesus' teaching about the camel going through the eye of a needle?

Dear Straight Dope:

Recently I was having a "discussion" with a Southern Baptist friend of mine and I asked him how he could reconcile his well-to-do lifestyle with the verse in the Bible in which Jesus says, "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." His reply almost floored me. He said that The Eye of the Needle was a gate leading into Jerusalem which was notorious for being almost impossible to get a camel through. Please help me clear up this malarkey! I would have posted on the message board, but I don't understand that stuff (am I stupid?). So I'm just praying that somehow this will get through to you.

SDSTAFF CKDexthavn and SDSTAFF Diannecar reply:

The answer requires some history (from CK), some theology (from Diannecar), and an assist on both from a Ph.D.-in-divinity friend of CK's:

First, the text itself. According to Matthew, a certain rich young guy comes to Jesus and asks what he has to do to have eternal life. Jesus says it's simple: keep the commandments. The young man asks which particular commandments and Jesus says the ones about not murdering, stealing, lying, or committing adultery; honoring your mother and father and loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself — those commandments. The kid persists and says that he has always done those things, even when he was a child; there must be something else he needs to do. Jesus says, "Okay, I'll tell you what: if you want to be perfect, sell what you have, give the proceeds to the poor and come follow me." This is thought to be a suggestion that the rich young man was kidding himself if he thought he had kept the law perfectly. Odds are, like most of us, he loved himself a little bit better than he loved his neighbor.

Anyway, the kid hears that and goes away sadly, "for he had great possessions" (Matthew 19:22). Then Jesus utters the famous line (Matthew 19:24) about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Next, the history and archaeology. The notion your Baptist friend has picked up apparently comes from a single ninth-century commentary asserting 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.

There's a good brief discussion in the article on "kamelos" in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, pp. 592-594 (one of the standard works on New Testament language). TDNT, and other commentators with an interest in history, point out several parallels in later rabbinic language about the impossibility of getting an elephant through the eye of a needle: it's a way of describing something so difficult it's grotesque.

So the "Gate of the Needle's Eye" notion has no firm historical basis. It looks like a way of getting around the plain (but inconvenient) meaning of the text.

Setting the text in the whole New Testament context, wealth is consistently presented as problematic. I suspect the modern notion owes less to the Bible than to the Puritan notion that success in economic life was a sign of God's blessing.

Now, the theology. The message was viewed by the disciples as pretty bleak. In 19:25 — just after Jesus uses the comparison — the disciples respond, "Then who can be saved?" "By human power, it is impossible," says Jesus. Then he offers a glimmer of hope: "With God, anything is possible." Even the salvation of the rich. As a miracle.

On the other hand, it would be equally dangerous to argue "I'm poor, so I'm okay." The words of Jesus aren't intended to give anybody a false sense of security. My friend the pastor adds, "Apart from the mercy of God, we're all done for."

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