If you were in Jerusalem for a religious pilgrimage and wanted to trace Jesus’s steps along the Via Dolorosa to chaotic tourist hotspot the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, you would pass by the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Alexander Nevsky. You might not realize it, because the church emits the architectural feel of a high end hotel, but this baroque church claims to house the Judgment gate through which Jesus allegedly walked and also a rather out-of-place looking hole in the wall. The latter is supposedly the “eye of the needle,” a small entryway that some claim is the subject of one of Jesus’s most famous, enigmatic, and controversial sayings.
In three of the canonical gospels—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—Jesus gets into a conversation with a wealthy young man who wants to know what he has to do to have eternal life. The young man already keeps the commandments, but Jesus raises the stakes. Jesus tells him, “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Luke’s version is bolder and insists that you sell “all” that you own). The young man is shocked and disappointed and wanders off in a daze. Jesus then turns to his established followers and explains that it will be hard for those who have money to enter the Kingdom of God. It’s a simple statement but the disciples are confused so he elaborates using a vivid analogy: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
This famous statement has caused more than its fair share of problems. After all, it’s difficult enough to thread some cotton through a sewing needle (and the Greek in the Gospel of Mark here does refer to a tailor’s needle); the only part of a dromedary that plausibly would fit is a whisker. As the disciples put it, if that’s the standard then who can be saved? For those of us who are reluctant to part with our homes, clothes, and 401ks this is a tall order.
One of the most popular tourist and Sunday School explanations is that the “eye of the needle” is a euphemism for a small gateway that was used to enter Jerusalem at night. This theory maintains that after hours the main gates of the city were shut, and a small side gate was left open for pedestrians. While the small gate was no problem for a traveler journeying on foot, a camel that was loaded with luggage would have to be unburdened, stoop, and inch its way through the opening. In this interpretation a camel can pass through the “eye of the needle,” just with considerable difficulty.
This interpretation, which is attributed by the medieval church doctor Thomas Aquinas to his equally erudite colleague Anselm of Canterbury, has generated a cluster of pilgrimage sites. There’s the already mentioned hole in the wall in the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky (which, frankly, even the most svelte baby camel would have struggled to fit through) as well as other small “eye of the needle” gates that other Christian pilgrims have claimed to have visited. But there are some considerable problems with this explanation.
The first is that there is no archeological or literary evidence for an “eye of the needle” gate from the lifetime of Jesus. There are gates in medieval Europe that are referred to in this way and some medieval artwork showing camels inching their way through a little gate on their knees, but this comes later. In fact, as Vincent Pontius explains on his blog, the earliest evidence of anyone thinking that the eye of the needle is a gate is from the early medieval period. Perhaps the weightiest piece of evidence against this hypothesis is anatomical: camels can bend their knees and do so when they sit down and get up, but they do not crawl. They famously have hard knees (the Apostle James is said to have knees as hard as a camel’s from his continual praying) but it is impossible for them to crawl. In fact, making camels inch backwards with their front legs bent is considered by many to be a form of animal abuse.
If the eye of the needle is not a gate, then what do we do with the saying? Well, we aren’t the first people to have problems with the passage. At least one Christian copyist had trouble with it and assumed that the text contained a typo. He changed a letter in the Greek text so that the camel (kamelon) was changed to mean a thick rope or ship’s cable (kamilon). This interpretation was adopted by a few early Christian commentators for whom a thick piece of thread was a more plausible image than a huge animal.
That early scribes read the passage in this way suggests that they had no idea about the gate theory. But we should note that the image of a tailor (or bookmaker) trying to thread a piece of rope or a cable through a needle also evokes a potentially impossible (and possibly foolish) task.
It’s worth recognizing, however, that there are other versions of the saying in Jewish and Islamic tradition that also involve animals. The Babylonian Talmud uses the analogy of an “elephant going through the eye of a needle” while a midrash on the Song of Songs says that if we open a small space the size of the eye of a needle then God will open one big enough to permit camels to pass. The latter example is striking because it occurs in a discussion of God’s ability to save sinners. In an interpretation of the gospel saying, the Quran writes that those who arrogantly reject revelations will“not enter Paradise until a camel passes through the eye of a needle.” In What these examples demonstrate is that animals and needles have a metaphorical relationship in antiquity. As Yale Divinity School Emerita Professor Adela Yarbro Collins writes in her commentary on Mark, “the power of the saying lies in its evocation of the mental image of a huge camel and a tiny needle with its yet tinier eye.” It’s the hyperbole of large animals squeezing through minute things that grabs our attention.
What’s interesting about the history of the interpretation of this passage are the ways in which readers try to avoid the unpalatable consequences of Jesus’ statement. The strategy begins as early as the early third century theologian Clement of Alexandria who, following good ancient philosophical tradition, declared that being wealthy was acceptable as long as one wasn’t morally corrupted by one’s wealth. Perhaps Clement was a pragmatist who realized that it was in everyone’s best interests to keep wealthy members of the community inside the group. Both then and now the reason to alter the meaning is to try and make it easier for the rich to stay rich. Jesus is clear that this is possible if God makes it so, but you can’t negotiate the percentages of the thing. 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 holes in interpretations that try to claim otherwise are more than sufficient to accommodate a metaphorical camel.
The Daily Beast