And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Mark 10:23-28 [also found in Luke 18:25 and Matthew 19:24]
Most people are familiar with this story, as it’s often preached in relation to issues of money and wealth. What I wanted to focus on though is one detail that I hear time and time again that I desire to dissuade people of. When pastors preach this story, many of them invariably mention the illustration of a camel going through the eye of the needle. In order to make sense of this, pastors and teachers tell a story of a gate in the Jerusalem wall called the “eye of the needle” gate, and that travelers would come to the gate and would have to remove all the supplies from their camel. That in order for the camel to pass through, because the gate was so small and low, the camel would have to bend down and shuffle through unencumbered and crawling on its knees. This is some great sermon material, with the parallel often being drawn that like the camel, we must of come to God on our knees without all our baggage and so forth.
There’s only one problem. No such gate exists. There has never been any evidence for such a gate called the “eye of the needle” existing, much less a gate of this nature at all in the Jerusalem wall. The entire thing is a complete fabrication which sounds good, and which has been passed down so many times that it has found itself to be a truism, but the whole story and illustration is a misguided riff on a mythic architectural structure. It doesn’t exist.
That’s only one take on it though. Other people suggest alternate explanations, with one solution coming from the possibility of a gGeek misprint. The suggestion is that the Greek word kamilos “camel” should really be kamêlos, meaning ‘cable, rope’, as some late New Testament manuscripts have. But even then this doesn’t solve the issue at all. I suppose a rope is smaller than a camel, but you’re still not going to get a rope through the eye of a needle. It doesn’t solve the problem.
And that’s the point. That it is impossible for it to occur. I hadn’t intended to write an explanation of this, but rather just deal with the eye of the needle myth, but when you look at the story in context you see that the camel was regarded as the largest land animal in Palestine, with the eye of a needle probably being the smallest opening found in the home. In this, Jesus paints a picture of something impossible in order to illustrate that even the seemingly impossible is possible with God. As stated earlier; there is no evidence for the popular interpretation that there was a gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” which camels had to stoop to their knees to enter. Such an interpretation completely misses the point: it is not merely difficult for the wealthy to be saved; without God’s grace it is impossible. Anyone who trusts in riches as an idolatrous replacement for God cannot enter the kingdom of God; his life disposition is diametrically opposed to submitting to God’s will. The hyperbole of a large camel having to fit through the small eye of a needle stresses that such a thing is humanly impossible, and that it’s only by God’s grace that such a thing may ever be achieved.
November 3rd, 2009 at 7:14 pm
Things just get harder and harder for the rich, eh?
November 3rd, 2009 at 9:54 pm
Good info! Looks like some preachers should check a background commentary first, my IVP one mentions at all three references that the gate did not exist until medieval times. One of a number of times when commentaries are helpful!
September 11th, 2011 at 3:34 pm
[...] As far as I can tell it is pure myth, much like the myth of the disruptive Corinthian women, and the myth of the eye of the needle gate. It is certainly not a biblical practice and has no scriptural attestation, and yet it is often [...]