The needle and the camel

What did Jesus mean when He said that “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” (Matthew 19:24, NKJV)? — A student from India

I am glad that you study the Bible carefully. A thoughtful hour spent in the study of God’s Word will not only enrich one’s spiritual life but also challenge one to think through problems that one confronts in everyday life. Your question refers to one such passage.

In interpreting a biblical passage, we should always keep some hermeneutical rules in mind. In the passage you have referred to, two principles apply: the immediate and the larger context.

The immediate context is the story of a rich man who came to Jesus with a significant question as to what he should do to obtain eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments, to which the man answered that he had been keeping the law from his childhood. Then Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21, NKJV). But the rich man left the presence of Jesus without heeding the Master’s prescription for salvation. Out of this sad context comes the passage regarding the camel and the needle’s eye.

What was Jesus saying? The Jews generally thought that “riches” is a sign of God’s special favor. Jesus is destroying that notion by telling the man that he should sell all that he has and give to the poor in order to lay up treasures in heaven. But does this statement mean that Jesus was saying that one can gain salvation if one gives up all that he has and become poor? No, for that would mean salvation by works. There is nothing virtuous in poverty per se, nor is there anything sinful in riches. What Jesus noted in this man is an attitude: he had exalted his riches to a place where he felt that he had obtained God’s favor of being rich because he had kept the law from his youth. He was pretty sure that he already had salvation, and came to Christ for an endorsement of his present position. But Jesus told him that unless he gives up the idol of works (“I have kept all these from my youth up”) and his smugness that God had rewarded him with richness because he was good, he cannot really find a place in His kingdom. That’s the first lesson that Jesus wanted him to learn – the immediate context.

The larger context is the impossibility of obtaining salvation through one’s own works, and this is a lesson He wanted all His hearers, particularly His disciples, to learn. Hence the saying of the eye of the needle, which astonished the disciples (Matthew 19:25).

What does the eye of the needle mean? Here’s where interpretations come, and these interpretations differ from commentator to commentator. Sometimes interpretations even begin with preachers who want to make things easy and look attractive. But regardless of interpretations, the main point is: the impossibility of salvation through one’s own works or one’s status.

Down through history, many interpretations have arisen:

  1. One interpretation focused on a feature of gate architecture common in New Testament times. Even today in some parts of the world, such as in the Middle East and India, a large gate allows entry into a compound or a city wall. During the day, this gate permits entry to many people at one time or to vehicles of large size. But within the large panel of the gate, there is a cutout portion (a gate within a gate) which permits entry for only one person at a time, when the large door is shut at night. A person may even have to crawl into the compound on his or her knees through such a cutout entrance at night. Preachers have taken this common situation and interpreted Jesus’ saying. Obviously, a camel cannot enter this needle. So the preacher arrives at a picture of impossibility – which is the immediate interpretation of what Jesus was saying. While the interpretation may technically be wrong in this instance, the conclusion is correct. The preacher has accomplished his task.
  2. Historical evidence indicates that “the eye of the needle” may have been a proverb. Consequently, some preachers suggest that Jesus used a familiar proverb to speak of a greater truth with regard to salvation.
  3. Architecture or literature does not indicate that Jerusalem had a small gate called “eye of the needle.” This is borne out in many commentaries, including the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary.
  4. The post-Reformation era, when the Bible became freely available, produced an enormous interest in original language study – in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, and this has been constantly increasing, leading to revision of common interpretations. This was further accelerated when, in the late 19th and early 20th century, archaeology and study of ancient languages developed significantly. One result of this is to critically view words and their root meanings. One such meaning for the eye of the needle is to let the phrase stand as commonly understood, but look at the word camel, which in its Greek and Aramaic form can mean “a rope” – which cannot enter the eye of a needle. Most modern commentaries use this as their interpretation, which makes good sense.

So what do we do? Keep studying, and never come to the conclusion that all difficulties can be resolved. Indeed, this passage of Jesus is considered by most scholars as one of the difficult sayings of Jesus. But what is important is this: the impossibility of salvation through one’s own works, and the impossibility of entering the kingdom through what one considers to be merits obtained from God as a reward for one’s own goodness.

John M. Fowler, Ed.D. (Andrews University), continues to be on the editorial staff of Dialogue after his retirement. E-mail: fowlerj@gc.adventist.org.