Most of us know the passage in Matthew 19:23-24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:23-24, where Jesus gives us the famous eye of the needle illustration. It’s the one passage that confounds the prosperity gospel preachers.
“Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, 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.” (Matthew 19:23-24)
“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.” (Mark 10:25)
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, 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.” (Luke 18:23-14)
But what should we understand this to mean? Are we talking about a gate in the wall of Jerusalem? Are we talking about a figure of speech? Is it even translated correctly? Let us answer all three of those questions.
1. Eye of the needle as a gate in Jerusalem
The way this illustration goes is as follows:
There is a gate in Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle”, through which a camel could not pass unless it stooped down and had all its baggage first removed. After dark, when the main gates were closed, travelers and merchants would have to use this smaller gate. Great sermon material, with illustrations about how we must humble ourselves and remove our baggage before entering the kingdom.
It would be quite convenient if this myth were true because it would legitimize people’s affinity for money and probably the prosperity gospel as well. If the passage is about baggage and humility and not actually about wealth then the prosperity preachers can breathe a big sigh of reliefr However, this myth has been propagated since the 11th century and it is completely made up. There is zero evidence to show that this gate ever existed other than stories brought back from Jerusalem tours.
But what about the image to the left showing the eye of the needle? This wall passage did not exist when Jesus walked the earth, or anytime close to his generation. This wall was built hundreds of years after Jesus’ time. The gates of Jerusalem were destroyed in 70CE and later rebuilt. Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian, wrote about the wall in Jerusalem (excepting the western wall):
“All the rest of the wall [surrounding Jerusalem], it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited.”
So the image above would not exist in Jesus’ time.
Furthermore, the passage states that is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of “a” needle, not “the” needle. “A needle” refers to any needle. “The needle” would refer to a specific needle. This is not a mistake. Greek is an incredibly precise language and definite articles (the) are hard to confuse with an indefinite article (a).
Finally, I would point out that this type of hyperbole is common in Jewish literature and as well as other an literature.
“Raba said: This is proved by the fact that a man is never shown in a dream a date palm of gold, or an elephant going through the eye of a needle.” (Talmud, Berakoth 55)
“Are you from Pumbedita, where they make an elephant pass through the eye of a needle?” (Bava Metzi’a 38b)
“Open for me a gate no wider than a needle’s eye, and I will open for you a gate through which camps and fortifications can pass.” (Persiqta 25.163b)
“The gates of heaven will not be opened for them nor shall they enter paradise until the camel passes through the eye of a needle.” (Qu’ran, Surah 7.40)
While these examples are not speaking to the same subject, they do illustrate the use of this hyperbole in ancient texts. Thus, it is not necessary to try to bend Jesus’ words to mean something other than what they actually meant. This is why the disciples replied with this phrase in astonishment:
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25 NV)
It really only makes sense that He actually said and meant a camel and an actual needle.
2. A figure of speech
The easiest answer to this issue is to be aware that this was a figure of speech that Jesus was using. He was not referring to a specific gate in the wall of Jerusalem. The general theory of this type of hyperbole was that the largest (for that region) animal is compared with that location’s known smallest opening. That is why it is preceded with Jesus saying:
Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:23)
This event in the gospels is immediately followed by Jesus warning that rich people must give up EVERYTHING to follow him.
3. Possible translation mistakes?
This is a popular theory. It assumes that Jesus meant rope rather than camel. While it has merit because the Greek spelling of Camel (καμηλον [kamêlon]) and a sailor’s rope (καμιλον [kamilon]) are very similar, it does not hold water because the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts all say Camel. Alternative renderings did not occur until the 9th century.
The rope theory is propped up by the use of some old Aramaic manuscripts. The Aramaic reading of this passage would definitely lean towards rope. However, the NT and the Gospels were written in Greek, not Aramaic. So, this idea does not make a lot of sense. In addition, Aramaic translators are divided on this issue. No universal consent exist even for those who like the idea of an Aramaic NT.
It seems to me that the thing that makes the most sense is that Jesus actually meant what he said and what he said was recorded accurately. Jesus used lots of hyperbole, such as coming to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother (Matthew 10:25). It should come as no surprise that Jesus wanted to make a bold statement about how wealth hinders one from entering the kingdom of heaven.
Does that mean it is evil to have wealth? That is up for you and the Holy Spirit to work out. I would suggest that it is more evil to die possessing great wealth than to die having given all your wealth away to the needy. Mother Teresa was famously quoted as saying
“At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.”
I believe this is the embodiment of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.