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…camel through the eye of a needle…
Posted: 10 September 2007 12:06 AM   [ Ignore ]
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A long time ago, I came across an interesting explanation for the quirky bibilical phrase “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.” In the book where I read this phrase, the author explains that the Greek word for “camel” is very similar to the Greek word for “rope” hence concluding that the quirky comparison arose from a mistranslation.  I have often wondered about the veracity of this explanation not having come across it anywhere else.  Can anyone shed light on this?

[ Edited: 10 September 2007 07:13 PM by teaserrams ]
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Posted: 10 September 2007 01:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Sounds like folk etymology to me.  I was told that the “Eye of the Needle” was a small gate in the walls of Jerusalem, through which, I suppose one could persuade a camel with a lot of pulling, shoving, cursing and general bad temper on the parts of both man and beast, but that may be folk etymology, too.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 04:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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There are a number of such explanations.  I think it’s a simple case of hyperbole like removing the tree from your own eye rather than criticizing the speck in another’s.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 05:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I remember my brother (the minister, not the lawyer) telling me that the verse just dumbfounded biblical scholars. No one has a clue what its literal antecedent is, despite many, many proposed explanations, all of which lack evidence. (And interestingly, most discount the mistranslation explanation because normal scribal error would tend to err in the direction of making more sense, not less. The quirkier the words, the more likely they are to be accurate.)

I agree with Oecolampadius, hyperbole seems to be the best explanation.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 06:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Indeed. It’s a well-known principle in textual scholarship, stet difficilior lectio, let the more difficult reading stand.

Interesting. I just checked the phrase, apparently it’s usual form is lectio difficilior lectio potior—`the harder reading is the likelier reading’ and “ the principle of difficilior lectio seems to have been first expressly formulated as a criterion by Jean Le Clerc (Clericus) in his Ars Critica, vol. 2, Amsterdam, 1697, p. 389”.

(Taken from the often invaluable Stammtisch Beau Fleuve, a compendious glossary that I’d completely forgotten about!)

[ Edited: 10 September 2007 06:49 AM by aldiboronti ]
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Posted: 10 September 2007 07:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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The Jesus Seminar is a group of 200 liberal biblical scholars who have marked up the Gospels with colors relating to whether the historical Jesus likely said what the Gospels quote him as saying (red letters) may have said them (pink) or didn’t say them (black).* They have concluded that this saying is likely from the lips of Jesus on exactly aldi’s grounds. 

On Mk 10:25 (// Mt 19:24 // Lk 18:25)
“Graphic exaggeration is typical of many genuine parables and aphorisms of Jesus. And a humorous hyperbole of this sort is more likely to come from Jesus than from a more serious-minded follower of his.

“The comic disproportion between the camel and the needle’s eye presented difficulties to the Christian community from the very beginning. Some Greek scribes substituted the Greek word rope (kamilon) for the term camel (kamelon) to reduce the contrast, while some modern but misguided interpreters have claimed that the “needle’s eye” was the name of a narrow gate or pass, which a camel would find difficult, but not impossible, to pass through. The fact that this saying has been surrounded by attempts to soften it suggests that it was probably original with Jesus.” (p. 92)

My own disagreements with the Jesus Seminar are not relevant to this question.  I agree with them on this.  Source.

edit: the color gray is also in there somewhere.

[ Edited: 10 September 2007 07:41 AM by Oecolampadius ]
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Posted: 10 September 2007 07:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I think the simplest explanation is that Jesus was making a pun. If, according to scripture, he could make a play on words even while nailed to a cross ("You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church"--the Aramaic and Greek versions of the name “Peter” being very similar to their words for “rock")--then why not while preaching and teaching?

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Posted: 10 September 2007 07:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Dr. Techie - 10 September 2007 07:39 AM

I think the simplest explanation is that Jesus was making a pun. If, according to scripture, he could make a play on words even while nailed to a cross ("You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church"--the Aramaic and Greek versions of the name “Peter” being very similar to their words for “rock")--then why not while preaching and teaching?

Don’t think he said that while nailed to the cross, Doc. But oeco will know.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 07:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I’m pretty sure that “thou art Peter” is not one of the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross.

[Edit.]

I see that doubting Aldi has beaten me to the punch. Stet.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 08:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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aldiboronti - 10 September 2007 07:54 AM


Don’t think he said that while nailed to the cross, Doc. But oeco will know.

Right, the saying was in Galilee.  The saying from the cross was about John.  But the pun between camel and rope works in both Aramaic and Greek.  I did not know that!  Thanks.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 09:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Don’t think he said that while nailed to the cross, Doc.

Right, my mistake.  And one I’ve made before, I think.

But the pun between camel and rope works in both Aramaic and Greek.  I did not know that!  Thanks.

Checking some references, I see that the camel-rope pun does work in Aramaic, too, which I did not realize.  I imagined (perhaps wrongly) that Jesus could speak some Greek and might have used it occasionally.  Pilate doesn’t seem like the type who’d take the trouble to learn Aramaic, although I admit that most of what I know about him comes from tendentious sources.  (And of course, there could have been an interpreter that never got mentioned in the scriptural accounts.)

[ Edited: 10 September 2007 09:26 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 10 September 2007 09:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (III, 593) there’s a note that the Talmud has a proverbial saying about an elephant going through the eye of a needle (Berachot., 55b) and comments that this is a “typical oriental image to emphasise the impossibility of something by way of violent contrast.”

But on the rope thing, I looked at Balashon’s utterly fascinating discussion of the Hebrew letter “G” (gimmel) and suggests that the root for gimmel (pronounce closer to Kimmel by the way) has three meanings: camel, to wean or ripen, and to pay or reward.  No rope in there.

Maybe the rope is, as I have heard, made of camel’s hair and thus shortened to camel?

Perhaps Balashon can help.  Or Lionello.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 10:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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One thing that struck me when I looked at the two (Babylonian) Talmudic passages (Berachos 55b and Bava Metzia 38b) is that “eye of the needle” in Aramaic is קופא qopha’, which is either the letter ‘qoph’ or an ‘eye of the needle’. Quite an image: an elaphant going through the letter Q.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 10:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I’m a little confused here. Are there any sources that say that the pun worked in Aramaic AND Greek? Even without looking at the words, that would be a pretty mean feat.

I can’t think of any Aramaic words that would connect rope and camel. But the Talmudic source mentioned showed that there already existed an Aramaic phrase, which if it could have used a pun, probably would have, and yet stuck with the elephant.

On the other hand, I don’t even know if kamilon really means rope. I can not find one mention of that word anywhere where it is said to mean “rope” but is not talking about how it was misunderstood for camel in that phrase.

So how about some sources here? You guys are generally great at finding them; I’m sure they’ll help solve the puzzle.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 10:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Greek has καμηλος (kamēlos) ‘camel’ and καμιλος ‘rope’, but of the latter, L&S says “Perhaps coined as an emendation of the phrase ευκοπωτερον εστιν καμηλον δια τρηματος ραφιδος εισελθειν η πλουσιον εις την βασιλειαν του θεου Ev. Matth. 19:24, but cf. Arab. jummal ‘ship’s cable’.” The only source for the word given is Suidas.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 11:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Curiously, the online Liddell and Scott at the Perseus Project site gives an earlier citation, from Aristophanes’ Wasps. (See here.) However, the linked text uses the spelling καμήλου, with an eta instead of iota, and the English translation (by Eugene O’Neill) renders it “camel”.  And indeed, in almost any context, “anus of a camel” makes more sense than “anus of a rope”.  So why is it cited there, under the sense “rope”?  I’m confused.

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