what is the eye of the needle?
Many of the visitors to this site come seeking an understanding of what Yeshua (Jesus) meant when He said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (MARK 10:25). The following is what I have found as the answer.
There are at least four possible explanations for what Yeshua said. One, that the eye of a needle was a narrow mountain pass of which it was difficult for a camel to go through. That explanation is plausible but not very likely there being no known pass by that name in that part of the world. Another explanation is given by E.W. Bullinger in his Companion Bible. He wrote,
- "...the eye of the needle, a small door fixed in a gate and opened after dark. To pass through, the camel must be unloaded. Hence the difficulty of the rich man. He must be unloaded, and hence the proverb, common in the East. In Palestine the "camel"; in the Babylonian Talmud it is the elephant".
Manners and Customs of the Bible by James Freeman gives a similar explanation. This suggestion seems reasonable except for a couple of things. First, at the time of Yeshua's quote, He was on the coast and was near no city gates. We might expect that when Yeshua made reference to something in His teaching, He pointed to it as His illustration. When He said one might wither a fig tree or cast a mountain into the sea (MATHEW 21:21), He very likely pointed at the fig tree and at mount Olivet and then at the sea. When He said that Solomon was not arrayed like one of these lilies, He probably pointed at the flower for the comparison. If He was standing alongside a city gate as He made this statement about a camel entering through the eye of a needle, Bullinger's suggestion might seem more likely, but not as much so if He was walking along the sea coast.
In addition to this, the New Bible Dictionary says concerning the existence of these gates, that "there is no historical evidence to support this". The context of Yeshua's teaching does not place Him around camels or city gates, and with "no historical evidence to support" the idea that He was indeed referring to a camel going through a city gate, it seems to me quite a stretch to assume Bullinger is right.
A third suggestion of the meaning of a camel going through the eye of a needle is given by Abraham Mitrie Rihbany in his book The Syrian Christ. On pages 131-132 quoted below, he comments on the idea of the eye of the needle being a city gate.
- The saying [about a camel going through the eye of a needle] is current in the East, and in all probability it was a common saying there long before the advent of Christ. But I never knew that small door in a city or a castle gate to be called the needle's eye; nor indeed the large gate to be called the needle. The name of that door, in the common speech of the country, is the "plum," and I am certain the Scriptural passage makes no reference to it whatever.
- The Koran makes use of this expression in one of its purest classical Arabic passages. The term employed here- sum-el-khiat- can mean only the sewing instrument, and nothing else.
So, it would appear that although the gates may have existed, they were probably not called needle's eyes. Mr. Rihbany suggests that Yeshua was simply speaking figuratively, as when He said "Ye blind guides, which strain at [out] a gnat and swallow a camel" (MATTHEW 23:24). Perhaps this is so, and without the final explanation given below, it sounds most plausible.
Most Christians realize that Yeshua and His disciples didn't speak English. Some of them could have spoken Greek and even Latin, but their normal day to day language was probably Hebrew or Aramaic. The Aramaic language was all but forgotten until about a hundred years ago, which is why few students are familiar with it. Dr. George Lamsa, who has written extensively about the language in his book entitled Gospel Light, clarifies for us the probable meaning of Yeshua's words concerning the eye of a needle. I will quote from page 167.
- "The Aramaic word gamla means camel, a large rope and a beam. The meaning of the word is determined by its context. If the word riding or burden occurs then gamla means a camel, but when the eye of a needle is mentioned gamla more correctly means a rope. There is no connection anywhere in Aramaic speech or literature between camel and needle, but there is a definite connection between rope and needle."
Nearly all of the English versions of the Gospels came from Greek texts by translators who may have known little about Aramaic. Thus, if their source had this Aramaic word gamla, they could very easily have mistaken its meaning for camel instead of rope. It takes little effort to imagine Yeshua, while walking along the sea coast, pointing to a rope and saying, "It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God". Consider also the interesting comment by the Aramaic scholar Andrew Gabriel Roth, who explained that the rope analogy simply meant that it had to be unwound to pass through the eye of a needle.
One final note of information should be passed along to the reader. In his book Judaism in the First Three Centuries of the Christian Era, George Foot Moore shares the following from ancient Jewish beliefs concerning the eye of a needle.
- God encourages and assists every movement of man's heart towards him. The words of the lover in the Song of Songs (5,2), 'Open to me, my sister,' are thus applied: God says, "Open to me an entrance no larger than the eye of a needle, and I will open to you an entrance through which tents and great timbers can pass."
Now let us venture beyond that which was actually spoken by the Lord. Let us consider, in the context, what our Lord was meaning by His illustration. His context has to do with entering the kingdom of GOD. In the previous chapter He had warned that "if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire". Then a few verses before the one we are studying, He said, "Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein".
As we continue reading this record in Mark's gospel we come to our verse in question. A wealthy man had come to Yeshua seeking what he must do to "inherit eternal life". After hearing Yeshua's response, Mark wrote that the man "was sad at that saying, and went away grieved". He was sad and he was grieved because Yeshua's response was not the answer he had hoped for. He didn't realize that greater wealth than he had ever dreamed of could be his if he had only accepted Yeshua's answer. This man was as the seed sown amongst thorns. He was acquainted with accumulating "great possessions" but he was not acquainted with laying up "treasure in heaven". He may have known the commandments but he didn't know the word and will of GOD.
It is interesting that before Yeshua gave him his answer, the Scripture says that Yeshua loved him. That is always why the word is sown. That is why the word is sent. But too often it is rejected. Yeshua wasn't desiring to deprive this rich man of his wealth. Yeshua was showing him the way into the kingdom of GOD. Yeshua was offering him treasures vastly superior to any that moth and rust could corrupt.
Thus, three times, as if trying to drive the point home to His disciples, Yeshua said, "How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God...how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God...It is easier for a camel [rope] to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God". For Yeshua to declare this warning three times, speaks loudly to those who have ears to hear. The desire for riches was not to be underestimated in its ability to deceive and divert one from the narrow way that would lead unto the kingdom of GOD.
Many people living in the Bible lands at the time when the Gospels were written believed that all wealth was a blessing from GOD. If one was poor, then the people believed that he must surely be cursed by GOD, but if one was rich he must surely be blessed by GOD (DEUTERONOMY 16:17). This is why the disciples then "were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved?" (MARK 10:26). They thought that if the rich found it difficult to enter the kingdom of GOD, what chance did the rest of them have?
Much of Yeshua's teaching endeavored to correct the false assumption that wealth is always a blessing from GOD. The truth is more the other way (JEREMIAH 9:23-24). Too often the pursuit of wealth insulated them from the workings of GOD in their lives (ISAIAH 41:17-20). It would choke the word sown in their hearts and rob them of eternal treasures their heavenly Father desired for them to obtain. Hence, it was difficult (not impossible) for a rich man to enter the kingdom of GOD.
- MARK 8:35-36 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?