The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

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BrianB
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The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by BrianB » Wed Apr 24, 2019 4:57 pm

Please be patient with what is probably a foolishly naïve question from an absolute beginner.

Some Bibles give a footnote saying that “rope” or “cord” is an alternative reading instead of “camel”. I suppose this must be a variant reading found in some manuscripts, in one or more of the three parallel passages, Matt 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25. But does it mean there is a Greek word for “rope” so closely resembling κάμηλος that the two words might easily be mistaken for one another? Or did some copyist simply decide that “camel” doesn’t make much sense in the context, and arbitrarily change it to a word meaning “rope”?

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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by jeidsath » Wed Apr 24, 2019 5:38 pm

Well, from the Suda:

Κάμηλος: τὸ ζῷον. Ἀριστοφάνης: πῶς ἄνευ καμήλου Μῆδος ὢν ἐσέπτατο; ἐπεὶ διὰ καμήλων ἦλθον οἱ Μῆδοι ἐς τὴν Ἑλλάδα. καὶ Καμηλίτης βοῦς οὕτω καλούμενος. Κάμιλος δὲ τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον.

The LSJ suggest that the meaning of παχὺ σψοινίον for καμιλος may simply be a creative reading of Matthew 19.24, where some manuscripts read καμιλον. (ι for η is not surprising.) However it also says "but cf. Arab. jummal 'ship's cable'." And the LSJ supplement also directs us to I.Cilicie 108, though that has η rather than ι. But perhaps it is a real word meaning cable.

Even if so, the manuscripts that read καμιλον are probably wrong. Camel through the eye of the needle was apparently a Jewish phrase of some kind, which appears elsewhere.
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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by BrianB » Wed Apr 24, 2019 7:18 pm

Thank you, Joel. I’m going to have a couple of supplementary questions, if you don’t mind, but first, you aroused my curiosity with your observation that “Camel through the eye of the needle was apparently a Jewish phrase of some kind, which appears elsewhere.” I just had a quick search online and from what I could see, the word “needle” (ῥαφίς, מַחַט ) doesn’t occur anywhere in the OT, in either language. That surprises me. Can you confirm that, please?

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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by jeidsath » Wed Apr 24, 2019 7:39 pm

The Jews wrote more literature than just the Old Testament.
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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by Barry Hofstetter » Wed Apr 24, 2019 7:43 pm

Actually, the phrase is unattested elsewhere (until after the gospels become well known, at any rate), and no, there was no such thing as a "camel gate" during that time period. It's simply a rather clever and apparently original turn of phrase to illustrate an impossibility.
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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by jeidsath » Wed Apr 24, 2019 8:13 pm

"Unattested elsewhere" is too strong, and is actively misleading without more explanation. Berakhot's "elephant going through the eye of a needle in a dream" is 5th or maybe 6th century. And the Bava Metzia's "where people pass an elephant through the eye of a needle" is the same period. They both belong to the Babylonian Talmud, and the use of such a similar phrase outside of Christian literature is very suggestive of a proverbial background to Jesus' saying. It's easy to see the elephant becoming a camel as a popular saying was transported out of Babylon and into camel country, but a literary source like the Gospels would have been less subject to mutation.
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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by BrianB » Wed Apr 24, 2019 8:14 pm

The Jews wrote more literature than just the Old Testament.

Yes, but if it’s not in the OT, Christian copyists couldn’t be expected to be familiar with the expression, and one of them might well have had the bright idea of “improving” or rationalizing a saying that some Christians found puzzling.

The only other questions I want to ask you were these, just to make sure I’ve understood you correctly. The known facts are as follows: There are some (not many) manuscripts where the word appears as κάμιλον with an iota, though only in Matthew, not in Mark or Luke. This may be simply a misspelling, or alternatively it may be a different word meaning something like a ship’s rope or cable—although this word, if it really exists, is otherwise unattested. Is that it? Please remember that this is all very new to me and I need to proceed cautiously, a step at a time.

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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by jeidsath » Wed Apr 24, 2019 8:23 pm

Well, more simply, what I'm outlining as a possibility is:

1. The Gospel writers actually used the phrase "camel through the eye of the needle", which was based on an existing proverbial expression.

2. Some manuscripts had καμιλον for καμηλον. Since ι was pronounced η when they were copied, it is a (very) common exchange in manuscripts.

Some -- Euthymius (5th century), Theophylact (11th century), Phavorinus (16th century) -- claimed that the original (καμιλον or καμηλον) meant "rope" or "cable".

The cited Suda and inscription in the earlier post is evidence that Eu/Th/Ph are perhaps correct. However, the likely existence of the proverbial expression would seem to indicate otherwise.
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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by Barry Hofstetter » Wed Apr 24, 2019 8:26 pm

jeidsath wrote:
Wed Apr 24, 2019 8:23 pm
Well, more simply, what I'm outlining as a possibility is:

1. The Gospel writers actually used the phrase "camel through the eye of the needle", which was based on an existing proverbial expression.

2. Some manuscripts had καμιλον for καμηλον. Since ι was pronounced η when they were copied, it is a common exchange in manuscripts.

Some -- Euthymius (5th century), Theophylact (11th century), Phavorinus (16th century) -- claimed that the original (καμιλον or καμηλον) meant "rope" or "cable".

The cited Suda and inscription in the earlier post is evidence that Eu/Th/Ph are perhaps correct. However, the likely existence of the proverbial expression would seem to indicate otherwise.
Understood, and plausible. But please cite where else this proverbial expression appears in literature contemporary or prior to the composition of the gospels.

edit: Ah, I see you did quote some literature above, all much later than the gospels... For all we know, the Talmud gets it from the Christians. :roll:
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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by BrianB » Wed Apr 24, 2019 9:32 pm

Barry Hofstetter wrote:
Wed Apr 24, 2019 8:26 pm
For all we know, the Talmud gets it from the Christians. :roll:
Are you suggesting that as a real possibility, or is it intended just as a provocative quip?

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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by jeidsath » Wed Apr 24, 2019 10:05 pm

It's a real possibility. The Talmud is later. However notice the sheer variety of references in the Talmud to the eye of a needle being a restrictive opening. Could this really all be due to Christian influence? I find it hard to believe.

Further support of the original story being about a camel and needle (and not a rope) is the 3rd century "Acts of Peter and Andrew." This is clearly about a real camel, though the spelling is "κάμιλον" throughout. I found it here (Tischendorf's Apocalypses apocryphae pg. 164), and have typed it up (so please excuse any errors). It's a really fun story, with Peter showing off his skills as a sort of 1st century David Blaine, sending a camel back and forth through a needle's eye. Only then, Onesiphorus tries to pull a dirty trick, and puts a prostitute on the camel's back! (You'll have to learn Greek to find out what happens.)
ἦν δέ τις πλούσιος ἐν τῇ πόλει ὀνόματι Ὀνησιφόρος. οὗτος οὖν θεωρήσας τὰ σημεῖα τὰ γινόμενα διὰ τῶν ἀποστόλων λέγει αὐτοῖς· ἐὰν πιστεύσω εἰς τὸν θεὸν ὑμῶν, δύναμαι ποιῆσαι κἀγω σημεῖον ὡς καὶ ὑμεῖς; λέγει αὐτῷ Ἀνδρέας· ἐὰν ἀποτάξει (sic) πάντων τῶν ὑπαρχόντων σου καὶ τῆς γυναικός σου καὶ τῶν τέκνων σου, ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀπεταξάμεθα, τότε καὶ σὺ ποιήσεις σημεῖα. ταῦτα ἀκούσας ὁ Ὀνησιφόρος, θυμοῦ πλησθεὶς λαβὼν τὸ ἑαυτοῦ λέντιον ἔβαλεν εἰς τὸν τράχηλον τοῦ Ἀνδρέου, καὶ τύπτων ἀυτὸν ἔλεγεν αὐτῷ· μάγος εἶ· τὴν γυναῖκά μου καὶ τὰ τέκνα μου καὶ τὰ ἀγαθά μου πῶς σὺ ἀναγκάζεις με καταλιπεῖν; τότε ὁ Πέτρος στραφεὶς καὶ ἰδὼν αὐτὸν τύπτοντα τὸν Ἀνδρέαν, λέγει αὐτῷ Ὀνησιφόρος· θεωρῶ σε ὅτι φρονιμώτερος αὐτοῦ εἶ· εἰπέ μοι οὖν καὶ σὺ ἵνα καταλείψω τὴν γυναῖκά μου καὶ τὰ τέκνα μου καὶ τὰ ἀγαθά μου· τί σὺ λέγεις; λέγει αὐτῷ Πέτρος· ἕν σοι ῥῆμα λέγω· εὐκοπώτερόν ἐστιν κάμηλον*** διὰ τρυμαλιᾶς ῥαφίδος εἰσελθεῖν ἢ πλούσιον εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ εἰσελθεῖν. ταῦτα ἀκούσας ὁ Ὀνησιφόρος καὶ ἐπὶ πλεῖον πλησθεὶς ὀργῆς καὶ θυμοῦ, λαβὼν τὸ λέντιον ἐκ τοῦ τραχήλου τοῦ Ἀνδρέου ἔβαλεν εἰς τὸν τράχηλον τοῦ Πέτρου, καὶ οὕτως ἔσυρεν λέγων· ὄντως μέγας μάγος, πλείων τούτου· οὐ γὰρ εἰσέρχεται κάμηλος διὰ τρυπήματος ῥαφίδος. εἰ δὲ καὶ δείξεις μοι τοῦτο τὸ θαῦμα, πιστεύω εἰς τὸν θεόν σου· οὐ μόνον δὲ ἐγώ, ἀλλὰ καὶ πᾶσα ἡ πόλις· εἰ δὲ μήγε, μεγάλως τιμωρηθήσῃ ἐν μέσῳ τῆς πόλεως. τᾶυτα δὲ ἀκούσας ὁ Πέτρος, ἐλυπήθη λίαν, καὶ σταθεὶς καὶ ἐκτείνας τὰς χεῖρας εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν, προσηύξατο λέγων· δέσποτα κύριε ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν, ἐπάκουσόν μου τῇ ὥρᾳ ταύτῃ· ἀγρεύσουσιν γὰρ ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῶν σῶν λόγων. οὐ γαρ προφήτης εἶπεν ταύτην τὴν δισάφησιν αὐτοῦ ἀπαγγέλλων, οὐδὲ πάλιν πατριάρχης, ἵνα μάθωμεν ταύτην δισάφησιν μετὰ παρρησίας. σὺ οὖν δέσποτα μὴ παρίδῃς ἡμᾶς· σὺ γὰρ εἶ ὁ ὑμνούμενος ὑπὸ τῶν Χερουβίμ.

Ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ εἰπόντος ἐφάνη ὁ σωτὴρ ἐν μορφῇ παιδίου δωδεκαετοῦς, φορῶν ὀθόνιον, καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· θαρσεῖτε καὶ μὴ πτοεῖσθε, οἱ ἐκλεκτοί μου μαθηταί· ἐγὼ γάρ εἰμι μεθ᾽ ὑμῶν πάντοτε· ἐνεχθήτω ἡ ῥαφὶς καὶ ὁ κάμηλος. καὶ ταῦτα εἰπὼν ἀνῆλθεν εἰς τοὺς οὐρανούς. πανταπώλης δὲ τις ἦν ἐν τῇ πόλει, πιστεύσας τῷ κυρίῳ διὰ Φιλίππου τοῦ ἀποστόλου· καὶ ἀκούσας ταῦτα, δραμὼν ἐζήτησεν ῥαφίδαν ἔχουσαν μεγάλην τρυμαλιάν, χάριν παρέχων τοῖς ἀποστόλοις. τότε μαθὼν ὁ Πέτρος λέγει· τέκνον, μὴ ζήτει μεγάλην ῥαφήν· οὐκ ἀδυνατεῖ γὰρ τῷ θεῷ πᾶν ῥῆμα· ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον φέρε ἡμῖν λεπτὴν ῥεφήν. τῆς δὲ ῥαφῆς ἐνεχθείσης καὶ παντὸς τοῦ πλήθους τῆς πόλεως ἱσταμένων πρὸς θεωρίαν, ἀναβλέψας ὁ Πέτρος ἴδεν κάμηλον ἐρχομένην. εἶπεν δὲ ἐνεχθῆναι αὐτήν. τότε ἔπηξεν τὴν ῥαφίδαν εἰς τὴν γῆν, καὶ κράξας φωνῇ μεγάλῃ εἶπεν· ἐν ὀνόματι τοῦ σταυρωθέντος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου κελεύω σοι, κάμηλε, ἵνα εἰσέλθῇς διὰ τρυμαλιᾶς τῆς ῥαφίδος. τότε ἡ τρύπη τῆς ῥαφίδος ἠνοίχθη ὡς πύλη, καὶ διῆλθεν δι᾽ αὐτῆς ὁ κάμηλος, καὶ πᾶς ὁ ὄχλος ἐθεώρει. πάλιν λέγει ὁ Πέτρος τῷ καμήλῳ· εἴσελθε πάλιν διὰ τῆς ῥαφίδος. καὶ εἰσῆλθεν πάλιν δεύτερον ὁ κάμηλος. ταῦτα ἰδὼν ὁ Ὀνησιφόρος λέγει τῷ Πέτρῳ· ἀληθῶς μέγας μάγος εἶ· ἐγὼ γὰρ οὐ πιστεύω, εἰ μὴ ἐγὼ πέμψω καὶ φέρω ῥαφίδαν καὶ κάμηλον. καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος ἕνα ἐκ τῶν παίδων αὐτοῦ λέγει αὐτῷ λαθραίως· πορεύθητι καὶ φέρε μοι ὧδε κάμηλον καὶ ῥαφίδαν· εὑρὲ δὲ καὶ γυναῖκα μεμιαμένην, καὶ αὐτὴν ἐπιβιβάσας ἔνεγκε ὧδε. οἱ γὰρ ἄνδρες οὗτοι μάγοι εἰσίν. μαθὼν δὲ ὁ Πέτρος τὸ μυστήριον διὰ τοῦ πνεύματος λέγει τῷ Ὀνησιφόρῳ· πέμψον, φέρε τὴν κάμηλον καὶ τὴν γυναῖκαν (sic) καὶ τὴν ῥαφήν. ὡς δὲ ἤνεγκαν, λαβὼν ὁ Πέτρος τὴν ῥαφὴν ἔπηξεν εἰς τὴν γῆν. ἡ δὲ γυνὴ ἦν καθεζομένη ἐν τῷ καμήλῳ. τότε λέγει ὁ Πέτρος· ἐν τῷ ὀνόμαι τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ ἐσταυρωμένου κελεύω σοι, μάμηλε, ἵνα εἰσέλθῃς διὰ τῆς ῥαφίδος ταύτης. εὐθέως δὲ ἠνοίχθη τῆς βελόνης ἡ τρύπη καὶ ἐγένετο ὡς ἡ πύλη, καὶ εἰσῆλθεν δι᾽ αὐτῆς ὁ κάμηλος. λέγει πάλιν ὁ Πέτρος τῷ καμήλῳ· εἴσελθε πάλιν δι᾽ αὐτῆς, ὅπως ἴδωσιν πάντες τὴν δόξαν τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὅπως πιστεύσωσίν τινες εἰς αὐτόν. τότε εἰσῆλθεν πάλιν ὁ κάμηλος διὰ τῆς βελόνης. ἰδὼν δὲ Ὀνησιφόρος ἐβόησεν λέγων· ἀληθῶς [μέγας] ὁ θεὸς Πέτρου καὶ Ἀνδρέου, κἀγὼ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν πιστεύω εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ κυρίου ὑμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. νῦν οὖν ἄκουσον τῶν ῥημάτων μου, ὦ Πέτρε. ἔχω τοίνυν ἀρούρας, ἀμπέλους καὶ ἀγρούς· ἔχω δὲ καὶ εἴκοσι ἑπτὰ λίτρας χρυσίου καὶ πεντήκοντα λίτρας ἀργυρίου· ἔχω δὲ ἀνδράποδα πάμπολλα. παρέχω τοῖς πτωχοῖς τὰ ὑπάρχοντά μου, ὅπως καὶ ἐγὼ ποιήσω ἓν θαῦμα ὡς καὶ ὑμεῖς . . . . ὁ δὲ Πέτρος ἦν λυπούμενος, μήποτε οὐκ ἐνεργοῦσιν αὐτῷ αἱ δυνάμεις, ἐπειδὴ οὐκ ἦν λαβὼν τὴν ἐν Χριστῷ σφραγῖδα. ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐνθυμένου, ἰδοὺ φωνὴ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ λέγουσα πρὸς αὐτόν· κελεύω σοι, ποίησον αὐτῷ ὅσα θέλει, ὅθεν πληροφορῶ αὐτὸν ὡς βούλεται. λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πέτρος· τέκνον, δεῦρο, ποίησον ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς. προσελθὼν δὲ ὁ Ὀνησιφόρος ἵσταται ἔμπροσθεν τῆς καμήλου καὶ τῆς ῥαφίδος, καὶ εἶπεν· ἐν ὀ[νόματι] . . . .

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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by BrianB » Wed Apr 24, 2019 11:13 pm

That’s an interesting link. Plenty of needles’ eyes, though no camels! By the way, I notice they give that as the original meaning of the name of the letter quf. I was told it means “monkey,” qof in modern Hebrew, and I like that explanation because it means that our Roman capital Q began life as a drawing of a small mammal with a long tail hanging down.

The Acts of Peter and Andrew – I have to confess I cheated. I read it in English in M. R. James’ Apocryphal New Testament. As you say, it’s a great story.

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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by Barry Hofstetter » Thu Apr 25, 2019 12:47 pm

BrianB wrote:
Wed Apr 24, 2019 9:32 pm
Barry Hofstetter wrote:
Wed Apr 24, 2019 8:26 pm
For all we know, the Talmud gets it from the Christians. :roll:
Are you suggesting that as a real possibility, or is it intended just as a provocative quip?
Why, yes... :shock: When you have the earliest attestation of something, it's always possible that it's the source. It's also impossible to prove, since such a small amount of ancient literature actually survives. Joel could well be right: it might have been a common saying, it's just that we have nothing earlier or contemporary to the NT to prove it.
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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by Barry Hofstetter » Thu Apr 25, 2019 2:07 pm

You typed that by hand? And only a few typos. I tip my hat to you sir (metaphorically speaking). My favorite character is the πανταπώλης. "Here! Here's a really big needle! Does that help?"
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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by BrianB » Thu Apr 25, 2019 7:05 pm

Barry Hofstetter wrote:
Thu Apr 25, 2019 2:07 pm
My favorite character is the πανταπώλης. "Here! Here's a really big needle! Does that help?"
As a matter of interest, how big were the biggest needles, in real life? What have the archeologists found? Tentmakers, surely, must have used large, tough needles that they could push through a coarse, heavy fabric without breaking or bending them.

And another thing. Apart from a camel and a rope, is there perhaps a third possibility, both in this verse and in the “strain at a gnat” saying (Matt 23:24)? Might Jesus have originally said גמל שלמה , “Solomon’s camel,” the mantis? Swallowing a live mantis would be a gastronomic experience than which few could be more disagreeable. The contrast with straining out a gnat is all the more effective, I think.

However, I have no idea whether the term גמל שלמה had already entered the language in the Herodian period.

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Re: The “eye of a needle” saying: a camel or a rope?

Post by bpk » Wed May 15, 2019 5:27 am

One idea that I have heard regarding this--I don't think it is right--is that there is a play on words in the "supposed" original Aramaic--it is more likely that Jesus's parables, at least, were told in Hebrew; not sure if that principle would apply here.

In Aramaic, the word גמלא (gmlʔ) can mean either 'camel' or 'rope/beam'. Accordingly, some say that this was a play on words or mistranslation or something like that in the original Aramaic.

I actually don't think that this is a very good explanation. As I noted, it is not even certain that Jesus would have told this teaching in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. Though it is not a parable, per se, it is worth noting that Tannaitic Jewish teachers always told their parables in Hebrew rather than Aramaic.

The more important Rabbinic background for such a verse is the tendency to use camels in extreme examples. For example, when discussing legal issues regarding where it is lawful to put the Hanukkiah (candelabra lamp for Hanukkah), the Rabbis give an example that, "If a camel walks by with flax on its back, it might catch on fire!" if the Hanukkiah is placed too close to the road. I can't remember the reference or exact details of this text (read it about 10 years ago), but I think this gives a better context. The Rabbis would give extreme examples to make a teaching memorable. A pedagogy technique.

Hope this helps.

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