Mythbusters: The Kneeling Camel Edition

July 14, 2013 | 28 comments
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A good portion of the next RS/PH lesson concerns the story where Jesus states that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.

There is a common mythology associated with this story; perhaps you’ve heard it.  It goes something like this:  there was a gate into Jerusalem called “The Eye of the Needle” and a camel could only enter it on its knees.  Therefore, Jesus’ statement means that a rich person can enter heaven only “on his knees,” presumably meaning “with humility.”

This explanation is not true.  Consider:

(1) There is no ancient evidence for a gate with this name or even for small gates that wouldn’t permit a camel entrance.

(2) A camel’s anatomy will not allow it to move while kneeling.

(3) Note the reaction to Jesus’ statement:  “And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved?”  This is not the reaction of people who are thinking, “oh, of course, they can enter if they are kneeling.”  This is the reaction of people who are thinking, “no one can enter if that is true!”

This isn’t just me–this one was actually taken up in the Ensign and in a really good post here.

So I would hope that this explanation won’t be perpetuated.  This is a “hard saying,” one that requires much soul-searching, and we do Jesus’ words a disservice to sweep them away with a facile explanation.  I really like the thesis of this Lorenzo Snow lesson, which is that you cannot keep the commandments without God’s aid.  This is a very important message, with much relevance to real life. President Snow’s use of this saying from Jesus emphasizes this point, because while a rich man cannot enter heaven on his own, “with God all things are possible.”  If we go with the “kneeling camel” reading, then all of a sudden it is possible to enter heaven on your own, without divine aid, so long as you are humble.  And that is contrary to Jesus’ words and to President Snow’s use of them.

 

28 Responses to Mythbusters: The Kneeling Camel Edition

  1. the narrator on July 14, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    One caveat. Nowhere does Jesus say that God can get a rich man into heaven.

  2. Julie M. Smith on July 14, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    True, narrator, but given the context, don’t you think that that is the gist of Jesus’ words–that getting a rich man into heaven is one of the “all things” possible for God?

  3. jks on July 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    The scriptures say: 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. And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved? And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible.

    What gets me is that for many years no one told me the second half of what Jesus said. Now it seems obvious to me that he is telling them that even rich, powerful, or seemingly worthy people can’t get into heaven except through the Atonement.

  4. Jax on July 14, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    JKS has the right idea (#3) about this in his first paragraph…

    Though the second paragraph tells me he should read for himself.. =)

    Wealth is a sticky problem that God has warned us repeatedly about, bet even still HE can get one into heaven! For instance, they say missionary work covers a multitude of sins. Perhaps missionary work covers wealth… which would explain why every mission president I’ve ever heard of, save one, has been reasonably wealthy. Therefore, be rich, but use it to spread the gospel!!!

  5. Steve Smith on July 14, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    Oh yeah, I remembering hearing that explanation a long time ago when I was a teenager and had forgotten about it. Thanks for pointing out that myth, Julie. I’ve long gotten the sense from my own reading of the NT that Jesus was not too keen on the wealthy (at least those not using their wealth to help the poor). I don’t think that he was trying to cut them any slack in ‘eye of the needle’ metaphor. And even if there were a gate called “Eye of the Needle” where a camel had to kneel to pass through, it would still be nearly impossible to get a camel through there. So I guess Jesus still would have essentially been saying the same thing.

  6. Mel on July 14, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    I may be propagating more Mormon folklore but…

    I remember seeing something that the word camel was mistranslated and the original Greek translates to “rope.” With this translation the analogy makes a lot more sense. But then again I don’t have any sources….

  7. Julie M. Smith on July 14, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Mel,

    The Greek word for rope differs from the word for camel by only one letter, so there is a legitimate possibility that it is “easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle” and that the word got garbled at some point. The BCC post I linked to goes into more detail about this.

  8. Jim Cobabe on July 14, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    In applying such critical analysis of the scriptures, perhaps we must be careful not to ourselves become the literal fulfullment of the Savior’s characterization, when He was asked about why He chose to speak in parables.

  9. Old Man on July 14, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    Active, practicing Latter-day Saints don’t have to worry about wealth. The problem is handled in the temple endowment.

  10. Jax on July 14, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    LOL Old Man… Don’t you know you can be an “active, practicing Latter-day Saint” without taking your covenants seriously?

  11. Mel on July 14, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Thanks Julie! I’m glad to know I’m not making things up… though I did seem to have gotten a more exaggerated story :)

  12. BC on July 15, 2013 at 9:01 am

    Trollope visits something like the rope rationalization in his novel “The Eustace Diamonds”–”[The Reverend] Mr. Emilius discoursed with an unctuous mixture of celestial and terrestrial glorification, which was proof, at any rate, of great ability on his part. . . . He knew well how difficult it was for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. They had the highest possible authority for that. But Scripture never said that the camel,–which, as he explained it, was simply a thread larger than ordinary thread,–could not go through the needle’s eye. The camel which succeeded, in spite of the difficulties attending its exalted position, would be peculiarly blessed.” (Perhaps ironically, Trollope in a subsequent novel reveals how Mr. Emilius murders a parliamentary officer of the exchequer.)

  13. Mark B. on July 15, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Heck, just get camel to lie down (or, in the vernacular of our illiterate age, “lay down”) on a camel-sized long board, and pull the thing right through.

  14. Steve Smith on July 15, 2013 at 9:39 am

    “Active, practicing Latter-day Saints don’t have to worry about wealth. The problem is handled in the temple endowment.”

    ???? I don’t have to worry about seeking a job and paying the bills because I’m an active practicing LDS? Yet another statement that sounds nice but doesn’t make any sense. Oh, and the follow up in which it is implied that I’m not “taking my covenants seriously” if I worry about wealth. Once again, I’m left dumbfounded. All I can say is that you appear to have an ax to grind with bulk of the LDS community, and you can’t help but let your smoldering contempt for many LDS people spew out at the most random moments. This isn’t even a controversial OP and no one has made any seemingly controversial statements and already the condemning starts. Take it easy.

  15. Kevin Barney on July 15, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Thanks for this, Julie.

  16. Ziff on July 15, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    Thanks, Julie. I had always thought he was talking about a very skinny cigarette. :)

  17. the narrator on July 15, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    Context is everything.

    In all three versions of this(Mark, Matthew,and Luke) the parable is preceded by Jesus telling the rich young man who asked him what he need to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him that he needs to get rid of his riches.

    This is why Jesus’s disciples are astonished. Jesus has just made a pretty difficult demand. Their question “Who then can be saved?” is essentially asking (in light of what they just witnessed), “Who is going to give up their riches?”

    Jesus’s “with God all things are possible” is not referring to the possibility of a rich man entering heaven, but the possibility of the rich man divesting himself of wealth and receiving eternal life.

    And in all three versions, the gospel writers affirm the possibility by pointing out that Jesus’s disciples, with God, have done that very thing! The parable is followed by Jesus’s disciples proclaiming that they had, in fact, given up all that they have had, which Jesus affirms.

  18. Allen on July 15, 2013 at 11:19 pm

    While a later source, the Babylonian Talmud, t. Berachot 55b, has a similar saying, but with an elephant instead of camel.

  19. Allen on July 15, 2013 at 11:20 pm

    Nevermind, the links already mention it.

  20. larryco_ on July 16, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    “Don’t you know you can be an “active, practicing Latter-day Saint” without taking your covenants seriously?”

    I have a rich friend who built a 5 million dollar home (just for him and his wife; his children have left). When I referred to it as the “large and spacious building”, he said that it was okay to build it because he has increased his temple attendance. Anyone else see the irony in this?

  21. rb on July 16, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    @20. It’s about as ironic as our Church sinking a couple of billion dollars into a nice shopping mall for the sole benefit of SLC Mormons.

  22. Steve Smith on July 19, 2013 at 7:33 am

    I used to be critical of the shopping mall as well. However, it appears to be helping combat the urban decay that downtown Salt Lake is falling into and bringing educated professionals back into the city. In many ways it was a worthwhile investment.

  23. gc on July 19, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    This is a very important message, with much relevance to real life. President Snow’s use of this saying from Jesus emphasizes this point, because while a rich man cannot enter heaven on his own, ‘with God all things are possible.’”

    As a few commenters have already alluded, I think this is an entirely wrong-headed interpretation. It’s not that Jesus can somehow save even the rich, it’s that somehow even the rich can/must be persuaded to give away all that they have so they can merit heaven. That is the hard saying.

  24. stephenchardy on July 22, 2013 at 6:55 am

    OK, so I attended a ward other than my own on Sunday, and there in our Priesthood meeting was the story of the young rich man. The teacher asked the class (High Priests, so they are alder and experienced; some of them having “significant” callings):, “What does Jesus mean?”

    One brother immediately talked about the small gate. The camel must be unburdened of all of its baggege. You can’t get through the gate with all of your extra stuff. Then the camel can crawl through the gate.

    So, seriously, what is one to do? As a visitor, should I correct the teacher/student/class who all seemed to agree that this was the correct interpretation? Specifically they agreed that Jesus wasn’t teaching that it was impossible for a rich man to get into heaven. It is simply difficult, and can only be done when we are unburdened of all of our stuff.

    I would have to say that I find myself disagreeing with a lot of what is taught in church. So, I just sit there, as usual, saying nothing because I don’t know how to corrrect someone without being aggresive or un-kind, or superior. So, really, what is one to do?

    I wanted to say that we may have a hard time accepting this, but I believe that Jesus often taught by exaggeration. I think that we mught not like to believe this because Jesus was “perfect.” He wouldn’t mis-lead. But I believe that he often exaggerated. This is one time when he stated something strongly: that riches may be a major stumbling block towards getting into heaven. It doesn’t need to be interpreted literally.

  25. Julie M. Smith on July 22, 2013 at 8:29 am

    stephenchardy:

    Your second issue is easier than your first: yes, there is a lot of hyperbole in the NT, including sometimes in Jesus’ teachings, and this bugs us, because it violates our mores, but it conformed with theirs. (I’ve noticed the JST guts most of the hyperbole.)

    First issue: as a teacher, I would correct, as gently as possible, ending by salvaging the larger, truer point the student was making. As a long-time class member, I’d correct the more egregious stuff. As a visitor, I’d probably let it go unless it was super-egregious. That sounds nice and simple in words; in real life, it is tougher, especially since you usually have all of 20 seconds to formulate a response.

  26. stephenchardy on July 22, 2013 at 11:36 am

    So, I will say this:

    Some people are able to do this well, and others can’t. For example, I was always sort of astonished at what Hugh Nibley got away with saying, because he occasionally cut deeply into cherished beliefs.

    I must say that you, Julie Smith (not that I know you,) also seem to have that talent. You appear to be one of those people who can question a text or an issue without appearing to throw everything overboard. It’s a great talent.

  27. Julie M. Smith on July 22, 2013 at 11:58 am

    Thanks.

  28. Bruce Forbes on July 27, 2013 at 8:30 am

    Adam Clarke’s Bible Commentary points out a mistranslation of the Greek that, when corrected, shed’s light on this debate. He says it should read ‘cable’ insead of ‘camel.’ You can read this at:
    http://www.studylight.org/com/acc/view.cgi?bk=39&ch=19