In Mt 19:24, Mk 10:25, and Lk 18:25 Jesus famously paints the difficulty of a rich person’s ability to get into the kingdom of God with the picture of a camel going through the eye of a needle. The strangeness of the image has not been lost on Gospel-readers from early on. Origen, followed by Cyril, reports that some interpreters took the word κάμηλος ≈ κάμιλος not as the animal, but as some kind of thick rope. This interpretation from Cyril is known also in Syriac, both in the Syriac translation of the Luke commentary, and in Bar Bahlul, and probably elsewhere. I noticed recently in my Georgian Gospel reading that the early translations also bear witness to the reading “rope”, but the later translations — not surprisingly, given the predominant hellenizing tendencies of the period — line up with the standard Greek reading, “camel”, in most (but not all!) places. Below I list a few of the Greek exegetical places, followed by the three synoptic Gospel verses in Greek, Armenian, and Georgian; I have translated into English everything quoted below except for the Greek Gospel verses. The Syriac versions (Old Syriac, Peshitta, Harqlean), at least in Kiraz’s Comparative Edition of the Syriac Gospels, all have “camel” (gamlā), not “rope” (e.g. ḥablā). As usual, for Armenian and Georgian I provide a few lexical notes. I’ve used the following abbreviations:
- A89 = the xanmeti text A89/A844, ed. Lamara Kajaia (not extant for the whole of the Gospel of text), at TITUS here (given in both asomtavruli and mxedruli)
- Ad = Adishi, at TITUS here
- At = Athonite (Giorgi the Hagiorite), at TITUS here
- Künzle = B. Künzle, Das altarmenische Evangelium / L’évangile arménien ancien, 2 vols. [text + Armenian-German/French lexicon (Bern, 1984)
- Lampe = G.W.H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon
- PA = Pre-Athonite, see here at TITUS
- PG = Migne, Patrologia Graeca
As a side note, for the Qurʾān verse that cites the phrase in question, see the following:
- W. Montgomery Watt, “The Camel and the Needle’s Eye,” in C.J. Bleeker et al., eds., Ex Orbe Religionum: Studia Geo Widengren, vol. 2 (Leiden, 1972), pp. 155-158.
- Régis Blachère, “Regards sur un passage parallèle des Évangiles et du Coran,” in Pierre Salmon, ed., Mélanges d’Islamologie, volume dédié à la mémoire d’Armand Abel par ses collègues, ses élèves et ses amis (Leiden, 1974), pp. 69-73.
- M.B. Schub, “It Is Easier for a Cable to go through the Eye of a Needle than for a Rich Man to Enter God’s Kingdom,” Arabica 23 (1976): 311-312.
- Samir Khalil, “Note sur le fonds sémitique commun de l’expression ‘un chameau passant par le trou d’une aiguille’,” Arabica 25 (1978): 89-94.
- A. Rippin, “Qurʾān 7.40: ‘Until the Camel Passes through the Eye of the Needle'” Arabica 27 (1980): 107-113.
A similar phrase with “elephant” (pīlā) instead of “camel” appears in the Talmud: see Strack-Billerbeck, Kommentar, vol. 1, p. 828, and Sokoloff, Dict. of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, s.v. qwpʾ.
Some Greek and Syriac exegetical and lexical references
Origen, Fragment on Mt 19:24: οἱ μὲν τὸ σχοινίον τῆς μηχανῆς, οἱ δὲ τὸ ζῷον (cited in Lampe, 700a, s.v. κάμηλος)
Some [say the word means] the rope of some apparatus, others [say it means] the animal [the camel].
Cyril of Alexandria, Fragment on Mt 19:24 (PG 72: 429) Κάμηλον ἐνταῦθά φησιν, οὐ τὸ ζῶον τὸ ἀχθοφόρον, ἀλλὰ τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον ἐν ᾧ δεσμεύουσι τὰς ἀγκύρας οἱ ναῦται.
He says that kámēlos here is not the beast of burden, but rather the thick rope with which sailors tie their anchors.
Cyril, Comm. on Lk 18:23 (PG 72: 857) Κάμηλον, οὐ τὸ ζῶον, ἀλλὰ τὸ ἐν τοῖς πλοίοις παχὺ σχοινίον.
Kámēlos is not the animal, but rather the thick rope found in boats.
With this Greek line from the Luke commentary we can compare the Syriac version, ed. Payne Smith, p. 338.15-17: gamlā dēn āmar law l-hāy ḥayutā mālon ellā l-ḥablā ʿabyā. ʿyāda (h)w gēr l-hānon d-šappir yādʿin d-neplḥun b-yammā da-l-hālēn ḥablē d-yattir ʿbēn gamlē neqron.
He says gamlā, [meaning] not the animal, but rather a thick rope, for those who know well how to plow the sea are accustomed to call the very thick ropes that they use gamlē.
One more place in Syriac attributed to Cyril has this interpretation, a few lines in the fragmentarily preserved work Against Julian (CPG 5233), ed. E. Nestle in Karl Johannes Neumann, Iuliani imperatoris librorum contra Christianos quae supersunt (Leipzig, 1880), here p. 56, § 21: d-qaddišā Qurillos, men mēmrā d-16 d-luqbal Yuliyanos raššiʿā. mqabbel hākēl l-taḥwitā: ḥrurā da-mḥaṭṭā w-gamlā, w-law ḥayutā a(y)k d-asbar Yuliyanos raššiʿā wa-skal b-kul w-hedyoṭā, ellā mālon ḥablā ʿabyā da-b-kul ellpā, hākanā gēr it ʿyādā d-neqron ennon aylēn d-ilipin hālēn d-elpārē.
Cyril, from book 16 of [his work] Against Julian the Wicked. He accepts, then, the example: the eye of the needle and the gamlā, but not the animal, as the wicked, completely stupid, and ignorant Julian thought, but rather the thick rope that is on every ship, for thus those sailors who are expert are accustomed to call them.
Theophylact of Ohrid, Ennaratio on Mt (PG 123: 356): Τινὲς δὲ κάμηλον οὐ τὸ ζῷόν φασιν, ἀλλὰ τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον, ᾧ χρῷνται οἱ ναῦται πρὸς τὸ ῥίπτειν τὰς ἀγκύρας.
Some say that kámēlos is not the animal, but rather the thick rope that sailors use to cast their anchors.
Suda, Kappa № 282: Κάμηλος: τὸ ζῷον. … Κάμιλος δὲ τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον.
Kámēlos: the animal. … Kámilos a thick rope.
Ps.-Zonaras, Lexicon: Κάμηλος. τὸ ἀχθοφόρον ζῶον. κάμηλος καὶ τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον, ἐν ᾧ δεσμεύουσι τὰς ἀγκύρας οἱ ναῦται. ὡς τὸ ἐν εὐαγγελίοις· κάμηλον διὰ τρυπήματος ῥαφίδος διελθεῖν.
Kámēlos: the beast of burden. Kámēlos is also the thick rope with which sailors tie their anchors, as in the Gospels: “for a kámēlos to go through the eye of a needle.”
As mentioned above, Cyril’s report on the verse re-appears among other things in Bar Bahlul: ed. Duval, coll. 500-501, s.v. gamlā: gamlā tub maraš [sic! cf. maras]. ba-ṣḥāḥā Qurillos gamlā qārē l-ḥablā ʿabyā d-āsrin bēh spinātā. Moše bar Kēpā gišrā ʿabyā d-mettsim l-ʿel b-meṣʿat benyānē qārē gamlā, haw da-ʿlāw(hy) mettsimin qaysē (ʾ)ḥrānē men trayhon gabbāw(hy) w-taṭlilā d-a(y)k hākan gamlā metqrā. (ʾ)ḥrā[nē] dēn d-ʿal gamlā d-besrā w-da-kyānā rāmez wa-b-leššānā yawnāyā qamēlos metemar. (ʾ)ḥrā[nē] dēn āmrin d-gamlā haw d-emar māran b-ewangelyon sgidā — da-dlil (h)u l-gamlā l-meʿal ba-ḥrurā da-mḥaṭṭā — l-hānā gamlā d-ḥayy āmar, w-law d-a(y)k (ʾ)ḥrā[nē] šāṭrin l-gamlā. ba-ṣḥāḥā (ʾ)nāšin dēn āmrin d-šawšmāna (h)w arik reglē w-lā šarririn. w-gamlā b-meṣʿat ḥaywātā dakyātā w-ṭaʾmātā itāw(hy), b-hāy gēr d-metgawrar, men ḥaywātā dakyātā metḥšeb, wa-b-hāy d-lā ṣāryā parstēh, men ṭaʾmātā.
A gamlā is also a rope [Arabic]. In one copy: Cyril calls the thick rope with which people tie their ships a gamlā. Moše bar Kēpā calls the thick beam people place at the top of buildings in the middle a gamlā, the one on which other pieces of wood are placed from either side, and a ceiling like this is called a gamlā. Others [say] that it means the natural animal [? lit. of flesh and of nature] gamlā (camel), and in Greek it is called kámēlos. Others say that the gamlā that the Lord mentioned in the Gospel — i.e., “it is easier for a gamlā to enter the eye of a needle” — by this he means a living gamlā, and not, as some foolishly say, a [non-living] gamlā [i.e. a rope, as in the interp. above?]. In one copy: Some people say that it is an ant with long, unstable legs. A camel is midway between the categories of clean and unclean animals: since it chews the cud, it is counted among clean animals, and since it does not split the hoof, among unclean.
[NB with this ant mentioned here cf. Brockelmann, Lexicon Syriacum, 2d ed., 120b (s.v. gamlā mng. 2c), JBA gamlānāʾāh (Sokoloff, Dict. Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, 289-290); also Persian uštur mūr (camel-ant).]
The Gospel verses in Greek, Armenian, and Georgian
(English translations in the next section.)
πάλιν δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν, εὐκοπώτερόν ἐστιν κάμηλον διὰ τρυπήματος ῥαφίδος διελθεῖν ἢ πλούσιον εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.
Դարձեալ ասեմ ձեզ· դիւրի́ն է մալխոյ մտանել ընդ ծակ ասղան. քան մեծատան յարքայութիւն ա՟յ մտանել։
դիւրին easy, light | մալուխ, -լխոյ rope (supposedly also “camel”; see note below) | ծակ, -ուց hole | ասեղն, ասղան, -ղունք, -ղանց needle | մեծատուն, մեծատան, -անց rich NB on մալուխ, see Lagarde, Armenische Studien, № 1404; Ačaṙean, 3.226-227; Künzle 2.437 says “Die Bedeutung ‘Kamel’ ist wohl durch diese NT-Stellen irrtümlich in die armen. Lexika eingegangen.” The proper Arm. word for camel is ուղտ, Lagarde, Arm. St., № 1760 (cf. MP uštar, NP uštur; Sanskrit उष्ट्र uṣṭra).
A89 ႾႭჃႠႣႥႨႪჁႱ ႠႰႱ ႬႠႥႨႱႠ ႫႠႬႵႠႬႨႱႠ ႱႠႡႤႪႨ ჄႭჃႰႤႪႱႠ ႬႤႫႱႨႱႠႱႠ ႢႠႬႱႪႥႠႣ Ⴅ~Ⴄ . . . . . . . ႸႤႱႪႥႠႣ ႱႠႱႭჃႴႤႥႤႪႱႠ Ⴖ~ႧႨႱႠႱႠ
ხოჳადვილჱს არს ნავისა მანქანისა საბელი ჴოჳრელსა ნემსისასა განსლვად ვ(იდრ)ე . . . . . . . შესლვ[ა]დ სასოჳფეველსა ღ(მრ)თისასა
ხ-ოჳ-ადვილ-ჱს easier (< ადვილი easy) | ნავი ship | მანქანაჲ mechanism, machine | საბელი cable, rope, cord | ჴურელი hole | ნემსი needle
Ad მერმე გეტყჳ თქუენ: უადვილესა ზომთსაბლისაჲ ჴურელსა ნემსისასა განსლვაჲ, ვიდრე მდიდრისაჲ შესლვად სასუფეველსა ღმრთისასა.
უადვილეს easier (< ადვილი easy) | ზომთ(ა)-საბელი cable, thick rope (cf. Rayfield et al., 695a; ზომი measurement) | მდიდარი rich
PA და მერმე გეტყჳ თქუენ: უადვილეს არს მანქანისა საბელი განსლვად ჴურელსა ნემსისასა, ვიდრე მდიდარი შესლვად სასუფეველსა ღმრთისასა.
At და მერმე გეტყჳ თქუენ: უადვილეს არს აქლემი განსლვად ჴურელსა ნემსისასა, ვიდრე მდიდარი შესლვად სასუფეველსა ცათასა.
εὐκοπώτερόν ἐστιν κάμηλον διὰ [τῆς] τρυμαλιᾶς [τῆς] ῥαφίδος διελθεῖν ἢ πλούσιον εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ εἰσελθεῖν.
դիւրի́ն է մալխոյ ընդ ծակ ասղան անցանել. քան մեծատան յարքայութիւն ա՟յ մտանել։.
անցանեմ, անցի to pass, flow, run
Ad უადვილეს არს ზომსაბელისა განსლვაჲ ჴურელსა ნემსისა, ვიდრეღა <არა> [?] მდიდარი სასუფეველსა ღმრთისასა შესულად.
PA უადვილჱს არს მანქანისა საბელი ჴურელსა ნემსისასა განსლვად, ვიდრე მდიდარი სასუფეველსა ღმრთისასა შესლვად.
At უადვილეს არს აქლემი ჴურელსა ნემსისასა განსლვად, ვიდრე მდიდარი შესლვად სასუფეველსა ღმრთისასა.
εὐκοπώτερον γάρ ἐστιν κάμηλον διὰ τρήματος βελόνης εἰσελθεῖν ἢ πλούσιον εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ εἰσελθεῖν.
դիւրագոյն իցէ մալխոյ ընդ ծակ ասղան անցանել. քան մեծատան յարքայութիւն ա՟յ մտանել։.
A89 ႾႭჃႠႣႥႨႪჁႱ ႠႰႱ ႫႠႬႵႠႬႨႱ ႱႠႡႤႪႨ ჄႭჃႰႤႪႱႠ ႬႤႫ ႱႨႱႠႱႠ ႢႠႬႱႪႥႠႣ Ⴅ~Ⴄ ႫႣႨႣႠႰႨ ႱႠႱႭჃႴႤႥႤႪႱႠ Ⴖ~ႧႨႱႠႱႠ
ხოჳადვილჱს არს მანქანის საბელი ჴოჳრელსა ნემსისასა განსლვად ვ(იდრ)ე მდიდარი სასოჳფეველსა ღ(მრ)თისასა
Ad უადვილეს არს მანქანისსაბელი ჴურელსა ნემსისასა განსლვად, ვიდრე მდიდარი სასუფეველსა ღმრთისასა შესლვად.
PA = Ad
At უადვილეს არს მანქანისა საბელი ჴურელსა ნემსისასა განსლვად, ვიდრე მდიდარი შესლვად სასუფეველსა ღმრთისასა.
English translations of these verses
Arm Again I say to you: it is easier for a rope to enter the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
A89 It is easier for a rope from a ship’s apparatus to go through the eye of a needle than [for the rich] to enter the kingdom of God.
Ad Again I say to you: It is easier for a cable to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
PA And again I say to you: It is easier for the rope of an apparatus to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
At And again I say to you: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. [sic! Not “of God”]
Arm It is easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
Ad It is easier for a cable to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
PA It is easier for the rope of an apparatus to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
At It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
Arm It would be easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
A89 It is easier for the rope of an apparatus to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich [to enter] the kingdom of God.
Ad It is easier for the rope of an apparatus to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
PA = Ad
At ≈ Ad
So here is how the witnesses stand:
|Some Greek exeg.
|Geo early, PA
||✓ (Lk only)
For Greek, I wonder about the real existence of the word κάμιλος (with iota, not ēta, but both words pronounced the same at this period). I don’t know that it is attested anywhere that is certainly unrelated to the Gospel passages. More generally, is there an explanation for the two opposed readings “camel” and “rope”? There is in Arabic a similarity between ǧamal (camel) and ǧuml/ǧumla (“thick rope”, see Lane 460), but it is treading on thin ice to have recourse to this similarity as an explanation for earlier texts with no palpable connection to Arabic. It may simply be the case that, as Cyril says, in nautical argot ropes went by the name “camels”. (And we should remember that there were sailors in Jesus’ circle.)
The earliest reading may well have been “camel”, but a change to “rope” does not really make for an easier reading: one can put a thread through a needle’s eye, but a rope will go through it no more than a camel will! In any case, some traditions clearly side with “rope”, such that those traditions’ commonest readers and hearers of the Gospel passage would have known nothing of a camel passing through the eye of a needle, only a rope, and apparently one large enough to handle marine functions!
There is no early evidence among the sources above for “camel” in Georgian (or Armenian), while Greek knows both, as does Syriac (via Greek sources, to be sure). This variety of readings, attested without a doubt, adds to the richness of the textual witness of the Bible and the history of its interpretation. There are probably further exegetical and lexical places in Greek, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian that bear on this question of what we’re dealing with here, a camel or a rope, but this is, I hope, at least an initial basis for some future work on the question for anyone interested.
In a previous episode of this series, I gave part of Luke 9:58 (// Mt 8:20) without any further explanation. Here’s the whole verse (minus the introduction of Jesus’ direct speech) in the Adishi version. The Pre-Athonite and Athonite versions have only small differences, which are indicated below. (Incidentally, it is usually instructive to read these three versions side-by-side. I am preparing some documents for the synoptic study of these Georgian versions of the Transfiguration and the Temptation of Jesus pericopes.)
First, some vocabulary:
- მელი fox
- მიდრეკა to lean
- [მფრინველი bird]
- საყუდელი refuge, residence
- ფრინველი bird (Rayfield et al. 1293; as such not in Sarj.-Fähn., but note ფრინვა to fly)
- ჩენა to appear to/for (i.e. to be seen to belong to, with the CV უ- to mark an indirect object as possessor). For the second occurrence of this verb in the verse, the Pre-Ath. and Ath. versions have აქუს. (For უჩს, another place is Vep’xistqaosani 82a: მეფესა ესე ამბავი უჩს, ვითა მღერა ნარდისა, “This news seemed to the king [or The king held this news] as [lightly as] playing backgammon.”)
- ჴურელი hole
αἱ ἀλώπεκες φωλεοὺς ἔχουσιν
მელთა ჴურელი უჩნს
καὶ τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατασκηνώσεις,
და ფრინველთა ცისათა საყუდელი,
(Pa and At have მფრინველთა for ფრინველთა.)
ὁ δὲ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου οὐκ ἔχει ποῦ τὴν κεφαλὴν κλίνῃ.
ხოლო ძესა კაცისასა არა უჩს, სადა თავი მიიდრიკოს.
Astute Gospel-readers will remember that this is not the only place where Jesus uses the word “fox”: he calls Herod one at Lk 13:32 (here again in the Adishi version):
καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς·
ხოლო თავადმან ჰრქუა მათ:
πορευθέντες εἴπατε τῇ ἀλώπεκι ταύτῃ·
მივედით და არქუთ მელსა მას:
ἰδοὺ ἐκβάλλω δαιμόνια
აჰა, ესერა, განვასხამ ეშმაკთა
καὶ ἰάσεις ἀποτελῶ σήμερον καὶ αὔριον
და კურნებასა აღვასრულებ დღეს და ხვალე,
καὶ τῇ τρίτῃ τελειοῦμαι.
და ზეგე აღვესრულები.
Today (Aug 19) some churches celebrate the Transfiguration, and there are readings for the feast in published synaxaria in Arabic, Armenian, and Gǝʿǝz. A close reading and comparison of the language of these texts would be worthwhile, but now I’d like only to share part of the Gǝʿǝz reading, namely the three sälam verses that close the commemoration of the Transfiguration. (On the genre of the sälam, see this post.) Most typically, there is only one five-line verse in the Gǝʿǝz synaxarion at the end of the commemoration of a saint or holy event, but for this important feast there are three together, the verses ending, respectively, with the syllabic rhymes -ʿa/ʾa, -wä, -se. As usual, verses like this provide a good learning opportunity for students interested in Gǝʿǝz, both in terms of lexicon and grammar, the latter especially thanks to the freer arrangement of the sentence’s constituents that obtains in this kind of writing.
I give Guidi and Grébaut’s text from PO 9: 513-514, together with a new, rough English translation.
Greetings to Tabor, which is named and called
The fertile mountain and the firm mountain!
There Barak conquered, and the might of Sisera was conquered.
And having ascended [that mountain], when Jesus had become man,
He revealed the hidden mystery of his second coming.
Greetings to your ascent up the slope of Mount Tabor in tranquility!
Having taken the men you had chosen from among many,
Jesus, you who were incarnate from the house of Judah,
The appearance of your face shined like lightning,
And your clothes were as white as snow.
The Father proclaimed you in praise,
And the Spirit of holiness concealed your head.
When you had made an assembly of apostles,
Where Elijah was present and where Moses was,
You, Son, showed the trinity of your divinity.
 The two prepositions in this line behave more like adverbs than prepositions, given that a relative pronoun pointing back to ክናሴ፡ in the previous line is omitted: “assembly at [which] Elijah was present and with [which] Moses was.” Cf. Dillmann, Gr., § 201.
Pilate’s famous question to Jesus in John 18:38, which reads the same in the Adishi, Pre-Athonite, Athonite versions (on the Old Georgian Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament, see the recent survey by Childers in the bibliography below):
ჰრქუა მას პილატე: რაჲ არს ჭეშმარიტებაჲ?
λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος· τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια;
Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
The last word of the line is derived from the adjective ჭეშმარიტი, itself from Armenian ճշմարիտ, on which see Ačaṛyan’s dictionary, vol. 3, p. 209, available online here. Other examples of this and related words are easy to find: John 1:9 (Adishi) იყო ნათელი ჭეშმარიტი Ἦν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινόν; 1:14 სავსჱ მადლითა და ჭეშმარიტებითა πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας; and from the K᾽art᾽lis c᾽xovreba, არა იყო წინასწარმეტყუელი და მოძღუარი სჯულისა ჭეშმარიტისა “there was no prophet and teacher of the true faith” (Rapp, Qauxch᾽ishvili, and Abuladze, eds., K᾽art᾽lis c᾽xovreba: The Georgian Royal Annals and Their Medieval Armenian Adaptation, 2 vols. Delmar, NY: Caravan Books, 1998, vol. 1, p. 18).
Jacek Malczewski, Christ before Pilate, 1910. See here.
Childers, Jeff W. 2012. “The Georgian Version of the New Testament.” In The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, edited by Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes, 2nd ed., 293–327. New Testament Tools, Studies and Documents 42. Brill.