by Al Maxey

Issue #402 ------- July 7, 2009
Do not seek expressions,
seek thoughts to be expressed.

Henry David Thoreau {1817-1862}

Needling Your Camel
A Study of Matthew 19:24

Most peoples, both ancient and modern, are fond of employing various figures of speech in their writings. It is a common practice, but one that may pose significant challenges for the interpreters of said writings. This is especially true of those seeking to understand the inspired Scriptures, for how one perceives a passage may have enormous theological ramifications. For those who might be interested, I would suggest a reading of the following reflective studies on this subject: Reflections #356 -- Figures of Speech & Thought: Creative Communicative Building Blocks and Reflections #360 -- Challenge of Figurative Language: The Rules and Guidelines for Interpreting Figurative Language in the Scriptures. I might even go so far as to suggest examining Reflections #53 -- Building Biblical Hermeneutists, an article in which I focus on those assorted qualities and characteristics which can either help or hinder a person in their life's quest to become a more proficient biblical interpreter. One's approach will often determine one's application.

This present issue of my weekly Reflections was prompted primarily by a recent email received from a dear brother-in-Christ who resides in the nearby state of Nevada. He had a question for me regarding our Lord's figure of speech in which Jesus spoke of the ease (or lack thereof) with which a camel might pass through the eye of a needle [Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25]. In a very small handful of later manuscripts, the Greek word for "camel" (kamelos) is replaced with the Greek word for a large "cable, rope," the kind that is typically used on a ship (kamilos), although one highly respected lexicon states this latter word "has no place in the NT" [Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 401]. The reader in Nevada then wrote, "It seems to me that Jesus' statement makes much more sense if He stated, 'It's easier for a heavy cable (used aboard a ship) to pass through the eye of a needle' than for Him to talk of a camel doing so. Is there any scholarship for this alternate reading?" In a word, the short answer to this dear brother's concluding question is a resounding NO. The "scholarship" for such an alternate reading is virtually nonexistent. Indeed, it is almost impossible to find any reputable biblical scholar who embraces the reading as valid.

Because of the unusual nature of our Lord's illustration, men have for centuries sought to find some way to "make more sense" of what He said to His disciples that day, and these attempts fall into three main categories: (1) suggesting that the word should actually be "cable," not "camel," (2) suggesting that the needle's eye was a figurative reference to a narrow gorge through which a packed camel might have trouble passing, and (3) suggesting the phrase referred to a narrow pedestrian gate in Jerusalem through which a camel might pass if its load was removed and it went through on its knees. This latter was especially popular among those who sought to allegorize Scripture, as it would suggest that the rich might still have a chance to be saved if they would rid themselves of their riches and approach the Holy City on their knees. The Lord's reference to a narrow pathway and a narrow gate [Matt. 7:13-14] also seemed, at least to them, to support their interpretation. Though these various attempts to tone down the figure employed by Jesus may sound reasonable, they are almost universally rejected by biblical scholars. The truth seems to be that Jesus meant exactly what He said -- He presented the impossibility of a camel, one of the largest land animals in Palestine, trying to pass through the eye of a needle, one of the smallest openings known to the Jews of that day. Such a thing was an absurdity; a practical impossibility -- which was precisely the point He sought to make, as we shall note momentarily.

"Attempts to weaken this hyperbole by taking 'needle' not as a sewing needle, but as a small gate through which an unladen camel could just squeeze -- and only on his knees -- are misguided. This conjecture may come from some of Jerome's allegorizing" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 425]. "It was not until the fifth century that kamelos (camel) was changed to kamilos, the heavy rope or cable attached to the anchor of a ship. This change was no real gain, for a cable also cannot be threaded through a needle's eye" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 755]. Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll observed, "The figure is to be taken as it stands, and not to be 'civilized' by taking the word to mean 'a cable'" [The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 251]. In his massive Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, the noted biblical scholar Dr. Craig S. Keener declared, "Despite many interpreters' attempts to evade the force of the saying, toning down the hyperbole robs it of its intended force" [p. 477]. The world-renowned Greek scholar Dr. Bruce M. Metzger gave this logical explanation: "In an attempt to soften the rigor of the statement, the word kamilos (a rope or a ship's hawser) was substituted for kamelos in several later witnesses. The change was facilitated by the circumstance that the Greek letters iota and eta came to be pronounced alike in later Greek (both words were pronounced kah'mee-los)" [A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 169].

The reality is -- the statement made by Jesus was a very common proverb in use among the Jews of that day, as well as a number of the surrounding Arab nations. Jesus did not originate the saying, He simply employed a proverb with which the people would have been very familiar. "Jesus employs a common figure of speech when He speaks of a camel passing through a needle's eye" [Keener, p. 477]. Adam Clarke observed, "Instead of kamelos (camel), six manuscripts read kamilos (cable), a mere gloss inserted by some who did not know that the other was a proverb common enough among the people of the east. It was a mode of expression common among the Jews, and signified a thing impossible" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 193]. "This was a proverb in common use among the Jews, and is still common among the Arabians" [Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, from e-Sword]. "This is a proverbial expression for an impossibility. A similar proverb is found in many countries, only substituting another great animal instead of the camel" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, part 2, p. 250]. The Babylonian Talmud, by way of example, uses the elephant instead of the camel. These Rabbis wrote that some things were considered so impossible that they were not even the fabric of one's dreams -- such as: "an elephant going through the eye of a needle." Craig Keener, in his commentary on the gospel record of Matthew, provides several references from their writings in which this figure appears. Yes, even "the Koran has the same illustration that Jesus employs" [Lenski, p. 755]. "The Koran reproduces the very words of the Gospel" [Charles Ellicott, Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 120]. The passage in the Koran reads --- "The impious shall find the gates of heaven shut; nor shall he enter there till a camel shall pass through the eye of a needle" [Vincent's Word Studies, from e-Sword].

I think we can clearly perceive from these examples that not only was the proverb (in its various forms) quite common to that period of time, but the purpose of the proverb was to show the absolute impossibility of something. Matthew Henry wrote, "This is a proverbial expression denoting a difficulty altogether unconquerable by the art and power of man; nothing less than the almighty grace of God will enable a rich man to get over this difficulty" [Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, from e-Sword]. And this, of course, is precisely the point our Lord sought to impress upon His disciples that day. In fact, the apparent hopelessness conveyed by the expression shocked the disciples, who asked, "Who then can be saved?!" [Matt. 19:25; Mark 10:26; Luke 18:26]. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible makes a good point here. If one accepts the view that the "eye of a needle" refers to a narrow gate which a camel could enter if unloaded and kneeling, "such an interpretation would not explain the disciples' conclusion that salvation (for the rich) was impossible" [p. 954]. The ray of hope here, however, is to be found in God's grace, not in a man's own ability!! Jesus responded to His disciples, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" [Matt. 19:26; Mark 10:27; Luke 18:27].

Our Lord is not declaring, by the way, that no one who is wealthy will ever enter the kingdom of God. If that were an absolute, then such people as Abraham, Job, David, Solomon, Joseph of Arimathea, just to name a very few, would be lost. These were very wealthy men. "Jesus' words are not a critique of wealth per se, but a warning about the spiritual danger wealth poses to the hearts of the rich and the implications of this for membership within the kingdom" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 510]. The rich person alluded to in this saying employed by the Lord "is someone who trusts in and identifies himself with his wealth. For such a person to expect a share in God's kingdom is absurd" [ibid]. The King James Version adds a phrase to the text of Mark's account, perhaps in an effort to reflect this very thought -- "How hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!" [Mark 10:24]. "In St. Mark (whether the words are genuine or not is very uncertain) we find a limitation introduced -- 'How hard it is for them that trust in riches.' Now, this is the effect of riches: men learn to trust in them" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, part 2, p. 250]. "The fact that Jesus has in mind a man who trusts in riches is emphasized by Mark. He may or may not have wealth, but its deceptive power is always present" [Lenski, p. 755]. "It is quite rare for a man to be rich and not set his heart upon his riches; and it is utterly impossible for a man that sets his heart upon his riches to get to heaven" [Matthew Henry, from e-Sword]. Why? Because that which you set your heart upon truly becomes your lord and master, and "no one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and riches" [Matt. 6:24].

Our gracious heavenly Father, however, through the personal indwelling of His Holy Spirit, has the power to transform us from the inside out. Therefore, what may prove too great a task for us, is far from impossible for Him. "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect" [Rom. 12:2]. In Romans 8 Paul informs us that the "mind set on the things of the flesh" [vs. 5-6] places us in deadly opposition to our God. Such minds given over to the things of this world do not subject themselves to the will of God ... indeed, they are "not even able to do so" [vs. 7]. Here is that great impossibility of which Jesus spoke. However, thank God, His Holy Spirit dwells within us, enabling us to suppress the desires of the flesh and devote ourselves to lives of holiness [vs. 9ff]. You and I are called with a divine purpose in mind [vs. 28], "for those whom God foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son" [vs. 29]. Thus, what is impossible by our own human effort, is not only possible, but assured, by the grace of God. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" [vs. 1], and this includes Jew and Gentile, black and white, male and female, master and slave, young and old ... even rich and poor!! Yes, by the transforming power of God's matchless grace even a camel may find himself drawn through the eye of a needle, for "with God all things are possible" [Matt. 19:24]. Praise God for His love and mercy!!

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

A 200 page book by Al Maxey
Publisher: (301) 695-1707

Readers' Reflections

From a Missionary in Bulgaria:

Greetings in Christian Love, Bro. Al. I was doing some reading about house churches, and I came across the following quote on Frank Viola's web site. I thought you might be able to use it. -- "Experience supplies painful proof that traditions once called into being are first called useful, then they become necessary. At last they are too often made idols, and all must bow down to them or be punished" (J. C. Ryle).

From a Minister in Ukraine:

Dear Brother Al, Your pictures of the doves, and your article "The Gift of Love," were great. Although your article was short, it was very touching and true. I keep reading your Reflections each week, and am enjoying them very much! They always give me some thoughts to ponder and food to digest. Keep up the great work.

From a New Reader in Malaysia:

Dear Brother Al, Thank you for your enlightening article "You're A Good Little Dogma." It was indeed refreshing to read your article which provided a balanced viewpoint as to what is in the Scriptures (with regard to silence and specificity). I appreciate what you are doing and would like to be included on your mailing list. May God's blessing continue to be with you always!

From a Major in the U.S. Army:

Brother Al, My sincerest thanks for your efforts in spreading the joy of biblical freedom in Christ Jesus. I somehow came across your writings while serving a tour in Baghdad, Iraq. Your Reflections have helped solidify my own thoughts that there is genuine joy in being saved, rather than the "threat of hell" hanging over you if you don't follow what "we have always done." I forward many of your articles to my brother, and I would appreciate him being added to your distribution list. Your brother in arms and in Christ.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Bro. Al, I was lax in opening your article "The Gift of Love." Thus, I have just now read your announcement, and, brother, I am thrilled to see that you are going to be one of the speakers at The Tulsa Workshop next year!! You can bet your flat hat that we'll be there with bells on!! We love you and Shelly, and now we can't wait to hear your messages in Tulsa!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, What a refreshing breath of air you are to the brotherhood of saints around the world! And that brotherhood most certainly includes ALL who believe in and who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. There is yet another "dogma" that needs some thought: the practice of "secret elder's meetings" conducted out of sight of the members, and where attendance by selected members is only by prior approval. This is a somewhat scary practice, and I'm not really sure which side of this issue I come down on. From what I can determine from the Scriptures, it appears the elders met in front of and/or in the midst of the whole congregation (not in some secret conclave). What say ye?!

From a Reader in California:

Bro. Al, "You're A Good Little Dogma" was a great article on the silence of the Scriptures. I agree with every word you wrote! I am a One Cupper, but I do not believe that this should put a barrier between thee and me, for we be brethren!! I just wish the legalists would spend their time encouraging their fellow disciples to live righteous and joyful lives in Christ, instead of wasting their time trying to "prove" which church is the right church!

From a Minister in California:

Brother Al, Many, many years ago I knew Yater Tant, and even have a photograph of my wife cutting his hair. He stayed at our house on more than one occasion. I have a signed copy of his biography about his father -- J. D. Tant: Texas Preacher -- a book I've read several times and treasure. Bro. Yater Tant and I were on very different "sides of the fence" theologically, but he was the most kind-hearted man I've ever met. He might disagree with you, but he showed great respect to those with whom he differed (at least this was true in my experience).

From a Reader in Texas:

Dearly Beloved Brother Al, In Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 Paul mentioned "psalms." Paul did not list which psalms are allowable. He did not exclude any of them. Therefore, it would be permissible to sing ANY of these inspired psalms. Al, can you just see, in your wildest imaginations, a song leader in an a cappella Church of Christ announcing Psalm 150:4?! -- "Praise Him with the timbrel and dance; praise Him with the stringed instruments and organs!" If he did, I doubt he would ever be allowed to lead another song within that congregation. Here's another point -- where in the New Testament writings do we read of anyone "leading" a song or "leading" a prayer? All these hair-splitting patternists really need to consider their dogma on "silence" in view of this! The fact is, as you often note: we are free in Christ!

From a Minister/Ed.D in Florida:

Dear Brother Al, Thank you for this article ("You're A Good Little Dogma")!! It speaks volumes as to how much the church has been overshadowed by tradition for the past 100 years! I realized this recently when a brother with a third grade education gave me a copy of the April edition of The Spiritual Sword, bemoaning what is "happening to us!" Alan Highers (read his editorial) is a very intelligent man, but he simply cannot let go of the thinking of his forefathers! The conservative mind seems to be afraid to "think for itself." I knew Alan during the many years I taught at Freed-Hardeman University, and have thought about responding to that April editorial. However, it would no doubt fall on deaf ears. Al, please continue your research and writing!! You are making a difference!!

From a Minister in Mississippi:

Brother Al, Very interesting article, as always! Thank you for challenging everyone to think about how they view the Scriptures. It seems that too many within the Churches of Christ are content to pass on the dogma of the previous generations without really understanding what it is they believe ... and why.

From a Reader in California:

Bro. Al, Thank you for your article on the dogma of "silence." I don't know Bro. Tant, but I appreciate what you said about his disagreeing with respect and love. My father is a well-respected One Cup preacher. He is very legalistic, but is also kind-hearted and treats everyone with respect and dignity. Again, thank you, Al, for your Reflections article.

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, That was another great article! Why don't these legalists get it, Al?! You make it so clear; so easy to understand! What happens in their minds when they are exposed to all the truths you write?! You would think that after reading your writings, most of them would begin to question their absurd reasonings! However, I fear that most legalists are in denial. They have been told for so many years (some of them for all their lives) that they are the "chosen ones," that most of them are just too proud and too conceited to ever stop believing as they do (I used to be a legalist, so I know how it feels). Thus, they continue to believe the lies they're fed, ignoring the logic that is put forth so powerfully by you, and other like you, who see through the man-made laws and the binding of traditions that have become the main focus for too many within the Churches of Christ. So, I commend you, Bro. Al, for your efforts to combat the misguided teachings within our beloved faith-heritage. You are doing a great job. However, we need more "troops on the ground." You need some backup, brother. The rest of us need to step up here. We all know a number of legalists, and we need to get involved in helping them find the real Truth. We should each be doing something to assist you in bringing freedom in Christ to the legalists in our midst. I want you to know, Al, that I appreciate and admire you for what you do. May God bless you.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Dear Bro. Al, I appreciated your thoughts on the silence of the Scriptures. You were able to help me crystallize some thoughts I have been trying to get organized in my own head. Thank you for your thoughtful lessons. God bless you!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Brother Al, Your Reflections article "You're A Good Little Dogma" was very timely, as for several weeks I have been doing research on this for a series of lessons for a men's class on Wednesday nights. In your article you stated that Tertullian "took the view that 'what has not been freely allowed is forbidden.' In other words, if the Holy Scriptures are genuinely silent about something, then that about which they are truly, utterly and absolutely silent is forever forbidden. Others of his day, however, declared just as confidently, 'the thing which is not forbidden is freely permitted.'" Bro. Al, would you give the source for each of these quotes? Thanks!

From a New Reader in Tennessee:

Dear Brother Maxey, Please add me to your Reflections mailings. I appreciate your work very much. I recently graduated from Freed-Hardeman University with a degree in Bible, but as I studied the Scriptures I was constantly coming to very different conclusions than my professors. I would really like to stay in contact with you. May God continue to bless you.

From a Reader in California:

Dear Brother Maxey, Thank you so much for your last article: "You're A Good Little Dogma." It was one of your best. It is stunning to me -- when one considers the universe and the fantastic glory thereof, and the majesty of God's wonderful creation here on earth, as well as all the stunning love He has poured out upon us all, culminating in the sacrifice of His Son, while we were still enemies of His (so great is His love) -- that we debate and divide over clapping in the assembly or the use of kitchens or any number of other equally inane trivialities. This is pure sectarian and (dare I say it) unChristian pablum!! Pablum is for infants. So, let me Thank You, Bro. Maxey, for serving up sumptuous, well-grilled spiritual steaks on a weekly basis!

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Brother Al, I just read your nice remarks about Brother Tant, but I noticed that you used the phrase "my teachings" in your article. I thought we were to follow the teachings of Jesus the Christ.

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, Thank you so much for your wise counsel from the Scriptures. I pass along to others the things you have written, but, sad to say, I am convinced that many people are so terrified of having their thinking challenged to the point that they might have to change their beliefs (and/or discovering that their beliefs and practices might be in contradiction to what the Scriptures actually teach) that they refuse to take the time to check out what you have written. It is easier for them to just keep on believing that "WE" already have ALL Truth, and thus we do not need to "waste our time" considering anything anyone else has to say. So sad! But, I'll just keep loving them and praying for them anyway, asking God to help us all to understand better and better what He wants us to know. May the Lord continue to bless and guide you!

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