New Testament Words and Verses
The Camel and the Eye of the Needle
Mark 10:25:”It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
This verse is among the most familiar to students of the New Testament, and much ink has been spilled trying to determine if its seemingly harsh and exclusionary language ought to be taken at face value or should be interpreted more “gently.” There is very little to add to what has been written about one of the issues, i.e., whether the “eye of the needle” really refers to a side-gate in Jerusalem where the camels (and therefore humans) needed to “divest” themselves of possessions in order to pass through or whether the real point of the sentence is to stress the limits of human ability when it comes to entering the Kingdom of God. Whatever one’s interpretive “take” on it, I am old enough to know that one’s attitudes towards money, saving and spending, are generally shaped long before one enters into a serious encounter with the life of faith, and these attitudes are well-nigh unchangeable. Therefore, what really interests me is the language used in describing the arresting statement.
To the Text
Let’s begin with the Greek text from Mark 10:25:
25 εὐκοπώτερόν ἐστιν κάμηλον διὰ [τῆς] τρυμαλιᾶς [τῆς] ῥαφίδος διελθεῖν ἢ πλούσιον εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ εἰσελθεῖν.
“It is an easier job/easier work for a camel to go through the hole of a needle than a rich person to enter into the Kingdom of God.”
We have a rich harvest of words in this verse that catch our attention; the three I will briefly discuss in this essay are εὐκοπώτερόν, τρυμαλία, and ῥαφίς. Parallel passages in Matthew and Luke give us one or two other words that will be useful to study.
Striking is the presence of the first word: “an easier labor” (εὐκοπώτερόν). As can be seen, the adjective is a combination of “well” or “good” and “labor” in the comparative. Interestingly, this word appears rarely in Classical and Hellenistic Greek, though the adverbial form ευκοπώς (“easily”) is somewhat common. But since the comparative form is rare, its 7x appearance in the NT is striking indeed. Though it appears 7x, it really is used in only three different contexts: a) when Jesus heals the paralytic, he asks the hearers whether it is easier (εὐκοπώτερόν) to forgive sins or to heal (see the same word in parallel passages: Matt. 9:5; Mk. 2:9 and Lk. 5:23); b) the above-mentioned example (parallel passages: Matt. 19:24; Mk. 10:25 and Lk. 18:25); and c) the single example of Lk 16:17, where Jesus talks about how it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than one “stroke” (κεραία, lit. “little horn”) of the law to pass away.
More interesting from a historical point of view is τρυμαλία. Again, it is not frequently used in Classical Greek, but it appears about a handful of times in the LXX. The Book of Judges (Recension B) uses it three times and each time a translation of “hole” is appropriate. For example, in Jud. 6:2B we have the Israelites, threatened by the Midianites, abandoning the settled areas and taking up residence in τρυμαλία or “holes” (in the earth). The word highlights not just their poverty but their utter desperation. Recension A of that passage has the word μάνδρα (pen for animals) here. The same translation fits the appearance of τρυμαλία in Jud. 15:8B, 11B though in this passage it is a hole that Samson deliberately retreats to after a victory. What is interesting about Recension A of these two passages is that the translators select two different words to render the same concept: σπήλαιον (“cave”) and οπή (“hole”). You wonder not only whether an example like this helps us zero in on the textual development of the two Recensions, but whether the translators of Recension A really knew the rather rare word τρυμαλία. Finally, Jeremiah is told by God to take a garment and bury it in a hole (τρυμαλία). He discovers it is worn out, unable to be used.
While the two parallel passages to Mk 10:25 (Matt. 19:24; Lk. 18:25) don’t use τρυμαλία, they use a word identical in meaning and almost in form, so close in fact as to make scholars think that they really were originally built off the same word. That word is τρύπημα, derived from the fairly common verb τρυπάω, which means “I bore” or “I drill.” That which is drilled, of course, is a hole.
Finally, the word for “needle,” ῥαφίς , only appears in the Matt. 19 and Mk. 10 passages in the NT. Its underlying verb is ράπτω, “to sew” or “to stitch.” Interestingly, the Gospel of Luke talks about the “hole” not of a needle but of a βέλος. But this word only appears in Lk. 18:24 and Eph. 6:16 in the NT, and in the latter it is unquestionably best to render it as “darts” or “arrows.” Thus, we have the interesting picture in Luke of a camel going through the “hole” of an “arrow” or “dart,” which is quite a different picture than the eye or hole of a needle.
In any case, my reading in Judges 6 today in the LXX led me on a journey to get to the bottom of the “hole.” I found along the way a rich harvest of Biblical words which, if not yielding an easily discernible meaning in the NT, at least challenges us and stimulates our imagination today.
Luke 10:40, Distracted (περισπάω)
Back to NT Page