Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Jesus Was a Seamster

[Note: A seamster, one who sews garments, not a teamster, a member of a labor union]

One of the things I love the most about my job as a Director of Religious Education is that every day it affords me the opportunity to learn more about my faith, which has been a passionate hobby of mine ever since my conversion in 2002. Today, a parishioner called and asked if I would explain to her Jesus' words to the rich man, "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mt 19:24; cf. Mk 10:25; Lk 18:25). She was confused because sewing needles seemed to her to be a modern invention, and she seemed to recall a priest telling her once that the "eye of a needle" was actually a reference to a small passageway into a city.

I was delighted to help, primarily because I had always just assumed that Jesus was referring to a sewing needle and had never stopped to consider whether or not this was an anachronistic interpretation. Could Jesus be referring to something else here? I couldn't wait to find out!

What Exactly Is the "Needle"?

After about an hour reading through the various commentaries on my bookshelf and consulting sources online, I discovered that my initial reading of the text was correct. Jesus is indeed referring to a sewing needle.

Here are the sources that confirm this interpretation:

Robert Sungenis, The Catholic Apologetics Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, pg. 97:
Greek: ῥαφίδος (raphidos = needle). Some have understood this to refer to the passageway through a walled city, such that the camel would have to stoop to enter. But this has no precedent. Classical Greek (e.g., Corpus Hippiatricorum) and the LXX (Exo 27:16; 38:23 [37:21]) use the word ῥαφίδευτού (raphideutou = "needlework") containing the root ῥαφίδευ in reference to a needle for stitching.

Ronald Knox, A New Testament Commentary for English Readers, Volume 1: The Four Gospels, pg. 43:
In verse 24, there is no need for such ingenious conjectures as that the "camel" meant a kind of rope, or that the "Needle's Eye" was the name given to some gate-way. Our Lord deliberately exaggerates his effects; cf. Matthew 7:3.

David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, pg. 60:
Needle's eye. It is obviously impossible for the largest known animal in the region to pass through the smallest opening normally encountered. Late manuscripts and versions which substitute "cable" or "rope" for "camel," likewise commentaries which suppose the "needle's eye" refers to a small gate kept open in a large gate closed to protect a walled city, are later efforts to tone down Yeshua's starkly incongruous image.

Catholic Biblical Association, A Commentary on the New Testament, pg. 134:
To try to explain camel by a similar-sounding Greek word meaning "rope," or to interpret an eye of a needle as meaning a low gate in the walls of a city through which pedestrians, but hardly camels, can pass, are futile attempts to whittle down the force of Christ's words.

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible, pg. 438:
The eye of a needle, we are sometimes assured, is a metaphor; the reference is to a small opening giving independent access or egress through a much larger city gate. ... But this charming explanation is of relatively recent date; there is no evidence that such a subsidiary entrance was called the eye of a needle in biblical times.

Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Roland E. Murphy, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Vol II: The New Testament, pg. 97:
24. easier for a camel: The figure of the camel and the eye of the needle means exactly what is said; it does not refer to a cable or a small gate of Jerusalem.

George W. Knight, The Illustrated Everyday Bible Companion, pg. 237:
NEEDLE. A tool for sewing. Jesus compared the difficulty of the wealthy reaching heaven with a camel passing through the eye of a needle (Matt. 19:24).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, "Needle":
Some writers have attempted to show that rhaphis referred to a small gate of a walled oriental city. No evidence of such a use of the word exists in the terms applied today in Biblical lands to this opening.

Easton's Bible Dictionary, "Needle":
Some interpret the expression as referring to the side gate, close to the principal gate, usually called the "eye of a needle" in the East; but it is rather to be taken literally.

Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament, "Matthew 19:24":
Jesus, of course, means by this comparison, whether an eastern proverb or not, to express the impossible. The efforts to explain it away are jejune like a ship's cable, kamilon or rapi as a narrow gorge or gate of entrance for camels which recognized stooping, etc. All these are hopeless, for Jesus pointedly calls the thing "impossible" (verse 26). ... The word for an ordinary needle is rapi, but, Luke (Luke 18:25) employs belonh, the medical term for the surgical needle not elsewhere in the N.T.

J. W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton, The Fourfold Gospel, "Mark 10:25":
It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. ... Lord George Nugent (1845-6) introduced the explanation that Jesus referred to the two gates of a city, the large one for the beast of burden, and the small one for foot-passengers. This smaller one is now called "The Needle's Eye", but there is no evidence whatever that it was so called in our Savior's time. In fact, as Canon Farrar observes, we have every reason to believe that this smaller gate received its name in late years because of the efforts of those who were endeavoring to soften this saying of Jesus.

Is It Likely That This Is What Jesus Was Referring To?

Of course, all of this begs the question: Is it likely that Jesus was referring to a sewing needle? Did people in his day even have sewing needles? Would Jesus and his audience have known of such things? The answer here is yes.

Wikipedia, "Sewing Needles":
The first needles were made of bone or wood; modern ones are manufactured from high carbon steel wire, nickel- or 18K gold plated for corrosion resistance. ... A variety of archaeological finds illustrate sewing has been present for thousands of years. The Romans left elaborate traces of their sewing technology, especially thimbles and needles. Even earlier Stone Age finds, such as the excavations on the island of Öland at Alby, Sweden, reveal objects such as bone needle cases dating to 6000 BC. Ivory needles were also found dated to 30,000 years ago at the Kostenki site in Russia.[3] The oldest needle in the world was made of bone, dated to Aurignacian and discovered in Potok Cave (Slovene: Potočka zijalka) in the Eastern Karavanke, Slovenia.[4] Native Americans were known to use sewing needles from natural sources. One such source, the agave plant, provided both the needle and the "thread."

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, "Needle":
This saying ought to be accepted in the same sense as Matthew 23:24, "Ye blind guides, that strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!" Christ used them to illustrate absurdities. A rabbinical parallel is cited, "an elephant through a needle's eye." ... The fact that needles are not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible should not be taken to indicate that this instrument was not used. Specimens of bone and metal needles of ancient origin show that they were common household objects.

Catholic Biblical Association, A Commentary on the New Testament, pg. 134:
A camel through an eye of a needle is a proverbial expression meaning that something is impossible. Similar paradoxical expressions are found not only in the Talmud but also in Greek and Latin literature.

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible, pg. 438:
"To contrast the largest beast of burden known in Palestine with the smallest of artificial apertures is quite in the manner of Christ's proverbial sayings" (H.B. Swete, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 3rd ed. [London: MacMillian, 1909], p. 229). In Jewish rabbinical literature, an elephant passing through the eye of a needle is a figure of speech for sheer impossibility (cf. Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berakot 55b).

Easton's Bible Dictionary, "Needle":
The Hebrew females were skilled in the use of the needle (Exodus 28:39; 26:36; Judges 5:30).

Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament, "Matthew 19:24":
The Jews in the Babylonian Talmud did have a proverb that a man even in his dreams did not see an elephant pass through the eye of a needle (Vincent). The Koran speaks of the wicked finding the gates of heaven shut "till a camel shall pass through the eye of a needle." But the Koran may have got this figure from the New Testament.

John Gill, Exposition of the Bible, "Matthew 19:24":
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: thus, when the Jews would express anything that was rare and unusual, difficult and impossible, they used a like saying with this. So ... to one that had delivered something as was thought very absurd, it is said, "perhaps thou art one of Pombeditha who make an elephant pass through the eye of a needle." ... And not only among the Jews, but in other eastern nations, this proverbial way of speaking was used, to signify difficulties or impossibilities. ... All which show, that there is no need to suppose, that by a camel is meant, not the creature so called, but a cable rope, as some have thought; since these common proverbs manifestly make it appear, that a creature is intended, and which aggravates the difficulty: the reason why instead of an elephant, as used in most of the above sayings, Christ makes mention of a camel, may be, because that might be more known in Judea, than the other; and because the hump on its back would serve to make the thing still more impracticable.

J. W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton, The Fourfold Gospel, "Mark 10:25":
The needle's eye here is that of the literal needle, and the expression was a proverbial one to indicate that which was absolutely impossible.

The various entries on embroidery were interesting to me because it confirmed in my mind that the Hebrew people were accustomed to using needle and thread, and were in fact quite skilled at it:

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, "Embroidery":
em-broid'-er-i (riqrnah; the King James Version Needlework): Riqmah was applied to any kind of cloth which showed designs in variegated colors. The method of manufacture is unknown. The designs may have been woven into cloth or drawn in by a needle or hook (Judges 5:30; Psalms 45:14; Ezekiel 16:10,13,18; 26:16; 27:7,16,24). Ma`aseh raqam is translated "the work of the embroiderer" in the Revised Version (British and American) instead of "needlework" (Exodus 26:36; 27:16; 28:39; 36:37; 38:18; 39:29; Judges 5:30; Psalms 45:14). Raqam, "embroiderer," occurs in Exodus 35:35; 38:23. The fact that this word is used instead of `aragh, "weaver," would lead us to suppose that the embroiderers' work was either different from that of the weaver or that a "raqam" was especially skilled in fine weaving. Another word, choshebh, is used to describe a skillful weaver. "Cunning work" in the King James Version of Exodus 26:1,31; 28:6,15; 35:33,15; 36:8,35; 39:3,1 is rendered in the American Standard Revised Version "work of the skillful workmen." The passage has been freely rendered "designers." In the Revised Version (British and American) of Exodus 28:39 shabhats is translated "weave." In Exodus 28:4 occurs the word tashbets, which is translated "broidered" in the King James Version and "checker work" in the Revised Version (British and American). If this kind of work is what it is supposed to be, it is more truly "needlework" than the embroidery.

George W. Knight, The Illustrated Everyday Bible Companion, pg. 237:
NEEDLEWORK. Embroidery or delicate sewing. Embroidered robes and curtains were used in the tabernacle (Exod. 28:39; 36:37).

Smith's Bible Dictionary, "Embroiderer":
Various explanations have been offered as to the distinction between "needle-work" and "cunning work." Probably neither term expresses just what is to-day understood by embroidery, though the latter may come nearest to it. The art of embroidery by the loom was extensively practiced among the nations of antiquity. In addition to the Egyptians, the Babylonians were celebrated for it.

Concluding Remarks

By way of summary, one could condense all of the information provided here into the following points. Regarding the identity of the needle:
  1. The Greek word used here for needle, ῥαφίδος (raphidos) is used both in classical Greek and the Septuagint to refer to a needle for stitching
  2. That this would refer to the smaller gate of a city is an interpretation that is considered novel, modern, or recent in origin, and likely used to tone-down the force of Jesus' language.
  3. There is no evidence that people from biblical times referred to this gate as "the eye of the needle".
  4. It's worth noting that the word for an ordinary needle is rapi, but, Luke (Luke 18:25) employs belonh, the medical term for the surgical needle. This reinforces Jesus' intention to refer to an actual needle.

Regarding the likelihood that Jesus was referring to a sewing needle:
  1. People in Jesus day, and even in Old Testament times, used sewing needles and were familiar with them. They were common household items.
  2. Jews around Jesus' time and even those of other middle-eastern nations would liken anything that was impossible or absurd to an elephant passing through the eye of a needle.
  3. Jesus was probably borrowing this expression, substituting the more familiar camel.
  4. It was typical of Jesus to speak in such a proverbial and/or hyperbolic manner.

This certainly settles the question in my mind. If you have any questions or comments, let me know.

Pax Christi,
phatcatholic

3 comments:

Thomas at Identified Catholic said...

Great post! Very thorough!

Nicholas Hardesty said...

Thanks!

Ronk said...

I think the actions of the rich people who invented and promote this highly imaginative attempt to explain away our Saviour's words illustrate very nicely our Sabviour's very point, that it is extremely difficult for a rich man to get to Heaven. These people are so attached to their material possessions that they will even distort our Saviour's words in order to rry to hold on to their possessions.

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