Friday, March 17, 2006

Camels and Needles

We seem to have become a bit blogged down in our discussion about the Bible so perhaps we should have a look at a few of the passages which have been mentioned. I will try and show what I mean by ‘the key to the scripture is scripture.’

One or two opening comments though.

If there is a god (which will be the working assumption of this piece) then the word of God has to be inerrant and infallible or that god is a bit disappointing. Christians too often make an exact correlation between the Bible and that ‘word.’ I do not believe the Bible is absolutely equivalent to the phrase ‘the word of God.’ We have many translations, not one of which is flaw-free. When the Bible itself uses the expression ‘the word of God’ or the ‘word of the Lord’ it means ‘what God said’ not ‘what eventually got written down.’

Secondly we will have to approach this task using human reason and our comments will have to be consistent within that reason. Humans are not infallible and inerrant.

So let’s start with camels and the eyes of needles. We need to visit the world into which this was spoken to understand it. Today we can easily get a camel through the eye of any given needle because of the power of our industrial liquidising technology.

We will find the verse in three places in the Bible:

Matthew 19:24
Mark 10:25
Luke 18:25

When we have a verse in Mathew, Mark and Luke we usually assume that Mark (the earliest written) wrote it down first and the other two copied him. We cannot be certain of this though.

The New International Version, widely accepted as a reasonable translation of the Greek New Testament, renders this:

‘…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.’

Making my best effort at New Testament Greek I find that the order of the words has been changed to make the translation work. It says, word for word:

‘…easier it is camel through eye of a needle to enter than rich man into the kingdom the of God.’

Of course, if Jesus said it exactly, he may have said it in Aramaic, although some think he may have taught in Greek. See how many steps from ‘the word of God’ we are already.

Some people have explained that ‘The Eye of a Needle’ was a particularly narrow gateway into Jerusalem which fully-laden camels struggled to get through. Others have suggested that the similarity of the Greek words for rope/cable and camel point to a typo. If Jesus taught in Greek it may have been a pun. Who knows? Jewish scholars already had a saying written down about an elephant going through the eye of a needle so perhaps we’d better assume Jesus was just saying ‘it’s hard.’

Where did he say it? Mathew and Mark give us the context of Jesus on a journey. He had gone from Galilee to Judea, across the Jordan. Crowds were thronging around. Luke included the saying in a set of stories and sayings that Jesus said ‘once.’

To whom did Jesus say it? We have some variance.

Matthew says it was to a rich young man (Matthew 19:22); Luke says the guy was a wealthy ruler (Luke 18:18).

What was the question?

‘What good thing must I do to get eternal life?’
‘Why do you ask me about what is good?’ (Matthew 19:16,17).

‘Good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
‘Why do you call me good?’ (Mark 10:17,18; Luke 18:18,19)

Either the enquirer wanted to suck up to Jesus, calling him good whilst showing off his own goodness at commandment keeping, or he wanted to believe you could get eternal life by doing good things. We don’t know which was his error but we know he erred.

Eternal life in the Gospels always means ‘life in all its fullness’ – it is about quality not quantity of life. Likewise the ‘Kingdom of God’. It is a now thing not a heaven thing. Either way, Jesus’ answer points the man to Scripture – keep the commandments.

The man claims to have kept these but feels he lacks something (Matthew 19:20). At this point Jesus tells him two things:

1. Give away your possessions
2. Follow me

Many disciples are already following Jesus on the road. They have left possessions behind (Matthew 19:27) because they are useless on the journey. But the man can’t meet the standard and goes away sad.

Note, Jesus is not saying:

Rich people aren’t nice
Everyone must give everything away

Jesus is giving the man, as he has given most people he encounters, the opportunity of joining him. He refuses the terms.

Then Jesus says the camel thing.

The disciples question that this must mean ‘being saved’ is too hard, but Jesus says it is impossible for humans but not for God (Matthew 19:26).

The passage tells us that to have a quality of life now you have to jettison everything that might get in the way of your relationship with God. It then tells us that one day all will be judged.

Jesus’ saying is simply a colourful depiction of the sort of thing that can get in the way of discipleship. Money, talent, advantage, skill – all tend to make you rely on them rather than God. We may well want to discuss whether relying on God is what we want to do but let's be clear what Jesus was saying when he said it.


Jonathan Potts said...

Typed "eternal life" into google to see what others say about it and got the hit

"Eternal life for sale."

Wow, money really can buy everything after all!

More seriously, why do you think it means "life in its fullness", St? I'm not sure whether I agree with you or not but would like to hear your reasons for your opinion.

Still not sure I agree that "the key to scripture is scripture" ... entirely. But maybe our disagreement is more a linguistic point (i.e. how we use/understand language) than a conceptual one. Or one that makes us differ in practice/application. I don't know.

Simon said...

I think getting religious types to see reason is a bit like getting a camel through the eye of a needle.

Actually, it's more like a thread of cotton - you carefully and precisely push the end of the thread towards the eye of the needle. The thread appears to have gone through. In fact, it seems impossible for it to have gone anywhere else. Then you take away your fingers to find the thread is still stubbornly unthreaded.

Your interpretation seems to make sense. Then, all the interpretations I've read seem to make sense, too.

Which leaves us with the Bible being a blank page upon which an individual can place their own meaning. All good religious texts do this - they allow anyone to follow by generalising and seem to say weighty things without saying anything at all.

That's why there are so many variations on each faith. And the followers of each are so totally convinced of the truth of their version. In the case of Catholics and Protestants, they are willing to kill each other to protect their version.

The Bible really doesn't say an awful lot. The camel through the eye of a needle seems to be saying something very deep and resonant - yet when you pick at it, it becomes sand slipping through the cracks in your fingers, until finally, you are staring at your empty hand.

St said...


I think it's more (but not much more) than semantics. You can batter on a good, solid door all you like, informing your understanding of it with information from the modern world about its design and function, but a key will open it if it is locked. We can bring all our modern tools of history and scholarship to bear on the Bible but they won't be the key. The key will be in there somewhere. Will try not to overload the analogy beyond that.

St said...


I am really trying to understand your point of view but I am struggling. I have tried to be as open and honest as I can about my faith and doubts but you just want to give me a verbal kicking.

You seem to be saying:

1. There is no God and all 'religious types' are deluded.
2. The Bible can be interpreted anyway we want it to and all interpretions 'seem to make sense'.
3. Your interpretation is that it is shallow and says little.

Is that right?

Having encountered a Christian who is willing to listen to you, trying to understand your point of view and not especially committed to killing people over pickey points of doctrine you seem hell-bent (poor choice of words - sorry)on accusing me (and some of my friends) of starting wars, behaving illogically and being delusional.

What is it with you? Are you still angry about the denial of the asthma treatment?

St said...


Jesus' definition of eternal life is in John 17:3. It is about knowing God and Jesus now; not about heaven.

Simon said...

You have been open-minded, Steve, to a point. I've just been looking for that point and I seem to have found it.

No, I'm not angry about the asthma thing. Actually, I've just started a pro-religious thread on the raving atheist forum.

I think science comes from civilisation, which, at least in part, comes from religion.

Although religion defies logic, it has been useful in bringing stability to societies in the past.

But now that those values that help create a stable society are ingrained into our culture, we don't need to believe in this father figure who stops us being naughty - we can grow up, if we want.

It's interesting that the idea of throwing away your baggage so you can follow the leader is one of the less adhered to, over the history of Christianity.

"cults" use the same device and are feared for it.

It's not useful to society to have people throw away their belongings, and so they haven't, on the whole.

It is useful, particularly pre-industry, to have parents stay together to build a home and feed and protect their off-spring. And so this idea has hit off, big time.

Of course now, post-industry, it's not so important, and 2/3rds of marriages end in divorce.

Just a theory.

Jonathan Potts said...

St, thanks for the "Eternal life" reference. I looked it up in my Bible and, lo and behold, I'd underlined it. These memory blotches worry me....

I think I've never entirely got my head around the distinctions and similarities between the concepts eternal life/heaven/kingdom of God/new heavens/new earth/afterlife (the latter word, to my knowledge, never used explicitly in the Bible but often talked about by Christians as a "translation" of one or more of the former). These words tend to be bandied about with different - often inconsistant - meanings by different commentators/preachers/christian loud-mouths. That - added to the fact that I have never given a huge amount of time to unpacking this - probably causes my memory to flounder somewhat. Any theories (about the above concepts - not my memory!)? Or do you think there is deliberate ambiguity about these things in Biblical texts?

Simon - I think the vast majority (admittedly, perhaps not all) of my friends who've had parents divorce would disagree with you that "parents staying together" is "not so important". At least some of them have said to me that their parents splitting was "the worst thing that has ever happened to them".

Simon said...

My parents split when I was 4, Jonathan. I'm not talking about the emotional effect. I'm talking about a survival advantage and civilising advantage. Post-industrial, it's not so important for parents to stay together (for the survival of the children) as the state can provide.

By the way, when people lament how often parents split up these days, and Mail readers point to it as the breaking down of civilisation, they might think back a few hundred years - children would often lose one or both parents to disease and would be sent to a living relative (if lucky) to be brought up.

Having both parents around for your entire childhood is a modern luxury.

jcm said...


I think it is a mistake to assume that we are now a "stable society". Surely the Romans and other great civilisations believed this also. We can't say that we are "stable" from our perspective in the present, only future generations will be able to judge that.

Simon said...

I think we can say we are a stable society, jcm. Of course, it is relative. And relative to societies through history, our (UK, European?) society is very stable. Law and order are pretty effective, perhaps too effective, sometimes.

Roman society was pretty stable, too, wasn't it?

Is there anything you can think of about living today which is "unstable"?

Jonathan Potts said...

Backtracking a bit to Steve's first comment...

I think you (St) are saying (and correct me if I'm wrong) that the key to understanding parts of the Bible are to understand them in light of the rest of the Bible. That is to try to understand the Bible as a (by and large) rationally consistant whole. This requires upholding rationality and Bible in equal measures (if possible). So the key to the Bible is the Bible - but understood through the eyes of rational thought.

Maybe this is an overly-technical point, but it's always struck me that the various big-name theologians throughout the ages who aim purely to understand the Bible in and for itself seem to uphold equally the given understanding of rationality of their time. So Augustine married Aristotilian thought and the Bible; Aquinas married Plato and the Bible; Calvin pre-enlightenment rationality and the Bible; Kierkegaard post-Kantian rationality and the Bible etc. And their differences come largely from their differing understanding of what it means to be rational. (I'm writing with some caution as I'm no expert on historical theology - but this is my lay-person's perception).

As for the key to understanding what is true - what is the word of God if you like - my personal thoughts are something like this: to try to understand the world, my perceptions of it, science (both physical and social), history, personal experience and the Bible as a rationally consistant whole. Of course, I don't expect to reach an end to this - and I'd put a questionmark over whether the project's entirely possible at all. But it's how I'm currently trying to proceed on the road to understanding truth/God. St, do you agree with this general grand project/procedure as a search for truth or would you put it somewhat differently?

jcm said...

Yes, I agree that from our perspective, society today is stable. I don't think we can say that we are in a position to throw off religion just because we percieve our society to have "made it"

Simon said...

No, but I think we've made it far enough to remove the religion stablizers.

There comes a point when the crutches no-longer help you walk, but they stop you from learning to run.

St said...

Jon, I think your summary of the Bible as 'project without an endpoint' is masterly and I agree. Christians have found down the ages, and we find today, that there is something about the whole, process of engaging with the living word afresh for each generation that is almost holy in itself.

I wil have a go at a post of the whole 'kingdom of heaven' language thing in the future - too complex for a comment.

James Horn said...

The well-used notion of religion as crutch has always been interesting to me. Before becoming a Christian I felt that I was 'lame' in the world, approaching it, as I was, from a Scientific viewpoint. The world defined by Science seemed to me to be very narrow (even taking into account the vastness of the galaxy down to the minutiae of the atom) and restrictive - effectively holding me up from becoming the person I felt I should be (and 'running' as you describe Simon). When I realised that there were truths in the world far greater than man could comprehend, those shackles were broken and I could 'be'.

As Darwin said "A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, - a mere heart of stone." - I realised that to be truly human I had to look beyond the scientific to something altogether more ancient and 'mysterious'.

Simon said...

The thing about irrationality is you can't argue against it - the rational cannot help the irrational. And visa versa.

The idea of realising there's something unrealisable is a bit of a paradox, isn't it? If it's unrealisable, how can you realise it?

This is shown beautifully in the irony of your last statement - I like the idea you look forward from science and see the past. It fits nicely with another idea: of time being a circle where the future and the past are both in front and behind us at the same time.

I'm afraid that means you're heading towards a time when Jesus didn't exist.

Not much for you to look forward to, then.

jcm said...


You are saying that the values we have as a society derive from religion, then you go on to refer to religion as a crutch that can be taken away. If we build our society on something, then take that something away, where does that leave us?

St said...

By the way Simon the father-figure for Christians doesn't 'stop us being naughty'. He allows us comlete freedom to be naughty and will welcome us back again afterwards.

In Luke 15 the Prodigal Son (bad title but it is well known) left his father's house and squandered his money. When he ran out of cash and came crawling back his father had a party.

You can have as many pops at followers of Jesus as you like but please pop at what we do believe not what we don't.

Simon said...

But, Steve, you all believe totally different things depending on who you talk to. The 'being naughty' bit is my interpretation. Or are Christians the only ones allowed to interpret the Bible?

Good point, jcm. I think the analogy with stablizers on a bike works, though: the bike is society, the rider is the people in it, the stablizers are religion.

If you're going to use that bike to its full potential, you need to lose the stablizers at some point. Otherwise they'll always be holding you back.

(Hey, I'd be a pretty good preacher, don't you think?)

Simon said...

By the way, the father-figure may not 'stop' you being naughty, but he is supposed to encourage it.

I'm a father and if my child wants to misbehave, there's not much I can do except use some punishment or try to talk him round.

If those fail, short of locking him in his room forever, he has 'freewill' to behave any way he wishes.

So I think my father-child idea works, too.

St said...

Yeah Simon you'd be a great preacher. I'd recommend body armour though.

Your 'interpretation' is a load of dingos kidneys. It is contradiction not interpretation. You can interpret black as white if you want but (see comments passim) it makes you a very difficult person to have a logical discussion with.

I wasn't interpreting the Bible I was telling you the words of a key text. I could preach on the prodigal son if you wanted me too but we'd have the passage as a reading to listen to first.

Martin said...

Liking the dingos kidneys - I just finished listening to the hitchhiker's guide quitesential phase during the hols.

Anyway, back to topic. Jon - The project without endpoint is a good description. Makes me think of some of the views of relitavism on that melvin brag show. Anyway, I think that with our interpretation of the bible, and with science, and pretty much anything in fact, we are always getting closer to a correct answer, but never getting quite there. Still, we should keep going, as it is more useful to be quite close than to be a million miles away.

Simon said...

Parmenides argued that movement was an illusion. In fact, everything was fixed. He demonstrated that one could not move from one place to another.

If you were going to go 1km. First you'd have to go 1/2km, then half the remaining distance, then half again, and so on - you appear to be getting closer, but it will take infinte steps to get there. Therefore, you can never get there, so movement is impossible.

Scientific discovery definately has that feeling.

"He allows us comlete freedom to be naughty and will welcome us back again afterwards."

So you agree the Bible includes the idea of someone being 'naughty' in God's eyes?

St said...

The Bible says, 'all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.' 'Being naughty in God's eyes' will do me as a paraphrase of that.

A good way to parent children is to give them more praise and attention for when they do well rather than when they do badly. But forgiveness has to figure in the process too.

And as an aside, the greatest gift you can give your children is to love their other parent.

Simon said...

St, you say 'I wasn't interpreting the Bible'. But you surely are.

I'd just like to say, the Bible is wrong - I haven't 'sinned'. I actually find things like that in the Bible insulting.

This is what I mean when I say our assumptions get us into trouble. You get defensive if I have a go at your faith, yet your faith insults me, in some respect.

Just like with the Muhammad cartoons, Muslims never consider for a second their faith might offend.

I stick to my value system pretty well. In my system, I'm not a sinner, I'm a good person.

Part of my value-system is Christian-based, true. But, like Marx, that doesn't mean I have to agree with Christian ideas or the Bible.

On a pedantic note, 'all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.' seems to contradict the idea of freewill. Are we born sinful (hardly free then) or does God say we will inevitably go wrong (hardly free either)?

St said...

Not to be over pedantic either but I don't think I'm interpreting the Bible when I tell you what it says; I am when I tell you what it means.

Again not to be over-pedantic but if attacked it is likely that I will be defensive. As you are. That's debate isn't it?

The alternative is to roll over. I have conceded you are right a couple of times but I disagree with you in the main. I am not insulted by your views. I am fascinated by them. I am sorry you are offened by mine but it is not my intention.

Finally, analysing the logic of your value system:

1. You are good
2. You stick to your value system 'pretty well'.

So what do you call it when you don't stick to your value system?

Martin said...

Simon, this argument:

"Parmenides argued that movement was an illusion... If you were going to go 1km. First you'd have to go 1/2km... Therefore, you can never get there, so movement is impossible."

is flawed, in the general case, as it assumes that we are continually slowing down. However, in the realm of scientific discovery, It does apply, as the discoveries do get smaller over time. However, I don't think this means we should give up hope, as a small nice bit of science allows nice things to be done/made that weren't before possible.

Applying this to my faith, I think it does apply to my life at the moment. I also don't think this means I should give up hope, as there is great joy to being closer to God, even when I am not perfect in my relationship with him. Also, I do think that it is fixed, and my mistakes in this relationship are forgiven. Finally, I can look forward to a day when God will make all things new. Then I will see him face to face - and the never quite reaching will have be overcome.

Simon said...

Its irrelevant what I call it. Sometimes I call it 'oops' or 'ah well' or sometimes 'tut, damn', who knows...

Of course, as it's my value system, I can change it when it suits. Sometimes I do things that are 'bad' and something 'good' comes out of it. Sometimes I do what I think is 'good' and it goes tits up.

That's the problem with 'sin', it's too simplistic.

If I kill a man and save a million lives, have I done bad or good? Tricky, isn't it?

Was it 'good' to nuke Hiroshima? Was that a 'sin'? To save the lives of perhaps 10s or 100s of thousands of US infantry men.

Perhaps they shouldn't have gone to war in the first place. He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. What about He who doesn't live by the sword allows his children to die by the sword?

Who is this supposed god in your Bible who is allowed to judge if I have sinned or not.

In my world, your god isn't allowed to judge that. In your world, he is. And sometimes the only way to resolve that is a good punch up.


St said...

I don't believe we will ever find ourselves in a position where we have to sin.

So the first atomic weapons were used because much human wrongdong had led to an impossible position and people took difficult decisions based on what they thought at the time were the lesser of two evils.

You are confusing the Christian understanding of sin because of your wikkipedia definition of it several million posts ago.

Even the Old Testament, which has a concept of sin which is not completely developed, has lesser punishments for those who break the law accidentally. In other words it is beginning to get to the point where motives are important.

Simon said...

So what you're saying is, the Bible is merely stating "The world f**d from the start. Deal with it."

Would you prefer the OED definition?


• noun 1 an immoral act considered to violate divine law. 2 an act regarded as a serious offence."

So, God says I've either committed an immoral act or a serious offence.

I say I haven't. And I consider the Bible somewhat slanderous to say I have. I'm not sure who would defend it in a court of law or where I'd go to get my damages, though.

Martin, Parmenides was using maths to try to understand the paradox of infinity. He wasn't talking about the practicle exercise of getting down to Morrisons on a Sunday afternoon (although the traffic where I live it almost feels like it will take infinity to get there).

By the way, on a mathmatical note, God is as likely to exist as goblins, elves, pixies, Father Christmasand the little green men that live in my airing cupboard.

St said...

I think slander is spoken; libel is written. If you consider your reputation has been damaged by the written accusation that you have sinned and fall short of the glory of God then you can sue anyone who repeats the allegation. For slander if they say it; for libel if they write it. Sue me if you want.

Your statement of claim would be interesting.

'My reputation has been damaged by the suggestion that my behaviour falls short of that standard of perfection required by an imaginary being.'

Your knowledge of maths is disappointing.

Simon said...

OK, you've persuaded me, I won't take God to court. Anyway, it wouldn't seem right if I had to swear to tell the truth 'by almighty God'. Or don't they do that anymore?

Is it more likely God exists then? Feel like elaborating?

Simon said...

Life, the Universe & Eveything are now holding a comptetion inspired by this thread - win yourself a MILLION!