Through the Needle's Eye
From Gospel Translations
Jesus concludes the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10 by saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich young man to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 25). Expositions of this passage rarely fail to mention a New Testament gate in Jerusalem called the “Needle’s Eye.” Supposedly a camel could pass through that entryway only with great difficulty and only upon its knees. The point of Jesus’ illustration is that as a camel can make it through the Needle’s Eye gate, so a rich man can gain entrance into God’s kingdom — but he must do it humbly and upon his knees.
That illustration drives home an important theological truth in a dramatic way. It really preaches! Unfortunately, it is total fiction. There never was such a gate in Jerusalem’s history. The first mention of the Needle’s Eye gate is from literature of the 11th century a.d. And since the illustration is historically insupportable, the “rich-but-humble” interpretation must be questioned and ultimately rejected.
Jesus meant what He said. It is impossible for one who loves and trusts in riches to enter the kingdom of God. It takes a miracle for such a person to be saved, and that is the point Jesus makes in verse 27 — “with God all things are possible.” Mis-readings of Scripture like the one above are not uncommon. And, therefore, it is important that the Christian understand the cultural and historical setting of the Bible. The Scriptures were not given in a vacuum. They were revealed in time and space. The more a Christian knows about those contexts, the better equipped one is for good interpretation.
Another example may help to accentuate this point. Early versions of the Bible had a difficult time translating the Hebrew word tel. Many translators believed it was a word meaning “strength.” So the King James Version of Joshua 11:13 reads, “But as for the cities that stood still in their strength, Israel burned none of them.” By means of archaeological excavation and linguistic studies of this century, we have learned that the word tel actually refers to a mound of many ruined cities built on top of one another. And thus the verse should read, “But as for the cities that stood on their mounds, Israel burned none of them.”
Three general areas of cultural/historical context need to be considered when interpreting a passage of the Bible:
1. GEOGRAPHICAL CONTEXT. At face value, topography and geography do not seem as if they would be all that helpful in hermeneutics. But in reality, they frequently provide keen insights into Scripture. When the prophet Isaiah, for instance, cries out, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD (Zion),” that is exactly what he means. The city of Jerusalem lies in the Judaean Mountains at 2,500 feet above sea level, and it is reached only by ascending. Psalms 120–134 are called the “Songs of Ascent,” probably referring to songs sung by pilgrims as they journeyed up to the temple in Jerusalem.
A second example may underscore this point. Throughout the Bible, God’s presence with His people is often represented by a cloud, referred to as the shekinah glory. It is this cloud that leads Israel through the wilderness (Ex. 13–14), sits on top of Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:9), and descends upon the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34) and in the temple (1 Kings 8:10). Ezekiel especially uses this symbol in a geographical way to underscore two important themes.
In chapter 8:3–4, Ezekiel sees, in a vision, the shekinah glory within the temple of Jerusalem. It then moves from the inner court to the threshold of the temple (10:3–4). It goes farther to the eastern gate of the enclosure (10:18–19). And, finally, the symbol of God’s presence exits the city and hovers over the Mount of Olives to the east of Jerusalem (11:22–23). Those movements reflect God’s abandonment of the temple and the city. He no longer will dwell among such a wicked people. He is leaving them to their evil. Ezekiel has a later vision of the future after judgment occurs (43:1–7). He sees the shekinah glory re-entering Jerusalem from the east. He envisions a time when God again will dwell in the midst of His people. Knowing the layout of the temple and the topography of Jerusalem helps us to see strikingly the two major themes of the book of Ezekiel: judgment and restoration.
2. POLITICAL CONTEXT. Knowledge of the political environment and climate can aid interpretation. For instance, in Mark 12:13–17, the Pharisees and the Herodians come to Jesus to trap him in a political net. They ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the Roman emperor. Part of discerning the snare is understanding the political positions of the two groups challenging Jesus. On the one hand, the Herodians were pro-Roman rule, especially through the lineage of the Herods. So if Jesus answered that one should not pay taxes to Caesar, He would then be accused of being an insurrectionist. On the other hand, the Pharisees were strictly anti-Roman rule. If Jesus argued the legitimacy of paying a poll tax, He would be seen as advocating submission to Rome and possibly being in league with the Romans. The beauty of Jesus’ response was His denial of both positions, and His taking the issue to a higher level.
3. SOCIO-ECONOMIC CONTEXT. Finding the cultural context is often the key to unlocking the meaning of a passage. In the parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20:1–16, it is helpful to know that the denarius offered to each worker was equivalent to a full day’s wage. So it is not that the workers hired at the beginning of the day are grumbling about being short-changed; they are upset because other workers who labored only part of the day received a full day’s wage. The payments highlight the concept of grace as a central theme of the parable.
Reading the Bible without knowing the cultural context is possible, but dangerous. Like driving with one eye closed, you can see the oncoming traffic, but you can’t tell how close you are to other vehicles until it is too late. Let us strive for the safe convention of the meaning of the Scriptures to ourselves and those we instruct.