Common Errors (36): A Needle’s Eye

3 June 2010

A camel and its child, two hours old.

One of the most famous words of Jesus, an expression that has become proverbal, is that “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10.25). Tour guides in the Near East will, when they bring tourists to a kervansaray, inevitably point at the small door-within-the-big-door, and tell the people that it is called “a needle’s eye”, that a camel might pass through it, and that Jesus’ words referred to this type of door.

That must be a very comfortable thought for wealthy Christian tourists. Just as a camel may, with some difficulty, enter the saray, they can enter the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, the tour guide’s story is not true. Neither is the story true that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem that was called “the Eye of the Needle”. There is simply no ancient Jewish or Christian text that refers to such a gate. And it is also unlikely, although not completely impossible, that there was a scribal error, and that the Gospel in fact refers to a cable (kamilos) instead of a camel (kamelos).

Jesus’ words have a parallel in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakoth 55b; Baba Mezi’a 38b): here, the difficulty of something is likened to an elephant being drawn through the eye of a needle. Jesus is quoting a Jewish proverb, meaning that something can never be done. This impossibility is also the subject of other stories: think only of the remark that “No one can serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6.24). Or take the parabel about Lazarus and the rich man – even though it is not said that the rich man has committed evil, he is punished in Hell (Luke 16.19ff). The fact that he was rich and could feast sumptously, is presented as sufficient explanation.

In Jesus’ view, the rich had already received their share of happiness. He was not predicting that in the not too distant future, the poor would be happier, he was announcing that the rich would be punished: “Woe to you that are rich … woe to you that are filled … woe to you that now laugh” (Luke 6.24). No one has every said that Jesus’ message was easy – on the contrary.

<Overview of Common Errors>


Commemorating the dead (or not)

27 December 2009

The Colosseum

I already blogged on the Christian martyrs venerated in the Colosseum, and pointed out that there is no evidence that Christians were killed on that terrible place. The evidence, in fact, suggests the opposite. No Medieval list of martyrdom sites mentions the Colosseum. There is actually more evidence of Jewish martyrdoms: the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) mentions an emperor ordering a rabbi to be thrown into an arena full of wild animals. It’s not much, but more than we can say about Christian martyrs.

Yet, you will not find a Jewish memorial in the Colosseum, and not because our Talmudic scene deals with an amphitheater, not the amphitheater of Rome. The reason is much more profound.

Christians will go to the places where people have been killed and say their prayers, believing that God will hear them. The Omnipresent is also present where atrocities have taken place. To some extent, secular people share this idea: even though they will not say a prayer, they erect monuments on crime scenes. In Rome, the memorial of the Fosse Ardeatine massacre is a case in point.

This is not the way Jews look at things. Places like the Colosseum are somehow outside the realm of God’s goodness. This means that there are better places to say your prayers, and even if we had absolute certainty that out rabbi faced martyrdom in the Colosseum, there would still not be a Jewish monument. The locations of the horrors are not the place of worship, and are best abandoned.

I am not saying that this view is better than the Christian/secular view. Nor do I think that we should abandon the Colosseum altogether. Yet, the Roman archaeological authorities, who have always been able to present their many treasures in an often beautiful fashion, ought to be capable of creating a more dignified atmosphere at the Colosseum – without shouting tourist guides, without exceptionally amateurish reenactors, without souvenir shops. Unfortunately, the only thing I’ve heard from the tourist authorities, a proposal to organize gladiatorial contests in the Colosseum again, was singularly revolting. Rome should be capable of inventing something better.