Threading a Hawser Through the Eye of a Needle

“Those who know Arabic are jinn among humans, they can see what nobody else can.
Imam Shafii

“Again I tell you, 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.”

— Matthew 19:24 (NIV)

You know this Bible quote. I am certain you’ve seen it countless times. It might be your favorite chapter and verse. But why a camel? Well, ‘camel’ is a misnomer — a mistranslation immortal. The intended object was ‘rope’, specifically a thick twisted rope: a hawser.

camel

Which is the more eloquent simile:
  1. it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…
  2. it is easier to thread a hawser through the eye of a needle…
Why is this obviousity never mentioned?
The Bible Hub, an online resource for Bible scholars, provides English language variants for every chapter and verse, among them Matthew 19:24. Click that link to compare 28 translations regarding a rich guy’s odds of entering the Kingdom of God.
Mistranslations are the coin of many a realm, perhaps this one most appropriately so. I am hardly the first to learn, two millennia after the coin was struck, that the writer intended something comparable to a thread.
What is the camel doing in the sewing kit with the needles and threads anyway? The original metaphor roots in Aramaic language, one of the Semitic languages that use consonantal roots to convey meaning:

 

Gamla-Peshitta bible
Source

https://billziegler1947.com/2017/02/04/arabic-what-gives/#lemon

I also discuss the root system in A Safari into the Sahara

An alternative scripture, The Qur’an, provides just such a footnote. Here is one from the well-respected translator  M.A.S. Abdel Haleem:

The gates of Heaven will not be open to those who rejected Our revelations and arrogantly spurned them; even if a thick rope a were to pass through the eye of a needle they would not enter the Garden.

— Quran “The Garden” 7:40 M.A.S. Abdel Haleem translation 2004

Haleem inserts this footnote for 7:40:

Not ‘camel’. The roots of the words for ‘camel’ and ‘thick twisted rope’ are the same in Arabic and ‘rope’ makes more sense here (Razi).

 

Thanks for reading.

5 thoughts on “Threading a Hawser Through the Eye of a Needle”

  1. There is also a miss translation of the 6th commandment. In the original it is Thou Shalt not Murder yet in the English translation it is written Thou Shalt not kill.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Do you think the writer of Mark heard the Aramaic word for hawser and thought it meant camel? I don’t think we have the idiom recorded in older manuscripts to suggest the mis-hearing was older and in the culture. It is interesting that the other Arabic translations do not take this tack, but instead followed the precedent set about in the Greek scriptures.

    I do think that the idiom makes more sense with the mention of a rope-like thing, but the meaning of impossibility is still the same (just one is more surreal). I like the idea of an Aramaic phrase getting muddled in Greek interpretations, and then reconnecting to its old sense when migrating back into a semetic language.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for the kind comment and for the follow. I look forward to reading through your blog as well, there are quite a few common interests we have, Tuppence 🙂
      Mistranslations become incrustations that confuse or mislead. One local church here actually developed a deep schism based on a meme misattributed to Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Here is a useful discussion by Brian Morton:

      Back to the hawser. It becomes clearer when you consider the simple elegance of the respective analogies:
      a thread is to a needle as a hawser is to a hawshole.
      https://infovisual.info/en/transport/passenger-liner
      Hawser and camel sound exactly the same in the Aramaic, making the confusion more understandable:

      Just my tuppence, of course 🙂

      Like

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