“Can you give me some background on Matthew 19:24?” Ensign, Mar. 1985, 29
John A. Tvedtnes, specialist in ancient Near Eastern studies and instructor at the Brigham Young University–Salt Lake Center. Over the years, biblical commentators have taken three approaches in exploring the meaning of this scripture. The first of these has found wide acceptance among Christians because of the beauty of its teachings. It holds that in ancient times there was a small gate cut inside the larger gate of the city through which one might enter after nightfall, when the city was closed. Although this small gate—termed the “eye of the needle”—could readily admit a man, a camel could enter only by first being relieved of its burden and then by walking through on its knees. The imagery here is that of the sinner casting away his faults (or the rich man his worldly possessions) and kneeling in prayer.
Unfortunately, there are problems with this beautiful explanation. One is that the camel’s anatomy does not permit it to crawl on its knees. More serious, however, is the fact that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of the use of such small inset gates in the time of Christ. One may see them today in Jerusalem and Damascus, where the local tour guides will call them by the term “eye of the needle,” but there are no such gates dating prior to the twelfth century A.D. Moreover, the guides have taken the term “eye of the needle” from modern commentators of the Matthew passage and not from an authentic ancient tradition.
A second possibility is that Jesus actually used the word “rope,” the Greek form of which (kamilos) is similar to the word used for “camel” in Matthew 19:24 (kamelos) [Matt. 19:24]. The rope, after all, is just a larger version of string or thread, which one would expect to use with a needle.
A third possibility is that Jesus really meant to say “camel” and that his speech was deliberate hyperbole—exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis—common in that part of the world. Dummelow, for example, cites the Greek saying, “It is easier to hide five elephants under one’s arm,” and the Latin, “More easily would a locust bring forth an elephant.” Alongside these, he notes the tradition in which one rabbi said to another, “Perhaps thou art one of those of Pombeditha, who can make an elephant pass through a needle’s eye.” The parallel with Jesus’ statement is remarkable, suggesting a lingering use in Judaism of this particular kind of hyperbole. (J. R. Dummelow, A Commentary on the Holy Bible, New York: MacMillan, 1973, pp. 689–90.)
Evidence suggesting that hyperbole may have been intended when Jesus spoke of the camel and the needle’s eye comes from the fact that his hearers understood the impossibility of the statement and “were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?” To this, Jesus replied, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:25–26; italics added.)
Jesus’ use of hyperbole is found in another of his sayings: “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” (Matt. 23:24.) Obviously, those to whom he addressed these words did not really swallow camels!
The prophet Joseph Smith knew that the Savior’s words about straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel were not to be taken literally. In his translation (JST, Matt. 23:21), he deleted reference to swallowing the camel and wrote, “Ye blind guides, who make yourselves appear unto men that ye would not commit the least sin, and yet ye yourselves, transgress the whole law.” The real intent of Jesus’ hyperbolic teaching is to be found in this translation, though the wording is not literal.
Hyperbole, exaggeration for the sake of emphasis, found in the Old as well as the New Testament, remains even today a part of everyday speech in the Middle East. It is a linguistic and cultural trait common to that area. Its usage in the Bible does not diminish the importance or the truthfulness of that sacred volume. Rather, it places it geographically and adds to its authenticity.
All three possible explanations of Matthew 19:24—the gate, the rope, and the Jewish figure of speech—have been mentioned by prominent Latter-day Saint leaders. (See James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1973, pp. 485–6; Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–73, 1:556.)
In any event, the idea is clear—riches can become a serious stumbling block to a person seeking eternal life.