There’s no good evidence that kamilos — supposedly meaning ‘rope’ — was ever even a real word in ancient Greek.
The myth we’re looking at is to do with the following passage in the Bible.
εὐκοπώτερόν ἐστιν κάμηλον διὰ τῆς τρυμαλιᾶς τῆς ῥαφίδος διελθεῖν ἢ πλούσιον εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ εἰσελθεῖν.
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.
According to the myth, ‘camel’ is a misreading: originally, it was a ‘rope’ going through a needle. Still impossible, but not surreal like ‘camel’. Supposedly, the text originally had kamilos, but kamēlos ‘camel’ and kamilos ‘rope’ sounded the same in imperial-era Greek, so they got mixed up.
|A Roman needle and a camel. Not to scale.|
The ‘rope’ theory is one of a couple of tactics for softening Jesus’ condemnation of wealth-hoarding. There’s another one about an imaginary gate in Jerusalem called ‘the eye of the needle’: that one was made up in the 11th century. But some religious groups have a strong motivation for reading this passage as being about something other than a literal camel going through a literal needle’s eye. So fake explanations tend to stick around.
This review is a resource for anyone who’s in doubt about what the evidence for the ‘rope’ interpretation looks like. The executive summary is this: the word supposedly meaning ‘rope’ was made up in the 5th century or shortly beforehand, and it was made up specifically to weaken Jesus’ condemnation of wealth. It’s older than the ‘eye of the needle’ gate, but it’s just as bogus.
Note. This isn’t the first debunking of its kind. My aim is to make the evidence as accessible as possible. Zahn 1922: 601–602 n. 71 cites most of the ancient evidence in German; Khalil 1978 cites much of it in French; Henry 2022 disposes of purported arguments from Aramaic, but without delving into the Greek use of kamilos.
For the origins of the bogus ‘gate’ theory, see Ziemińska 2022. The gate first pops up in a fragment of Anselm of Canterbury quoted in Thomas Aquinas, Catena aurea on on Matthew 19.24. My translation: ‘Gloss. Alternatively: because there was a certain gate in Jerusalem called ‘the eye of the needle’, and a camel could not pass through it unless it laid down its burden and bent its knees. So this means that a rich person cannot travel the confined way to (eternal) life unless they lay down their uncleanness of sin and their wealth, that is, or at least by not loving (wealth).’
A review of κάμιλος
I’ll carry on spelling kamēlos (‘camel’) and kamilos (supposedly ‘rope’) differently, for clarity. Ancient and mediaeval sources often spell them both kamēlos.
The earliest authentic appearance of kamilos is in Cyril of Alexandria (1st half of 5th century). In nearly all cases where it appears in ancient and mediaeval sources, it’s only mentioned because someone is giving it as a textual variant for ‘camel’ in the gospels. In other contexts it appears only twice, and even those are still as annotations to the word ‘camel’, and they repeat Cyril’s exact phrasing.
So there’s no independent evidence to corroborate Cyril’s claim that kamilos was even a real word, let alone that it was the original text in the gospels. There’s just one possible exception: one possible candidate for an independent use of the word — a 5th century inscription from southern Anatolia — but the interpretation of the inscription is very doubtful.
1. Sources that cite kamilos as a textual variant in the gospels
As I said, nearly all uses of kamilos ‘rope’ belong to this category. These are no use at all as corroboration. They don’t show that the word could ever be used in any other context.
Cyril’s definitions (sources a, b) are echoed in most post-Cyril sources.
- Cyril of Alexandria, commentary on Matthew fr. 219 Reuss (1957: 226; ~ Patrologia graeca 72 429d–431a)
- Cyril of Alexandria, commentary on Luke, Patrologia graeca 72 857c
- Cyril of Alexandria, Against Julian the apostate fr. 21 Neumann (Syriac: Neumann 1880: 56; Latin translation: Neumann 1880: 75, fr. 29; French translation: Khalil 1978: 91 n. 1)
- Tractatus de divitiis 18.2 (Kessler 1999: 306 = Caspari 1890: 55)
- pseudo-Origen, commentary on Matthew fr. 390 Klostermann (1941: 166)
- Photios, commentary on Matthew fr. 77 Reuss (Reuss 1957: 318)
- Theophylact, Enarratio in Evangelium Matthaei, Patrologia graeca 123 356d
I stop at the 11th century. (Zahn goes on further, to include a 12th century citation of Cyril in Bar Hebraeus: Zahn 1922: 602 n. 71.)
I’ll just quote the first two, sources a and b, from Cyril. They’re both fragments preserved in catena commentaries. First, Cyril on Matthew 19.24:
κάμηλον δὲ ἐνταῦθά φησιν οὐ τὸ ζῷον τὸ ἀχθοφόρον, ἀλλὰ τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον, ἐν ᾧ δεσμεύουσι τὰς ἀγκύρας οἱ ναῦται. οὐκ ἀνήνυτον παντελῶς τοῦτο δείκνυσιν ὄν, τῷ δὲ ἄγαν δυσχερὴ λοιπὸν ἤδη πως ἐγγὺς καὶ ἀγχίθυρον τοῦ ἀδυνάτου τὸ χρῆμα τιθείς.
‘camel’: he doesn’t mean the pack animal here, but the thick rope, with which sailors bind anchors. He shows that the situation isn’t absolutely permanent, but makes the matter extremely difficult for him in future, and for the present, close to and neighbouring on impossibility.
|Note. Reuss’ text fills in a chunk that’s missing in the Patrologia text, based on a manuscript at Mt Athos, Great Lavra cod. B 113 (11th cent.), fol. 97r. Reuss silently alters δυσχερή to δυσχερεῖ: I restore the manuscript reading here.|
And Cyril on Luke 18.25. This one is very bald-faced, selecting the contrived word for the express purpose of allowing rich people to go to heaven.
κάμηλον· οὐ τὸ ζῶον, ἀλλὰ τὸ ἐν τοῖς πλοίοις παχὺ σχοινίον. ἔξεστι γὰρ αὐτοῖς, εἰ μὴ εἰσάπαν ἕλοιντο τὸ τῶν ὅλων ὄντων ἀπολισθεῖν, ἑτέρως εὐδοκιμεῖν, ποιῆσαι φίλους ἐκ τοῦ ἀδίκου μαμωνᾶ, ἵνα ὅταν ἐπιλίπωσε, δέξωνται αὐτοὺς εἰς τὰς αἰωνίους σκηνάς.
‘camel’: not the animal, but the thick rope used on ships. For it is possible for them to arrive at blessedness in a different way, even if they don’t choose to lose all their property completely, if they use their unjust Mamon to make friends, and the friends invite them into the eternal tabernacles.
If you’re thinking of investigating all the sources listed here, take notice of Cyril’s phrasing: τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον (‘the thick rope’), and the bit about binding anchors. You’ll see these pop up routinely in later sources, including the sources in category 3, below. That shows that they aren’t independent.
The only post-Cyril source worth noticing is source e, the spurious Origen fragment. If authentic, it would put kamilos back to the 3rd century. But as Theodor Zahn points out, Origen’s authentic discussions of the gospel passages are entirely unaware of the ‘rope’ interpretation (Zahn 1922: 601 n. 71).
2. Manuscripts of the New Testament with kamilos
A handful of the thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament — none earlier than the 9th century — give the variant reading kamilos in one or more of the three gospel passages. Like the sources in category 1, these have no corroborative value, because they do not show the word being used in any other context.
Many of the kamilos manuscripts belong to ‘family 13’, a group of 10th–15th century manuscripts with affinities to minuscule 13, that is, Paris.gr. 50 (11th cent.). Even in ‘family 13’, kamilos only appears in Mark 10.25 and Luke 18.25; in Matthew 19.24, it’s always kamēlos.
|Note. On ‘family 13’ see Metzger and Ehrman 2005: 87. On the Armenian and Georgian translations that have affinities to ‘family 13’, and which translate using a word meaning ‘rope’, see Metzger and Ehrman 2005: 117–119; McCollum 2015; Pirtea 2021: 331. McCollum shows that ‘camel’ is standard in the Greek, Syriac, and Athonite Georgian versions, while ‘rope’ is standard in the Armenian and pre-Athonite Georgian evidence. (He doesn’t notice that the pseudo-Origen, here source e, is spurious — but it’s no discredit to miss something so obscure.)|
Here are the manuscripts that are not in ‘family 13’ but which have the kamilos variant.
- Mark 10.25: minuscules 28 and 579 (Paris.gr. 379, 11th cent.; Paris.gr. 59, 13th cent.).
- Matthew 19.24: minuscules 579 and 1424 (Paris.gr. 97, 13th cent.; Chicago Gruber 152, 9th/10th cent.).
- Luke 18.25: uncial S (Vat.gr. 354, 949 CE); minuscule 1424 (Chicago Gruber 152, 9th/10th cent.); possibly minuscule 579 (Paris.gr. 97; illegible).
All older manuscripts — including the ancient ones, like the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus manuscripts — invariably use kamēlos.
3. Sources that cite kamilos as an annotation to ‘camel’
There are two sources in this category:
These are both mediaeval. The Aristophanes scholia may go back to the early Byzantine period; the Souda encyclopaedia is 10th century.
I’ll quote the first one in full. The background is that in 422 BCE, the comic playwright Aristophanes made a joke about camels, describing a contemporary politician as having the smell of a seal, the testicles of a bogeyman, and the arsehole of a camel. About a millennium later, an anonymous scholar explains the joke as follows:
πρωκτὸν δὲ καμήλου· θερμόπρωκτος γὰρ ἡ κάμηλος καὶ λάγνος. κάμιλος δὲ τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον διὰ τοῦ ι.
‘(and he had) a camel’s arsehole’: the joke is that camels are hot-arsed and lewd. And a kamilos is the thick rope, with an i.
Neither h nor i uses kamilos in a sentence. They only cite it lexicographically — as a footnote to talking about camels. In both sources, the commentator explains what the word means. That is, the word is rare enough that a scholarly reader cannot be expected to know it. And both definitions use Cyril’s exact phrase τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον (‘the thick rope’).
So these sources have no corroborative value either. Kamilos doesn’t get used in its own right, it’s purely an appendage to ‘camel’, and even more importantly, neither source is independent of Cyril.
4. Sources that use kamilos independently
Finally we get to the one category of evidence that could in principle corroborate that kamilos is a real word. However, there’s only one source that might potentially fall into this category, and it’s really shaky:
- Inscriptions de Cilicie 108, col. ii line 5 (Dagron and Feissel 1987: 170–185)
This is a 5th or 6th century CE inscription found near Anazarbos (Anavarza) and held at the Adana Archaeology Museum. The inscription is a list of tariffs for various freight goods. Here’s the start of column ii, with my translation:
[ . . . κ'] β
[ ]ι̣ο̣υ̣ γο' κ' α
κρόκου γο' κ' δ
γάρου γο' κ' α
μασσίνων καμηλ( ) κ' αγ'
[ . . . ] 2 keratia
[ ] — per load — 1 keration
saffron — per load — 4 keratia
garum — per load — 1 keration
massinoi — per camel load — 1⅓ keratia
The fifth line is the relevant one. For discussion, see Dagron and Feissel (1987: 176–177). They supplement the text as μασσίνων καμήλ(ων), which they interpret as ‘thick ropes’.
The meaning of both massin- and kamēl- is questionable. Dagron and Feissel think massinos is an adjective relating to ropes, partly because of Cyril’s interpretation of kamilos (source a above); partly because of the Syrian author John Malalas (6th century), who refers to someone being tied up with a σχοῖνος μάσσινος or ‘massinos rope’; and the Life of Symeon Stylites the Younger (7th century?), which has the 6th century Syrian saint winding a μάσ(σ)ινον σχοινίον (‘mas(s)inos rope’) around his body. So in this inscription they regard massinōn as an adjective, modifying kamēl(ōn) ‘ropes’.
|Note. Malalas, Chronographia 7.12, p. 142,35 ed. Thurn (= p. 186,19–20 ed. Dindorf); Life of Symeon Stylites the Younger 26 ed. van den Ven. For the latter I rely on Dagron and Feissel’s report.|
They might be right. However, first, the context doesn’t favour ‘rope’: lines 3 to 11 of the inscription appear to be foodstuffs — saffron, garum, possibly gourds, possibly fenugreek, garlic, wine, and so on.
Second, every other line gives the freight good in the genitive case, and an indication of quantity. So line 3 gives the tariff for a γόμος of saffron, line 4 for a γόμος of garum, and so on. In lines 16–17, the price is given per unit: the tariff per slave, per bovine. Why, then, is μασσίνων genitive plural? Where’s the indication of quantity? The most intuitive answer is that that’s what καμηλ( ) is doing there. The correct supplement is μασσίνων καμηλ(ικός), ‘a camel load of massinoi’. The camel was the most commonly used beast of burden in Anatolia until the 20th century (Potts 2004; İnal 2020: 71), and Dagron and Feissel themselves point out that γόμος καμηλικός is standard phrasing in the famous Palmyra tariff inscription, alongside γόμος καρρικός ‘wagon load’ and γόμος ὀνικός ‘ass load’, and with a conversion rate of 1 wagon load = 4 camel loads. As for massinoi, its meaning is doubtful. Even if it really is an adjective, it’s completely normal for Greek to use an adjective as a substantive.
The argument for κάμηλος ‘rope’ in the Anarbazos inscription isn’t intuitive, it neglects the format of the tariff list, and it relies on Cyril’s testimony — so it begs the question of whether kamilos is even a real word.
Can we be certain that this isn’t an instance of kamilos ‘rope’? Not 100% certain, no — but this inscription certainly can’t take the weight of being the sole independent use of the word.
The word kamilos ‘rope’ —
- first appears in the 400s CE, more than three centuries after the gospels
- is vanishingly rare even after that date
- is never, ever used in a sentence by any ancient or mediaeval writer
- appears only in lexicographical contexts
- is always cited as an annotation either to camels, or to Matthew 19.24
- is always defined, because no reader can be expected to know its meaning
- is usually defined using Cyril of Alexandria’s phrasing
The fact that kamilos normally appears in the context of camels or the gospel passages makes it look very much like that is its primary context.
That is: kamilos was coined specifically to contrive a variant interpretaion of the gospels.
And, by the way, that’s exactly what the Liddell & Scott Lexicon suggested all along.
Perh(aps) coined as an emendation of the phrase εὐκοπώτερόν ἐστι κάμηλον διὰ τρυπήματος ῥαφίδος διελθεῖν ... Ev.Matt. 19.24LSJ s.v. κάμιλος
(The Greek quotation is the ‘eye of a needle’ line in Matthew.)
The upshot is that kamilos is just like the ‘eye of the needle’ gate: it’s a fabrication, contrived specifically to make wealthy people happy about hoarding their wealth.
The only potential corroboration for its existence is source j, the Anarbazos inscription. There it’s part of a collocation where, at best, both words are unclear. I’ve argued above that καμηλ( ) is a quantity, a καμηλ(ικός) or ‘camel load’, not a rope. Even if you disagree, still, the most the inscription can show is that kamilos existed as a hyper-rare word in 5th century Anatolia. Does it show anything about the 1st century? Absolutely not. The inscription is an obscure speculative possibility, not a corroboration for anything.
What is it about camels, anyway?
A rope through the eye of a needle would have been a striking choice of image. A camel is ... surreal.
As Zahn and many others have pointed out, it isn’t unique. It’s not a common expression, and the Christian gospels are its earliest appearance, but there are parallels in Rabbinic sources and in the Quran. The Rabbinic sources involve elephants, not camels, but still.
These parallels are late, like Cyril’s made-up word, so they’re not exactly overwhelming evidence. But they have one thing going for them that kamilos doesn’t: they use the expression in the same way as the gospels, not as an annotation to the gospels.
How will you know the thoughts of your heart? By their being revealed to you in a dream. Rava said: Know that this is the case, for one is neither shown a golden palm tree nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle in a dream. In other words, dreams only contain images that enter a person’s mind.
Rav Sheshet said mockingly to him, employing a similar style: Perhaps you are from Pumbedita, where people pass an elephant through the eye of a needle, i.e., they engage in specious reasoning.
Bava Metzia 38b.16
Surely those who receive our revelations with denial and arrogance, the gates of heaven will not be opened for them, nor will they enter Paradise until a camel passes through the eye of a needle.
Of these, the Rabbinic texts look like decent candidates for independent testimony. The Quran, less so: its version of the aphorism is almost identical to that in the gospels. The word used in Quran 7.40 is جمل jamal (‘camel’). Arabic dictionaries do record an alternate reading, with the word jummal, ‘rope’.
But don’t get excited. The only locus for jummal in the Arabic corpus is ... this exact verse in Sura 7.
Some lexicographers wondered if jummal is a genuine Arabic word, and indeed it is used principally in speculation around Q 7:40. It is possible that Christian exegetical speculation surrounding the Greek word kamēlos influenced Muslim exegetical speculation surrounding the Arabic word jamal and led lexicographers to develop jummal, an equivalent of kamilos, as an alternative reading of jamal. What seems to confirm [this] ... is that, like Christian commentators, Muslim commentators report that the rope (jummal) in question is the sort used for seafaring.Reynolds 2020: 49–50
Cyril strikes again. Everything to do with ropes in this context — Greek *kamilos, Aramaic *gml, and Arabic *jummal — goes back to Cyril inventing a fake word to keep rich people happy.
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