Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What did He say...?

I just read an interesting post about Biblical literalism at a site called The Catholic Thing. As the author, Brad Miner, points out, before the invention of the printing press, throughout the centuries scribes copied and recopied the ancient manuscripts that contain God's Word which we now call the Bible. And in that process these scribes may have altered the text in many places by leaving out or adding letters, or substituting words or phrases, or omitting whole passages. One such place is in Matthew 19:23-25. Jesus tells a rich man who wishes to follow Him that he must sell all that he owns and give the money to the poor, then he can follow Jesus. The man turns away, and then Jesus tells His disciples, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God."

But did Jesus say "camel" or "rope"? As the article I mentioned tells us, their is good reason to believe that the scribes may have copied the text incorrectly...

"Now in Greek, the primary language of the Gospel, the word for camel is (depending on how it’s transliterated) kamilon. But Burgess argued (and he is one of many who have) that since the word for rope, kamiilon, is essentially a homophone, the passage actually makes more sense if Jesus is telling his fisherman followers, in whose former trade cords and nets played such a prominent role, to imagine trying to thread a thick, nautical rope through a needle’s eye.
"Others argue that the camel, the largest thing around, made for vivid imagery: big beast, tiny opening. Still others say there was once an actual gate in Jerusalem’s wall called Needle’s Eye. Other ancient cities had such narrow, low-lintel passageways designed to be the only ones left open late and requiring travelers to dismount, unburden their camels, and squeeze through. A security measure. But no archaeological evidence exists to indicate that Jerusalem ever had a Needle’s Eye. More than that, there’s support for the “rope” hypothesis in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke most of the time, in which the words for camel and rope are the same: gml. (As in Hebrew, there are no written vowels in Aramaic.)"

In the end, the meaning of this particular passage remains relatively the same whether it was a camel or a rope. But there are other passages with similar variances that may altar the meaning of the text. And this creates an awkward problem for Christians who insist on LITERAL interpretations of God's Word. If we are unsure of the exact wording then literalism becomes difficult to achieve.

I am reminded here of those "red letter" editions of the KJV Bibles, with the words of Jesus written in red letters to stand out from the otherwise black though Jesus spoke the "King's English." So what did Jesus say? Was it rope or camel? Maybe that word should be in black instead of red...

Also, the original Greek did not use punctuation, or paragraph indentations, or other devices that make reading our printed books so easy. In the original Greek it is difficult to tell sometimes where a sentence begins or ends, or what words are a direct "quote" and what is simply the author interjecting a idea. The quotes that appear so boldy in "red" as those spoken by Jesus, are editorial decisions made by scholars, centuries after the fact trying to sort out the details of correct grammar and punctuation for modern readers.

Thankfully, Catholics have the Church to turn to for assurance of the Truth. As the author ends the piece at the above mentioned website...
"Protestant literalist or sola scriptura fundamentalist might get exercised over this and many other problems in Scripture (the Book of Job alone has hundreds of words scholars are unsure about). But for a Catholic, such phenomena are a part of the historic interaction between God and man, even as we are sure that God has clearly revealed everything we need for salvation in Scripture and has guaranteed necessary interpretations via an infallible Magisterium."


  1. Great post, as always, Tom! Thanks for making this point even clearer. A great book on this subject is "Where We Got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church" by Henry G. Graham. It is published by Tan books. I think it is only about 155 pages. If you'd like to borrow it sometime, let me know. Keep up the good work. God bless.

  2. Thanks Michelle.
    Already own the book. And it IS really good. It's easy to read and it quite logically lays out the process of the Bible's compilation and its preservation by the Catholic Church. The edition I have also includes the author's conversion story too (if I remember correctly). I highly recommend it.