Sunday, February 23, 2014

When is a Camel Not a Camel?

Brenda and I are engaged in teaching a series for El Shaddai Ministries called “Foundation of Our Hebrew Roots.” During one of the recent sessions, the question was asked about the origins, or more precisely the original language of the New Testament scriptures.  I have previously written a blog on this subject you can find at this link:

So what is the original language of the Bible?  I think we all can agree that it wasn’t written in English, with the possible exception of the poor souls who are convinced that if the KJV was good enough for Peter and Paul, it should be good enough for us.

We could spend an entire book discussing the subject of textual origins and original language, but let’s take a look at one example from scripture that hints at an original language other than what you would naturally expect.  The New Testament has been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work.  There are more than 5900 manuscripts and fragments in Greek, over 10,000 in Latin and over 9,000 in various other ancient languages.  The dates of these manuscripts range from the early to mid 2nd century, to the time of the introduction of printing press in Germany in the 15th century. But the vast majority of these manuscripts date after the 10th century, more than a thousand years after the time in which they were originally thought to have been penned. The Masoretic text of the Old Testament, which is what the vast majority of our modern day translations are derived, is from the 10th century.  It was the oldest known manuscript of the Old Testament writings until the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in the early 20th century. No New Testament writings are among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The earliest fragment of a New Testament scripture we have today is known as the Rylands Library Papyrus p52. It is thought to date from sometime in the mid 2nd century.  It is from a codex (which is a book like format) since it is written on both sides and not a scroll which is written on only one side. It contains a portion of the Gospel of John 18:31-33 on the front side and John 18:37-38 on the reverse.  The oldest, nearly complete manuscript of the New Testament is the Codex Siaiticus, thought to date from the 4th century but discovered only in the later half of the 18th century.  Both of these are in Greek.  But is Greek really the “original” language?

I suppose the operative word in both of these cases is “thought to date from.”  The science of “dating” a manuscript and fragment is far from exact.  Traditional scientific methods such as carbon 14 dating is relatively useless because it destroys the sample.  Manuscript dating is done by studying the materials used to produce it such as the parchment or papyrus, how it was manufactured and its quality, the ink composition, the style of the writing itself, etc.  The process involves a lot of educated guesswork.

So what is the original language of the New Testament?  Is it Greek with 5,900 samples or is it Latin with far more examples?  What about the other ancient languages and the examples in them which combined, outnumber the Greek?  Bible scholars and linguists have debated this for centuries and we are not going to solve it here.

I have written in the past about the need to understand the cultural and, along with it, the linguistic context of the scriptures.  It is a great dilemma and effort on the part of a translator to determine the intent of the author.  Most languages, including those of the ancient near East, reflect the culture in which they are developed and used.  A classic example today would be the native peoples of northern Canada and Alaska who have 35 plus words in their language to describe snow.  By contrast the Polynesian people of the south Pacific islands have none.  So how does one go about describing snow to a Polynesian in their own language?

We know that Hebrew, in its ancient form, is a language without vowels.  Therefore there are many words, although spelled alike, can and often do have vastly different meanings depending on the vowel sounds which are implied by contextual factors not necessarily included in the immediate text itself.  We know that there are other related languages which share a common alphabet, word origins, word forms and spellings but can mean something completely different in their respective language and culture. In Biblical times, this was true of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic, both of which, along with Greek, were common spoken and written languages of the Near East.

How does this get us in trouble with our understanding and translating of the Biblical texts? There is a puzzeling passage of scripture recorded in both Matthew and in Mark. Let’s take a look.

Matthew 19:24 NKJV 24 "And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (3a)

Mark 10:25 NKJV 25 "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Does this statement make any sense?  A camel going through the eye of a needle?  How is this possible?  A needle is so small and a camel is so large.  I’m sure that we have all heard that this is a metaphorical reference to a certain type of city gate. But did you know that it was not until the middle ages that a city gate was named “The eye of a needle?”  There is no historic or literary record of the use of this phrase as a proper name in reference to a city gate in any ancient source.  So there is no real corroborating evidence that this phrase would a cultural metaphorical reference in ancient times. So if there is no evidence that “the eye of a needle” is a proper place name in Yeshua’s day, then that leaves only the literal interpretation which leads us to conclude that Yeshua was telling not only the young inquisitive rich man, but also His disciple that a rich man cannot be saved!  But in light of the full body of scripture on the subject of salvation, how can that be true? Here is where the importance of the concept of consistency in scripture comes into play, what about the wealthy persons listed in Luke 8:1-3 or Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus?  The only consistent conclusion that we can draw here is that we have misinterpreted the cultural metaphor and therefore mistranslated the scripture passage in Matthew 19 and Mark 10.

Fortunately there is a linguistic answer to this dilemma.  And that answer lies in the translation of a single word, the word translated as “camel.” In this case, both Hebrew and Aramaic share not only a common alphabet but they share a common word at least in its spelling.  That word is גמל it is pronounced “gamla” in Hebrew and means camel.  However, there is another word, which is spelled exactly the same but in Aramaic is pronounced “gamala,” and this word means “heavy rope.”  Now with that in mind, take another look at the passage in Matthew and Mark, and its metaphorical context,along with the broader context of the passage.  Does it now make much more sense?  So how does a rich person enter the Kingdom of God?  A camel certainly cannot literally go through the eye of a tiny needle, but a heavy rope can, once it is unraveled: once it is disassembled it can pass through the eye of a needle one strand at a time!

Now we can perhaps understand the linguistic and cultural context of this passage and glean from it the real message that the Master Yeshua intended for us to hear.  But what about the question of original language of the New Testament scriptures, does this mean that the NT was originally Aramaic?  Not necessarily.  This is only one example of a possible Aramaic origin; or perhaps a mixture of languages or borrowed words from Aramaic to Hebrew or Greek.  We must keep in mind that languages are very dynamic and change rapidly over time.  New words are added and older words go out of favor.  Also, in a multilingual culture,words and syntax tend to be mixed quite often. There are many examples that would lead us in the direction of Hebrew being the original, and still others in the direction of a Greek original.  This is one of those debates that will go on for a long time and one has to weigh the preponderance of the evidence and arrive at your own conclusions through your own research.

For some fun on your own, try studying Matthew 26:6-7 and see where it leads. Begin by referencing the standard by which a “leper” is to be dealt with in Leviticus 13:45-46.  Keep in mind that in the Matthew passage, this is a very orthodox, Torah observant society that is most likely multilingual. Use a good cross reference study Bible or on-line cross reference tools.  Again look at the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic sources.  Let me know what you come up with.

Shalom and be blessed
Dan Cathcart

Visit our web site at

© 2014 Moed Ministries