Matthew 19: 23-24 famously reads:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 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.”
There are two popular interpretations for the phrase “eye of a needle.” The first theory is that it is a reference to the tiny hole at the top of a sewing needle. Simple enough. The second theory is that it is a reference to a gate with the name “the eye of the needle” that was in first century Jerusalem. The gate was so small that anyone that hoped to get a camel through would have to take all of their baggage off the camel, get it down to its knees, and kind of shimmy the camel through the tiny opening.
You can see why this is important for Bible readers. Either Jesus is saying that it is impossible for a rich man to get into Heaven, or he’s saying that it’s really challenging for a rich man to get into heaven. There’s a big difference between impossible and barely possible. So which is it? Is it hard or impossible? What is the eye of the needle?
After a little research, I wasn’t able to find a trustworthy modern commentary that genuinely advocated for the gate theory. In varying detail, they all disproved it with archaeology, translations from the Greek, interpretive history, and the plain sense of the story. That being said, I didn’t find a single place that really poured out all of the evidence for the reader’s consideration (especially when it came to the history of interpretation). So here we go! This is my attempt to round up all of that evidence and hand it over to you.
The archaeological evidence for the gate theory is pretty poor. There’s no legitimate evidence of a gate known as the “eye of the needle” gate existing in Jesus’ lifetime. I would cite something, but you can’t cite evidence proving a lack of evidence! A quick google search reveals that even modern claims about eye of the needle gates in Jerusalem are dubious at best. There’s one small Orthodox church that claims that they have the actual gate that Jesus was referring to (which looks suspiciously like a hole in an old wall). There’s also a handful of travel blogs from people that claim they went to the eye of the needle gate. None of these claims are citation-worthy. Church websites often make dubious claims (see my article about fake quotes from famous saints for more church website sins) and the travel blogs pictures feature people smiling by a variety of totally different “eye of the needle” gates. Were there gates in different times and locations referred to as eye of the needle gates? Yes. There’s gates like that in German castles from the Middle Ages and obviously a handful in Jerusalem today that claim to be eye of the needle gates. That being said, there’s no record of a gate being referred to by that title until after the year 1000. In first century Jerusalem, there is absolutely no evidence that such a gate existed. Strike one.
The Greek manuscript makes the gate theory even less viable. If the “eye of a needle” was the name of a specific gate or a reference to a type of gate, that would make the language a title. You’d have to use the same words, “eye of the needle,” every time you talked about it because you’re not actually talking about eyes and needles; you’re talking about a type of gate known as an eye of the needle gate. The story comes up three times in the Gospels (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18) and each author uses slightly different words for this phrase. Matthew calls the eye of a needle the “trypēmatos rhaphidos” (τρυπήματος ‘ῥαφίδος), while Mark calls it the “trymalias tēs rhaphidos” (τρυμαλιᾶς τῆς ‘ῥαφίδος). Both are using the same word for needle (referring specifically to a tailor’s needle), but they’re using different language to talk about the eye of that needle. Luke not only adds a third option for the eye, but uses the word for a surgeon’s needle rather than the word for a tailor’s needle: trēmatos belonēs (τρήματος βελόνης ). If they’re trying to use a title for a specific kind of gate, they’re all over the map! Two of the three of them are using the wrong words to refer to that gate. If, on the other hand, they’re talking about needles and the tiny holes in them, the differences in their accounts present no problem. Strike two.
Now to the history of interpretation. Most commentaries I looked at claimed that the gate theory was a legend from the Middle Ages, but there wasn’t much detail provided beyond that. I saw a lot of people throw around dates like the 9th century (maybe), the 15th century (definitely wrong), and the 19th century (right out), but few provided direct quotes from their sources, much less cited sources at all.
The oldest reference I could find that’s absolutely airtight comes from Thomas Aquinas’ megacommentary, Catena Aurea. It packed great quotes from multiple noteworthy church fathers into one convenient commentary. In the section on Matthew 19, he provides the following commentary from Anselm of Canturbury:
It is explained otherwise; That at Jerusalem there was a certain gate, called, The needle’s eye, through which a camel could not pass, but on its bended knees, and after its burden had been taken off; and so the rich should not be able to pass along the narrow way that leads to life, till he had put off the burden of sin, and of riches, that is, ceasing to love them.Anselm of Canterbury as cited in Catena Aurea, Thomas Aquinas, CCEL Edition.
I can’t find a primary source from Anselm on this one, nor can I find anyone else who was able to track one down, so we’ll just have to take Thomas’s word for it. Anselm wrote in the early 12th century, so there’s definitely an uncomfortable gap here. Sources legitimately interested in uncovering the source of the theory often quote this as the its first official appearance, and I have to agree. I can’t find an earlier source than Thomas quoting Anselm. Did Anselm say it? Probably. Did he get it from someone else? I have to imagine he did. Someone that spent most of his life in England seems an unlikely candidate to start spouting off about gates in Jerusalem.
There are some people that point to an eastern bishop from the 11th century named Theophylact as the actual originator of the gate theory. If he did, it’s bizarre that he didn’t write it down anywhere and actively contradicted himself in writing. Here’s what he says on the matter in his commentary on Matthew:
As long as a man is rich and he has in excess while others do not have even the necessities, he can in no way enter the kingdom of heaven. But when all riches have been shed, then he is not rich and so he can enter. For it is just as impossible for a man with wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. See how Christ first said it was difficult to enter, but here that it is completely impossible.Theophylact’s Commentary on Matthew, Ch. 19, trans. Christopher Stade.
You can hear where he gets a little close: “when all riches has been shed, then he is not rich and so he can enter…” If there was a tiny gate where you had to get all of your gear off your camel and shimmy it through, the process might be something like that. But note that he still definitively says that it is impossible for a rich man to enter. Theophylact is describing the process of a rich person becoming poor, not talking about unpacking your camel for the sake of a narrow gate. Just to cover our bases, let’s see what he says about the same story in Mark 10:
Understand ‘hard’ here to mean ‘impossible’. For it is impossible for the rich man to be saved. This is clear from the example which the Lord gives, saying, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.’ For it is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.Theophylact’s Commentary on Mark Ch. 10, trans. Christopher Stade.
Yeah, this guy is absolutely not the originator of the gate theory. Some people just misread his commentary on Matthew. This is why primary sources are so critical: because people don’t always say what others claim they did.
There are a number of proto-claims that come way closer to the gate theory than Theophylact did. For example, check out this commentary from Jerome (a Roman theologian from the 4th century):
By this saying it is shown to be not difficult but impossible. For if, in the same way that a camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle, so a rich man cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven, then no rich man will be saved. But if we read Isaiah, how camels of Midian and Ephah come to Jerusalem with gifts and offerings, and those that were previously bent and distorted by the depravity of vices entered the gates of Jerusalem, we will see how even these camels to which the rich are compared, when they have laid aside their heavy burden of sins and the crookedness of their whole body, they can enter through the narrow and strait road that leads to life.Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew, trans. Scheck, 220-221.
Like Theolphylact, Jerome EXPLICITLY says that it is impossible. Buuuut there is that passage in Isaiah (60:6) where camels with loads of fancy gifts and people who were bent and distorted get into Jerusalem. Sooo maybe rich people can get in too if they lay aside their riches and vices? A bit of a comforting stretch for a passage saying that something is impossible. In his commentary, John Broadus goes so far as to suggest that Anselm got the idea from a misreading of Jerome’s fanciful explanation. A bit of a stretch, I think, but the connection between proto-claims like this and the gate theory are definitely real.
There’s a definite instinct in the history of this passage to try to soften the blow. Whether the eye of the needle is made a gate, the camel is made a rope (a suggested mistranslation that’s just not viable, as you can tell from the simple fact that no reputable Bible translates it that way), or the reading of the story is followed up with long statements about how being rich is actually fine if you manage to resist the allure of your riches (Clement of Alexandria among others), there are a lot of people that want this to be a little easier to swallow. Which is surprising, because all of this evidence pales in comparison with the words of Jesus in the following verses (Matt 19: 25-26):
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Jesus literally says that the point of bringing up the whole camel and needle thing in the first place was to say that it is impossible. He’s intentionally using an absurd image to talk about something that can’t happen! If his words aren’t enough to put the final nail in the coffin of the gate theory, I don’t know what would be.