A Camel Through the Eye of a Needle, and Other Wild Tales of Translation

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Someone mentioned the squeezing of a rich man through the eye of a needle yesterday, and of course I started reflecting on mistranslation and the evocative power of language. The camel and the needle is one of my favorite examples of translation shenanigans, and is all the more delightful because no matter which way you translate or mistranslate it, the message of the metaphor remains roughly the same. For those not in the know, here’s what happened. Very probably, the rabbi Yeshua told his followers two thousand years ago that it is easier to thread a rope (like the big ropes used on fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee) through the eye of a sewing needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. But, in Aramaic – the language he was speaking and the language in which the source text for the synoptic gospels was probably written – “camel” and “rope” are spelled the same: “gml.” They do -sound- different, but written Aramaic doesn’t often represent vowels. So someone dutifully recorded, “gml.” Now this gets even funnier when the synoptic gospels come along and people are translating the words of Christ into Koine Greek. Because in Koine Greek “camel” and “rope” are ALSO the same word, distinguished in text by a single vowel but pronounced almost identically. Camel is “kamilon” and rope is “kamiilon.” In Latin and English, of course, “camel” and “rope” are really easy to tell apart. But, in both Aramaic and Greek, they are not. So while it is frustrating enough to try jamming a knotted fishing rope through the eye of a sewing needle, now we are left with the image of a massive dromedary squeezing through a needle, hump and all, and the rich are not only in a proper mess, but comically so. For want of a vowel!

It’s an amusing case because the meaning comes out somewhat similar in either case. And “camel” fits Jesus’s teaching style, which often made humorous use of hyperbole.

Other mistranslations are more sinister, like the popular translation of “arsenokoites” as “homosexuals,” which is a bit absurd, as there is a separate Greek word for that. “Arsenokoite” is a cognate of “man” and “bed” and no one knows what the word means because its usage is so rare. It’s been suggested that it was a reference to gigolos, but that’s an equally unsupported guess. Because the word occurs next to “malakos” (luxurious) it is more likely a colorful reference to the soft-living and pleasure-loving rich (who have a harder time in the New Testament than camels do). Malakos (soft) also gets mistranslated “effeminate,” mostly in order to support the reading of “arsenokoites” as “homosexuals.” But “malakos” doesn’t mean effeminate; there’s a different word for that, too. Malakos means luxury-loving, softened by easy life and too many soft cushions. In Greek, that concept doesn’t carry gendered connotations. Romans associated that with being “like a woman,” and because Romans had issues with effeminacy/masculinity*, we inherited both their commentary and their misreading. But the Greeks didn’t have these issues. (They had other issues.) There’s no evidence that “malakoi arsenokoites” had anything to do with sexual orientation, gender identity, or manliness or lack thereof. Greece is not Rome. Malakoi arsenokoites are most likely pleasure-loving rich men who loll about on bed eating grapes all day and ignore the suffering of their impoverished neighbors. That’s a type of vice that the New Testament lectures on frequently and at length, and to which the letters in which these words appear devote considerable attention. Rich, luxurious, gaudy living was also a vice that Greeks tended to scorn and treat with mockery. They would have found Trump Tower hilarious.

Other problematic cases include “ezer kenegdo” (which the West translated as “a helpmeet” or servant-companion, to describe the status of women toward men, but which in Hebrew simply means a helper partner and doesn’t imply hierarchy and is the same word used to describe God’s status toward humanity); or the mistranslation of “kephale” (head) to mean authority (authority is a different word), because of a Latin idiom we inherited that doesn’t exist in Greek (the Latin word for head also means leader, but in Greek “kephale” simply suggests origin, like the head of a spring or a river, and not authority) — someone asked for a link, so here you go, Marg Mowczko covers the research on “kephale” here.

— Or the mistranslation of “hupotassomai” as “submit,” as in, wives submit to your husbands, when “hupotassomai” doesn’t mean submit in Greek (there’s a different word for that). Hupotossomai is really hard to translate in English. It means “come under,” which may or may not imply what the Romans think it did. It is a military word for deployment in arranged, battle-ready formation, so the Romans jumped all over the possibility of hierarchy. Romans love hierarchy. But in context, in several places it is used in passages where Paul is talking either about the plight of Christian women with unChristian husbands and how to face the world together and speak your faith to a Greek or Roman husband who believes you’re property (this is the topic in the letters to Corinth), or following passages about putting on the armor of God and resisting the devil (in the letter to Ephesus). Remember that at the time, these letters were being written to challenge hierarchy, not support it, and to propose a radical egalitarianism in human relationships, and that most Christians in first-century Europe were women. The teaching that we are all one body in Christ was a harder pill to swallow for men in the Roman Empire than it was for women. The letters to Corinth speak of non-Christian husbands as vulnerable, still in bondage to old ways of thinking, half asleep and like soldiers blundering into enemy fire. In context, hupotossomai probably means to deploy yourself in support of your spouse against the enemy.

“Hupakoe,” which we keep translating obey, and which is used for children, never for spouses, in the New Testament, doesn’t mean “obey,” either. It means “hear under.” Children are being advised to listen and learn, not blindly obey. Again, context. These are letters urging people not to return to the ways of their parents, to abandon oppressive systems and live in a radically new way that is different from how their parents live. What’s being urged will create a world of strife within multigenerational Greek families. Hence the urging in that letter for parents not to provoke their children to anger and for children to listen deeply in the midst of the strife.

And so on.

The text is beautiful and often more nuanced than it appears in translation, and we consistently mangle it because we treat it like a Latin/Roman text instead of a collection of Hebrew and Greek texts. (When you translate radical or subversive texts into the language of Empire, you eventually get Imperial texts).

And also because we insist on reading it as if the people writing it were writing it today, with our connotations, figures of speech, and cultural fears, when in fact their cultural fears and figures of speech were completely different ones, and things that we get hung up on wouldn’t even have occurred to them.

And this leads me to reflect on the power of writing. As a writer, I’m a bit biased in thinking about how powerful written language is. But, when we look at a holy book that has been translated and mistranslated and construed and misconstrued over the course of 2000-2,500 years (or, if you want to look at something more recent, of less than 250 years of age, and within our own language without the added complexities of translation, consider the U.S. Constitution), it’s hard not to conclude that sometimes the treatment of a single word can shape entire cultures and political systems. That’s a humbling thought.

Stant Litore

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ADDENDUM: This post, which began as informal amusement about camels and ropes, has turned out to wildly popular, which I didn’t expect. So I have edited it to provide a little more context on a couple of the words (mostly hupotassomai and hupakoe), in hope that the post will be more useful. And if you would like to read more free posts on this and closely related topics, you can here:

  • What We’ve Forgotten.” There is a lot of evidence to suggest that first-century Christianity in Europe was largely a women’s movement. But how we’ve told and translated that history not only deletes much of what happened and why — it has significant impact today.
  • Aletheia, or What Is Truth?In Latin, truth is a blunt object you can use to bludgeon people into submission. But in Greek, truth is an activity.
  • In a Time of Refugee Crisis, We’ve Forgotten Who We Are.” American Christianity is forgetting that in the New Testament, the most core fact of our identity is that we are those granted refuge (literally by a “Soter,” a Refuge-Giver) and that our first calling is to give refuge, both spiritually and physically, to other exiles.
  • Do You Need Religion to Be a Good Person (Or: Levinas for Everyone)?” Come cartwheel into the topic of ethics with me. This also will give you a peek behind the curtain at the thinking that underlies the lurching but exuberant experiment that is The Zombie Bible.
  • Why Christians Shouldn’t Ignore Derrida.” In the U.S., Derrida is treated largely as a bogeyman. But that means we’re missing out on a really exciting way to read. We’re missing out on how to read with humility and with all of a child’s curiosity and openness.
  • Stant Litore on the Bible: How and Why I Read It.” I wrote this because my readers asked. It was my first post on the subject. So here is a storyteller’s approach to an ancient library of sacred texts.
  • And not free but affordable, here is a heartfelt study of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, called Lives of Unstoppable HopeIt’s also the story of my time with my infant daughter in the hospital, when I learned that hope, which I had thought small and delicate and frail as a moth in the night, might actually be sharp and strong as a blade.

P.S. On threads sharing this post, several people have brought up the old hypothesis that first-century Jerusalem had a “needle gate” that was very narrow, where a merchant had to unload their camel in order to get through. It’s an elegant and fitting idea, but it’s not historical. It’s a folk etymology proposed by fifteenth century clergy to explain the “camel through the eye of a needle” verse. (In other words, it was made up to explain the verse.) There’s no evidence of narrow gates (either a specific one or generally) being called needle gates or eyes of the needle in the ancient Middle East.

P.P.S. After this post went viral on Facebook, it led to some vigorous conversation, mostly around “arsenokos,” which appears to fire up the most controversy. I have copied some of my responses with further insight into “arsenokos” into the comments below this post, in case they should prove useful.

Stant Litore writes about tyrannosaurs, zombies, aliens, and ancient languages. He does not own a time machine or a starship, but would rather like to. His books include:

Nonfiction:
Lives of Unstoppable Hope
Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget
Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget

Fiction:
The Zombie Bible
Ansible
The Running of the Tyrannosaurs
Dante’s Heart

19 thoughts on “A Camel Through the Eye of a Needle, and Other Wild Tales of Translation

  1. Follow-Up Post #1:

    Ok. More on why translating “arsenokoite” as “homosexual” in the New Testament is problematic. “Arsenokoite” is a word that doesn’t exist (that we can see) prior to two occurrences in the New Testament (so we don’t have other cases to compare it to). What we have to do is educated guesswork. It is a compound of the Koine Greek words for “man” and “bed.” Now, I’ve been getting messages and comments from people to the effect that if you know the parts of the Greek word, the meaning is “transparent.” The idea being that everyone knows what “manbedders” means.

    But here’s where translation is tricky, and not always as transparent as we think. “Bed” in English is both a noun AND a verb already. That is, you can lay down in a bed. And you can “bed” someone. But this isn’t the case in Koine Greek: “bed” and “copulate” are two -different- words. So trying to literally translate “manbedder” doesn’t work, because in English, “bed” has two meanings.

    Here’s an analogy to explain. Let’s suppose we found a word composed of the two words “man” and “food.” With little context. So our literal translation might come out “manfooders.” Now the question is, what are manfooders? Are they chefs and cooks? Are they cannibals? Are they gluttons? Are they people who contaminate the local cuisine with foreign dishes? Are they people who appropriate dishes from other cultures? Are they people who steal food? Are they people who eat food meant for the gods and not for men?

    Do you see the problem? Say you have a passage about how manfooders can’t see the kingdom of heaven. To figure out what on earth a manfooder is, we’re going to need to look for clues: look at what the source culture was concerned about (not what WE are concerned about! Not what our medieval or our Roman forebears were concerned about, either. What was the source culture concerned about: gluttony? the invasion of foreign ways? cannibalism? blasphemy? something else entirely?). We can also look at who the text was written TO, and we can look at the surrounding text for additional context clues.

    It’s not as transparent as it looks.

    Translation aside, this matters because many people, from the Romans down to us today, have found in these texts justification and validation of what their culture is already afraid of (rather than letting these texts radically challenge their fears). Look, here are one or two verses you can take out of context to justify slavery (of black people specifically). It looks like one heck of a stretch to us now, but apparently those verses were a very big deal two centuries ago. So: I certainly think that if people are going to use a few scattered passages as justification for campaigns against entire groups of our neighbors (our LGBTQ+ neighbors in this case), they ought to be far more certain that they have it right before getting out the pitchforks. And we can’t just take traditional interpretations for granted, without examining them, not even after centuries of time. Why should we? Jesus didn’t. Paul didn’t. Those interpretations are fallible; they were articulated by human beings. They are not a substitution for an encounter with the living God and deep attention to his Word. And they certainly are the most tenuous and fragile platform on which to stand and harangue or oppress one’s fellow human beings.

    In all cases, be wary of any teaching or interpretation or ideological treatise – whether religious or secular – that leads you closer to fearing and hating and failing to defend your neighbor. Do not be the robber who beats your neighbor, nor the priest who passes by on the far of the street, carefully not interfering while their neighbor bleeds. That is the road of hell, my friends. Because that old devil stalks the earth like a lion “looking for whom he may devour,” and that is how you end up in the lion’s jaws.

    More to the point, though, it’s just not good humaning. In a world of violence and pain and broken lives and broken hearts and sin and cruelty and injustice, let’s at least do this: Let’s human well. That’s my verb for today, and there is my reflection for the evening. Let’s human well. Let’s love well. Peace be with you, friends.

    Stant

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Follow-Up Post #2:

    Oh, dear. I see some people objecting to my reading of “arsenokoite” in the Greek text of the New Testament and to my suggestion (hardly one I’m alone in) that “homosexual” is a mistranslation of “arsenokoite” … by claiming that “koi-” is a root for “coitus” (sexual intercourse). But “coitus” is just a participle of the Latin verb “coire,” which is a compound made from “ire” (to go) and the prefix “co-” (with). To “go with” or “get together” in Latin means to get it on. It doesn’t have anything to do with Greek “koite,” which is the word for “bed.” Despite the fact that they sound the same, they come from completely different etymologies. Just because it -sounds- the same doesn’t mean it is actually connected.

    From a little digging, though, I *am* seeing claims that “koite” (bed) was used elsewhere in the Greek New Testament as a metonymy in the way that we use it in English (in which case “koitehn” *might* mean “bedded” in the same sense that we would read “bedded”), so I will look into that more as time permits.

    If that is the case, then early readers of New Testament in Greek may well have read an explicitly sexual connotation into “arsenokoite.” However, suppose that is so. If indeed “-koites” (which is literally the word “beds”) would or could have been read as “people having sex,” it still requires a leap to suggest that “arsenokoite” is specifically “gay man.” It would be *one* logical leap to make, which is why some Romans made that guess and others have since followed suit. But it would also be an equally logical leap to translate this peculiar word as “prostitutes.” Or “child molesters.” Or even “promiscuous players [of any gender] who seduce men,” since the “-koites” grammatical ending would include both men and women, and since the Greeks were normatively bisexual.

    Because we don’t have any other attested occurrences of the word, if we were to determine that the word was specifically sexual, we would then need to:

    (a) choose the leap of logic that appeared to best match both the context and the teachings and heart of Christ, and

    (b) be humble about the fact that our choice remained a guess.

    Our desire for absolute certainty on every point (which is a Western thing, and not a craving that the early, Semitic disciples of Yeshua would have shared) drives us to insist that our guesses must be right. We don’t like approaching God through the “cloud of unknowing.” We want all the answers. It’s a way of pinning God and the universe like a butterfly on a board so that God and the universe will no longer be scary to us and we’ll no longer have to worry about little things like doubt. But without the possibility of doubt, there is no possibility of faith, of trust. We don’t “trust” that the sky is blue. The kind of leap into the unknown that God requires when he calls us to cross a wilderness or walk across the water, when he asks us to have faith even the size of a mustard seed so that we can move mountains if he needs us to … that kind of leap is impossible for people who desire only certainties and clear proofs. We are a culture of Thomases. But God is not calling us to know -about- him; he calls us to -know- him, in a relational sense.

    Our tendency to treat our guesses as absolute facts would be more amusing than worrisome, except that then we treat our neighbors cruelly on the basis of the guesses we’ve made. And that is evil. That is sin. That is the allegiance to the “letter” that Paul said kills and that Jesus said breaks God’s peoples with burdens God does not need them to bear. “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” Let us remember that, and read our holy texts looking for people to love, not excuses to hate or fear. Because the apostle John teaches us that “perfect love casts out fear.”

    The word “perfect” there is a translation of a word that means “complete.” Complete and total love casts out fear. Let us read in complete and total love, and let us read for the -purpose- of allowing God to plant the vital growth of complete and total love in our hearts. That is my plea.

    A commenter raising the koite/coitus connection (which is a happenstance, not an actual etymology) suggested that I am “a workman of the devil.” Well, it’s possible I may be wrong about some things, which is why I am offering educated guesses (and most of them not even my own guesses, but those of a fractious but earnest community of committed scholars) and not certainties.

    But I hope I am not a “workman of the devil,” at least. :/

    I rather think the devil’s work is shown in all the murders of LGBTQ+ youth, and the suicides of people whose Christian communities have taught them that they are unloved and unlovable and will never be welcome in the Body of Christ. I think the devil’s work can be seen clearly by its outcomes, even as a tree is known by its fruit.

    Stant Litore

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Those two follow-up comments (just above) were occasioned by vigorous conversation across Facebook when this post went viral, so I wanted to capture them here, as well, in case they prove useful to those who find this post through the blog.

    Peace be with you.

    Stant

    Like

    • I agree with you. Coitus and koite come from completely different roots.
      Furthermore, ‘arsenokoite’ is not a noun indicating a person. It has the wrong kind of ending. As a speaker of Modern Greek and a student of classical Greek, I understand it as “place where men lie down”.

      Like

      • I can see how it would be read that way in isolation by itself, but in context, it definitely appears in a list of groups of people.

        However, it’s guesswork which group of people are being referred to, and that’s where common translations get dangerous, because the way the NIV and a few other bibles translate this word is no way certain (and isn’t the likeliest of the possibilities), yet people use it to inflict harm by action or omission of action.

        I posted a lot more on “arsenokoites” in these comments above because that’s what most people responded to on social media, and I wanted to make sure to provide more context for those who need it or want to dig further. (There are a lot of “debunking the debunker” comments that are just sheer nonsense.) No one really knows what he word means, so the best we can do is (a) make an educated guess, and (b) realize that because it’s a guess, it’s not the particular scripture we should hang a creed — or our neighbors — on.

        I’m honestly much more interested in exploring words like “hupotassomai” where we have more context and the context is fascinating.

        But “arsenokoites” seems to be what gets people riled up.

        Stant

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      • I don’t know the context, as you don’t include a reference. However, I am a linguist and no stranger to how interpretations work (check out my blog and you will see that this is right up my street.)
        I might say in English “I will talk to the school” and mean the teachers, although I have used a word that refers to the place. The same sense transfer is also possible in Greek. (I live in Greece and speak Greek every day.) Can you give me the reference?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think I misunderstood your first comment; I completely agree – the transference that is happening is from ‘beds’ to ‘people’ just as you might transfer ‘school’ to ‘teachers.’ I agree. And I agree that the translation as ‘homosexual’ is among the less likely.

        The word appears twice in the NT – 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:9-10 – and there are no earlier attested cases.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Sarah

    You seem very learned on translations. What, in your opinion, is the current beat translation of the Bible (or even one for Old Testament and a different one for New Testament). I find myself distrusting all, so would really appreciate your input.

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    • Hi Sarah, thank you for the inquiry. That’s a good question that deserves a good answer, but there aren’t very easy answers to it. The NRSV translation is widely considered the most technically accurate – and it is the preferred English version for use by academics – but, like all of our English translations, it is heavily influenced by centuries of study of the Bible in Latin. The NRSV (New Revised Standard) is especially Latinate in its vocabulary, which, while precise and technically accurate, often loses much of the nuance you find in Hebrew and Greek.

      The ESV (English Standard) probably provides the best balance between accuracy and capturing a little more of the nuance and poetry of the original, though it’s far from perfect. Sometimes I find that the NLT (New Living Translation), while being less literal, captures more of the spirit of the original language. It can often be useful to read the NLT side by side with a more literal translation; it can “wake up” some of the meaning in the text as you read.

      Among the -least- accurate translations: the NIV (New International), which is very popular in American Protestant churches but which takes by far the most liberties in translation – and the Authorized King James Version, which is the most beautiful of our English translations and continues to shape both our language and our understanding of the Bible today, but which is frequently inaccurate.

      However, these are all translations-by-committee, some of them better than others, all of them representing considerable thought and labor, of course, but by necessity presenting very traditional and consensus views.

      If you are interested in seeking out more nuanced translations of individual books in the Bible, this can be done. Look for translations of individual biblical books by lone academics or by smaller translation teams. These books won’t appear in the back of a church pew because they aren’t a complete Bible. But many of them are thought-provoking and take advantage of the most up to date scholarship on biblical texts. Many also come with introductions that explain the translation choices and the philosophy behind the translation. Those introductions may cite sources, may point to recent discoveries about the source texts, or may make you aware of ongoing discussions of certain passages and what some of the perspectives are. One great example is Marcia Falk’s “Love Lyrics of the Bible.” This is a translation of the Song of Songs plus an 80-page study of what we find when we look at the Song of Songs closely in Hebrew, and in its literary and historical context. It’s absolutely gorgeous and stunningly researched, and a few decisions reached in it are even beginning to work into the way into recent “official” translations of the Bible. There are many other books like this out there – translation projects of specific parts of the Bible by lone academics who weren’t hindered by committee or by the requirements of producing a worship text. If nothing else, they can alert you to where there is opportunity for deeper discussion about a particular text. For example, if you search for “Job Translation,” say, on Amazon, you will find that many academics have published their own translations of the book of Job, with commentary. So, too, with many other texts from the Bible.

      If you are working with authorized translations of the entire Bible, then I would recommend:

      1. Get a good parallel Bible or just keep a dynamic and a literal translation open side by side when you read, and compare. (For example, the ESV and the NLT, or the NRSV and the NLT.)

      2. When you are curious (or skeptical) about a passage, there are some ways that you can start digging using free resources – this post walks through what to do: https://stantlitore.com/2018/06/11/digging-into-the-bible-in-translation-a-laymans-guide/ <- I wrote this post specifically for people who can't read Hebrew and Greek but would like to find out more about the original text.

      Forgive me, because this is probably a much longer answer than you were looking for! I hope it helps.

      In friendship,

      Stant Litore

      Like

      • I’ll add one additional thought. Some of the challenge in reading the Bible in translation is also simply how we package it: chopping the text into chapters and verses that were of course not present in the original and represent arbitrary divisions that reflect a long-ago Roman interpretation of the text. And of course, long Greek sentences are often subdivided and punctuated into smaller English ones, so that the logic of the text is altered. For some thoughts on how that can easily lead to misunderstandings, read this post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2015/09/the-punctuation-mark-that-might-change-how-you-read-romans/

        This also means that where, for example, the letter to the Ephesians was meant to be read as one stream of text in one sitting – as an intimate letter, in fact, – we’ve chopped it up. That’s very useful for reference purposes, but we risk losing the sense of it as a letter while we’re reading it. If you look up “Bibliotheca” – http://www.bibliotheca.co/ – you will find a not-very-cheap but very admirable project from just the last couple of years. It is a printed several-volume set of the Bible that:

        1. Allows you to see the Bible as a library of texts rather than a single text

        2. Removes all chapter and verse headings, so that you are reading the Bible without anachronistic divisions. This means that if you’re reading The Book of Samuel, for example, you can get lost in the story — which is a very different reading experience! Ditto, a book of poetry or a New Testament letter. It’s quite an experience reading the Gospel of Matthew and realizing that an hour has passed while you just read the story and the collected teachings.

        Bibliotheca is a slightly modernized RSV translation. It’s the seamless reading experience that fascinates me. While you can get a very similar translation in a traditional Bible format, the reading experience — and therefore the meaning — is often quite different in Bibliotheca.

        Stant

        Like

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