Readers are likely to have heard, in one form or another, the New Testament proverb, “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” (Matthew 19:24). The saying is an old one, and probably was in common currency centuries before its alleged utterance by Jesus. I find proverbs and adages interesting, as they contain not just worldly wisdom, but information about the culture and period in which they were composed. This point was recently impressed upon me while reading a forgotten bit of nineteenth-century travel literature, the Rev. F.J. Arundell’s 1834 memoir Discoveries in Asia Minor.
I have a romantic fondness for old travel literature; from it we learn not just how societies operated in previous eras, but also how the arduous exercise of travel was conducted. Arundell relates the following observations (in Ch. 5) on the use of needles as he moves with his party through a remote part of Turkey:
As we were ascending the hill, I saw something shining along the road, which proved to be one of the needles used by the camel-drivers for mending their camel-furniture. It was about six inches long, and had a very large, very long eye; it had evidently been dropped by one of the conductors of the caravan which was a little way ahead of us…The association of the needle with the camels at once reminded me of the passage which has been considered so difficult to be illustrated: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for the rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”
Why should it not be taken literally?…The needle, from its constant and daily use, must have held a prominent place in [ancient man’s] structure of ideas and imagery; and we know how fertile the imaginations of these camel drivers were in furnishing us with proverbs and legendary tales…Why may not the impracticability of a camel’s passing through the eye of his needle, even a common camel, much more the double-hunched gentleman of Bactria, have been a common expression to denote impossibility?
How valuable the needle must be to the poor camel-driver, may be inferred from its loss. Should he have been so improvident to have had only one, the loss of it would be one of the greatest he could suffer, and when traveling through the desert, might even endanger his personal safety.
These comments help us understand how the adage of the camel and the needle’s eye could have been created. In the modern era, we visualize a needle as something diminutive, something tiny and disposable. But to the dweller of the arid regions of the Middle East, it was something more significant. Arundell says that the needle he observed was about six inches long, with a large eye: this is an enormous needle. From this we can understand how a proverb might be crafted around the needle: it was a significant piece of equipment for a caravan-driver, and perhaps for all desert-dwellers.
We do not imagine such things when we hear ancient proverbs. We hear the word “needle,” and immediately imagine some tiny sliver of metal, something entirely unworthy of serious contemplation. Yet, had we actually seen a real desert needle, we would better be able to appreciate not only the proverb, but the lives of the ancient dwellers of these regions. And in this little anecdote, so well-related by our Rev. Arundell, we can understand the importance and value of travel. Travel enables us to relate disparate things with each other; it assists us in making rational sense of this immeasurably complex world. Travel liberates, and explicates.
I am sure that there must be a specific Arabic word for this sort of large needle (rather than the generic إبرة), but I do not know what it is. Arundell goes on to speculate, equally plausibly, that there might be another origin of the “needle” proverb. In ancient times, obelisks were sometimes colloquially referred to as needles, and would be erected near the entrances to towns and cities. If two such “needles” were placed close beside each other as a portal, it would not be possible for a heavily-loaded pack animal or man to pass through them. Such a “rich man” would have difficulty passing through the “eye” of the two “needles.”
Language is our repository of culture, wisdom, and elegant truths.
Read more in On Moral Ends: