Camel or Rope?

Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) is the best TV miniseries ever – and the most star-studded, with then thirty-three-year-old Robert Powell as Christ and co-starring Olivia Hussey, James Farentino, Michael York, Ian McShane, Anne Bancroft, Lawrence Olivier, and on and on. You can cast a lot of stars into a six-hour epic.

Pope Paul VI had suggested the director undertake the project, and Zeffirelli gathered top talent for every aspect of the film, including novelist Anthony Burgess who co-wrote the screenplay. The brilliant Burgess was a Catholic, although more of the sensibility of James Joyce than of, say, Romano Guardini, making him an odd choice to script a movie intended to be – and was – the most traditionally Catholic “biopic” ever filmed. Burgess would later quip that Zeffirelli made a movie for “Italians who had forgotten their catechism,” and it must have tickled him that two years later Monty Python used Zeffirelli’s North African sets to make the outrageous biblical parody, Life of Brian.

Among his other accomplishments, which included novels such as A Clockwork Orange (a Catholic dystopian fantasy), Nothing Like the Sun (about Shakespeare), and The Kingdom of the Wicked (upon which another TV miniseries, A.D., was based), Burgess was a linguist and found many opportunities for wordplay – some sensible, others not so. Despite his attraction to modernism, Burgess was an inveterate pre-Vatican II believer, who described his novels as “really medieval Catholic in their thinking . . .” He would have his fun.

Anyway, it was in reading Burgess on the subject of his adventures with Zeffirelli that I first became aware of the camel-rope controversy of Matthew 19:23-25. That’s the story of the young man who asks to follow the Jesus. Our Lord bluntly responds that he should liquidate his assets and invest it all in charity. The young man is rich and skulks away. Jesus turns to his disciples: “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.”

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.)

This isn’t really a controversy about biblical translation; not a debate about literalism versus dynamic equivalency in the rendition into English of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. The camel-rope question is actually a matter of something miscopied, a misprision – or so goes the hypothesis. Some second- or third-century scribe misplaced a letter, rather as an eighteenth-century copyist turned Mr. Jefferson’s “inalienable” into “unalienable,” although those words mean the same thing.

Does it matter which word Christ used? The intended message of the passage is unchanged, but camel-rope does say something about the way we view the process by which Scripture has come down to us. In another biblical blockbuster, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, the fiery finger of God etches the Covenant into the rock of Sinai, as it may indeed have happened when the real Moses witnessed the real miracle. In most other cases, however, there was human agency in recording God’s word: first in Hebrew or Aramaic, next in Greek, then in Latin, and finally in English – each language with its distinctive resonances; each scribe writing faithfully but not necessarily perfectly. As the Synod of Bishops wrote last year (Instrumentum Laboris):

–the charism of inspiration allows God to be the author of the Bible in a way that does not exclude humankind itself from being its true author. In fact, inspiration is different from dictation; it leaves the freedom and personal capacity of the writer intact, while enlightening and inspiring both . . .

In his novelization of Jesus of Nazareth, called Man of Nazareth, Burgess has the Lord speak to the rich young man in Greek, which only Judas among the disciples understands. Jesus tells him to translate:

So Judas Iscariot translated as best he could. “It is easier for a – I could not tell whether the word you used was kamilon or kamiilon, master. Is it easier for a rope – or was it a camel?

Jesus merely smiled and shrugged his great shoulders.

A 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.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.