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Bible Text Transmission, Translation, and Transliteration:

The Camel and the Needle, Baal, Ashurbanipal, and Eusebius

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Question #1:  Hi Bob, I found this interesting and wondered your thoughts on it. When in Israel, we were told this same story of the needle gate. It did sound beautiful but when you think of it, not all who entered Jerusalem had camels, so there would be no reason for them to remove their belongings and humbly enter on their knees to the Holy City. Only camels would have that honor. I added one small comment towards the end. Read on and let me know your thoughts,

We've been told that in Yisra'el there was a small area in Jerusalem for animals to pass through called the 'needle gate'. The camel could not enter Jerusalem unless it first stooped down and had all of its' aggage removed. The story goes that after dark, when the main gates in Jerusalem were shut, travelers or merchants would have to use this smaller gate, through which the camel could only enter unencumbered and crawling on its knees! This is a "great sermon material, with the parallels of coming to YHWH on our knees without all our baggage. A lovely story and an excellent parable for preaching but unfortunately unfounded! From at least the 15th century, and possibly as early as the 9th but not earlier, this story has been put forth, however, there is no evidence for such a gate, nor record of reprimand of the architect who may have forgotten to make a gate big enough for the camel and rider to pass through unhindered," says one web site. The often-quoted explanation of this idiom is unfounded. Unfortunately, the issue with the camel and the eye of the needle is not an idiom but a bad translation. This 'opens up a whole new can of worms,' as a separate issue of mistranslating the texts and the need to search for the truth. What did Yahshua really mean? To find this answer let's consider the teaching of Rabbi Moshe Konichowsky and his study Bible. The Restoration Scriptures True Name Edition is correct as translating the Master. "It is easier for a large rope to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the malchut of YHWH," Mark 10:25. Within the RSTNE, the study notes clarify this "gemala"Another possible solution comes from the possibility of a Greek misprint. The suggestion is that the Greek word kamilos ('camel') should really be kamEAlos, meaning 'cable, rope', as some late New Testament manuscripts actually have here. Hence it is easier to thread a needle with a rope rather than a strand of cotton than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. A neat but unnecessary solution! (This notation is from something else that I found when researching the Hebrew and Greek words for camel. From what I could find in Strong's concordance, the Greek word for camel comes from the Hebrew word for camel which could explain the possibility of a mix up in intended meanings. They sure sound very similar and I would suppose they could be misunderstood. If you think about it, it would be easier for a camel to go thru the needle gate in Jerusalem than it would be for a rope to go thru the eye of a needle.) can mean rope, or camel and here in context it means rope." Again, with idioms and phrases that look like idioms, we must "study to show yourself approved." As you can see from the idioms we have studied together and one bad translation, we should not just settle for what we have always been taught. Idiomatic expressions and the changes that occur when the Writings are taken out of the Hebrew language can really mix up the truth. We should not gloss over the confusing "contradictions" in the Scriptures. Nor should we mix up the modern and the ancient. We need to learn, learn to study and learn to live the Hebrew culture.

Response #1:  Thanks for the info. I didn't get into the details of all of it. As you know, I would firmly disagree with the proposition that the New Testament - any of it - is a translation of what was an original Hebrew or Aramaic exemplar. Liberal scholarship loves this idea but there is no solid evidence for it, and the nature of the texts as we have them (along with many other proofs) suggests otherwise. Outside of a rumor recorded in Eusebius to the effect that there was an Aramaic work on Jesus purportedly by Matthew, all of the other evidence points the other way.

As to this author's overview on idioms, it is true that one has to understand the idioms of the language in question, as well as its modes of expression, figures of speeches, and literary and cultural references (which seem to be confused here in the quotation provided). This isn't a terribly difficult issue in New Testament Greek for those who are conversant with Hebrew and the Old Testament. That is because the New Testament is as seamless an addition to the Old Testament as one could imagine from all of those points of view. Only the language is different, and since the Septuagint had already set the stage by laying down conventions for Hebraizing Greek, even here the transition is smooth.

As to the text of Matthew 10:25, while I would agree that the story about the needle being really a gate through which it is possible (though difficult) to pass is entirely wrong-headed (no evidence for it - I tracked it down one time to a nineteenth century exegete, but the name escapes me now), and I don't think the "rope" addition is much of an improvement. In fact, I think this interpretation is worse because it changes the biblical text on the basis of speculation alone. This is the sort of thing that even in my secular field of Classical Philology one would be careful about doing (even though given the state of most Classical Greek and Latin textual traditions one would have more justification for doing so in many cases). There are times where the manuscript reading is in question, and there are ways of approaching these issues. But to emend the text where there is no witness in all of the various and extensive textual traditions which even hits at there being any textual problem here is beyond bold.

Secondly, to speak of "idiom", it is not as if Jesus does not elsewhere use camels to express something ridiculously large. After all, He upbraids the Pharisees for "straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel". So, thirdly, we need to look at the context itself to see what might be meant here. When Jesus says this, the disciples are "shocked" and say "then who can be saved?!" If this were just a question of something very difficult (i.e., you just might get something over-sized through a hole too big for it), no need to panic. If anyone was going to be saved, we can be sure that the disciples were pretty sure they were safe (after all, they get caught arguing on several occasions about "who is the greatest" – not the sort of stuff that suggests an excessive humility leading to worry about salvation in the first place). The whole point of Jesus' remark is show them and us that – without Him and His sacrifice – salvation is absolutely impossible, so impossible that it must be expressed in impossible terms. Once His disciples get that point, He adds, "It is impossible with men (i.e., human effort) but not with God (i.e., divine provision) – nothing is impossible with God".

Therefore, trying to explain this expression in a way that takes away the impossibility of the situation defeats the entire point of the remark: impossibility from human means, but possible for God – God can make a camel go through a needle's eye (or anything else for that matter), but we have our limits. We have to rely on Him for things that seem or should seem impossible (like salvation from human means). During this time of course there were many who felt that by good works or keeping the law one was indeed assured of salvation, but Jesus is telling them and us that this is so out of whack with reality it's like this impossible situation – easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than to be saved by tradition or keeping the Law, something that is clearly not going to happen, just as a camel can't pass through a needle's eye.

Finally, on the language front, the word "camel" is a Semitic, not a Greek, word. In fact the third letter in the Hebrew alphabet, gimel, was in proto-Semitic a pictogram representing a camel (as aleph represented an ox, beth a house, etc.). Thus, as a loan word from the Semitic world to Greek, the Hebrew and Aramaic words for camel (gamal and gamla' respectively) are very close in linguistic terms to the Greek word and extremely common words in the bargain. In the Middle East of that day I would venture to say that the word would be in every child's first 500 word vocabulary. What this means is that, if it were a case of a "translation" here (something I find to be ludicrous) – even so the notion that any educated person could get the extremely common and well-known word for camel mixed up with another word, even one fairly similar in sound, is, to paraphrase our Lord, "hard to swallow".

For more on our Lord's methods, please see in BB 4A: "Christology", "The Teaching Ministry of Jesus Christ".

In Jesus,

Bob L.

Question #2:  I have started reading the whole Bible, Old Testament and New Testament. Could you tell me who were the writers of each book in the Bible? What were their background of the writers? Or can you recommend to me some useful resources on this subject?

Response #2:  The best thing would be to get a good study Bible, and/or a good Old Testament / New Testament introduction, and/or a good Bible dictionary or encyclopedia.

A. The best three study Bibles I know of are:

1) The Zondervan Study Bible, ed. K. Barker (this is generally keyed to the NIV version under the title The NIV Study Bible, but they may have the same notes for other versions now.

2) The Ryrie Study Bible ed. Charles Ryrie (this is now available in all of the major versions)

3) The New Scofield Reference Bible ed. C.I. Scofield (this is traditionally to the KJV, but may be available now in other versions by now - not really sure)

B. Here is info already posted on NT / OT surveys. The best of I know of are:

An Introduction to the Old Testament by Edward J. Young (rpr. 1983 Grand Rapids)

An Introduction to the New Testament by Henry C. Thiessen (rpr. 1953 Grand Rapids)

There are numerous other (and newer) titles which are more popular and more well known, but the two above proceed from a high view of inspiration and a careful, conservative point of view (and are therefore of some use). Nice-to-have intro's include on the NT side: D. Guthrie's Introduction to the N.T., M. Tenney's Survey of the N.T., and R. Gundry's Survey of the N.T., and on the OT side, La Sor / Hubbard / Bush's Survey of the O.T., G. Archer's Survey of the O.T., and R.K. Harrison's Introduction to the O.T..

Additionally, M.F. Unger's two volume Commentary on the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press) functions in a manner very close to a survey/introduction (with articles on every book which precede the commentary) and is a work I consider invaluable. Unger truly was one of the un-sung stars of the last generation, if under-appreciated today.

C. For Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopaediae, I recommend:

1) Unger's Bible Dictionary, ed. M.F. Unger

2) A Dictionary of the Bible, ed. John D. Davis

3) The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible - this is really a multi-volume encyclopedia; it has a very liberal bent, but still contains much useful information as long as you factor in flawed theology; I would imagine it is pretty expensive. There are a number of other Bible encyclopedia available that accomplish pretty much the same thing (like the Anchor Bible Dictionary and the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia), but all are pricey and more than you really need at this point no doubt.

To come back to your question, authorship for most of the books in the Bible is fairly self-explanatory (i.e., Matthew wrote Matthew, Mark wrote Mark, Luke wrote Luke, and John wrote John). Authorship of some is not in the name, but usually in the beginning of the book (i.e., the Pauline, Petrine, and Johannine letters start with a salutation from the author). There are, of course, some letters whose authorship is disputed. In my opinion, the tradition which says that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (i.e., the first five books of the Bible) is correct, with the exception of the very end of Deuteronomy. Paul wrote Hebrews (there are reasons why he did it anonymously), Solomon wrote Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and collected/published Psalms and Job. Background on these and other issues and biography of the writers (all of which information that is valid comes from internal evidence in the very books they wrote) can be found in the sources above. It would take an "introduction to the Bible" in itself to answer your question in full, so I would invite you write back for any specific info you might have on specific books.

I hope this is of help to you. I commend your determination to dig into the truth of scripture in a systematic way. It is something that every Christian should do (please see the link: "Read your Bible: Protection against Cults").

Yours in Him by whose Word the universe is sustained, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob L.

Question #3: 

I have a translation question for you. There is a guy where I hang out who claims that the word "Lord" isn't biblical, that it really means "ba'al." I thought "Lord" means "master" and "ba'al" just meant "god" in some Semitic languages. "Adon" or "Adonai" is used for "Lord" in the OT, isn't it? Doesn't "Adonai" mean "Lord"? He also claims that the NT was originally written in Aramaic and Hebrew, and later translated into Greek. Could you please clear that up for me? Thanks.

Response #3: 

"Lord" is an English word, of course. It is of Germanic extraction, apparently originally being a phrase that meant "loaf-ward", i.e., "keeper of the bread". When translating into another language, we choose words that represent the idea of the original as closely as possible. So, of course, Lord is no more original to the Bible than the word God (another word with a Germanic root). But what does it mean to say that the word is "not biblical" since the Bible was not written in English in the first place and what we are doing is translating? I have bumped into people who don't want to use the word God for similar or perhaps the same reason (we should be transliterating the Hebrew, so they claim). You are correct about "Adon" / "Adonai" as being another synonym. "Ba'al" is Baal the pagan god, but it means master or husband – or lord – and is used frequently throughout the OT in contexts where there is absolutely on pagan overhang. It is a common word for "husband", and, for example, one of David's "mighty men" was named Bealiah, "the LORD is [my] Lord (i.e., [my] ba'al).

The English vocabulary does not match perfectly the Hebrew vocabulary in meaning because the etymologies and usages are different (a common issue in all translations of all literature in all languages). The KJV uses LORD for the tetragrammaton, and Lord for Adonai. In Modern Hebrew, they use Adoni (i.e., singular with the first person suffix rather than plural with the first person suffix as in Adonai) to mean "sir" or "mister" (very close to "master"). So this is all a matter of translation and tradition. The system developed by many translators of English Bibles stretching back well before the KJV has served us well and is neither "unbiblical" or in any way disrespectful to the Lord. We generally use "God" for 'elohiym, and Lord for both the tetragrammaton and Adonai (whether or not we choose to distinguish by using all caps with the former). Outside of the context of God Himself, the Hebrew words 'el, ba'al, and 'adon really are synonyms anyway. The sacred uses are technical, so that it is right and proper for us to have developed our own technical usages for English words whose meanings otherwise might be divergent just as in the case of the secularly used Hebrew words. So this really is a case of comparing apples to oranges when you get right down to it. People who make these sorts of objections usually have a hidden agenda. If I were to bet, I would bet that your correspondent wants us to substitute Hebrew names in transliteration. I have no problem with people doing this if they want to. What I do have a problem with is 1) their trying to bully everyone else into the same silly behavior, and 2) their thinking that they are somehow more spiritual for doing so – in fact, all such superficial legalism is always more of a detriment to true spiritual growth than an aid.

As to the NT, no, it was originally written in Greek. There is not a shred of direct evidence of anything else. The only "proof" from antiquity is a statement in Eusebius more than two centuries after the fact that says that parts of the book of Matthew existed in an Aramaic form. Secularists have taken this to the moon, and this late rumor has been the cause of much pointless and incorrect speculation as in this case. We have no reason to think that Eusebius, who was wrong about plenty of other things, was right about this – anyway, he only reports the story third hand without offering any evidence. And even if there was any substance to the rumor, it is actually much more likely that any ancient Aramaic version of Matthew was itself a translation from Matthew's Greek rather than the other way around if only because Eusebius reports that the Aramaic version was shorter (i.e., it was a synopsis). But in any case, we would expect to see at least some scrap of this or any other original Aramaic version, otherwise the scenario is unbelievable. We have extensive evidence for the NT in Greek dating from the first century, and the NT is the most well documented ancient text there is. How could it have happened that this text became ubiquitous in Greek twenty or so years after being written but without a single scrap of the "original" Aramaic surviving? In terms of credibility, this falls into the category of "conspiracy theory".

For an example of Eusebius' method, see in BB 4A, "The Interpolation, 'Father, forgive them'".

In Jesus,

Bob L.

Question #4:

Could you be so kind as to transliterate 'Ashurbanapal' into Hebrew for me, he seems to have been a very important Assyrian King that drastically effected the Jews through the worship of the pagan Assyrian god Ashur.

Response #4:

Since that precise version of Esarhaddon's son's name doesn't actually occur in scripture, the answer would have to be hypothetical. However we do have at Ezra 4:10 his name given as Osnappar or Asnappar or Asenappar (depending upon how one wishes to vocalize/transliterate it into English). So the biblical variant is as follows:

Aleph-Samech-Nun-Peh/Peh (i.e., Peh doubled by dagesh)-Resh

or with vowels either

a) Aleph-hametz-Samech-schwa-Nun-patach-Peh/Peh(i.e., doubled by dagesh)-patach-Resh


b) Aleph-hametzhatuph-Samech-Nun-patach-Peh/Peh(i.e., doubled by dagesh)-patach-Resh

Hope this is helpful.

In Jesus,

Bob L.

Question #5:

Since the actual name 'Ashubanapal' does not exist within the Bible could the following be a hypothetically acceptable Hebrew transliteration?

אשרבאנאפאל  Ashurbanapal

(Aleph– Shin– Resh– Beth– patach– Nun– patach– Phe– patach– Lamed)

Response #5:

I would say that it's possible, although keep in mind that most English transliterations of the Babylonian have -ipal not -apal, and secondly that the Hebrew OT almost always makes significant changes when reporting such names (as in this case). Also, it would be a little unusual – at least this is my sense of it – to represent the patach's (which are often left out in such cases) with alephs, but fail to represent the long "u" of AshUr with the most likely present "mater lectionis" waw.

In Jesus,

Bob L.

Question #6:

Hi Bob,

I had a thought the other day when I was reading Matthew 22:37, I noted that Yahshuah was quoting Himself in Deut. 6:5 about the greatest commandment in the Torah. When I looked back at the Deut. 6:5 text, the last word is "might" but in the Matt. 22:37 verse, the last word is "mind". Now if Yahshuah was Hebrew, and was speaking to the Sadducees, who were also Hebrew and they both new the Torah backwards and forwards and in fact one of the two was the Author and Perfecter of the Torah, how is it that the Word made flesh mis-quoted His own Word? Wouldn't you think that the Hebrews would have known what they were quoting? Weren't they sticklers for accuracy? I might give you the fact that the Author can change it if He wants cause He is the Author, but what about the other times that the New Testament quotes the Old Testament and the quote is not a quote but a reasonable facsimile. This just seems out of character for those people that held the Torah and the Prophets so sacred. Maybe, just maybe, it is a case of translation not quite cutting it? I don't know, it just seemed kin of strange. Again, I don't think the Bible is wrong, I am just wondering if we might be missing something. I welcome your thoughts as always.

Response #6:

The issues involved in interpreting the synoptic gospels are longstanding and rather well known (although generally mishandled through a lack of respect for the Word of God, in my opinion). This particular quotation occurs in slightly different forms in all three of the synoptics, so the first point to keep in mind is that there are a lot of possibilities involved in these situations, some of which may be unknown to us or under-appreciated by us, but, if properly known and appreciated would answer many questions. For instance, given the fact that our Lord's earthly ministry lasted for about three years, the quantity of the words we have from Him actually recorded in the gospels is infinitesimally small. As John says, if we were given everything, there wouldn't be enough room in the world to hold all the books that would be needed (Jn.21:25; and see also Jn.20:30, where John says that Jesus did many other things that were not recorded).

Applying just part of that truth to this situation, we can easily surmise, given the different objectives and audiences of the different writers, that some included some details, others other details. The fact that by writing at all they absolutely had to be selective doesn't make them wrong or inaccurate except by some foolish standard which could never be attained in this world. It is true that Matthew ends up with the word "mind" (although Greek dianoia means a bit more than that here); however, Mark ends with the word "might" (as in Deut.6:5), while Luke has both words (with "mind" last). I believe what happened in this instance is that Jesus quoted the text as his listener remembered it, but added, "even with all your inner being"(i.e., the true meaning of dianoia here rather than merely "mind"). I believer our Lord added this word to go beyond mere quotation and into interpretation so that this man and the listening crowd would understand just exactly what Deut.6:5 really means, namely, that it is not a laundry list of places in your anatomy/mentality where you ought to love the Lord, but a poetic expression of the totality of yourself which ought to express that love. That may seem obvious to us now, knowing all that we know about the Lord and the truth, but to a legalistic, unbelieving generation it was indeed the case that more often than not they used warped literalistic interpretations to ignore the power of the truth that comes through the words when properly understood and believed. Pointing such things out is the essence of teaching, and that is what our Lord was doing on this occasion. The reason for the differences in the separate gospels is another question (suffice it to say here that these authors too had their own unique audiences and under the guidance of the Spirit were given leeway to tailor their messages in the sense of selecting material to include or exclude in order to make their points).

The use of the Old Testament in the New Testament is another complicated issue. Not to get into too much detail here, but most people at that time probably used the Greek Septuagint version which dates back to several hundred years before Jesus' day. This was almost certainly true of the north, and in the south in Judea where Hebrew was more widely spoken that version would at the very least have given the Hebrew scriptures serious competition even so because of 1) its relatively widespread availability (the Greek book trade was well developed, but Hebrew scriptures were a different matter); and 2) its universal applicability (i.e., only a few well trained scholars would be able to understand the older and more complicated poetic books in Hebrew; whereas the Greek was accessible to virtually everybody who knew Hebrew and also the wider world of the diaspora and converts as well). Complicating matters is the fact that there were a number of versions of what we now call the Septuagint circulating, and also the fact that on many other occasions our Lord as the gospel writers record Him and the other writers of the New Testament often made their own translations (especially where the LXX was deficient or misleading), and sometimes they only made some changes to what was at the time the usual Greek text (sometimes to correct, sometimes to paraphrase). Thankfully, through their great efforts, the ministry of the Spirit, and the provident hand of God, we are blessed to have a Bible that is completely accurate in the original language (once the correct text is established). What we do with it is another matter! But if we listen to our Lord, we will drink of its truth deeply day by day in order that we may indeed love Him with all our mind, all our inner being, all that we truly are within.

For more on our this issue in general, please see in BB 4A: "Christology", "The Teaching Ministry of Jesus Christ".

In the living Word of God, our Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob L.

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