Comparing the “ear of the needle” in Japan and its counterpart expression, the “eye of the needle” in the Middle and Near East

The “eye of the needle” aphorism is not an unfamiliar one to speakers of the English language, but perhaps the best known saying is that attributed to Jesus as recorded in the synoptic gospels:

I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man 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 a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. 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.” Matthew 19:23-26 (Parallel versions at Mark 10:24-25;   Luke 18:24-25)

What’s little known is that a parallel imagery or saying exists in Japan occurring in the context of mountain ascetic practices (called Shugendo), involving yamabushi and mountain pilgrims.

In Shugendo practice, and according to sacred mountain traditions, the “ear of the needle” [1] is a natural physical rock formation that may be a narrow rock pass or cave crevice or crack such as the one in the photo of an “ear of the needle” in Oita prefecture below.

ダウンロード

Below: The “ear of the needle”, Toho village, Fukuoka.

6585183

According to shrine-lore and Shugendo practitioners’ hari no mimi 針の耳 ideology:

When someone whose sins are heavy tries to pass through the hole, it becomes as fine as a “needle’s — Iwaya jinja, Tohomura, Fukuoka (Source: Shugendo Lore – Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture)

As the related Japanese saying goes …

You can see heaven through the hole of the needle”, i.e. eye/ear of the needle 針の穴から天を覗く(はりのあなからてんをのぞく (hari no ana kara ten o nozoku))

One might note that this usage is particularly in sync with the ideology of Shugendo mountain beliefs where sacred spaces and especially gateways are seen as allegorical portals to the Other World. One might also note that the hole of the needle is used, rather than “eye” or “ear” of the needle. In the Japanese tradition, the saying speaks of the smallness of one’s effort or knowledge, in comparison with the grandiosity of one’s contrasting ultimate goal or plan[implying an impossibility]. In the context of the Shugendo however, where the mountain ascetic’s (yamabushi or pilgrim) act of passing through the physical “eye of the needle” gateway, the pilgrim is being admonished or encouraged on the path to self-humility and enlightenment by crawling through the dark narrow passages and cavernous cracks that one might be able to be dazzled at the light at the end of the tunnel — and the ultimate bright prospect of the goal of attaining paradise.

Hari-no-mimi shrine / Ear of the needle shrine, Miyazaki, Kagoshima  Photo: 針の耳神社(はりのみみじんじゃ)

To see other “ears” of the needle, follow these links to see 1  Hibarusan, KyushuSaga prefecture Koushouin, Kasuyagun, FukuokaFutagoji temple, Rokugo-Mitsuyama, Oita(六郷満山「両子寺)

This expression “ear of the needle” though somewhat curious and strange to the ear, still rings a bell, recalling the Biblical “eye of the needle” expression with which the English-speaking world is more familiar. Compare the Japanese “ear of the needle” with the one as explicated from this excerpt below from The Eye of the Needle:

It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God. (Matt. xix:24).
See also Mark x:25; Luke xviii:25.

Both the Japanese and Biblical / Koranic terms ostensibly involve a narrow hole or crack, pass or passageway through which the religious subject must pass, and there are many versions in many languages from Aramaic to Hebrew, to Arabic to Tamil and to Greek, listed below[in the Appendix at the bottom of this page] and numbered for easy reference and consideration in the making of our arguments and conclusions here. The Biblical and Koranic expressions are the most similar in their connection of the act of the going through the eye of the needle with purity and sinlessness, and the attainment of or arrival in paradise. While many have offered many alternative explanations, for the Biblical proverb, by surveying the array of expressions from the Middle and Near East to Asia, we aim to infer from the long list of variant expressions, a possible origin for the Japanese “ear of the needle” ideology and its connection with Shugendo ascetic mountain pilgrimages.

From surveying the listed variant phrases involving the ear or eye of the needle, the following observations are hereby made:
1. The Japanese use of the word “ear of the needle“[1] is rare, and finds its only parallel in the Arabian form [6] found in the Koran.
2. Many of the expressions suggest that the eye of the needle is some kind of narrow (and/or low) physical crevice or crack, [3 – 5], mountain pass[17] or door[11]: [21] through which a large animal such as a camel[3 – 5] or an elephant[7];[12];[23], carrying and laden perhaps with mercantile items or treasure, would find difficulty passing. One theory was that the eye of the needle was a gate in Jerusalem[15] while another story involved the small entrance of an inn[16].
3 In Biblical and Koranic versions, the “eye of the needle”, while most understood as a visual teaching vehicle or parable in which moral lesson’s “eye”, is also a metaphysical obstruction that presents itself for the wealthy or sinful due to their being encumbered by faults or sins or obstacles.
4. One hotly debated interpretation is that the camel is not involved at all[2], but rather it is a reference to a corded rope[2], or a camel’s rope and beam[26](equipment to facilitate carrying loads or paniers), and that the analogy is that of the impossibility of a thick rope entering the small needle’s eye, thought to mean (in the Arabic Koran) literally a sewing needle’s eye[25].
5. The obstacle of entering the needle’s eye or ear is thought to be an analogy for the encumbering bulk of wealth and material possessions of a rich man[13 – 14], worldliness[9], ungodly or unthinkable thoughts [10] or other sins such as making falsehoods[8], that are preventing the wealthy from entering heaven or the garden of paradise[8]; [19].
6. We do not know why “ear” of the needle is used instead of the more popular “eye” of the needle … but the physical natural rocky pillar formations on either side of the hole or passageway called the “ear of the needle”, may have been an early adaptation of the other popular saying we have that “the walls have ears”. In any event, with the equating of the natural rocky phenomenon with the “ear of the needle”, there is less ambiguity in the Japanese meaning:  It is clear that the physical natural rocky cracks or narrow passageways are an allegory for a spiritual journey of trial and tribulation to find paradise, and the exertion and undertaking of undergoing the difficult trial of slipping through the obstacle of the narrow mountain crack or pass, is thought to produce both enlightenment and the cleansing effect for the pilgrim’s soul that is burdened with sins.
Since this comparative survey above established that the only other instance of the usage of “ear of the needle” (in stark standalone contrast to the more-pervasive “eyes of the needle” versions) lay in the Arab sayings, this then raises the enigmatic question as to what might have been the early Shugendo historical connection with the Arab region?  Were these Perso-Arab connections established via the Silk route or the Spice or Incense route?
Beginning with what we do know, we start by scrutinizing the mostly 8th century artefacts from the Silk Road stored in the Shosoin Treasure House, among which are fragrant raw materials for flavor and incense, such as cinnamon, clove, pepper, long pepper, agarwood, costus root, musk, pistacia and others (see The Fragrance of the Shosoin  and Preservation of Shosoin drugs and fragrances both by Yoneda Kaisuke, Zusetsu Shosoin yakubutsu contains detailed photos and descriptions of medicines in the Shosoin collection.) See also a map of the cinnamon and clove trade routes at Spice Route History).
The Incense Route served as a channel for trading of goods such as Arabian frankincense and myrrh with incense land trade from South Arabia to the Mediterranean flourishing between roughly the 7th century BCE to the 2nd century CE(see map of the maritime incense route and overland caravan spice and incense trade route).  Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BC, “Arabia is the only country which produces myrrh, frankincense, cassia and cinnamon.  Myrrh originated from the Arabian Peninsula, where the gum resins were first collected. Its trade route reached Jerusalem and Egypt from modern Oman (then known as the Dhofar region) and Yemen, following the Red Sea coast of Arabia. ” Frankincense and myrrh trees were crucial to the economy of Yemen which cultivated and exported the aromatics  to the Mediterranean, India and Abyssinia where they were greatly prized by many cultures, using camels on routes through Arabia, and to India by sea. The Frankincense Trail, a UNESCO heritage site is evidence of the flourishing caravan route that went through Oman.
Overland and sea trade routes out of Arabia

Overland and sea trade routes out of Arabia

The genetic pool of the Japanese and Ainu people (determined to predominantly belong to Y-DNA haplogroup D and YAP allele) may be connected to pre-Islamic Sh’ia populations in Iran, Iraq and Yemen, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Tibet, Yunnan, India and Pakistan (who also carry the Y-DNA haplogroup D-and YAP allele), with an ancient migratory route possibly traceable from the Arab Middle Eastern lands to Japan. [Note: Unlike the Sunni Muslims, the Shiya Muslim peoples or Shiites share with Catholicism and East Asians the belief that pious, holy people after their death can intercede for the living.]
:::
Source list of different versions of “eyes” and “ears” of the needle (some with commentaries):

[2]“Perhaps the huge needles used to sew the bags which the camels bear may have given rise to the saying, for they are threaded with rope like cords.”—Cunningham Geikie, D.D.
[3]“To let a camel go through the hole of a needle.” (Hebrew).
[4]“A camel’s head does not pass through the eye of a needle.” (Osmanli).
[5]“Can a camel pass through the eye of a needle?” (Tamil).
[6]“Narrower than the ear of a needle.” (Arabian from the Koran).
The proverb is common under various forms throughout the East.
[7] “They make an elephant pass through the eye of a needle.” (Hebrew).
[8] “Verily they who shall charge our signs with falsehood and shall proudly reject them, the gates of heaven shall not be opened unto them, neither shall they enter into paradise, until a camel pass through the eye of a needle; and thus will we reward the wicked doers.”—From the Koran. (Probably suggested by Matt. xix:24.)
[9]
“The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine are intermixed
With scruples, and do set the world itself
Against the word:
As thus ‘Come, little ones,’ and then again,
‘It is hard to come, as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle’s eye.'”
— Shakespeare: King Richard II

[10] Judaism:  The Babylonian Talmud applies the aphorism to unthinkable thoughts. To explain that dreams reveal the thoughts of a man’s heart, the product of reason rather than the absence of it, the rabbis say:

They do not show a man a palm tree of gold, nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle.[1]

[11] A Midrash on the Song of Songs uses the phrase to speak of God’s willingness and ability beyond comparison, to accomplish the salvation of a sinner:

The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle’s eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and [camels?].[2]

[12] Rav Sheishet of Nehardea applies the same aphorism to the convoluted reasoning for which the sages of Pumbedita [a city in ancient Babylonia, today close to Fallujah in Iraq that was one of the two greatest centers for Talmudic or Geonic Academies for the learning of Jewish laws] were evidently famous: “Are you from Pumbedita, where they push an elephant through the eye of a needle?” (Baba Metzia, 38b).

[13] Christianity: “The eye of a needle” is part of a saying of Jesus recorded in the synoptic gospels:

I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man 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 a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. 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.” Matthew 19:23-26

Parallel versions appear in Mark 10:24-25, and Luke 18:24-25.

The saying was a response to a young rich man who had asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied that he should keep the commandments, to which the man stated he had done. Jesus responded, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions[14] and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man became sad and was unwilling to do this. Jesus then spoke this response, leaving his disciples astonished.

The “eye of the needle” has been claimed to be [15]a gate in Jerusalem, which opened after the main gate was closed at night. A camel could only pass through this smaller gate if it was stooped and had its baggage removed. This story has been put forth since at least the 15th century, and possibly as far back as the 9th century. However, there is no evidence for the existence of such a gate.[3][4]

Variations on this story include that of [16] ancient inns having small entrances to thwart thieves, or a [17]story of an old mountain pass known as the “eye of the needle“, so narrow that merchants would have to dismount from their camels and were thus more vulnerable to waiting brigands. There is no historical evidence for any of these, either. This also ignores the explanation given in Matthew 19:26: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

Cyril of Alexandria claimed that [18]“camel” is a Greek misprint; that kamêlos (camel) was a misprint of kamilos, meaning “rope” or “cable”.[2][5] However evidence for such a Greek term is weak, there is little or no Greek manuscript support, and it goes against the standard principle of textual criticism that errors tend to happen towards the easier reading, not against it.

[19]Islam – According to the English interpretation of the Quran:

To those who reject Our signs and treat them with arrogance, no opening will there be of the gates of heaven, nor will they enter the garden, until the camel can pass through the eye of the needle: Such is Our reward for those in sin.[6]
Extract from The Eye of a Needle:

Many visitors to this site come seeking an understanding of what Yeshua (Jesus) meant when He said, “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” (MARK 10:25). The following is what I have found as the answer.

There are at least four possible explanations for what Yeshua said. One, that “eye of a needle” was a [20]narrow mountain pass of which it was difficult for a camel to go through. That explanation is plausible but not very likely there being no known pass by that name in that part of the world.

Another explanation is given by EW Bullinger in his Companion Bible. He wrote,

the eye of the needle,[21] a small door fixed in a gate and opened after dark. To pass through, the camel must be unloaded. Hence the difficulty of the rich man. He must be unloaded, and hence the proverb, common in the East. In Palestine the “camel”[22]; in the Babylonian Talmud it is the elephant”[23].

Manners and Customs of the Bible by James Freeman gives a similar explanation. This second explanation seems reasonable except for a couple of things. First, at the time of Yeshua’s quote, He was on the coast and was near no city gates. We might expect that when Yeshua made reference to something in His teaching, He pointed to it as His illustration. When He said one might wither a fig tree or cast a mountain into the sea (MATHEW 21:21), He very likely pointed at the fig tree and at mount Olivet and then at the sea. When He said that Solomon was not arrayed like one of these lilies, He probably pointed at the flower for the comparison. If He was standing alongside a city gate as He made this statement about a camel entering through the eye of a needle, Bullinger’s suggestion might seem more likely, but not as much so if He was walking along the sea coast.

In addition to this, the New Bible Dictionary says concerning the existence of these gates, that “there is no historical evidence to support this”. The context of His teaching does not place Him around camels or city gates, and with “no historical evidence to support” the idea that He was indeed referring to a camel going through a city gate[24], it seems to me quite a stretch to assume Bullinger is right.

A third suggestion of the meaning of a camel going through the eye of a needle is given by Abraham Mitrie Rihbany in his book The Syrian Christ. On pages 131-132 quoted below, he comments on the idea of the eye of the needle being a city gate.

The saying [about a camel going through the eye of a needle] is current in the East, and in all probability it was a common saying there long before the advent of Christ. But I never knew that small door in a city or a castle gate to be called the needle’s eye; nor indeed the large gate to be called the needle. The name of that door, in the common speech of the country, is the “plum,” and I am certain the Scriptural passage makes no reference to it whatever.

The Koran makes use of this expression in one of its purest classical Arabic passages. The term employed here- sum-el-khiat– can mean only the sewing instrument[25], and nothing else.

So, it would appear that although the gates may have existed, they were not called “needle’s eyes”. Mr. Rihbany suggests that Yeshua was simply speaking figuratively, as when He said “Ye blind guides, which strain at [out] a gnat and swallow a camel” (MATTHEW 23:24). Perhaps this is so, and without the final explanation given below, it sounds most plausible.

Most Christians realize that the Gospels weren’t originally written in English. Some think they were written in Latin, most believe they were first written in Greek. Very possibly though, some if not all were written in the language of Yeshua and His followers, Aramaic. This language was all but forgotten until about a hundred years ago, which is why few students are familiar with it. Dr. George Lamsa, who has written extensively about the language and in his book entitled Gospel Light clarifies for us the probable meaning of Yeshua’s words concerning the eye of a needle. I will quote from page 167.

The Aramaic word gamla means camel, a large rope and a beam[26]. The meaning of the word is determined by its context. If the word riding or burden occurs then gamla means a camel, but when the eye of a needle is mentioned gamla more correctly means a rope. There is no connection anywhere in Aramaic speech or literature between camel and needle, but there is a definite connection between rope and needle[[27].”

Nearly all of the English versions of the Gospels came from Greek texts by translators who may have known little about Aramaic. Thus camel would have been translated instead of rope. It takes little effort to imagine Yeshua, while walking along the sea coast, pointing to a rope and saying, “It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”. Consider also the interesting comments of Andrew Gabriel Roth, at aramaicnttruth.org, page 10, where he explains that the rope analogy simply meant that it had to be unwound to pass through the eye of a needle[28].

One final note of information should be passed along to the reader. In his book Judaism in the First Three Centuries of the Christian Era, George Foot Moore shares the following from ancient Jewish beliefs concerning the eye of a needle.

God encourages and assists every movement of man’s heart towards him. The words of the lover in the Song of Songs (5,2), ‘Open to me, my sister,’ are thus applied: God says, “Open to me an entrance no larger than the eye of a needle[29], and I will open to you an entrance through which tents and great timbers can pass.”

Now let us venture beyond which was actually spoken by the Lord. Let us consider, in the context, what our Lord was meaning by His illustration. His context has to do with entering the kingdom of GOD. In the previous chapter He had warned that “if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire”. Then a few verses before the one we are studying, He said, “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein”.

As we continue reading this record in Mark’s gospel we come to our verse in question. A wealthy man had come to Yeshua seeking what he must do to “inherit eternal life”. After hearing Yeshua’s response, Mark wrote that the man “was sad at that saying, and went away grieved”. He was sad and he was grieved because Yeshua’s response was not the answer he had hoped for. He didn’t realize that greater wealth then he had ever dreamed of could be his if he accepted Yeshua’s answer. This man was as the seed sown amongst thorns. He was acquainted with accumulating “great possessions” but he was not acquainted with laying up “treasure in heaven”. He may have known “the commandments” but he didn’t know the word and will of GOD.

It is interesting that before Yeshua gave him his answer, the Scripture says that Yeshua “loved him”. That is always why the word is sown. That is why the word is sent. But too often it is rejected. Yeshua wasn’t desiring to deprive this rich man of his wealth. Yeshua was showing him the way into the kingdom of GOD. Yeshua was offering him treasures vastly superior to any that moth and rust could corrupt. Thus, three times, as if trying to drive the point home to His disciples, Yeshua said, “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God…how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God…It is easier for a camel [rope][30] to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”. For Yeshua to declare this warning three times, speaks loudly to those who have ears to hear. The desire for riches was not to be underestimated in its ability to deceive and divert one from the narrow way that would lead unto the kingdom of GOD.

Many people living in the Bible lands at the time when the Gospels were written, erroneously believed that all wealth was a blessing from GOD. If one was poor, then the people believed that he must surely be cursed by GOD, but if one was rich he must surely be blessed by GOD. This is why the disciples then “were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved?” (MARK 10:26). They thought that if the rich found it difficult to enter the kingdom of GOD, what chance did the rest of them have? Much of Yeshua’s teaching endeavored to correct the false assumption that wealth is always a blessing from GOD. The truth is more the other way (JEREMIAH 9:23-24). Too often the pursuit of wealth insulated them from the workings of GOD in their lives (ISAIAH 41:17-20). It would choke the word sown in their hearts and rob them of eternal treasures their heavenly Father desired for them to obtain. Hence, it was difficult (not impossible) for a rich man to enter the kingdom of GOD.

MARK 8:35, 36 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Manlio Simonetti – 2002 -“Cyril of Alexandria: By “camel” here he means not the living thing, the beast of burden, but the thick rope34 to which … “This interpretation — “rope” (kamilos) and not “camel” (kamelos) — rests on the homonymic character of the two ..”
Images: In the public domain

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s