Skip to main content

The Eye of the Needle - Interpretation and Belief

Submitted by Ken Watts on Wed, 06/20/2007 - 11:42

Years ago, when I was a seminary student, I took a course in hermeneutics—the art and science of interpreting an ancient text.

A correct interpretation would sound more like socialism, or even communism, than the capitalism that the congregation, and probably the preacher, knows and loves.

The professor in that class made a surprising claim, considering the context. Most of my fellow students found it shocking.

He claimed that unbelievers had the advantage when it came to the interpretation of religious texts.

His support for this claim was that in order to interpret a text accurately, one needs to be disinterested in the outcome.

Believers, however, have an enormous stake in the outcome whatever way you look at it. Often, they know what they want the text to say—what it has to say—before they even look at it. And even when they don't, they are bound by the results of their interpretation, which makes certain possibilities very hard to contemplate.

He argued that complete unbelievers had no stake in the meaning of any given text, since they could simply reject that meaning as false, and therefore they were more likely to be accurate about what the text was actually saying.

Over the years, before my exit from organized religion, I noticed another reason that unbelievers make more accurate interpreters. They—now we—aren't interested in the usefulness of the text. Most interpretation of the bible in religious contexts happens in a preachers study (usually on a Thursday morning, for some reason) in preparation for Sunday's sermon.

The preacher has a sermon to write, and wants one which will be edifying to the congregation. So, not only is her (or his) interpretation constrained by orthodoxy and his or her own philosophy, it is also constrained by the practical need to produce a good sermon.

Case in point: there's a passage in the new testament, in which Jesus says that it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

The obvious, and correct, interpretation of this passage (I'll defend that, for any doubters, below) is that Jesus' followers would be wise to avoid wealth.

That's easy for me to say. I'm free to ignore it.

But the average preacher has multiple problems. If he (I'm going with "average" here) lives in the United States, then he, and his congregation, are probably wealthy, compared to the rest of the world, though they probably feel poor, or at least average. They want more wealth, not less.

A correct interpretation would lead to a sermon that sounded more like socialism, or even communism, than the capitalism that the congregation, and probably the preacher, knows and loves.

And it would almost certainly alienate the wealthiest members of the church.

There goes the new sanctuary.

I'm not being cynical here. These are real life pressures, and are a direct consequence of belief. I wouldn't want to have to deal with them.

The consequence of this is an alternative interpretation of the passage, repeated often (I'm glad to say, not always) from the pulpit.

It seems there was a gate in Jerusalem, which was so narrow it was called "the needles eye". In order to get a camel through this gate, you had to remove all the belongings you had strapped to the camel, pass through the gate, and then strap them back on once you were through.

So the "real" meaning of the story is that in order to be saved, you have to give up all your belongings, but once you have made that commitment, and "passed through the gate" God gives them back to you, and you continue on, as before.

I'm not kidding.

A little research would have turned up the fact that there is no evidence for this interpretation in history. No such gate existed, and the story itself is only about 200 years old. We even know who started the story.

But you don't even have to do the research. Just look at the passage itself.

When Jesus tells this story, his disciples don't respond by saying "Oh! We get it! You're talking about that gate!" They say "If it's that hard for a rich person, then how can anyone get in."

And in telling them how anyone can get in, Jesus doesn't say, "No. You misunderstood me. I was talking about that gate..." He says that with God, anything is possible. That is, he acknowledges that they were right to view his illustration as picturing an impossibility for the rich man.

When you have to believe it, of course, it's hard to interpret it that way. You lose objectivity.

And that makes it difficult to be scientific.

At least, that's what I think today.