James G. Crossley
In his article—"The Damned Rich (Mark 10:17-31)" Expository Times 116, no 12 (2005): 397-401—Crossley argues for an interpretation of this passage that takes seriously the antipathy to the rich voiced by Jesus. He notes that the rich man is clearly observant of Torah, and indeed has a personal record without blemish. Further than that, he has not even defrauded anyone (10:19); an action not proscribed by the Decalogue, but included in the character checklist by Jesus in this episode. Unlike the typical wealthy person of the time, this rich man has both observed the commandments and avoided taking unfair advanatge of anyone else. His attitude towards property and wealth seems to be admirable. But Jesus advises that he is doomed unless he relinquishes all his wealth and distributes his property to the poor.
Crossley reads this scene in the context of the rapacious economic context of Galilee in the 20s of the first century. The usual "parasitic" relationship of the cities to the rural territories was exacerbated by a process of commercialization in the early Roman period and, in particular, by the costs of rebuilding Sepphoris and then (shortly afterwards, beginning c. 20 CE) building Tiberias by the lake as a new capital for Herod Antipas. Crosley observes:
The emergence of Tiberias and Sepphoris so close to the time of Jesus ought to be regarded as one of the most important reasons for the emergence of the Jesus movement in 20s Galilee, and specifically Jesus' hostility to wealth. (p. 400)
Crossley suggests numerous grounds for considering the episode to preserve the authentic teaching of Jesus on wealth, although he does not indicate an opinion on the historicity of the event involving a rich man coming to Jesus with a request for spiritual instruction. He dismisses the suggestion that the eye of the needle aphorism may be a confused form of an Aramaic saying about a rope/cable not passing through the eye of needle, although it seems that he adopts this position mostly on the basis of the Babylonian Talmud (c. 500 CE) parallel cited above.
The theme of wealth is a mixed one in the biblical tradition. While we may project feelings of envy onto the ancients, it is also the case that divine favour was expected to be manifested in wealth - land, animals, slaves and lovers. Under the Deuteronomistic theology faithfulness to the covenant would lead to exactly such an outcome, and the absence (or loss) of same was seen as a mark of divine displeasure. Health was seen through a similar lens.</p>
Poverty was not seen as a positive state of life, hence the radical challenge in the beatitude for the poor: 043 Blessed the Poor
The prosperity gospel is an ancient dimension of religion. After all, religion can presumably offer just four or five rewards:
- protection from danger of various sorts, including sickness and one's enemies (the divine as talisman)
- fertility and virility (the divine as aphrodisiac)
- prosperity (the divine as power)
- wisdom/integration (the divine as truth/meaning)
- life after death (the divine as remedy for mortality)
It seems improbable that the ancient were universally opposed to wealth and power. We may not like them in the hands of others, but few of us are adverse to having a good grip on these blessings ourselves.
At the same time the Wisdom texts, an intrinsically universalist tradition, know of the risk that wealth (and other forms of power, including sexuality) can corrupt the retainer class and cause harm to the wider community. Justice is perverted, careers damaged, etc. For example, and even outside the Wisdom tradition, see:
You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
(Deut 16:19-20 NRSV)
Presumably Jesus was no less aware of these issues than other spiritual masters of various times, so there is no real justification for attributing so much of his sayings to anonymous sources or the generally undistinguished Gospel writers who show themselves to be such lesser souls in these matters.
In this particular case, there is the added consideration that the saying about the eye of the needle seems only to make sense as an aphorism created in Aramaic - not the language of Mark the gospel writer. The present Greek is possibly a garbled version of an Aramaic proverb (which may or may not have been created by Jesus) as follows:
It is easier for a [camel] rope to be put through the eye of a needle,
than for a wealthy person to enter God's domain.
Rather than elaborate on the confusion of the Aramaic gemla (meaning camel, but also rope [made of camel hair]) and the Greek kamelon (camel), let me just point to one web site that discusses this in more detail.
The possible Aramaic origins of the saying argue against creation by Mark, while the implicit critique of traditional assumptions of wealth as a sign of divine favour also suggests a more insightful creator than canonical Mark.
The preachers' false tale of a small gate can be traced back to the ninth century, but has no basis in fact despite the reports of Victorian visitors to the Holy Land who claimed to have seen such a small doorway. It is possible they were misinterpreting the exceptionally small door to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (see photo below). The original large door has been reduced in dimensions on a number of occasions to prevent people driving carts into the church and filling them with treasures. The remaining very small entrance is sometimes known as the "Door of Humility."
The voting of the Seminar can be represented as follows:
- Mark 10:25
- Matt 19:24
- Luke 18:25
- GNaz 16