“You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24 ESV)
Many people have heard the claims that Jesus’ saying about a camel through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24) could have been ‘rope’ not camel in Aramaic when supposedly Jesus originally said it. But there is no real evidence for that claim at all. And the fact that Mark 10:25 and Luke 18:25 (based Luke claims on eyewitness interviews) both in all manuscripts agree with Matthew makes this ‘rope trick’ a more of a weak nit pick at the three united NT witnesses rather than anything of any substance.
A slightly more possible and therefore more popular suggestion was made by Albert T. Olmstead (1880 – 1945), in 1942 in the first issue of Journal of Near Eastern Studies (JNES i. p74) and was then given widespread dissemination by Matthew Black in his influential An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (1954, page 133). Omstead suggested that Jesus may have originally said in Aramaic “who strain out the louse ( galma גָּלמָ) and swallow the camel ( gamla, Hebrew gamal גָּמָל )” and that konops (mosquito) in Matthew’s Greek could stand for a ‘ gnat ‘ or a ‘ mosquito’. Black does not go back further than Olmstead in 1942 to source the observation to earlier German-language explorations of Aramaic traces in the New Testament, so presumably it originates with Olmstead himself.
Olmstead’s suggestion was prompted by Exodus 8:12, 16 in the Aramaic targums. Black notes as per Olmstead that the flies of Exodus 8:16 (ken, plural kinnam, in Hebrew) are rendered with the plural of gamla, galm’tha, in the targums.
However against Olmstead’s suggestion those same Exodus flies become the plural of sknips (σκνιψ fly) in the Greek Septuagint, which is not the same as konops (mosquito) in Matthew 23:14’s Greek.
There also doesn’t appear to have been any particular signalling by Matthew that there was any significance in the underlying Aramaic, if there ever was – which Matthew does highlight in a few other places with Hebrew names. And in any case it would have been lost on Matthew’s Greek readers, just as it is with us. Our attention is drawn to the inherent ridiculousness of the Pharisee behaviour, without a double comedy being needed. The awareness of any pun probably would only dilute the impact of the message.
In any case the suggestion of Olmstead’s disseminated to a broader public by Black in 1954 has since become repeated almost everywhere without attribution and without evidence as if it were a proven fact.
Peshitta NT and Hebrew NT
If it ever had been known to be a pun there is something of a let down in that the Syriac translation of Matthew back into Aramaic from the Greek reads ܒܩܐ (bāqā) mosquito. That is fairly conclusive that the Aramaic translators did not immediately see the Aramaic pun that Albert Olmstead suggested in 1942.
24 ܢܓܘܕܐ ܤܡܝܐ ܕܡܨܠܠܝܢ ܒܩܐ ܘܒܠܥܝܢ ܓܡܠܐ ܀
Likewise in the Bible Society’s 1901 Hebrew NT the word used is yatush (mosquito יַתוּשׁ), so again any pun behind the Greek is lost on Hebrew-speaking Israeli Christians:
24 מַנְהִיגִים עִוְּרִים הַמְסַנֲנִים אֵת הַיַּתּוּשׁ וּבֹלְעִים אֵת הַגָּמָל׃
Franz Delitzsch 1901