Straining the Gnat: Another (Penultimate?) Look at Eating in the Gospels

In my earlier readings on eating in the canonical Gospels, I missed one saying of Jesus in Matthew 23:24:

“You strain out the gnat but swallow the camel!”

Chapter 23 is Matthew’s long diatribe against the scribes and Pharisees. It is full of hyperbole and this saying is no different. In comes just after Jesus noting that they tithe on little things – mint, dill, and cucumber – but miss the big things like justice, mercy, and faith (23:23). Jesus does not oppose such tithing, per se, but only the failure of the latter: “It is these [justice, mercy, and faith] you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others [tithing mint, dill, cucumber.” That is, do both.

How does this relate to straining gnats and swallowing camels?

Both gnats and camels would technically have been non-kosher animals (Lev. 11:4, 20-23, 29-31). Now if anyone has been outside when gnats are swarming, it is difficult not to accidentally swallow one or just breathe one in.

Interestingly, later Rabbis recognized this and advised against straining gnats from liquids (especially wine and vinegar), indicating that some Jews (whom the Rabbis here opposed) continued to be so scrupulous in a later period (t. Ter. 7:11; b. Hul. 67a; see discussion in Jodi Magness, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit, 32-36).

Clearly, Jesus again is engaged in hyperbole, saying the scribes and Pharisees strain out (tiny) gnats but swallow the forbidden (huge) camel. It is on par with taking the speck out of someone else’s eye but having a log in one’s own (Matt. 7:10). Of course, one cannot literally have a log in one’s eye or accidentally swallow a camel. It is an exaggeration. It may also be a nice play on words. In Aramaic a gnat is qalma and a camel is gamla.

But it is unclear whether or not Jesus approves of the practice of straining gnats. It could be on par with tithing mint, dill, and cucumber – do it so long as you also do the weightier things: be sure to strain gnats and not eat camels at the same time! Or if it is so hyperbolic that it is “obvious” that such straining is a waste of time. Either way, Jesus – like most of us – probably accidentally ate or breathed in a gnat every now and then.

In the end, here Jesus is using (over?) scrupulous food preparation as a metonym for broader patterns of behavior.


Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: