On how many donkeys did Jesus ride into Jerusalem?

Posted on Apr.01, 2009. Filed in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Average rating: 3.5 / 10 (Rate It).

In all four gospels, Jesus provocatively rides into Jerusalem on a young donkey in fulfilment the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” By this symbolic act Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews. From here on in, events accelerate towards Jesus’ trial and execution.

In three of the four accounts of the triumphal entry, Jesus rides a single donkey. Matthew, though, apparently misunderstands the prophecy and, rather absurdly, has Jesus ride two donkeys.

We begin with Mark’s account, in which the disciples bring just one donkey (“a colt that has never been ridden”) for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem:  

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.”‘ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. [Mark 11:1-7 (NRSV)]

Similarly in Luke, only one donkey is involved:

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone ask you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.”‘ So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. [Luke 19:29-35 (NRSV)]

John is much more concise, but again describes Jesus riding a single donkey:

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’ [John 12:14-15 (NRSV)]

The prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, recall, said that the king would come “riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. The repetition here is typical of Hebrew poesy, with the donkey being described twice in different words. Matthew, though, appears not to have understood this. Matthew seems to have thought that the prophecy described the king riding both a donkey and a colt and so introduced a second donkey into the triumphal entry:

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their clothes on them, and he sat on them. [Matthew 21:1-7 (NRSV)]

In Mark, Luke, and John, then, Jesus rode one donkey, while in Matthew he rode two.

So, on how many donkeys did Jesus ride into Jerusalem?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    Matthew seems to add the word “and” to the prophecy…

  2. 2

    και can mean either “and” or “even”, so I don’t think that’s particularly significant.

  3. 3

    The second donkey was the colt’s mother. That is why they had to bring both.

    As for Jesus sitting on them, Matthew may well have been referring to the donkeys. But we don’t have to imagine that Jesus was somehow straddling both beasts or running back and forth between them or any similar absurdity.

    Try this:

    At the conclusion of the game, pandemonium broke loose, when the victorious Wildcats doused their coach in Gatorade and he sat triumphantly upon them and they carried him around the stadium.

    Does this imply that all 45 players were holding their coach up?

  4. 4

    “και can mean either “and” or “even”, so I don’t think that’s particularly significant.”

    Well, if Matthew is reading it from the Septuagint, he seems to have understood it to mean “and”.

    This is one of those cases where – if you’re not already committed to inerrancy – it’s obvious what has actually occurred. Matthew has misread the prophecy and has therefore altered Mark to suit his misreading.

  5. 5

    I am committed to inerrancy, but I don’t see how that’s coloring my reading of what Matthew said.

    Obviously his citation of Zechariah does not get the exact words of Zechariah. New Testament quotations seldom do. In judging whether an error exists in a passage from antiquity (and I’m not just talking about the Bible here), we ought not measure the ancient quotation by 21st century standards of accuracy.

    There is an addition of the word “and” as it comes out in these translations. But what does that really prove? Even in English, there’s some sort of rhetorical device (I forget the name of it) that involves the use of repetition in a conjunctive sentence. Because the sentence is conjunctive, it looks like you are making two separate claims, but you are really making one claim twice for the purpose of emphasis and memorability: “I struck him with a sword, and with the edge of a blade, I slashed him”. That sort of thing.

    The Zechariah passage uses a slightly different repetition pattern than the pattern Matthew uses. But both patterns repeat for the sake of emphasis and memorability. And they repeat the same claim (that the King comes riding on a donkey). What exactly is the error?

    Are you suggesting that Matthew added the second donkey because he did not understand this rhetorical device? Or are you suggesting that he added the second donkey because he first added an “and” to the prohecy? Or what?

    It seems to me that if, as I believe, the author of Matthew was Matthew, it make very little sense to say that he would not understand the rhetorical device in question. Matthew was not a scholar, but oral tradition was still so important in those days that I don’t see how he could have missed it. He would have heard the kind of flourish that Zechariah uses hundreds of times. And he would know what it meant.

    And if, contrary to my belief, the author of Matthew is some editor working with Mark and some Q document. The assumption that the author made that kind of mistake is even less plausible. For now we are dealing with a scholar of some sort who would be quite familiar with rhetorical flourishes.

    What seems most plausible to me is:
    That (the author of) Matthew made the same repetition in quoting Zechariah that Zechariah himself made in the prophecy.
    That Matthew slightly altered the form of the repetition (or not, this may all be a translation issue).
    That whatever alteration he made was minor.
    That the colt and its mother could not be separated, so there were two donkeys.
    That Matthew saw this and reported it.
    That Jesus rode on only one of the donkeys.
    That Matthew reported this using team/group language.

  6. 6

    “Are you suggesting that Matthew added the second donkey because he did not understand this rhetorical device? Or are you suggesting that he added the second donkey because he first added an “and” to the prohecy?”

    Either Matthew misunderstood and so added “and” to the prophecy, or it was already there in his copy of the Old Testament. It makes no difference – either way this is the cause of his need to add a second animal.

  7. 7

    Some of this will repeat earlier points I’ve made, but I can’t seem to make the response read well without doing so. Please bear with me.

    Your argument is, in essence, that EITHER Matthew OR a later editor/author OR the translators of the LXX didn’t understand repetition as a literary device. As a result of this misunderstanding (the author of) Matthew ‘cooked’ Mark’s account to mention 2 donkeys.

    This seems implausible to me. The problem is that Matthew, and the editor/author of Matthew (if there was one) and the translators of LXX knew the languages in question with a familiarity that would make contemporary scholars green with envy. They got the repetition device (whether there was an “and” in it or not).

    Also, to what end would (the author of) Matthew ‘cook’ Mark’s account? Even if he or the LXX translators did not understand the repetition device? Mark is still out there in ‘uncooked’ form.

    Would Matthew assume that everyone would just stop referring to Mark in favor of his rendition? Because that’s the only way that cooking the account helps…Mark has to go away. As long as Mark is referenced people will see that the prophecy was not fulfilled. (Remember, I’m assuming that Matthew’s author, whether through his own fault or the LXX’s, misunderstands the original prophecy so that two donkeys are necessary.)

    It seems unlikely that Matthew could imagine that his gospel would replace Mark’s. It seems even less likely that a later author could imagine that.

    So why did Matthew mention the mother donkey?

    If the donkey in question was a foal, that means it was less than a year old, and it might still have been suckling. Whether it was still suckling or not, that donkey could not easily be separated from its mother. Wherever the one goes, there goes the other. So the reason Matthew said that there were two donkeys is because there were two donkeys: the colt (which all accounts agree upon) and it’s mother.

    To me the question isn’t why Matthew mentioned the mother. That seems obvious. It’s because she was there. The question is why Mark, Luke and John failed to do so.

    Now, one might argue that a later author copying from Mark added the foal’s mother into the Matthew account because she was very likely to have been there anyway (his being a foal and all that). That seems more arguable to me than any assumption of misunderstanding of the prophecy on the part of Matthew, a later author or the translators of LXX.

  8. 8

    “Also, to what end would (the author of) Matthew ‘cook’ Mark’s account? […] Mark is still out there in ‘uncooked’ form.”

    This is hardly the only case where Matthew alters Mark for his own purposes. For example, in Mark 11, Jesus curses a fig tree and it withers overnight, whereas in Matthew 21 it withers at once.

    So he’s clearly not too concerned that Mark is “out there” contradicting him.

  9. 9

    Other strong examples of Matthew altering Mark are:

    Mark 10:35-37, c.f. Matthew 20:20-21.
    In Mark, the sons of Zebedee make a silly request of Jesus. In Matthew, it is their mother instead.

    Mark 6:5 cf. Matthew 13:58.
    Mark says Jesus could not do much. Matthew says he did not do much.

    Mark 10:17-18 cf. Matthew 19:16-17.
    When asked a question, Mark’s Jesus rejects the label “good”. Matthew rewords both the question and answer to avoid this.

    Mark 4:38 cf. Matthew 8:25.
    Mark has the disciples berate Jesus disrespectfully, whereas in Matthew they merely plead.

    Matthew also systematically purges almost all reference to Jesus feeling emotion (Mk 1:41, 1:43, 3:5, 8:12, 10:14, 10:21) or asking questions (Mk 5:30, 6:38, 9:16, 9:21, 9:33).

    So yes, I take it that Matthew has no qualms about altering Mark.

    As a tangential point, these things are all strong evidence that Matthew used Mark as a source, rather than vice versa. It’s almost impossible to imagine a Christian with Matthew’s gospel in hand setting out to make Jesus a weaker and less divine figure, and the disciples less sensible, whereas the reverse procedure is entirely understandable.

  10. 10

    “It’s almost impossible to imagine a Christian with Matthew’s gospel in hand setting out to make Jesus a weaker and less divine figure”

    Christians have variously been making Jesus less transcendent and more transcendent to their taste for 2000 years. I’m not saying that that’s OK. Just noting the fact. The fact (if fact it be) that Mark’s Jesus is portrayed as less divine is, thus, no argument for the Priority of Mark. Of course, it’s also no argument for the priority of Matthew, nor is it an argument for their independence.

    Assuming, as I do, that Matthew wrote Matthew and the Mark wrote Mark with Peter looking over his shoulder, my contention is that neither Matthew nor Mark/Peter were trying to make Jesus anything. They were trying to tell about Jesus from their points-of-view. Peter’s point-of-view is grounded in his closeness to Jesus. The humanity of Christ might thus receive greater emphasis than His deity. Matthew probably thought of Jesus with less familiarity and more awe, and that was the basis of his point-of-view.

    At various times, I’ve thought about many, though not all, of the differences you bring up. But I don’t want to steal Errancy’s thunder here by getting into those details here. He’ll probably want to develop separate articles on at least some of them.

    But just for clarity, I will say this. What I find implausible is this claim:

    Matthew believed or hoped that his account would completely replace Mark’s.

    I find this claim so implausible that any interpretation of Matthew’s writing that involves a commitment to it needs, IMO, to be seriously re-examined. Now, I think your interpretation of Matthew’s second donkey is such an interpretation. For you’ve claimed that Matthew altered Mark’s account so that it would fulfill a Messianic prophecy (as Matthew misunderstood it). That’s a very important point of disagreement.

    In contrast, I doubt very seriously that, to take an example, your interpretation of Matthew’s “did not” vs. Mark’s “could not” would be such an interpretation.

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