Errancy.com

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.

: , ,
39 Comments Ratings

Inerrantist Responses

To suggest a response to this claim of error, please use the comments section below.

Rate this Claim of Error

How serious a problem for inerrancy do you think this is?

Average rating: 3.5 / 10

You must be logged in to rate errors.

Comments

  1. 1
    Errancy

    Interesting discussion. I’m still forming an opinion on this, but it’s about time I commented.

    First of all, I don’t think that the accounts are logically contradictory. Logically speaking, the “Jesus rode on one donkey; the second donkey was present, but was omitted by Mark, Luke, and John” response above works fine for me as a harmonisation of the passages.

    That said, I do agree that it’s worth asking how the differences between the passages came to be there, and whether the explanation implies a biblical error.

    Accepting Markan priority (which I do, but with a few minor reservations), Matthew (i.e. the author of “Matthew”, whoever that was) had a single-donkey account in front of him but chose to add a second donkey. Why?

    There are several possibilities here:

    (i) He had a second source of information about the event (perhaps he was even there himself) which included information about the presence of the second donkey, and chose to incorporate that information.

    (ii) He didn’t have another source of information about the event, but thought that a second donkey was implicit in Mark (because a colt that had never been ridden wouldn’t have been separated from its mother) and chose to make it explicit, even though he didn’t think that the prophecy required it.

    (iii) He didn’t have another source of information about the event, but thought that a second donkey was implicit in Mark (because a colt that had never been ridden wouldn’t have been separated from its mother) and chose to make it explicit because he misunderstood the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 as requiring a second donkey.

    (iv) He didn’t have another source of information about the event, didn’t think that a second donkey was implicit in Mark, but made up a second donkey to make the story to fit the prophecy.

    The discussion so far has mostly been (i) (but with Markan priority queried) vs (iv). I’m interested in (ii) and particularly (iii) as well. WL touched on this above, writing:

    “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.”

    If this case for an implicit second donkey stands up, then we have reason to think that the harmonisation that I described above as logically satisfactory is also true, which for me would be an interesting outcome.

  2. 2
    Amtiskaw

    The synoptics all call it a colt, which doesn’t mean the same as “foal” (assuming our translations are accurate and the words carry the same meaning, etc).

    By the way, are any of us aware whether this particular claim – that young donkeys are inseperable from their mothers – is in fact supported by empirical evidence? :)

  3. 3
    Errancy

    The synoptics all call the animal on which Jesus rode a πωλον (“young animal”).

    Matthew has Zechariah prophecy that the king will ride on a πωλον (“young animal”), the son of a ‘υποζυγιου (“beast of burden”), and calls the second animal an ’ονος (“donkey”).

    John has Zechariah prophecy that the king will ride on a πωλον (“young animal”) of an ’ονου (“donkey”), and has Jesus ride on an ’οναριον (“little donkey”).

    I had thought that this was all perfectly consistent, but my lexicon (BDAG) has a note that calls this into question. It suggests that πωλος might mean “young animal” when another animal is named in its context, but simply “horse” when no other animal is so found. This raises the possibility that there is a contradiction concerning not only the number of animals that Jesus rode into Jerusalem, but also the type, with Mark and Luke seating Jesus on a horse.

  4. 4
    WisdomLover

    A foal is a young donkey or horse (usually less than a year old). If you call it a colt, you mean that it is a male foal. A foal that is a female is called a filly. Here is the entry at dictionary.com

    Now, we don’t know whether the colt was weaned yet or not. If it was not weaned, then of course it’s mother was nearby and would have followed the colt (and if she couldn’t, the colt would not have been easily moved). If the colt was weaned, there is more room for the possibility of his being on his own. But if the Jenny and the foal are kept together during weaning, they will be inseparable for the remainder of their lives.

  5. 5
    WisdomLover

    “Mark and Luke seating Jesus on a horse.”

    While “horse” may be within the range of acceptable translations of “polos”. It is not likely that it is a good translation here. Jesus tells his disciples to look for an animal that had never been ridden. Now the disciples would not know by looking at an old horse that it had never been ridden. In contrast, they might guess that a colt had never been ridden.

  6. 6
    Amtiskaw

    I think this is the relevant entry at dictionary.com – a colt is under 4, not 1.

    (But this doesn’t really matter since these aren’t the Greek words.)

    “Jesus tells his disciples to look for an animal that had never been ridden”

    Not really. He just tells them that the animal they find will in fact have this property. Or that’s how it reads to me.

  7. 7
    Amtiskaw

    “If it was not weaned, then of course it’s mother was nearby and would have followed the colt (and if she couldn’t, the colt would not have been easily moved).”

    Well, this may in fact be true, or not. If you have experience or knowledge of horse raising, then say so, and I’ll believe you.

    But otherwise, I’m sure some unweaned mammals can be separated from their mothers without distress. So I need some sort of source that indicates this isn’t true of donkeys.

  8. 8
    Errancy

    The nuances of the English words are irrelevant here; what matters is what the Greek words meant.

    For those with access to JSTOR, the article arguing for “horse” in Mark and Luke is here: http://www.jstor.org/pss/3261700.

  9. 9
    Amtiskaw

    To be honest WL, maybe you’re right that Jesus is telling them to look for a young animal. Why else does he mention that it’s never been ridden? OK.

  10. 10
    WisdomLover

    When I included the bit about the meaning of “colt” and “foal” in English. I was responding to this remark of Amtiskaw’s

    The synoptics all call it a colt, which doesn’t mean the same as “foal” (assuming our translations are accurate and the words carry the same meaning, etc).

    I took it from his remark that he was assuming (not without justice) that the translators of the New Testament know how to translate from Greek to English better than we do. And, assuming that they were right, they translated the term in question as “colt” and not “foal”.

    My point in bringing up the English definitions, then, was really just to say that you can’t get much mileage from the fact that the translators all said “colt” and not “foal”. This is because a colt is just a male foal.

    Obviously, this point has no bearing whatsoever on the question of whether the translators were right in this case. I never meant to suggest that it did. For that we need to look at the various allowable meanings of “polos”, how those meanings sort out in various use contexts, what the full narrative context of this use is and so on. Here, I think, my argument about it having never been ridden is more probative.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site: