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?

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  1. 1

    The problem isn’t so much how many animals Jesus rode as it is how many the disciples were sent to get. Matthew says Jesus sent them after two; the other writers say he sent them after only one.

    Now consider Luke’s account. In 1:3, the author of Luke claims to be writing with “perfect understanding” of all things. the word used is “akribos”, meaning exact, accurate or diligent. If the Luke author says that Jesus sent the disciples after one animal when he actually sent them after two, then his research was certainly not exact, accurate or diligent, which impeaches him as a reliable source. And if the author of Luke isn’t reliable, the reliability of the other authors is called into question also.

  2. 2

    Mark, Luke and John do not say that Jesus sent the disciples after only one donkey. Those accounts merely say that Jesus sent them after a young donkey that has never been ridden. The fact that Matthew notes that Jesus mentions the older donkey with the foal, while the other accounts leave that detail out, shows nothing.

    All descriptions are necessarily abbreviated. Notice that none of the accounts mention the color of either donkey or the difference in length of their ears, or what they had for breakfast. The fact that Luke abbreviated this account by not mentioning the older donkey that was not ridden is just one more example of this general principle. This says nothing about the reliability of the account.

  3. 3

    Luke definitely does say that Jesus sent them after only one donkey; he says this with his ititial claim of exactitude. Matthew is the one who makes an issue of it; if he hadn’t tried to make two animals fit into the prophetic scenario, there wouldn’t be a contradiction. Descriptions may be abbreviated, but only superfluous abbreviations. Matthew disagrees with the others on the details of what Jesus instructs the disciples to do.

    Remember 2 Timothy 3:16-17? “All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto every good work.” Those “good works” must include reproof, since it’s on the list. Who do you reprove? The skeptic. How are you supposed to reprove the skeptic? With scripture. If you believe that Mark, Luke and John agreed with Matthew that Jesus sent the disciples for two animals and not just one, where are the scriptures which thoroughly furnish you with reproof of the skeptic who says they didn’t?

  4. 4

    Luke never records Jesus as saying that the disciples will find one donkey tied alone. So, no, he does not record that Jesus sent them after only one donkey. The most you can say here is that you think the unridden donkey is so important to the story, that Luke’s omission amounts to inexactitude on Luke’s part. I don’t find it that important.

    I’m pretty sure that the 2 Timothy passage refers only to the Old Testament. A similar claim is, I believe, also true of the New Testament, but you have to argue for it. Either way, I don’t think that any point of righteousness turns on the unridden donkey. So no reproof is, I think, necessary here.

    Finally, I don’t give much credence to the idea that Matthew was trying to shoehorn in a second donkey because he did not understand the nuances of ancient Jewish literature as well as we do today. He undoubtedly understood ancient Jewish literature better than we do. He was well aware that Zechariah’s prophecy does not require a second donkey.

    BTW everything I just said also applies if the author of Matthew was not Matthew but an early editor. First and second century Jewish individuals intelligent enough to write something like the gospel of Matthew knew about their literature and their cultural heritage in a way that no amount of 21st century learning can match.

  5. 5

    He told them, “Go into the next village where you will find a young donkey that has never been ridden.” (Luke 19:30)

    He told them, “Go into the next village where you will at once find a donkey and her colt.” (Matthew 21:2)

    If the Matthew account is correct, the Luke author should have quoted Jesus as telling the disciples to look for exactly the same thing, no more and no less. If this is not done, Luke’s claim of exactitude is nullified. If he wasn’t writing with such a degree of exactitude, it was improper of him to begin by saying that he was.

    If the 2 Timothy passage is not true of the Christian scriptures, they are inferior to the claim made for the Tanakh and, therefore, essentialy without merit. There is, however, evidence to suggest that the same claim is made for the Christian writings. In Luke 10:7, Jesus says, “The worker is worthy of his hire” and Paul quotes this statement as “scripture” in 1 Tim. 5:18. Peter likens Paul’s writing to “the other scripture” in 2 Peter 3:16. The Christian writers seem to have regarded each other’s writing as having the same divine authority as the Tanakh.

    Righteousness doesn’t turn on the unridden donkey but reproof certainly does, as Matthew has Jesus telling the disciples to get the unridden donkey and Luke doesn’t; it’s Matthew who makes the unridden donkey important. As for Luke, this is only one place in which he falls short of his claim. If Luke’s writing isn’t as accurate as he initially says it is, he is doing a disservice to his reader Theophilus, which means that all of Luke’s writing is suspect. As the author himself has Jesus proclaim in 16:10, “…he who is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.”

    I’m sure the Christian writers did know about their literature and cultural heritage, which is probably why each of them tailored his particular account to appeal to his particular audience. The problem is that they didn’t have the 21st-century hindsight which brings the inconsistencies in their accounts to light.

  6. 6

    Let’s start with a point of agreement.

    I think you’ve got the basic form of the argument correct for extending the OT authority to apostolic writings. It’s by induction: The apostolic writers themselves clearly treat each others’ writings (and writings, such as Mark, written with Apostolic aid and approval) as if they were on the same level as the OT (which 2 Timothy directly endorses). Obviously, it takes a bit more than a paragraph of text to actually prove that point, but I’m quite willing to grant the conclusion without further argument. As I said before, I do believe such a statement is true.

    Now let’s turn to 2 Timothy 3:16,17 for a moment. Just in terms of sentence structure, what you’ve got is the claim that scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproving, for correcting, for training. Each for-phrase has a nominalized verb as its object. The list of for-phrases is capped by the phrase “in righteousness”. For each of the verbs nominalized in the for-phrases, it makes sense to add “in righteousness” to them. That is “to teach in righteousness” makes sense, “to reprove in righteousness” makes sense, and so on. The righteousness mentioned at the end of the list, then, does not just apply to the final member of the list, but to every member of the list. Or, at least, that’s one possible reading of the passage.

    But is it the correct reading of the passage? I think so. In the subsequent passage Paul writes that this is so that the man of God may be equipped for every good work. That is for every righteous work. So the reproof that 2 Timothy calls for is reproof on points of righteousness. So the fact that no point of righteousness turns on the unridden donkey turns out to be quite important to the argument you raise.

    Now, let us move to the Luke and Mark passages regarding how Jesus sent the disciples. These passages are summaries, not transcripts, of Jesus’ instructions. Furthermore, Jesus gave his instructions in Aramaic. They are summarized for us in Greek. If you believe some early historians, Matthew’s account of the instructions may have been summarized in Hebrew, and then what survived for us was a Greek translation.

    So the idea that anyone is even trying to provide Jesus’ exact phraseology here is really a non-starter. What was given and what was only ever intended to be given was the gist of his words. This, in no way, makes any account inaccurate. Gists can be quite accurate.

    It seems to me, DS, that you are interpreting Luke’s claims regarding his account to be saying something that even a moment’s reflection will show cannot be correctly claimed about any account on any subject. Now, it is true that people make intemperate claims all the time. Perhaps Luke’s claim is one such claim. But it strikes me as a poor interpretive principle to assume that that is the correct interpretation of Luke 1 when there are plenty of more measured interpretations that can be made of the passage.

  7. 7

    The problem with your interpretation of the 2 Timothy passage is that, according to Paul, scripture is supposed to equip the man of God for every good work. If this really means every “righteous” work and it doesn’t equip him for reproving the skeptic on inconsistent details, then reproving the skeptic on inconsistent details must not be a righteous work. Wouldn’t the skeptic have to give up his criticism of inconsistent details in order to become “righteous”?

    Can you point out the text in which Luke informs the reader that his Greek translation is a “summary” and not exact, accurate and diligent?

  8. 8

    Summaries can be exact, accurate and diligent. So you are presenting a false dichotomy.

    As for reproof, I’m not sure what inconsistent details you are referring to here. No inconsistent details have yet been identified.

    Now, it does seem to me that a person commits no sin by believing that only one donkey was present. One might think, for example, that later editors introduced the second donkey into Matthew’s account. It also seems to me that a person commits no sin by believing that two donkeys were present (as I do) and that Mark and Luke left out the unridden donkey as an extraneous detail in their narratives. It also seems to me that a person commits no sin by suspending judgment. Furthermore, one’s belief about the unridden donkey does not run contrary to any moral or spiritual teaching that I know of. I don’t see where reproof on an issue of righteousness comes in.

    Let’s try a different tack. If I were a pastor, and it came to my attention that one of the members of my church did not believe that there was a second unridden donkey, I don’t believe that I’d feel the need to go talk to that member and tell him to repent.

  9. 9

    One technique law enforcement and courts use to determine whether witnesses have colluded is to compare their testimonies. Identical testimonies are an indication of collusion. This technique is described in at least one of Lee Stroebel’s books/videos.

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