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Did Jesus Ride One Donkey or Two?

Zechariah 9:9 (Hebrew to English Translation of the Tanakh)

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy king cometh unto thee, he is triumphant, and victorious, lowly, and riding upon an ass, even upon a colt the foal of an ass.”

Zacharias 9:9 (Greek to English translation of the Septuagint)

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion; proclaim it aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, the King is coming to thee, just, and a Saviour; he is meek and riding on an ass, and a young foal.”

Notice that the Hebrew version recognizes the “doublet” in Zechariah, in that the Messiah is only riding one donkey, born of a donkey. The Greek version does not, incorrectly translating this to “an ass AND a young foal”. Jewish rabbi point out that the second donkey reference is for formal and poetic purposes, with perhaps a political element that we have lost the context to understand.

This verse, with the reference to the donkey and a second reference to the same donkey, is what is called “poetic parallelism”.  There are examples of this all throughout Jewish scripture.  The second reference to the donkey echos the first reference to the donkey, empasizing it and making the verse more lyrical.

palm-sunday-white-jesus.jpg

(look at all the light skinned Jewish people!)

The thing to take home is that both Matthew and John refer to Zechariah 9:9, in their similar but different descriptions of Palm Sunday. (“switch to column view, Young’s Literal Translation” illustrates best)

If you clicked on the link above, you might notice that although both John and Matthew refer to this verse, Matthew records that Jesus rode on two donkeys, a mother and foal, while John records that Jesus rode on only one donkey, the foal. Luke and Mark also record only one donkey, although they don’t explicitly refer to Zechariah.

“And all this came to pass, that it might be fulfilled that was spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell ye the daughter of Zion, Lo, thy king doth come to thee, meek, and mounted on an ass, and a colt, a foal of a beast of burden.’  And the disciples having gone and having done as Jesus commanded them, brought the ass and the colt, and did put on them their garments, and set [him] upon them;”  Matthew 21:6-7

Matthew (or more likely, his community) had the inferior Septuagint Greek translation of Zechariah, and so awkwardly forced the colt’s mom into the picture to illustrate that Jesus fulfilled the entire prophecy. Matthew’s claims conform to an invalid translation of this verse, while John’s claims conform to the valid translation.  Mark and Luke’s accounts agree with John, and contradict Matthew.

two-donkeys.jpg

(Awwww)

For Protestants who don’t have to defend innerancy or infallibility, this is not a problem.If anything it speaks to the sustained accuracy of the accounts between the 1st Century and now, and reflects a very early “branching” of Christian doctrine. The fact that in all that time nobody has come through and “corrected” the contradiction lends weight to their antiquity. That is satifactory enough for your average believer.

But I went looking for a Protestant fundamentalist defense on this, but unfortunately the best I could find was Apologetics Press. (can someone say straw-man?) This is barely worth answering; the author spells out the situation in great detail, then claims that Matthew was right, and that John, Mark, and Luke simply don’t mention the mother. This is a cookie cutter defense for when the gospels contradict each other, or when they fail to mention pertinent facts contained in others.  This ignores that separate, unharmonized accounts read very differently when describing the same situation.  Further, it completely disregards that the singular and plural have EXPLICITLY different meanings.

But to answer App.org, the Rabbis say the SEX of the donkey is in question in the original Hebrew, but that Zechariah is clear that the Messiah would ride on only one donkey, the foal. If Matthew is correct, and Jesus somehow rode on both, then he did not fulfill the exact letter of the prophecy. Instead, Jesus went out of his way to fulfill the mistranslation contained in the Septuagint!

That is something to think about.  Although I disagree with App.org; Jesus rode on only one donkey on Palm Sunday.  Three accounts show Jesus riding one donkey, while the fourth awkwardly includes the donkey and its mother, and explicitly quotes the mistranslated Septuagint version of Zacharias.  It seems plain that Matthew was taking liberties with the story, while the others accounts are more faithful to the original event.

But don’t take my word for it, read the scriptures yourself, and make your own judgment.  (“switch to column view, Young’s Literal Translation” illustrates best)

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4 Responses

  1. Sir. You may never learn the answer because those who know, also abide by the commandment:

    “But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes.”

    Therefore they do not minister such foolish questions, but godly edifying for anything else is unprofitable and vain.

  2. Ben,

    Thanking you for taking the time to comment.

    If you think I have no right to question your beliefs, then I should be able to claim the same; that you have no right to question mine. Fair is fair.

    I do not believe this to be the case, though. Both you and I obviously have a drive to speak our minds, else this conversation would not be occurring. I also believe we have the RIGHT to speak, even if it may offend some.

  3. It’s been a while since my college Greek class (and I am by no means an expert), but I think the crux of the matter lies in Matthew 21:7 with the second “them”. As a language, Greek is relatively well structured so it should not be difficult to determine what noun in the sentence “them” is referring to. You think that it refers to the plural donkeys. I see another option. Could it not also refer to the plural clothes on the colt? This would be consistent across all four biblical accounts and should be easy to determine by examining the Greek translation.

  4. dsmith77,

    Welcome to my blog! I’v chatted with you on other blogs, so I appreciate you taking the time to come check mine out.

    To answer your question, yes, the original greek is rather ambiguous. It could be interpreted to mean that clothing were thrown over both donkeys, and that Jesus sat on the clothes that covered both of the donkeys.

    The Jewish version is Zecharias is NOT so ambiguous, though; it says that the Messiah will ride on only ONE donkey, who’s mother is also a donkey. In contradiction to this, Matthew appears to think Jesus rode on both donkeys, or on the clothes that covered both donkey’s backs.

    To me, this is a perfect example of exploiting the ambiguities in scripture to avoid contradiction. It’s a slippery slope, though, and confirmation bias is knocking at the door. For example, there are two different versions of Judas hanging himself, so those who accept infallibility must claim that Judas hung himself, and that he threw himself off a cliff, both at the same time. Ditto for the discrepencies in the narrations of Jesus’ childhood. Somehow Jesus fulfilled ALL the narrative, even when it seems improbable that it occured this way.

    Never mind that the accounts only mention one part of another, all must have occured in some sort of linear order.

    This is convincing only if you are willing to accept confirmation bias as a valid input for hermeneutics. I, however, do not accept, this. Rather, I believe that these accounts are clearly incomplete and/or contradictory, obviously reflecting the understading of the early church, NOT YHWH’s understanding. it only became the “infallible word of god” for political and ideological reasons, best exemplified in the story of Arius and Athanasius.

    But again, I appreciate your comments!

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