Saturday, September 13, 2008

Matthew, the Colt, and the Donkey

Matthew 21:2-5: “[Jesus said] to them, 'Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord has need of them,' and immediately he will send them.' This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

The first thing to notice is that Matthew is telling us about a colt and donkey, while Zechariah 9:9 mentions a colt and donkey as well. That's probably not a coincidence.

However, Zechariah was actually talking about one animal, not two. The first part of the prophecy shares the surprise that their king would ride a mere donkey rather than a horse. In the second part, the word “even” is adding to this surprise; the extra detail of its age makes it even less majestic.

The authors of Mark, Luke, and John seem to have figured this out, as all three refer to the one animal on which Jesus rode. Mark 11:2-7 and Luke 19:30-35 say it was a colt. John 12:14-15 says Jesus found a “little donkey” and then paraphrases Zechariah 9:9 to say that a donkey's colt was to be ridden. This is a double affirmation, as John used little donkey and donkey's colt interchangeably, and also thought that a paraphrase of Zechariah involving one animal was accurate.

So if Zechariah was talking about one animal, and it's not a coincidence that both he and Matthew mention a colt and donkey, what are the alternatives?

One possibility is that the author of Matthew was intentionally describing Palm Sunday in a way that made Jesus look like a fulfillment of prophecy as much as possible. He wanted people to believe that Jesus fulfilled prophecies, and this was more important to him than limiting the details of his story to things that actually happened. The beginning of Matthew is already sufficient to reveal that convincing people was more important than not saying false things about the OT. Here, I'm suggesting that convincing people was also more important than not saying false things about the events in Jesus' life.

Another possible source of the story is poor reasoning that does not involve intentional deception. Suppose Jesus actually rode on a colt, and an early Christian heard this story. But then they looked at Zechariah, and mistakenly thought that it spoke of two animals. Here's their train of thought: “Zechariah is true, Zechariah prophesied about a colt and a donkey, therefore Jesus' triumphal entry involved both a colt and a donkey.” And so when the story was retold, a second animal was added. With this possibility, the person who made up the detail sincerely believes it to be true, and the author of Matthew need not be the one who misunderstand Zechariah.

This is a concern whenever a prophecy's fulfillment is only reported by people who were already certain that the prophecy was true. The prophecy itself is enough to convince a true believer that its fulfillment occurred. This results in a story that the teller honestly believes, despite that fact that they observed nothing.


  1. You ought to check out

    It gives a great treatment of Matthew that takes into account actual language issues. It's sound exegesis.

    It's good to see you chasing the Bible in 2011. I see why you can't let go of it and leave it behind. It's pretty captivating stuff.

    Have a great day. To God be the Glory.

  2. I see you have been unable to leave behind the arguments against the Bible.

    Apologetics Press: “Second, regarding the accusation that Matthew wrote of two donkeys, instead of just one, because he allegedly misunderstood Zechariah’s prophecy, it first must be noted that Zechariah’s prophecy actually mentions two donkeys (even though only one is stated as transporting the King to Jerusalem).”

    In many places in the Bible, people refer to “Jesus, son of David.” This is one person, and this is neither an implication nor even a hint of multiple people. The parenthetical remark is correct: Zechariah mentions exactly one animal transporting him to Jerusalem.

    Apologetics Press: “In this verse, Zechariah used Hebrew poetic parallelism (the balancing of thought in successive lines of poetry).”

    I agree, and this supports my view. The reason for the phrasing of “foal of a donkey” is poetic, so we should not be surprised that “of a donkey” communicates no literal information.

    Anon: “It's sound exegesis.”

    No it's not. They make a mistake that's nearly universal among evangelicals.

    Apologetics Press: “However, when Matthew’s gospel is taken into account, the elusive female donkey of Zechariah 9:9 is brought to light.”

    They are starting with the conclusion that Zechariah is writing about Matthew's account, and then reading this into the text. It scarcely possible to more perfectly align with the definition of eisegesis.

    It is exactly the same mistake that causes people to be fooled by palm readers. A vague “prediction” is made, and then something very specific happens that loosely fits the prediction. The specific events are used to “clarify” what the palm reader “really” meant. Next thing you know, the victim is convinced that the palm reader made a verifiable and highly specific prediction that came true. But a sincere attempt to understand the palm reader's statements sees that the predictions started out vague – future events do not change what was and wasn't predicted.

    Similarly, Zechariah didn't predict anything about the foal's mother. A sincere attempt to understand what Zechariah said does not allow a future book to add something that Zechariah didn't say.

  3. You and your readers should consider looking at "The Grounds of Christianity Examined" by George Bethune English.

    It is available free on Gutenberg.

    It provides in greater detail the point you make and many others.


  4. Jesus rode on and was transported by one young donkey that was the colt. Anyone that has been around horses and donkey's (which I have) knows that you can't take the colt away from it's mother. They are always together. There is no mention of *only* one donkey. If there was a mention of only one donkey then there would be a contradiction but this is not the case.

    Zechariah was referring to what Jesus would be riding on - a colt. He did not say that he is riding on a colt and a donkey. That would be riding on two animals at the same time that doesn't make any sense. He is strictly only saying what Jesus would be riding on. Said again for clarity he is saying that Jesus would be riding on a young donkey which is defined as a colt. He is not saying who else is there, what they had for dinner, what color of sandals Jesus was wearing, what other animals were around or what other animals were included in this walk/journey. All that is stated is that Jesus would be riding on a colt. That is it! The four gospel accounts are consistent with Zechariah.

    So there was a baby donkey (the colt that Jesus rode on) and the mother donkey. Two donkeys.

    In all for accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) the colt is accounted for.

  5. In all *four* accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) the colt is accounted for.

  6. John Gill makes the point that the reason Matthew includes both animals, the colt and its mother, is that;
    -he was there and remembers details that Mark and Luke
    would have missed, and
    -there may well be allegorical implications related to the
    mother (beast of burden) representing the Jews who bore
    rites and ceremonies related to the law and the unridden
    colt representing the wild, untamed Gentiles, and
    -there is no reason to believe Jesus may have ridden both
    animals at some point down the steep slopes of the Mount
    of Olives.