A Donkey and Her Colt
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
Although most Christians would rather not concern themselves with some of the more minute details of Jesus’ life reported in the New Testament, when challenged to defend the inerrancy of The Book that reports the beautiful story of Jesus, there are times when such details require our attention. Such is the case with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem during the final week of His life. People who wear the name of Christ enjoy reading of the crowd’s cries of “Hosanna!,” and meditating upon the fact that Jesus went to Jerusalem to bring salvation to the world. Skeptics, on the other hand, read of this event and cry, “Contradiction!” Allegedly, Matthew misunderstood Zechariah’s prophecy, and thus contradicted what Mark, Luke, and John wrote regarding Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem (see van den Heuvel, 2003). Matthew recorded the following:
Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me. And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ ” So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them. They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them. And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:1-9, emp. added).
Skeptics are quick to point out that the other gospel writers mention only “one colt,” which the disciples acquired, and upon which Jesus rode. Mark recorded that Jesus told the two disciples that they would find “a colt tied, on which no one has sat” (11:2). The disciples then “went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it…. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it” (Mark 11:4,7, emp. added; cf. Luke 19:29-38; John 12:12-16). Purportedly, “[t]he author of Matthew contradicts the author of Mark on the number of animals Jesus is riding into Jerusalem” (“Bible Contradictions,” 2003). Can these accounts be reconciled, or is this a legitimate contradiction?
First, notice that Mark, Luke, and John did not say that only one donkey was obtained for Jesus, or that only one donkey traveled up to Jerusalem with Jesus. The writers simply mentioned one donkey (the colt). They never denied that another donkey (the mother of the colt) was present. The fact that Mark, Luke, and John mention one young donkey does not mean there were not two. If you had two friends named Joe and Bob who came to your house on Thursday night, but the next day while at work you mention to a fellow employee that Joe was at your house Thursday night (and you excluded Bob from the conversation for whatever reason), would you be lying? Of course not. You simply stated the fact that Joe was at your house. Similarly, when Mark, Luke, and John stated that a donkey was present, Matthew merely supplemented what the other writers recorded.
Consider the other parts of the story that have been supplemented by one or more of the synoptic writers.
Whereas Matthew mentioned how Jesus and His disciples went to Bethphage, Mark and Luke mentioned both Bethphage and Bethany.
Mark and Luke indicated that the colt they acquired for Christ never had been ridden. Matthew omitted this piece of information.
Matthew was the only gospel writer to include Zechariah’s prophecy.
Mark and Luke included the question that the owners of the colt asked the disciples when they went to get the donkey for Jesus. Matthew excluded this information in his account.
As one can see, throughout this story (and the rest of the gospel accounts for that matter), the writers consistently supplemented each other’s accounts. Such supplementation should be expected only from independent sources—some of whom were eyewitnesses. It is very possible that Matthew was specific in his numbering of the donkeys, due to the likelihood that he was an eyewitness of Jesus’ final entrance into Jerusalem. (Bear in mind, Matthew was one of the twelve apostles; Mark and Luke were not.)
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). The prophet wrote: “Behold, your King is coming to you…lowly and riding on a donkey [male], a colt, the foal of a donkey [female]” (Zechariah 9:9). In this verse, Zechariah used Hebrew poetic parallelism (the balancing of thought in successive lines of poetry). The terms male donkey, colt, and foal all designate the same animal—the young donkey upon which the King (Jesus) would ride into Jerusalem (Mark 11:7). Interestingly, even though the colt was the animal of primary importance, Zechariah also mentioned that this donkey was the foal of a female donkey. One might assume that Zechariah merely was stating the obvious when mentioning the mother’s existence. However, when Matthew’s gospel is taken into account, the elusive female donkey of Zechariah 9:9 is brought to light. Both the foal and the female donkey were brought to Christ at Mount Olivet, and both made the trip to Jerusalem. Since the colt never had been ridden, or even sat upon (as stated by Mark and Luke), its dependence upon its mother is very understandable (as implied by Matthew). The journey to Jerusalem, with multitudes of people in front of and behind Jesus and the donkeys (Matthew 21:8-9), obviously would have been much easier for the colt if the mother donkey were led nearby down the same road.
The focal point of the skeptic’s proposed problem to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is how He could have ridden on two donkeys at once. Since Matthew 21:7 states, “They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them” (NKJV), some have concluded that Matthew intended for his reader to understand Jesus as being some kind of stunt rider—proceeding to Jerusalem as more of a clown than a king. Such reasoning is preposterous. Matthew could have meant that Jesus rode the colt while the other donkey walked along with them. Instead of saying, “He rode one donkey and brought the other with Him,” the writer simply wrote that He rode “them” into Jerusalem. If a horse-owner came home to his wife and informed her that he had just ridden the horses home a few minutes ago from a nearby town, no one would accuse him of literally riding both horses at once. He merely was indicating to his wife that he literally rode one horse home, while the other one trotted alongside or behind him.
A second possible solution to this “problem” is that Jesus did ride both donkeys, but He did so at different times. However unlikely this possibility might seem to some, nothing in Zechariah’s prophecy or the gospel accounts forbids such. Perhaps the colt found the triumphant procession that began on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives near the towns of Bethphage and Bethany (about 1¾ miles from Jerusalem—Pfeiffer, 1979, p. 197) too strenuous. Zechariah prophesied that Jesus would ride upon a colt (9:9), which Jesus did. He also easily could have ridden on the colt’s mother part of the way.
Perhaps a more likely answer to the question, “How could Jesus sit ‘on them’ (donkeys) during His march to Jerusalem?,” is that the second “them” of Matthew 21:7 may not be referring to the donkeys at all. Greek scholar A.T. Robertson believed that the second “them” (Greek αυτων) refers to the garments that the disciples laid on the donkeys, and not to the donkeys themselves. In commenting on Matthew 21:7 he stated: “The garments thrown on the animals were the outer garments (himatia), Jesus ‘took his seat’ (epekathisen) upon the garments” (1930, 1:167). Skeptics do not want to allow for such an interpretation. When they read of “them” at the end of Matthew 21:7 (in the New King James Version), skeptics feel that the antecedent of this “them” must be the previous “them” (the donkeys). Critics like John Kesler (2003) also appeal to the other synoptic accounts (where Jesus is said to have sat upon “it”—the colt), and conclude that Matthew, like Mark and Luke, surely meant that Jesus sat upon the donkeys, and not just the disciples’ clothes (which were on the donkeys). What critics like Kesler fail to acknowledge, however, is that in the Greek, Matthew’s word order is different than that of Mark and Luke. Whereas Mark and Luke indicated that the disciples put their clothes on the donkey, Matthew’s word order reads: “they put on the donkeys clothes.” The American Standard Version, among others (KJV, RSV, and NASB) is more literal in its translation of this verse than is the NKJV. It indicates that the disciples “brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their garments; and he sat thereon” (Matthew 21:7, ASV; cf. RSV, KJV, NASB). When Matthew wrote that Jesus sat “on them,” he easily could have intended for his readers to understand this “them” to refer to the clothes, and not to the donkeys. If the disciples’ clothes were placed on both donkeys (as Matthew indicated), and then Jesus mounted the colt, one logically could conclude that Jesus sat on the clothes (which were placed upon the colt).
One of the fundamental principles of nearly any study or investigation is that of being “innocent until proven guilty.” Any person or historical document is to be presumed internally consistent until it can be shown conclusively that it is contradictory. This approach has been accepted throughout literary history, and still is accepted today in most venues. The accepted way to critique any ancient writing is to assume innocence, not guilt. If we believe the Bible is innocent until proven guilty, then any possible answer should be good enough to nullify the charge of error. (This principle does not allow for just any answer, but any possible answer.) When a person studies the Bible and comes across passages that may seem contradictory at first glance (like the verses explained in this article—Matthew 21:1-9, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:29-38), he does not necessarily have to pin down the exact solution in order to show their truthfulness. The Bible student need only show the possibility of a harmonization among passages that appear to conflict, in order to negate the force of the charge that a Bible contradiction really exists. We act by this principle in the courtroom, in our treatment of various historical books, as well as in everyday-life situations. It is only fair, then, that we show the Bible the same courtesy by exhausting the search for possible harmony among passages before pronouncing one or more accounts false.
Finally, in an attempt to leave no allegation unanswered regarding the passages discussed in this article, one more point must be made. Although Jesus and His disciples have been accused of stealing the donkeys used in the procession to Jerusalem (see Barker, 1992, pp. 165-166), the text never indicates such thievery. Jesus may well have prearranged for the use of the animals. However, since the donkeys’ owners did not know who the disciples were, there was a need to tell the owners what Jesus said to them. It was after the disciples stated, “The Lord has need of them,” that the owners let the disciples take the donkeys (Matthew 21:1-7; cf. Luke 19:32-35). It was voluntary. Jesus certainly did not advocate stealing on this occasion, or any other (Matthew 19:18; 1 Peter 2:22; cf. Exodus 20:15). Remember, we are not told all of the facts in the story—the Bible is not obligated to fill in every detail of every event. If it did, “I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
Barker, Dan (1992), Losing Faith In Faith—From Preacher to Atheist (Madison, WI: Freedom from Religion Foundation).
“Bible Contradictions,” Capella’s Guide to Atheism, [On-line], URL: http://web2.iadfw.net/capella/aguide/contrad.htm#num%20animals%20Jesus%20rode.
Kesler, John (2003), “Jesus Had Two Asses,” [On-line], URL: http://exposed.faithweb.com/kesler2.html.
Pfeiffer, Charles (1979), Baker’s Bible Atlas (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), revised edition.
Robertson, A.T. (1930), Word Pictures in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
van den Heuvel, Curt (2003), “Matthew Misunderstood an Old Testament Prophecy,” New Testament Problems, [On-line], URL: http://www.2think.org/hundredsheep/bible/ntprob.shtml.