Did the author of Matthew’s Gospel make a donkey out of himself when telling the story of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry?

The writer of Matthew is quick to connect Jesus to the Old Testament. You can’t read Matthew for long before he drops a reference from the prophets. But some critics say that’s he’s too quick to connect the dots, to the point where he makes himself out to be a dumb…well, I made the pun once as click-bait and this isn’t a Shrek movie, so we’ll leave it at that. One way Matthew allegedly parades his ignorance of the Old Testament texts in his version of the Triumphal Entry.

To help me state this objection here’s Kristin Swenson of The Huffington Post:

Mark and Luke agree that Jesus rode on a donkey, and that’s the story that’s told in thousands of churches today. Matthew, on the other hand, has Jesus riding two beasts at the same time, an odd albeit remarkable feat. Matthew explains that Jesus did so to fulfill older Hebrew scriptures, and he partly quotes Zechariah, writing, “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Look your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

…Zechariah’s text appears as poetry, and the primary characteristic of biblical Hebrew poetry is parallelism. In its purest form, one line is followed by another that repeats its sense…However, sometimes the parallelism is not so tidy but rather integrated into a sort of stepped structure that builds with repetition. That’s true in Zechariah 9:9, which ends, “riding on an ass; … on a donkey, the son of a she-beast.”

Now add this additional bit of info about Hebrew convention: one single letter serves as every conjunction (our “and,” “but,” or “or”), and sometimes it shouldn’t really be translated at all. That little letter appears right before “on a donkey,” so together with what you now know about Hebrew poetry, you can see that Matthew went literal with his quote. He read Zechariah without poetic parallelism but rather as a straightforward narrative, and he translated the shadow conjunction literally, too. The result: in Matthew, Jesus enters Jerusalem straddling two animals.”

So there you have it ladies and gentlemen: Jesus, the rodeo clown. If this strikes you as an uncharitable reading of the text, I can’t say that I blame you. Since Kristen didn’t bother to quote the passage in question, let’s read it for ourselves.

MATTHEW 21:1-7

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front 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, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

“Say to the daughter of Zion,
Behold, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.

WAIT…WHAT DID JESUS SIT UPON?

Let’s begin at the end since that’s where the alleged absurdity lies. If we read verse 7, the antecedent seems to be the donkey and the colt, but let’s slow our roll. There’s also the word cloaks, and Jesus sitting on the coats makes a lot more sense then him straddling two burros and saying giddyup. Many commentators take this common-sense view, including Keener, France, and Ellicott, to name a few.

But what about Matthew butchering Zechariah 9:9?

Dale Allison (not a particularly conservative scholar) has a commentary on Matthew. He writes that many rabbinic texts “contain numerous tendentious renderings of Scripture which ignore the rules of poetry in favor of excessively literal interpretation…[and] some rabbis found two animals in Zech 9:9.”

Knowing this, Jesus would have had his disciples retrieve both animals so that there would be no mistaking what he was doing. Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience according to early church tradition. (We read this in the 2nd-century fathers Papias, Clement of Alexandria, Ireneaus).

Keener points out that Mark makes special note that no one had ridden the colt before. (Mk 11:2) Jesus, knowing he was going to ride before a loud and excited crowd, may not have wanted to spook the foal and so brought mom along to keep him calm. So there was also a practical purpose.

Rather than having proof-text fever, Matthew takes the care to point out an additional fact that a more Gentile audience like Mark, Luke, and John wouldn’t have cared about. Matthew picked up what Jesus was laying down. So he removes all doubt that Jesus fulfills this prophecy, even for the hyper-literalist rabbis.

Matthew is clearly steeped in Judaism, as one can tell from reading his gospel. He shows a clear understanding of Hebrew throughout the rest of his book. We see this in how he translates passages elsewhere, notably his use of Isaiah 53:4. (See Mt. 8:16-17)

WAS MATTHEW TOO QUICK TO FIND PROOF PASSAGES, OR ARE CRITICS TOO QUICK TO FIND FAULT?

Critics 2,000 years removed from the events are quick to say that Matthew was willing to make up weird stuff to make Jesus look more like the one who fulfills prophecy. But couldn’t this be a case of projection? Rather than reading the text with a little charity, they’re quick to make Matthew look like he’s trying to sell us some hee-haw. Maybe they’re the one trying to ransack the texts with the wrong intentions rather than Matthew. I find this whole double-donkey objection to be rather well…rather asinine.

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