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 a donkey out of himself. 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.
“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 down for a second. There’s also the word cloaks, and Jesus sitting on the coats makes a lot more sense than him straddling two burros and saying giddyup. Many commentators take this common-sense view, including Craig Keener, RT France, AT Robinson, and Ellicott, to name a few.
AT Robinson wastes little time pointing on how silly of an objection is:
“The garments, of course. The words in Greek might refer to the two animals but such reference is by no means necessary. Matthew is not careful to distinguish, but common sense can do it.”Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew
But what about Matthew butchering Zechariah 9:9?
Does Matthew fail to get the parallelism?
I don’t think so. Matthew’s use of the Hebrew Bible is in line with the Jewish interpretative methods of his day. Except with one caveat: Matthew is actually more restrained than the Rabbinic writings.
NT scholar Robert Gundry thoroughly analyzed the citations from the Old Testament in Matthew’s Gospel. He compared Matthew’s use of the Hebrew Bible with the early Rabbinic writings and the Dead Sea Scrolls. His conclusion? Matthew actually shows a lot more restraint for the original context than the early Rabbinic writings and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
And Gundry isn’t alone. WD Davies and Dale Allision wrote a technical four-volume commentary on Matthew that’s considered to be the gold standard of its kind. They recognized the depths of Matthew’s hermeneutical skills. Davies and Allison wrote: “Matthew was not above scattering items in his Greek text whose deeper meaning could only be appreciated by those with a knowledge of Hebrew. Indeed, it might even be that Matthew found authorial delight in hiding ‘bonus points’ for those willing and able to look a little beneath the gospel’s surface.”
Davis and Allison highlight that one of those Easter eggs is in the Triumphal entry. They write that the 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.” (Matthew Volume 3: 19-28, Davies and Allison)
According to early church tradition, Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience. And so Matthew records that Jesus had his disciples retrieve both animals so that there would be no mistaking what he was doing.
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) Regarding the double-donkey objection, Gundry writes: “it is quite unreasonable to suggest that Matthew, who demonstrably had a good command of Hebrew, added the extra animal to fit a text he radically misunderstood”. (Gundry, The use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel)
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 the 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 ones trying to ransack the texts with the wrong intentions rather than Matthew. I find this whole double-donkey objection to be rather well… asinine.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.