Messiah sends for two donkeys, but not all gospels were faithful in reproducing what Zachariah wrote. So what does Zachariah 9, as well as Christ in Mat 21, signify by a king riding on 2 donkeys, that is, the ass and its colt?
Here are the key points:
- Matthew's narrative with two donkeys is an eyewitness account consistent with Genesis 49:11 and Zechariah 9:9. It describes a aspect of Jacob's prophecy which was fulfilled when Jesus took possession of the two donkeys. It also shows how Zechariah was fulfilled in part when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on the younger donkey.
- All four of the Gospel narratives include details which could be taken as questionable.
- When considered collectively the combined narratives depict an event which was seen, at the time it occurred, as that of a victorious king arriving, which was more fully understood in a different light after Jesus had been crucified and raised from death.
This video [Double Donkey] produced by the University of Nottingham, describes common issues raised by Matthew’s description of Jesus entering Jerusalem with two donkeys, not a single animal as in Mark and Luke.
1However, if Mark and Luke are the standard, then it should be noted the single animal, they identify simply as a πῶλος, taken literally, would be a horse:
❶ young animal, foal (orig. 'colt of a horse': Hom. et. al.; besides, it refers to a horse that is old enough to use...then any 'young animal' [Aristot. et. al.], the term being applied to any young animal born of its kind, from an elephant to a locust...
❷ horse is meant when πῶλος stands alone without indication that it is a foal, and it can refer to any age from the time of being a foal to a grown working animal,: Mark 11:2, 4f, 7; Luke 19:30, 33ab, 35....but there is no evidence the term πῶλος was ever used without further qualification in the sense of 'ass' or 'foal of an ass'; s. Bauer (1 above), who prefers horse for the passages in Mark and Luke. Most English translations render πῶλος with 'colt', and it is difficult to determine what kind of animal is meant in their versions of Mark and Luke, inasmuch as, similar to Greek usage, 'colt', when unqualified, is ordinally associated with a young male horse, although such popular limitation was not the case in earlier stages of the English language.
As Mark and Luke also make no reference to a prophecy, those who take a position like that in the video must rely on Matthew to say Mark and Luke meant a donkey. There are plausible reasons why their accounts were written as such (see below), but these issues point to the fact that the fulfillment of a prophecy was not recognized when it occurred, a point John makes clear:
12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, 15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!” 16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. (John 12 ESV)
Where Mark and Luke's account are of the ilk "here's what happened and what people thought at the time: a triumphal entry on a colt," Matthew adds, and "here is what we understood only after Jesus was crucified and raised from death."
Matthew, one of the twelve, was present. He may have been one of the two disciples who got the donkeys. His narrative should be studied as that of an eyewitness who has crafted an account to describe actual events which were not understood as fulfilling, πληρωθῇ, what "the prophet" spoke until after Jesus had been glorified.
Zechariah 9:9 in the LXX
This passage is one of 14 different statements Matthew makes that a particular event fulfilled a prophecy. Sometimes Matthew identifies the prophet. This is one in which he does not, an omission which invites the reader to consider which prophet Matthew has in view. It also raises the question as to why he failed to identify the prophet, especially as he is writing after Jesus was glorified and, as John states, finally understands what took place.
An obvious starting point is Zechariah:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9 CEB)
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Sion! Proclaim, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold, your king comes to you, just and salvific is he, meek and riding on a beast of burden and a young foal. (LXX-Zechariah 9:9 NETS)
Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” (Matthew 21:5 CEB)
If Matthew used Zechariah, then he shows what that prophet spoke was fulfilled in part:
Zechariah 9:9 [Hebrew] Matthew 21:5 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion Say to Daughter Zion, Sing aloud Daughter Jerusalem Look, your king will come to you Look, your king is coming to you, He is righteous and victorious He is humble and riding on an ass humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the offspring of a donkey and on a colt the donkey's offspring.
Regardless of which source Matthew used, he omitted some things. Since the fulfillment text was added after the resurrection and with reflection about what took place, it is apparent Matthew recognized the entry into Jerusalem only partially fulfilled what is found in Zechariah.
This is reinforced by the detail he adds and to which Luke might allude (cf. Luke 19:39-44):
And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” (Matthew 21-9-10 ESV)
The daughters of Jerusalem do not sing as Zechariah envisioned. Instead, the city wants to know, “Who is this?” as they are unaware of who arrived. [Also Matthew understands the "victory" was Jesus being glorified; that is, crucified and raised from death. Something missing from Zechariah 9:9, but, as John also explains (cf. 19:37), was described in 12:7-14.]
Two donkeys seem to contradict the Hebrew text of Zechariah, and in that regard Matthew is seen to follow the LXX. There are two arguments against this. First, if the LXX places two donkeys in Zechariah's vision, it is only because the pre-Christian Hebrew scholars who translated the text also saw that as the proper meaning. Second, as David Istone-Brewer states, Matthew “must have been familiar with the Hebrew because his translation is closer to the MT than the LXX.”
LXX: ἐπὶ ὑποζύγιον καὶ πῶλον νέον Matthew: ἐπὶ ὄνον καὶ πῶλον υἱὸν ὑποζύγιον
The LXX calls the first animal a ὑποζύγιον, a general term referring to any beast of burden such as oxen, mules, horses, or donkeys.
4Matthew uses ὄνον, the term for donkey. The LXX calls the second animal a πῶλον νέον. Identifying the colt, as young, νέον, qualifies πῶλον to remove ambiguity (present in Mark and Luke) and exclude a horse, but calling the colt "young" by using νέος, means young as "being in the early stages of life.
5If καὶ is meant to connect, then "and a new colt" is most likely too young to be ridden. Seemingly the LXX has the king on a beast of burden, accompanied by a very young donkey.
Matthew describes the second animal as πῶλον υἱὸν ὑποζύγιον, which deviates from the LXX in significant ways. The ὑποζύγιον, is a πῶλον υἱὸν, meaning not a horse. Saying an animal is a υἱὸν (son) is also unusual, but calls attention to its breeding. It means, "the immediate male offspring of an animal."
6Matthew's asyndeton πῶλον-υἱὸν-ὑποζύγιον means a colt, not of a horse, but a son of a beast of burden, not a mule, but a donkey.
7Matthew not only deviates from the LXX; he eliminates the possibility the colt was a horse by describing it with a focus on its breeding, as does the Hebrew text of Zechariah (see below) and, significantly, his description allows for the younger donkey to be old enough to be ridden.
Zechariah 9:9 in the MT
The Hebrew of Zechariah is difficult and might include two donkeys:
Rejoice greatly, Fair Zion; Raise shout, Fair Jerusalem! Lo, your king is coming to you. He is victorious, triumphant, yet humble, riding on an ass, on a donkey foaled by a she-ass. (JPS)
גילי מאד בת־ציון הריעי בת ירושלם הנה מלכך יבוא לך צדיק ונושע הוא עני ורכב על־חמור ועל־עיר בן־אתנות
This question and answers addresses the number of donkeys and show how it is possible to understand how it speaks of two animals, just as the LXX translator(s) determined.
Although, he concludes Zechariah describes one donkey, Kenneth C. Way believes the Hebrew text focuses on the purebred nature of the colt. He states בן in the phrase בן־אתנות is not meant to describe a foal (בן) of a donkey/she-ass (אתנו). Rather, it indicates the animal is a purebred of a אתנו. The single animal, is a donkey, חמור, but not any donkey, specifically a jackass עיר and not any jackass, specifically a בן־אתנות, that is, a purebred jackass.
This leads Way to conclude Zechariah's vision places emphasis on the purity of the animal:
The purity of the royal mount may in fact be the primary focus of the prophecy in Zech. 9:9. Just as the hybrid was inappropriate for Amorite treaty ratification rituals in the Mari texts, so the פרד is inappropriate in this eschatological passage, which employs covenant terminology (see Zech. 9:11, "the blood of your covenant"). Zion's king comes not on the usual royal means of transportation associated with military conquest in Zech. 9:10 (רכב and סוס). Rather, Zion's king comes on a "purebred jackass," which is a royal mount that is associated with peace (see Zech. 9:10: "He will speak שלום [šālôm] to the nations") rather than elitism or conquest.
In support of Way's focus on purity is the detail found in Mark and Luke:
and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat... (Mark 11:2 ESV)
saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat... (Luke 19:30 ESV)
"Not being sat on" could imply both youth and being purebred, but does not rule out an older animal or speak to breeding. On the other hand, Matthew's πῶλον υἱὸν ὑποζύγιον accurately describes a male colt which is the purebred foal of a donkey old enough to be ridden.
What was Fulfilled
Matthew states the prophet was fulfilled before Jesus mounted the donkey and before entering Jerusalem:
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.” (21:2-4 ESV) And all this came to pass, that it might be fulfilled that was spoken through the prophet, saying...(21:4 YLT)
As Matthew has constructed the passage, “and all this came to pass…” is referring to how the donkeys were found and brought to Jesus, not riding them. Since Zechariah is silent about this, Matthew cannot think Zechariah was fulfilled when the donkeys were brought to Jesus. He must understand something else happened. He recognizes that in Jacob’s Messianic prophecy, Judah has possession of two donkeys:
Binding to the vine his ass (עִירֹ֔ו), And to the choice vine the colt of his ass (בני אתנו). He hath washed in wine his clothing, And in the blood of grapes his covering (Gen 49:11 YLT)
Jacob prophesized Judah had two donkeys, one tied to a vine and the other to a choice vine. Two donkeys were first seen by Jacob, and one, the בני אתנו, is only found in Genesis 49:11 and Zechariah 9:9. So this prophecy of Jacob was fulfilled when Jesus received two donkeys (cf. John 15:1,5). More importantly, Matthew understands both Jacob and Zechariah both spoke of two donkeys because he saw what happened and later understood the Messianic connection of Jacob's prophecy about Judah which included two donkeys and Zechariah's prophecy of a king entering Jerusalem with two donkeys.
Matthew speaks of a prophet who logically could be Zechariah, but the two donkeys of Zechariah were first predicted by Jacob. By failing to name Zechariah, Matthew is demonstrating an awareness of the Hebrew of both Genesis and Zechariah and, accordingly, he connects both prophecies:
Matthew 21:2-3: Finding two donkeys [Genesis 49:11] Matthew 21:4a: this came to pass, that it might be fulfilled… [refers to 21:2-3] Matthew 21:4b: spoken through the prophet, saying... Matthew 21:5: arriving with two donkeys [Zechariah 9:9 (fulfilled in part)]
Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience and focuses on presenting Jesus as The Christ on the basis of both the fulfillment of the Old Testament and the life of Jesus the Nazarene. As noted in Joseph’s answer to a similar question How many animals is the King of Zion to ride according to Zechariah?, there is a symbolic significance to bringing two donkeys to Jesus, especially those events in David's life which also involved two donkeys. While not stated in Matthew, a Jewish audience, expecting the return of the Davidic King should note the parallels when David fled and returned to Jerusalem in the face of Absalom’s attempted takeover. These subtleties would not be known or important to other audiences (so they are omitted from those accounts).
Mark and Luke's description which leaves out the second donkey seemingly placing Jesus on a horse, simply depicts a king arriving. As such they purposely describe a scene where those who are present celebrate the arrival of a victorious, not a humble king. The people expected one type of king (cf. John 6:14-15), yet it wasn't until after Jesus had been glorified, the disciples realized He had arrived as the humble king in Zechariah.
Finally, as to the possibility that Matthew is describing Jesus performing a "circus act" by simultaneously riding both animals, there is a difference between Matthew's account and the Hebrew in Zechariah. Matthew states the person is ἐπιβεβηκὼς, mounted, on the donkey. Here Matthew follows the LXX which was fulfilled in part when the King is mounted or seated on the donkey in order to come to His people. Fulfillment by seating is consistent with how Matthew chose to describe how Jesus entered Jerusalem:
They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.
(Matthew 21:7 CEB)
The actual language is ambiguous. As this answer looks at in detail, it is possible “sat on them” means sat on the cloaks, a logical meaning, and not He sat on both animals either consecutively or simultaneously, a nonsensical meaning.
Thus contemporary videos, even ones produced by highly regarded institutions, should be checked for accuracy. It is not unusual to claim the Bible contains inaccuracies, yet the inerrancy of The Holy Bible is an enduring reality on which all Scripture can be studied.
1. Literally John can be understood as placing two donkeys in the narrative. One on which Jesus mounts, ὀνάριον, and another predicted by Zechariah, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt (πῶλον ὄνου)!” (John 12:15, which does not follow either the Hebrew or the LXX of Zechariah 9:9)
2. Fredrick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, The University Chicago Press, 2000, p. 900
3. David Instone-Brewer, "The Two Asses of Zechariah 9:9 in Matthew 21", Tyndale Bulletin 54 (2003) 87-97; see p. 91.
4. Danker, p. 1037
5. Danker, p. 669
6. Danker, p. 1024
7. There is no NT use of a Greek term specifically, "mule."
8. Kenneth C. Way, “Donkey Domain: Zechariah 9:9 and Lexical Semantics,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 129, No. 1 (Spring 2010), p. 114
10. Instone-Brewer, p. 97.