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Christian Biblical Studies
THE TRIUMPHAL ENTRY:
Did Jesus Ride Two Animals?
By A. Prentice
Scripture passages cited and quoted are from the King James [Authorised] Version unless noted otherwise.
Matthew 21: 1-7 :
1 And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples, 2 Saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me. 3 And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them. 4 All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, 5 Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass. 6 And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, 7 And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon.
Question: Verse 7 says the disciples ‘brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon’. Does this mean that Jesus rode both animals?
Answer: Two animals were supplied – an ass (donkey) and its colt (foal), but Jesus rode only the colt. It goes without saying that He would have mounted only one animal at a time, regardless of the ambiguity of this passage. Nor is it feasible that He rode the animals in alternation.
The accounts in the other three Gospels seem to make clear that Jesus rode only the colt. Although they omit mention of the obtaining of the mother-ass, and thus focus only on the colt, the omission nonetheless sheds light on the question. We italicise the pertinent words.
Mark 11: 7: ‘And [the disciples] brought the colt to Jesus, and cast their garments on him; and he sat upon him.’
Luke 19: 35: ‘And [the disciples] brought him to Jesus: and they cast their garments upon the colt, and they set Jesus thereon.’
John 12: 14, 15: ‘And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written, Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass’s colt.’
Observe the anomaly in John 12: 14 (italics supplied): ‘Jesus, when he had found a young ass . . .’. All the other accounts say that Jesus instructed the disciples to go to the village and collect the animal(s). But there’s no contradiction here. The John passage addresses the matter from the standpoint of Jesus as the one in authority: Jesus commands, the disciples obey. The thing is done, not of their volition, but of His, and is therefore done by Him. Compare this with a similar principle in the story of the centurion’s servant in Matthew 8: 8, 9 (‘. . . speak the word only . . . I say to this man, Go, and he goeth’). The donating of the garments was no doubt out of deference to Jesus and for His comfort. The cheering crowd also threw their clothes on the ground as the retinue approached (Matthew 21: 8; Mark 11: 8; Luke 19: 36).
The Zechariah Prophecy and Matthew
Although one cannot certainly know, it is reasonable to suppose that the mother ass was led by one of the disciples and walked in front of the colt, to lead it and to console it amidst the commotion. See Matthew 21: 2, where the words ‘colt with her’ seem to evoke the colt’s dependency on its mother. But why were clothes laid across the mother-ass if Jesus did not ride her? Perhaps the answer is that this scene is an ensemble: both animals together, in their livery of garments, fulfilled the words of Zechariah 9: 9:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.
One is tempted to interpret this passage according to the principle found in the Hebrew Scriptures of ‘synonymous parallelism’, in which the same idea is repeated in alternative words. For example, Genesis 4: 23 (‘. . . to my wounding . . . to my hurt’) and Psalm 36: 5 (‘. . . mercy [reaches to the] heavens’, ‘. . . faithfulness [reaches to the] clouds’). This passage in Zechariah does seem to fit that category and, if so, one might conclude that only one animal was meant. However, when quoting the prophecy, Matthew effectively interprets it in such a way as to require two animals (the ass and the foal-colt).
The Other Evangelists
This raises a subordinate question: Why didn’t Mark, Luke and John mention two animals or the Zechariah prophecy? One possible explanation is that they confined their observation to only the colt because that fact was germane to the Triumphal Procession. Additionally, although Mark and Luke do not explicitly state that two animals were collected, this could be inferred from the detail of Jesus’ sending two disciples on the errand (one for each animal?). Of all the narratives on this point, that of John is the most sparse, meriting only his comment – as shown above – that Jesus ‘found’ a young ass; he says nothing about two disciples being sent to fetch it.
Was it significant that Jesus rode an animal which had never been mounted by anyone else (Mark 11: 2; Luke 19: 30)? Its particular mention in the text suggests that it is. Perhaps the significance can be found in the fact that Jesus by entering Jerusalem in this fashion made a formal presentation of Himself as King without precedent. Jesus was not simply one in a long line of monarchs, prophets and teachers in Israel. He was new and unique. The beast He rode may have been borrowed, but His teachings and status were not.
Whatever the exact details of this remarkable event, it was necessary in the scheme of things that it unfold as it did. Later that day, when the Pharisees commanded that He rebuke the ‘whole multitude’ for their praises of Him, He ‘answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out’ (Luke 19: 37, 39, 40).
1. On the mother-ass and the colt of Matthew 21, Matthew Clarke has this:
‘[I]nstead of . . . upon them, the Codex Bezae, seven copies of the Itala, some copies of the Vulgate, and some others, read . . . upon him, i.e. the colt. This is most likely to be the true reading; for we can scarcely suppose that he rode upon both by turns, – this would appear childish; or that he rode upon both at once, for this would be absurd. Some say he sat on both; “for the ass that was tied up was an emblem of the Jews bound under the yoke of the law; and the colt that had not been tied represented the Gentiles who were not under the law; and that Jesus Christ’s sitting on both represented his subjecting the Jews and the Gentiles to the sway of his evangelical sceptre”.’
Regardless of the merits of this particular interpretation cited by Clarke, or other expositions which attach symbolic meaning to the animals and related elements of the Triumphal Entry, the starting point must always be the plain text found in the Gospels.
2. In Mark 11: 3, in the New International Version (UK edition), Jesus tells His disciples to assure the owner of the beasts that they would be ‘sent back shortly’. This particular reading, and also Matthew 21: 3 (‘right away’), is supported by a variety of translations. It is amusing to speculate that this interpretation was held by the unknown individuals who snatched donkeys from farms in England during one Easter period a few years ago. According to the BBC, the animals were taken to fill the need of local churches in their enactment of the Triumphal Entry. A few days later the creatures were silently returned, groomed and in good health.
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