Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Silencing Skepticism: One Donkey or Two?

In "Contradiction in Creation" we learned that skeptics point to the first and second chapters of Genesis as an example of contradictions they claim appear throughout Scripture, thus casting doubt on its overall reliability, let alone its inerrancy. We discovered, however, that the first and second chapters of Genesis are not, as the skeptics claim, two contradictory accounts of creation. Instead, whereas the former gives an outline of the creation week, the latter zooms in, temporally to day six and geographically to the garden of Eden, and neither contradicts the other.

Another alleged contradiction pointed to by skeptics is as follows: In Matthew's account of the "Triumphal Entry," the gospel writer misinterprets biblical prophecy and tells us Jesus sent His disciples to fetch a donkey and its foal and rode into Jerusalem upon them both. Mark's, Luke's and John's gospels, on the other hand, depict Jesus as riding into Jerusalem upon a single donkey, interpreting the fulfilled prophecy correctly. This is a clear example of two mutually exclusive accounts, and therefore one or both accounts must not be the inerrant Word of God some Christians claim it is, right? No. As we'll see, Matthew did not misunderstand the prophecy he claimed was being fulfilled, and his account does not contradict the others; he merely chose to relate details the other authors omitted.


The charge leveled against Scripture by skeptics goes something like this:

"Jesus, a rodeo trick rider? ~ The account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is recorded in all four canonical gospels and is recognized as one of the principal accomplishments of his short ministry. But, there’s a problem!

The source of this story is Zechariah 9:9: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh upon thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass. (KJV) According to this prophecy, the king will come riding on a young donkey, i.e. a foal. The gospel writers claim that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy by way of his alleged triumphal entry into Jerusalem where, according to Mark, Luke and John, he does indeed come riding in on a young donkey. But, the writer of Matthew, apparently in his overzealous determination to prove prophecy fulfillment, apparently misread Zechariah 9:9 and in so doing creates what can only be seen as a huge embarrassment.

From Young’s Literal Translation of the New Testament. Mt. 21:2 ". . . you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me." 3 ". . . ‘The Lord had need of them and immediately he will send them." If there was only one animal, why didn’t Jesus say "it" instead of the plural, "them?" And all of this came to pass so that it might be fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet saying, (here Matthew repeats Zechariah 9:9.) Verse 7: and brought the donkey and the colt and laid upon them their garments and sat him thereon.

So according to the writer of Matthew, Jesus road triumphantly into Jerusalem astride two mounts, an ass and her colt. That must have been quite a sight. Maybe Jesus was an early forerunner of the rodeo trick rider." (Louis W. Cable, "SOME FAMOUS NEW TESTAMENT FORGERIES")

The argument, then, is that Zechariah prophesied the king would ride upon a young donkey, which is how Mark, Luke and John interpret it, depicting Jesus as riding into Jerusalem upon a foal. Matthew, on the other hand, misreads the prophecy to refer to two donkeys, an older one and its foal, and in contradiction to the other gospel writers depicts Jesus as riding into Jerusalem upon two donkeys, accordingly. Adding insult to injury, he paints a ridiculous picture of Jesus somehow riding two donkeys at once.

It is difficult to miss the implications of this apparent contradiction. First, if Matthew contradicts the other authors and both accounts cannot be correct, then how do we know whose is correct? Second, if Matthew is unable to correctly interpret Zechariah's prophecy, how can we trust his interpretation of the many other prophesies he goes to great lengths to try and demonstrate were fulfilled in Jesus? Finally, if as Christians we acknowledge the possibility of minor errors in the Bible, either in Matthew's account of the Triumphal Entry or in those of Mark, Luke and John, how can we ever know what in Scripture is erroneous and what is not?

This, then, is a serious charge, and we can't simply dismiss it, trivial as it may seem on the surface. So, let's take a serious look at this claim. There are three questions we must answer: 1) did Matthew misunderstand Zechariah's prophecy; 2) did Matthew contradict the other gospel authors; and 3) did Jesus physically ride two donkeys simultaneously? Let's begin with the prophecy each of the gospel writers claim was being fulfilled before their very eyes.


"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey." (Zechariah 9:9)

In this prophecy, Zechariah makes use of Hebrew parallelism. Without going into too much depth, parallelism is the practice common amongst ancient Jewish authors of poetically describing the same thing in two parallel ways. Here's another example: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 119:105). "Your word" is described as being "a lamp" parallel to "a light," unto "my feet" parallel to "my path." Similarly, the animal upon which the king rides is called a "donkey" parallel to "a colt, the foal of a donkey." One animal is referred to twice.

Skeptics argue that Matthew misinterpreted this parallelism. They quote the King James translation of this prophecy, which reads, "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." This translation appears to depict the king riding upon both a donkey and a foal. Matthew wrote some 1,600 years prior to the King James translation of the Scriptures, so he obviously wasn't basing his gospel upon it. Nevertheless, skeptics believe Matthew interpreted the prophecy in a similar fashion, missing the point of the parallelism.

There is no evidence that Matthew misunderstood Zechariah in this way. Assuming, for a moment, that Matthew is revising or inventing history by depicting Jesus as riding into Jerusalem upon two donkeys instead of one, he may have chosen to include the foal's mother because it is specifically mentioned in Zechariah's prophecy. In the original Hebrew, the word rendered "donkey" which is the "colt" is חֲמוֹר (chamowr) and is the masculine noun referring to a male donkey. But the word rendered "donkey" of which the colt is a "foal" is אָתוֺן ('athown) and is the feminine noun referring to a female donkey. Thus, although the king is only said to have ridden the young male donkey, its mother is nevertheless specifically called out.


In fact, it is possible that Zechariah's prophecy inherently implies the inclusion of the colt's mother. A young foal, particularly an unbroken one, would likely require the presence of its mother if expected to bear and be directed by a rider. In fact, consider what Mark and Luke record:

"He sent two of His disciples, and said to them, 'Go into the village opposite you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, on which no one yet has ever sat; untie it and bring it here.'" (Mark 11:1-2)

"He sent two of the disciples, saying, 'Go into the village ahead of you; there, as you enter, you will find a colt tied on which no one yet has ever sat; untie it and bring it here.'" (Luke 19:29-30)

So Mark and Luke confirm what is potentially implied by Zechariah's prophecy of the king riding upon "the foal of a donkey," namely that the young donkey was unbroken, unaccustomed to being ridden. It would seem likely, then, that the mother would accompany it in order to keep it calm and willing to go where directed by its rider. Matthew's account, therefore, seems to be more than a perfectly legitimate interpretation of Zechariah's prophecy; indeed, it seems likely that it's exactly what happened.


This leads naturally to the next question: did Matthew--even if he was accurate--contradict the accounts recorded by Mark, Luke and John? Consider their versions of this event:

"'...you will find a colt tied there, on which no one yet has ever sat; untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, "Why are you doing this?" you say, "The Lord has need of it"; and immediately he will send it back here.' They went away and found a colt tied at the door, outside in the street; and they untied it. Some of the bystanders were saying to them, 'What are you doing, untying the colt?' They spoke to them just as Jesus had told them, and they gave them permission. They brought the colt to Jesus and put their coats on it; and He sat on it." (Mark 11:2-7)

"'you will find a colt tied on which no one yet has ever sat; untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, "Why are you untying it?" you shall say, "The Lord has need of it."' So those who were sent went away and found it just as He had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, 'Why are you untying the colt?' They said, 'The Lord has need of it.' They brought it to Jesus, and they threw their coats on the colt and put Jesus on it." (Luke 19:30-35)

"Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written, 'FEAR NOT, DAUGHTER OF ZION; BEHOLD, YOUR KING IS COMING, SEATED ON A DONKEY'S COLT.'" (John 12:14-15)

A close examination of these passages reveals that there is no contradiction. Skeptics like to portray Mark's, Luke's and John's accounts of the Triumphal Entry as saying that Jesus sought out and rode upon specifically one, and only one, donkey. But none of these authors say that. For one, no Greek word meaning "one," such as εἷς (heis), appears anywhere in these texts. Second, neither does any word for "only" or "alone," such as μόνος (monos). So though these other writers do not mention a second donkey, they nevertheless do not specify its absence.


Is this a cop-out? I don't think so. Imagine, for a moment, that many years ago you were walking down the street and you ran into your mother and her sister. You and your aunt are not close, and so while you and your mother chatted it up in lively conversation, you exchanged few words with your aunt. In recounting this meeting to others today, you remember quite clearly the conversation you had with your mother and include in your account some of the things about which you conversed. If you recall your aunt's presence at all, however, it's not likely something you'll include in the story. You met your mother and had an enjoyable chat. Are you lying by omitting your aunt's presence? Are you suggesting she was absent? The obvious answer to both questions is "no."

Now, let's say that you were with your father those years ago when you happened upon your mother and aunt. Your father is close to both women, and though you left after speaking with your mother, your father remained and continue to speak to both her and her sister. Today, while you're telling others you met up with your mother, your father is meanwhile telling the story from his perspective, including the presence of both women. Does his story contradict yours since his includes your aunt and yours does not? No, of course not.

So we can see, then, that witnesses to an event perceive events from their respective points of view. To one, some detail may be important and thus included when telling the story. But that same detail may be of little to no consequence to another witness, and thus be omitted from his account. Two such people are not contradicting each other, they are merely giving those details that stood out to them.

Why, then, did Matthew include the colt's mother while the other gospel writers do not? We can't know for sure. In the eyes of Mark, Luke and John all that was important was that Jesus rode upon the colt foretold by Zechariah. That young donkey was the centerpoint of both the prophecy and Jesus' actions which fulfilled it, whereas its mother's presence was of little consequence; it was there only to keep the youngling calm and amiable. We don't know for certain why the mother's presence was important enough to Matthew to stand out in his mind and thus be included in his gospel. Regardless, it doesn't really matter; there is no contradiction.


We've seen that Matthew did not misinterpret Zechariah's prophecy, and that he didn't contradict the accounts of Mark, Luke and John, but instead merely included a detail which did not stand out in their minds. The question we're left with is how could Jesus have possibly ridden two donkeys at the same time? Let's look at the specific words that give the reader this impression:

"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." (Matthew 21:6-7, NKJV)

My preferred translation is the NASB, but it easily answers this question and so I've instead quoted the New King James Version to illustrate the problem. Matthew tells us Jesus' disciples laid their clothes upon the donkey and her foal, and then set Jesus upon "them." As Louis Cable wrote, quoted earlier, "Jesus road triumphantly into Jerusalem astride two mounts, an ass and her colt. That must have been quite a sight. Maybe Jesus was an early forerunner of the rodeo trick rider." How could Jesus really have sat upon two donkeys simulatenously?

One possible answer is quite simple: the "them" at the end of the verse is not the donkey and the foal, but the clothes. I mentioned that my preferred translation solves the problem. Here is how it, and similar translations, render the verse:

"and brought the donkey and the colt, and laid their coats on them; and He sat on the coats." (NASB)

"They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their coats upon them, and He seated Himself on them [the clothing]." (Amplified)

"and brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their garments; and he sat thereon." (ASV)

Look closely at the order of the Greek words which comprise the original sentence: "ἤγαγον [and brought] τὴν ὄνον [the ass] καὶ [and] τὸν πῶλον [the colt] καὶ [and] ἐπέθηκαν [put] ἐπάνω [upon] αὐτῶν [them] τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτῶν [their clothes] καὶ [and] ἐπεκάθισεν [they set] ἐπάνω [him upon] αὐτῶν [them]." Notice that "their clothes" is the specified noun just prior to the "them" upon which they sat Jesus. It seems natural, then, to translate the passage in such a fashion as to have Jesus placed upon the cloaks which the disciples had placed upon the donkeys.

This answers the problem because it is the clothes, not Jesus Himself, which are said to have been placed upon both donkeys. Jesus could have sat upon the colt using those clothes laid upon it as a saddle. Matthew Henry wrote in his commentary on this passage,

"The meanness and contemptibleness of the beast Christ rode on, might have been made up with the richness of the trappings; but those were, like all the rest, such as came next to hand; they had not so much as a saddle for the ass, but the disciples threw some of their clothes upon it, and that must serve for want of better accommodations."


Okay, so obviously this hasn't really silenced the skeptics. The additional resources to which I link below were written before my explanation above, and they themselves are based upon the work of others who came before them, and so on and so forth. Yet, despite how clearly and easily Christians have answered this objection in the past, skeptics continue to bring it up. However, when it comes to individual skeptics with whom we engage on a personal level, we can always hope that God will move powerfully in their hearts, using as tools our clear and coherent answers to what they thought were insurmountable objections to the reliability of Scripture.

Additionally, there is something in the analysis of this and other alleged contradictions that we as Christians need to learn when it comes to the nature of the Bible. We understand, rightfully so, that Scripture is "God-breathed" (2 Timothy 3:16), the very words of the Lord Himself, and thus must be consistent and non-contradictory. However, we must realize that God did not simply dictate to the biblical authors the words which He desired they pen.

Instead, God moved in the hearts of authors coming from different perspectives to write--accurately and truthfully--what they saw, heard and understood from their points of view. In the hypothetical example we looked at earlier, you and your father give seemingly contradictory accounts of your meeting with your mother and her sister. So, too, will biblical authors coming from different perspectives, and viewing things with varying levels of importance, recount events differently. But that doesn't make them contradictory.

Finally, a personal note. If you're like me, when you're faced with what skeptics allege are contradictions in Scripture, you get a bit nervous. I used to get a lot nervous, but as I've examined each of these objections I've seen them demolished, one-by-one, with clear and cogent satisfactory answers. Today I still get a little nervous, but not nearly as much as I used to, because I have a greater level of confidence that when I go look more closely at the problem, I'll find it's not really a problem at all. Remember this when you are likewise faced with challenges from the skeptics. As I said when I introduced this series, their bark is bigger than their bite.


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