Riding a donkey, colt, or whatever.

Does Jesus ride two?

What animal does Jesus ride when he comes to Jerusalem on what has become Palm Sunday?

Cloaks set there for him to sit on.

John says the king is coming, seated on a “donkey’s colt” (12:15) and that Jesus sat on a “young donkey” (12:14).

Mark says Jesus rides a “colt” (11:7); likewise Luke (19:35).

Matthew says the king comes “riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (21:5) and that Jesus rides a donkey and a colt (21:7 (TNIV)).

Compare Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12:12-19 (one click).  I am trying to focus on more modern translations here in my study and research on this donkey puzzle because of the archaic and now somewhat irreverent language in older versions, “sitting upon an ass” (KJV).  For younger readers:  ass means donkey here.

So does Jesus come riding on a donkey or a colt or both?  Clearly Matthew has the word “and” so we have to conclude that there are at least two animals.  A couple of verses later (21:7), as the disciples bring “the donkey and the colt” and place cloaks on them, there is no doubt that Matthew has at least two animals.  Did Jesus ride them both at the same time, like a circus performer?  Or did Jesus ride first one, then dismount, and then ride the other?  Does the text mean Jesus rode the larger donkey and tied his pack to a smaller colt?

But are there three animals?  (1) donkey, (2) colt, and (3) foal?  The same verse in the DRA alerted me to the possibility of a third animal with:  “sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of her that is used to the yoke.”  Yoke?  So there is something in the original Greek that does not say “donkey” but rather something else, like yoke?  Google tells me that the Greek word at issue (υποζυγιου) means “beasts of burden.”  Well, that is modern Greek, and I don’t know Greek, but the meaning is confirmed by the CCE which has “beast of burden.”  Why do other translators hide this?  I checked Grosvenor’s Analysis and she confirms that it is literally “under a yoke” meaning a beast of burden.

Using these research results and also my New Testament Greek dictionary, I get this translation for Matthew:

>>>and – verb to mount donkey – on – male or female donkey – and – on – colt – son – of – beast of burden<<<

So possibly three animals to ride:  (1) donkey, (2) colt, and (3) son of beast of burden.

My dictionary failed me on (3), saying it meant “donkey.”  How often do translation inaccuracies creep into dictionaries and evolve into meanings that never existed in biblical times?

The beast of burden could be an ox, a mule, or a camel.  Not necessarily a donkey.  Even a horse can be a beast of burden.  Could it be a bull or cow?  Even cows are yoked in the Hebrew Bible.

“Foal,” which usually means newborn or relatively small young animal in popular usage?? may not be the best translation.  The Greek in Matthew does not say “foal” or “young” but says “son of beast of burden” and the son could be any age.  Could someone ride this son?  Sure, especially if the son was full grown or nearly so.  If the son is the same as “colt” then it can be ridden if it is as large as or nearly as large as a full grown animal, even though not as mature.

Is this apparent disagreement among the four books of the Gospel with colt, donkey-colt; and Matthew’s two, colt and donkey; or three, donkey-colt-beast; some sort of error?  Or is the biblical author or authors putting what might be a kind of puzzle very forcefully in front of the reader?  Matthew and the other books easily could have had the donkey in one book, the colt in the next book, and the beast of burden in the next, instead of multiple animals in one.  But the author(s) of the Gospel, or the one who orchestrated its compilation, wanted us to puzzle over this.

The New Testament passages reflect a passage in the Hebrew BibleZechariah 9:9.  How does that read?  Is there a puzzle?  How many animals are there in Zechariah?

Well, if you read Zechariah 9:9 in an “Old Testament” that has been Christianized, you may get an incorrect translation that harmonizes with Matthew.  You may see the word “and;” for example, “riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass” (KJV, emphasis mine).  But if you read this Jewish Bible1 I found online, there is no “and” and the text has, “riding upon an ass, even upon a colt the foal of an ass.” (emphasis mine).  The use of “even” makes it seem like there is only one animal, a colt-foal.  The current NIV has no “and” and no “even” but sticks with a second “on” implying a second animal:  “riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (emphasis mine).  The comma allows for a possible third animal.

My excursion into the ancient Hebrew by way of Google (modern Hebrew) – and I don’t know Hebrew – gave me “on a donkey” and two sets of gibberish, but no “and,” no “even,” and no second “on.”  Doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

I think possibly the author of Zechariah intended three animals as a sort of puzzle.  How can the king ride three?  The answer may be simple.  The king rides one at a time.

Or maybe the king rides the donkey, his right-hand man the colt, and that man’s right-hand man the foal.

Writing a bit more on how translators shamelessly Christianize the Hebrew Bible:  In that same verse from Zechariah, Christianizers have put “he is just, and having salvation” (KJV), and “the just and saviour” (DRA).  However, other translations have no such reference to saving, but translate rather as, “righteous and victorious” (NIV), and “he is triumphant, and victorious” (Jewish1).

The editors of the Catholic CE, in their zeal, find in that chapter of Zechariah all sorts of prophesizing about Christian matters.  In the CE footnotes, the “stones” become “apostles,” the “corn” (meaning wheat in older-English) becomes the Holy Eucharist, etc.  Well, maybe the stones are just stones, the corn just corn.

Back to Matthew:  Can the author have three animals in verse 5 and then two animals in verse 7?  Possibly – just another aspect to the puzzle.

So is that all there is to it?  Jesus rides one animal, gets off, then rides another, then maybe another?  Possibly.

There are more dissimilarities among the Palm Sunday scenes which I’ll get into later below.  The four iterations in the four books of the Gospel give one a sense of déjà vu; the shifting details a sense of mystery.  The rider in Zechariah perhaps can ride three critters because he does it on different occasions.  But Jesus only rides to Jerusalem one time!  So unless he’s switching animals, there should be only one animal.  But is it only one time?  There are four books of the Gospel that have this ride.  So four times?  As time distorts, separates, and flows into four time bubbles?  But the Letter to the Hebrews says Jesus died once for all (10:10).  OK so Jesus comes once for all in each and every realm that needs such a salvation?  Jesus comes once for all in each and every moment that needs a transformation?  Should I assume that no matter how many times I am thrust into a Samsara (or volunteer to enter it to help others) that there is a Way of overcoming exemplified by the Savior in that particular world?  So how many times does a Jesus go down to Jerusalem riding on a donkey, a colt, a beast, a whatever?  Many, many times.  As many times as there are worlds to save, as many times as there are moments to transform.

A bit too much like science fiction?  Maybe we should just stick with him dismounting now and then to change animals.  Maybe the animals get tired?

I think the solution may be quite simple and maybe the biblical author has put it right in front of us with the use of the Greek word for beast of burden that means literally “under a yoke;” a nice broad hint.  Maybe there are only two animals, a donkey and a colt, and they are yoked together as for plowing or for pulling a cart, enabling Jesus to ride “them” as a pair, even though he only sits on one, the colt.  So Matthew can say he rides “them” and the other books can say he rides the colt, and all are in agreement.

This is what I have for my literal translation of Matthew 21:5 so far:

>>> and – mounted – on – donkey – and – on – colt – son – of – under a yoke <<<

I  believe Matthew 21:2 reinforces this idea of a yoke because the animals are next to each other, maybe even side-by-side?? “you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her.” (TNIV)

Now this idea of the yoke would not have occurred to me if I hadn’t seen the word “yoke” in the DRA (hidden elsewhere) and looked up “yoke” in the TNIV Concordance and found 2 Corinthians 6:14, “yoked together with unbelievers,” and so started thinking of animals yoked together.

The phrase “son – of – under a yoke” is so awkwardly inserted in the text and so seemingly superfluous, I have to wonder what its purpose could be, other than an entertaining puzzle.  Is there symbolism of some sort?  Supposed to evoke what?  “Yoke” in the New Testament would seem to refer often to the discipline or alleged bondage of other belief systems (Acts 15:10, 2 Corinthians 6:14, Galatians 5:1) whereas in the Hebrew Bible “yoke” mostly refers to oppression by foreign rulers or being oppressed otherwise.  If Jesus is riding the son of one that was typically yoked, I’ll guess that shows Jesus’ supremacy over whatever belief system the yoke-ready son represents.  The passage perhaps may be understood at two levels:  (1) Jesus actually rides a real colt, and (2) Jesus, as king, symbolically supersedes whatever is symbolized by that other animal, the son of “under a yoke;” that’s just a guess, recalling that the ancient bridegroom was represented as a calf, unlike the new savior, Jesus, represented as a lamb.  Translators who write “foal of a donkey” add nothing to our understanding.

Some more dissimilarities, now looking at the Revised Standard VersionJohn says Jesus finds a “young ass” and other books say the disciples do the fetching, and this is not necessarily a contradiction.

A friend suggests maybe the disciples were women, because they are unnamed.  Seems likely.

As to how Jesus gets on whatever he rides:  Matthew: “he sat thereon,” (on one or two??), Mark:  “he sat upon it,” Luke:  “they set Jesus upon it,” (they hoisted him??)  John:  “Jesus . . . sat upon it.”

Interesting that the colt had never been ridden before, yet was broken-in and tame enough for someone to ride?? someone who, in Luke, needs to be put on it, helped up?  Maybe Jesus was older at that point than many think?  If he was “not yet 50,” but 49, then yeah, maybe he needed some help.  But he knew how to calm the colt??


Matthew:  “Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road”

Mark:  “many spread their garments on the road”

Luke:  “they [two disciples] spread their garments on the road”

Notice how the NIV translators omit “they” in this last item and substitute “people” instead:  “people spread their cloaks on the road.”  I suspect many would rather not be puzzled when they read the Bible; they just want to be soothed.


Matthew:  “others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road”

Mark:  “others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields”

John:  “they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him”

Lest we imagine that Jesus’ followers were climbing up and vandalizing valuable date palms, the CCE says in a footnote that the palm branches were usually brought from elsewhere for use as decorations during the feast.

All the hosannas vary.  The descriptions of Jesus vary.  But all books agree Jesus “comes in the name of the Lord.”

The accounts differ as to the description of crowds, just disciples, or more, the whole world?

Matthew:  “the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted”

Mark:  “those who went before and those who followed cried out”

Luke:  “the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God”

John:  “a great crowd who had come to the feast . . . The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead bore witness.  The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. . . . the world has gone after him”

The dissimilarities I’ve listed here do not seem to me to be “errors” but rather intentional juggling of details by the biblical author(s) in order to create some sort of effect – a sense of mystery?

So Jesus rode either one, two, or three animals, and either the disciples, or a crowd, or “those,” or all those who had come to the feast, or the whole world welcomed him with either palm leaves, field branches, or tree branches, and either most, many, or two spread garments on the road.

There’s just too much of this sort of thing for it to not be intentional on the part of the biblical author(s).

Both Matthew and John misquote Zechariah and differ from each other.  Wouldn’t that likely be intentional?  At that time there was what, the Hebrew and one? Greek translation of it?   But still, they disagreed on the exact wording?  Or did not know how to copy?

The Vatican’s New American Bible is rather hard on the author of Matthew, saying in footnotes that the author made a “mistake.” 1

4 [4-5] The prophet: this fulfillment citation is actually composed of two distinct Old Testament texts, Isaiah 62:11 (Say to daughter Zion) and Zechariah 9:9. The ass and the colt are the same animal in the prophecy, mentioned twice in different ways, the common Hebrew literary device of poetic parallelism. That Matthew takes them as two is one of the reasons why some scholars think that he was a Gentile rather than a Jewish Christian who would presumably not make that mistake (see Introduction).  5 [7] Upon them: upon the two animals; an awkward picture resulting from Matthew’s misunderstanding of the prophecy.

In defense of Matthew, I’ll say that the word “yoke” and the placement of the two animals next to each other would seem to be, not a mistake, but an intentional puzzle, maybe a bit too playful for the very serious-minded Vatican translators to grasp?  (They retain “beast of burden” but still miss the clue in it – the Greek spelling contains the word for “yoke.”)  By the way, the author of Matthew is not necessarily a “he” nor is that author necessarily different from or unknown to the authors of the other parts of the Gospel.

Is the “beast of burden” also in the Hebrew?  Hidden by translators?  My sense is probably not, because those Catholic translations I’ve found that have “beast of burden” in Matthew don’t have it in Zechariah where it would be to their advantage to harmonize.

There are many more dissimilarities among the four parts of the Gospel with regard to the donkey passages.  Purpose?  Possibly to keep us from getting too attached to the facts of the story, dogmatizing it, and forgetting the gentleness of the One who comes to help.

Contrast the humbleness and gentleness of the Jesus of Palm Sunday with the “king” in Revelation 19 riding a white horse when salvation is effectively realized.  This is where powerful overcoming is expected and necessary.

The donkey puzzle is quite a puzzle.  And I’m not sure I’ve solved it.

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