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The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem

There are many difficulties with the account of Jesus' "Triumphal Entry" into Jerusalem.

The dependence of almost the whole episode of the triumphal entry on the Old Testament, the obvious difficulty that Jesus would have faced riding on an untamed donkey and Mark’s mistakes about Jerusalem geography and Hebrew vocabulary all lead us towards one conclusion: the episode is very likely not historical.

Mark's Geographical Error

The account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem as narrated by Mark looks fairly straightforward:

Mark 11:1-11
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt there which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?' tell him, 'The lord needs it and will send it back shortly.'" They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, "What are you doing, untying the colt?" They answered that Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had out in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming of the kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!" Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

The first verse above (Mark 11:1) again betrays his ignorance of Palestinian geography. Mark’s previous passage had Jesus in Jericho (Mark 10:46). The sentence above shows that Jesus and his group were traveling from Jericho to Jerusalem via Bethphage and then Bethany. This, as can be seen from the map given below, is impossible. Bethany is further away from Jerusalem than Bethphage is. Thus the correct itinerary should have been Jericho-Bethany-Bethphage-Jerusalem. [1]

This is the comment from the biblical theologian D.E. Nineham:

The geographical details make an impression of awkwardness, especially as Bethphage and Bethany are given in reverse order to that in which travelers from Jericho would reach them...and we must therefore assume that St Mark did not know the relative positions of the two villages on the Jericho road...[2]

That this error was noticed early can be seen from the fact that Matthew, who copied Mark, had changed this passage to remove the error:

Matthew 21:1
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives...

Note that Matthew had removed the reference to Bethany completely from Mark's account. Again the most likely explanation is that Matthew noticed Mark's error and tried to correct it.

This oversight, although minor, shows us that Mark’s traditional source for this passage cannot be fully relied on.

Map of Judaea circa 30 CE
Map of Judaea circa 30 CE

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Jesus Sitting on Two Donkeys

Both Luke (19:29-35) and John (12:12-16) also mentioned that in his entry to Jerusalem, Jesus sat on a young donkey. The sitting on the donkey fulfils an Old Testament prophecy about the manner of how the messiah will enter the holy city:

Zechariah 9:9
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.

An uninitiated person reading the passage of Zechariah above may be slightly confused by the last two lines; for it seems to imply that the king is riding on two animals: the donkey and its colt. However that is only an example of Hebrew poetical parallelisms that involve the repetition of the same idea in different words-mainly for metrical or rhythmical purposes. [3] This basic fact, however, seems to escape the author of Matthew. Given below is Matthew's version of the first part of the triumphal entry:

Matthew 21:1-7
As they approached Jerusalem...Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away." This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet:
Say to the daughter of Zion, "See your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. [a]

Matthew had obviously read the passage in Zechariah to mean that the messiah will be riding on two donkeys. He had actually made Jesus sit on the two animals at the same time! (Try to imagine this!) Note that the last sentence, Jesus sat on them, is not just an oversight on Matthew's part, for he had deliberately altered the whole episode to include two animals (the donkey and its colt). I have italicized the portion where Matthew had changed the singular in Mark to the plural when referring to the animals.

That Jesus could negotiate his way by sitting on two animals at the same time is obviously absurd. [b] But Matthew's treatment of the episode gives us an insight into the mindset of this evangelist. We know from our previous analysis that Matthew incorporated a large portion of the gospel of Mark into his own gospel. We must conclude therefore that Matthew considered Mark to be a reasonably reliable document. That being the case, why would Matthew here deliberately alter the Markan account by deliberately replacing a natural account of the triumphal entry for a more absurd one?

The answer to this is simple. Matthew, like most Christians of his era, believed Jesus to be the Christ or the messiah. This belief was fundamental to their outlook. Following this they believed that any Old Testament passages which they interpreted as prophecies of the coming messiah must therefore have been fulfilled in Jesus' life. The Old Testament therefore becomes a kind of historical source for events of the life of Jesus. In the case of the triumphal entry, Matthew understands the passage in Zechariah to mean that the messiah will be riding on two donkeys. That Mark says otherwise is inconsequential to him. Mark at the moment of Matthew's writing had not yet achieved canonical status. Thus to Matthew, Mark's narrative, of having Jesus just sitting on one animal, must be wrong because the scripture said that there were to be two!

This episode will illustrate why a level of skepticism must be applied to any event narrated in the gospels that deliberately and directly fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy. It was more likely that the evangelists, convinced of his belief that Jesus was the messiah, constructed the episodes based solely on the Old Testament prophecies and not on any historical fact.

Fundamentalists like to point out that the sheer amount of Old Testament passages fulfilled in Jesus' life proves that he was the messiah. [4] What we have seen here shows that the fundamentalists has had their whole understanding turned upside down. The conviction that Jesus was the messiah came first. Then the early Christians began to ransack the Old Testament for passages referring to the messiah to find out more about his life on earth.

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Old Testament as a Source of the Story

If we look back into the passage in Mark 11:1-11, we find that almost every detail of the passage could be traced back to the Old Testament.

The Mount of Olives

First, the statement about the Mount of Olives (Mark 11:1). There was widespread Jewish belief current during the first century AD that the Messiah would will come to the Mount of Olives. This is based on an interpretation of a passage from Zechariah:

Zechariah 14:4
On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives which lies before Jerusalem on the east.

The Unridden Colt

The additional detail about a colt “which no one has ever ridden” (Mark 11:2) is also found in Zechariah 9:9 for the Septuagint gives the description of the colt as polon neon (a “new”-i.e. unridden-colt). This gives rise to two problems. One, Mark did not take into account the obvious difficulty Jesus would have had sitting on an unbroken and untrained animal. [5] Second, it is highly unlikely, that Jesus would have relied on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible when figuring out how to fulfill Old Testament prophecies.

The Exclamation of the Crowd

The exclamation of the crowd, far from being a natural outburst, is taken from the book of Psalms. [6] Given below are the relevant verses:

MarkPsalms
11:9
Hosanna!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

11:10
Hosanna in the highest!

118:25-26
Hosanna, O Lord...
Blessed be he who enters in the name of the Lord.

148:1
Praise him in the highest!

I have left the Hebrew word Hosanna in Psalms untranslated above, in order to show the relationship with Mark’s passage. The word actually means save us, we implore you. It is obvious then that Mark’s phrase Hosanna in the highest! (Mark 11:10) has no meaning! Mark had obviously misunderstood the term and thought it meant something like praise the Lord. In other words, he misunderstood a cry for help as an expression of joy! [7]

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Notes

a.The Authorized Version (or King James Version), a seventeenth century translation (inaccurate by the standards of modern translations), and the "official" Bible of most fundamentalists, translated Matthew 21:7 as "he sat thereon". This obscures the intention of the author, for the original Greek went epekathisen epano auton which is correctly translated by most modern Bibles as "he sat on them."
b.In the Catholic New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Prentice Hall 1999; p664), the authors suggested that if their Catholic lay reader finds it "difficult" to imagine Jesus sitting on two animals simultaneously they may choose to assume that the last "them" in Matthew 21:7 refers to the garments (or the cloaks) instead of the donkey and its colt!

The tentative nature of the suggestion shows that the authors really do not have much to stand on as far as that interpretation goes. However since this interpretation is also favored by fundamentalist we have to see why it is wrong.

Firstly we note that even if we allow, for the sake of argument, that the final "them" refers to the garments, it does not follow that Jesus sat only on one donkey. For just the line before that we are told that the disciples places the garments on them-meaning the two donkeys:

Matthew 21:1-7
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them.
They brought the donkey and the colt,
placed their cloaks on them,
and Jesus sat on them

Thus even in this case the cloaks were placed across the two donkeys!

However we do not even need to concede this. There are many reasons why the natural reading, that the final "them," refers to the donkey and its colt, is the correct one.

  1. The prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 tells of the “king” coming riding on the donkey (or donkeys as it may be misinterpreted). Matthew 21.7 was the last line of the description of the process of getting Jesus on the donkey(s). To end the sentence (which was just before the actual entry into Jerusalem) by stating that Jesus “sat on the cloaks” does not make sense and goes against the whole point of the description.

  2. The theme of Matthew 21:7 is obviously getting the donkeys ready for Jesus to sit on them, I will give the three lines here again and italicized the main portion referring to the donkeys:

    Matthew 21:1-7
    They brought the donkey and the colt,
    placed their cloaks on them,
    and Jesus sat on them

  3. Finally there is an almost identical construction in Mark, again the only change is from the singular to plural for the donkeys. Note that in Mark the cloaks are still plural while the final line refers to the singular colt:

    Matthew 21:7Mark 11:7
    They brought the donkey and the colt,
    placed their cloaks on them,
    and Jesus sat on them
    When they brought the colt to Jesus
    and threw their cloaks on it
    he sat on it
Thus apart from fundamentalist/evangelical apologists and conservative Catholic theologians concerned about the state of mind of their lay leaders, critical historical scholars are almost unanimous in rejecting the interpretation that the final "them" in Matthew 21:7 refer to the cloaks (or garments). Given below are some quotes from these scholars having no qualms about attributing to Matthew what he obviously intended (in complete fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9)-that Jesus sat on two donkeys (the mother and its colt):
  • Gerd Ludemann, Professor of New Testament Studies, University of Gottingen
    “Jesus: After 2000 Years”, Prometheus 2001, p215
    [Commenting on Matthew 21:7-PT]
    “ In accordance with the fulfilled prophecy from Zec. 9.9, Jesus rides on two asses. ‘Only “Christian” theology can possibly justify these two asses’ (Wernle)”

  • Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar (the Jesus Seminar consists of 70+ PhD’s in the field of NT research)
    “The Acts of Jesus: What did Jesus really do?” HarperCollins 1998, p230
    “Matthew takes the prophet quite literally and has Jesus mounted on both a donkey and a colt (v.7), to make sure the prophecy is completely fulfilled. It is difficult to imagine how Jesus could have ridden two animals at the same time.”

  • Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Professor of History of Religion, University of Essen
    “Putting Away Childish Things” HarperCollins 1995, p27-28
    “ ‘Foal of an ass’ is an explanation of ‘colt’. The text speaks of a single ass, but because Matthew mistakenly thinks that Zechariah is talking about two asses, he also mistakenly translates [Matthew 21:4-5 is quoted here-PT] Accordingly Matthew had Jesus …[sitting on]…both beasts! Theologians have struggled in vain to make sense of this senseless passage “

  • James D.G. Dunn, Professor of Divinity, University of Durham,
    “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament”, Trinity Press 1990, p99
    “One clear example of detail created out of prophecy is Matthew’s account of Jesus entry into Jerusalem riding on both an ass and a colt of Zechariah 9.9”

  • J.C. Fenton, Principal of Lichfield Theological College
    “Saint Matthew”, Penguin 1980, p.330-331
    “The last two lines are an example of Hebrew poetic parallelism-i.e. repetition of the same idea in different words. Matthew thus seems to have taken this literally, and thus introduced two animals into the story… [Commenting on Matthew 21:7-PT]…Matthew has altered the wording here also, to bring in the second animal; ‘he sat thereon’ is a [KJV] translation that obscures what Matthew in fact wrote-viz ‘he sat on them’ “

  • Don Cuppit, Theologian, Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge
    “Who was Jesus” BBC 1977 , p.44
    “Zechariah does not envisage Zion’s King achieving the difficult gymnastic feat of riding on both an ass and a colt, as Matthew says Jesus does.”

  • John Allegro, Lecturer of Old Testament and Intertestamental Studies, University of Manchester,
    “The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Reappraisal”, Penguin 1964, p151-152
    “In his[the author of Matthew] rendering he has divided the parallel stichoi of the Hebrew verse to imply that there were two separate animals involved, an ass and a colt…Matthew’s quotation leads him in verse 7 into the apparent absurdity of the disciples putting their garments on both animals.”

  • C.J. Cadoux, Professor of Church History, Oxford
    “ The Life of Jesus”, Penguin 1948, p.180
    “So literal minded has some Christian become by the time ‘Matthew’ was written, that in his account (contrary to all others) two animals were actually sent by Jesus…and-...- he is made to perform the impossible task of riding upon them both.”

References

1.Helms, Gospel Fictions: p103
2.Nineham, Saint Mark: p294-295
3.Allegro, The Dead Sea Scrolls: p151
Cadoux, The Life of Jesus: p180
Fenton, Saint Matthew: p330
4.McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict: p141-177
5.Helms, Gospel Fictions: p103
Wells, Did Jesus Exist?: p118
6.Helms, Gospel Fictions: p104-105
7.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p285
Wells, Did Jesus Exist?: p117-118
Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus: p178

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