Matthew’s Jesus performs a circus trick

Matthew’s Jesus performs a circus trick: Matthew 21:5 has Jesus riding on two donkeys into Jerusalem

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

  One of the most telling verses in the Gospel According to Matthew is verse 5 of chapter 21 and verse 7 of the same chapter confirms Matthew’s confusion of a quotation from the Old Testament that he tries to apply on Jesus. Herein lies evidence that Matthew had the capacity to invent history rather than report honestly events in a historical manner. Let us have a look at the verse in question.

“Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'”

The above translation comes from the New International Version. Some Bible translations try to blur the evident difficulty by omitting the conjunction between “donkey” and “colt”, thus making it appear as if Matthew understood the intention and meaning of the original verse that he quotes from the Old Testament in Zechariah 9:9. I have chosen the above translation as it captures more accurately the meaning of the original Greek than those amelioratory translations that placate fundamentalist and conservative believers of the Bible. The original Greek reads thus:

Εἴπατε τῇ θυγατρὶ Σιών Ἰδοὺ ὁ Βασιλεύς σου ἔρχεταί σοι πραῢς καὶ ἐπιβεβηκὼς ἐπὶ ὄνον καὶ ἐπὶ πῶλον υἱὸν ὑποζυγίου. (emphasis added)

The bold and underline segment of the verse in the original Greek above says ‘epibebekos epi onon kai epi polom’ which literally means “mounted on a donkey and on a colt”. Maarten J. J. Menken gives an accurate rendering of the original Greek into English in his work ‘Matthew’s Bible’: Tell daughter Zion: Behold, your king is coming to you, meek and riding on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” [1]

As mentioned above, the quotation in Matthew 21:5 is derived from Zechariah 9:9. The original text of Zechariah 9:9 shows that only one animal is intended as the one to be rode upon by the king, who is supposed to be Jesus in Matthew’s mind, and that the original text actually employs a Hebraic poetic device of parallelism of which Matthew was evidently unaware. Not understanding the concept of parallelism in Hebrew, Matthew commits the mistake of thinking that two animals were intended rather than one. The text of Zechariah reads as follows:

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The Hebrew reads:

גִּילִ֨י מְאֹ֜ד בַּת־צִיֹּ֗ון הָרִ֙יעִי֙ בַּ֣ת יְרוּשָׁלִַ֔ם הִנֵּ֤ה מַלְכֵּךְ֙ יָ֣בֹוא לָ֔ךְ צַדִּ֥יק וְנֹושָׁ֖ע ה֑וּא עָנִי֙ וְרֹכֵ֣ב עַל־חֲמֹ֔ור וְעַל־עַ֖יִר בֶּן־אֲתֹנֹֽות׃ (emphasis added)

The bold and underline part in the verse above says, “werokeb al hamor we’al ‘ayir ben ‘atonot” which means “and riding on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. That would be a literal rendering of the Hebrew (but it should be noted that ‘atonot אֲתֹנֹֽות actually means ‘she-asses’ in its literal sense) and to the uninitiated it would appear to correspond to Matthew 21:5. But in fact, it does not. The ‘waw’ used in the verse between ‘hamor’ (donkey) and ”ayir’ (colt) is understood, in context and in language, as an explicative (even) rather than a connective or a conjunction (and). Biblical scholar Lee Martin McDonald explains:

“In Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, he, like the other evangelists, quotes a passage from Zechariah 9:9, but apparently interprets that passage to indicate that there are two animals brought to Jesus and he rode on both of them. Mark, Luke, and John all have but one animal involved. It would appear that Matthew understood the Hebrew letter waw in Zechariah 9:9 to be a connective rather than an explicative (“and” instead of “even” or “especially”), which the context in Zechariah demands and the other Gospels recognize. Matthew is probably using the Greek text of Zechariah in this instance, since the Greek kai (“and” or “even”) can be understood as an explicative (even) or a connective (and).” [2]

The anonymous author of Matthew’s reliance on the Septuagint and his clear non-Hebrew/non-Jewish understanding of Old Testament texts such as Zechariah 9:9, that resulted in his mistaken view of two animals’ involvement rather than one, have led several scholars such as John Meier to conclude that the author of Matthew was a non-Jewish Christian, that is, he was a Gentile Christian, therefore, a non-eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus. This also lends support to the scholarly agreed upon view that Matthew used Mark as a source as he himself was not an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life and ministry. Boris Repschinski writes:

“Behind the argument over the language of the gospel stands the larger issue of Matthew’s lack of familiarity with a Jewish background in general. Several items in the gospel have been marshaled to make this point. The fact that Jesus seemingly rides two donkeys into Jerusalem (21:7) is certainly odd. It might be an interest in the literal, and thus misunderstood, fulfillment of the scripture quotation of Zech 9:9 that appears in 21:5, as Meir suggests. Meier claimed christological motives for this mistake. He concluded that such a misunderstanding is “much more intelligible in a Gentile redactor than in a converted Jewish Rabbi or in any well-educated Jewish Christian.” Since neither the quotation nor the two animals occur in Mk 11:7, the mistake in Matthew reflects on the final redactor.” [3]

Similarly, Charles A. Ray III, in his PhD dissertation for his PhD in Biblical Studies at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary writes:

“Second, Meier asserted that Matthew’s misunderstanding of the Hebrew parallelism of Zech 9:9 in Matt 21:5, in which Matthew seems to have Jesus riding into Jerusalem on two animals, would not have been a mistake made by a Jewish author. These arguments help to explain why the author of Matthew would have used Mark’s gospel; Matthew was not an eyewitness apostle but a later Gentile Christian.” [4]

Likewise, The New American Bible in its commentary on Matthew 21:5 says:

“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 presumable not make that mistake (see Introduction).” [5]

Thus the mistake made by Matthew’s author in Matthew 21:5 shows that he had no firsthand knowledge of Jesus and his ministry and it also exposes his capacity, whether intentionally or out of ignorance, to make things up. There is no doubt that only one animal is intended in Zechariah 9:9 as Rabbi David Kimchi’s commentary on the verse makes clear.

And upon a colt, the foal of an ass.” – The same sentence is repeated in other words. And, further, he mentions “a colt,” because it is younh, and particularly selected for riding; and so it is said of the sons of Ibzan. “that ride upon thirty ass colts.” (Judges x. 4, and xii. 8.)
The foal of she-asses,”  בֶּן־אֲתֹנֹֽות, i.e. the foal of one of the she-asses. A similar idiom is found in וַיִּקָּבֵ֖ר בְּעָרֵ֥י גִלְעָֽד “And was buried in the cities of Gilead.” (Judges xii. 7), i.e., in one of the cities of Gilead.” [6]

A clever Christian reader, however, will quickly backtrack and recapitulate Mcdonald’s deliberation and appeal to the fact that the conjunction kai in the Greek may be understood as either an explicative or a connective. Indeed, Matthew’s use of Zechariah 9:9 as we have seen above contain the word kai in Greek. So if that is the case then perhaps Matthew did not actually make a mistake as it could very well be an application of the explicative rather than the connective/conjunction? Sadly, for the Christian defender this tact is cut down in light of Matthew 21:7. Matthew 21:5 by itself almost clearly shows that Matthew has in mind two animals that Jesus is to ride rather than one which all other three gospels unanimously report but the fact that Matthew strengthens his evident misunderstanding by saying the following just two verses later leaves no doubt that he truly understood (or misunderstood rather) Zechariah 9:9 as speaking of two animals:

“They brought the donkey and the colt and put their coats on them, and he sat upon them.” (Matthew 21:7)

In the verse above, Matthew describes Jesus as sitting on the two animals by his use of the plural pronoun αὐτῶν (auton). That Jesus ‘epekathisen epano auton’ (he sat on them), strengthens the position that Matthew has two animals in view and oddly and awkwardly has Jesus riding on both as he enters Jerusalem. And so the New American Bible comments:

21:7 Upon them: upon the two animals; an awkward picture resulting from Matthew’s misunderstanding of the prophecy.” [7]

In the same manner, the biblical scholar Michael Shepherd writes that Matthew 21:7 illustrates that Matthew has Jesus riding on two animals instead of one:

“The parallelism of the original Hebrew text probably only has one donkey in view here, but Matthew’s narrative has two animals on which Jesus sat (Matt 21:7).” [8]

New Testament scholar Benedict Viviano writes:

he sat on them: Matthew envisages Jesus riding on two animals at once, hard to imagine. The difficulty may be avoided by referring “them” to the garments.” [9]

In the above we see that Viviano clearly identifies Matthew 21:7 as having Jesus riding on two animals but, strangely enough, he offers the conservative Christian’s reconciliatory tact that the difficulty of seeing Jesus on two animals at once in Matthew 21:7 can be resolved by attaching the plural pronoun to the garments rather than the animals. It is our view that the suggested resolution which smacks of fundamentalism (far from Viviano’s worldview) does not detract the value of his confirmation that the verse does in fact identify two animals upon which Jesus sits simultaneously. Nevertheless, this brings us to the Christian fundamentalist or conservative tactics or attempts at reconciling the clear problem of Matthew 21:5 together with Matthew 21:7. The most popular way to resolve the absurdity and error of the two verses that are often resorted to by conservative and fundamentalist Christians is the one seen above: Jesus was not sitting on two animals, but rather the plural pronoun refers to the garments. The late noted historical Jesus scholar and New Testament expert, Professor Geza Vermes dismisses this desperate reconciliation attempt in no uncertain terms:

“To suggest that the first ‘on them’ refers to the animals and the second to the garments, smacks of special pleading. In fact, John corrects the misrepresentation by quoting, ‘Behold your king is coming, sitting on an ass’s colt.” [10]

Another attempt that they employ to resolve the clear difficulty is to say that Jesus was riding on the adult donkey and the foal followed by their side. This is the weakest of all the claims for reconciliation as the text most certainly does not say this and as McDonald writes:

“While it is possible to say, as some have, that Jesus was riding on the mother of a foal and that the foal went alongside its mother, this is not what Matthew says.” (emphasis added) [11]

The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible of the New Testament in its comments on the verses suggests the first reconciliatory option along with another: Jesus rode the two animals successively. Firstly, the text does not say anywhere that Jesus rode one of the animals after the other. Rather, the pronoun that is to be correctly attached to the animals instead of the garments, indicates the simultaneous action of sitting on both. Secondly, it would be an equally odd image, tantamount to inanity, to have Jesus, on a rather short journey, to mount on one animal , alight and then ride on the other entering Jerusalem. This suggestion requires such a stretch of the imagination that it reeks of utter desperation. Despite putting forward the above attempts at reconciliation, the commentary, which is noted for its conservative leanings and harmonisation methods that try to do away with scriptural problems, is compelled to admit that Matthew does have in mind two animals rather than one, in opposition to the other gospels, and of course in contradiction to the original intended meaning of Zechariah 9:9.

“Matthew alone mentions a donkey and  a colt (cf. Mk. 11:7; Lk. 19:35)” [12]

And indeed to suggest that Zechariah 9:9 has two animals in view is a mistake. Viviano writes:

“The Hebr parallelism would refer to a single animal in two different ways, “ass, even a colt,” but Matthew mistakenly posits two animals.” [13]

Some might still be wondering as to what exactly is the parallelism in Zechariah 9:9. In brief, the parallelism that we see in Zechariah 9:9 is the use of seemingly two different objects (a donkey and a colt) that are in fact one and the same. That is to say, the author uses different terminology or words that are related to each other with the intention to convey one thought or idea. To make things a little clearer for my respected readers, we may refer to Donald Broadribb who provides an excellent explanation and overview on this Hebraic poetic language phenomenon found throughout the Old Testament.

“Repetition is at the heart of Hebrew Poetry. To understand this is to begin to appreciate the text. Repetition lies at the heart of “parallelism,” though it is not limited to it. Parallelism, the most obvious and perhaps most basic element in Hebrew poetic structure, is essentially nothing more than the repetition of thought. Sometimes the repetition extends to fine details, so that every term finds a counterpart; sometimes the repetition is not only of thought but of actual words; sometimes the repetition is only of image or impression. These differences are differences of style, and their manipulation is responsible for much of the effect. But the fact of the repetition is essential. As an example,

וישא משלו ויאמר מן־ארם ינחני בלק מלך־מואב מהררי־קדם לכה ארה־לי יעקב ולכה זעמה ישראל׃

מה אקב לא קבה אל ומה אזעם לא זעם יהוה׃

כי־מראש צרים אראנו ומגבעות אשורנו הן־עם לבדד ישכן ובגוים לא יתחשב׃

מי מנה עפר יעקב ומספר את־רבע ישראל תמת נפשי מות ישרים ותהי אחריתי כמהו׃

Numbers 23:7-10

  Two kinds of repetition are involved, the repetition within the lines, the repetition between lines. They key words יעקב  and ישראל recur not merely twice, but three times (twice by name, once in the pronoun “him”). After each thought has been repeated within the line, the lines are themselves caught up by the repetition of the key terms.” [14]

Now that we have a better picture of what parallelism means, if we didn’t before, we may better appreciate the error that Matthew embroiled himself in as he attempted to make Jesus fulfill prophecy rather than honestly report prophecy being fulfilled by Jesus. Noting Matthew’s lack of understanding of the Hebrew poetic use of parallelism in Zechariah 9:9, Broadribb writes:

“Most of us are familiar with the famous passage in Matthew, where a poetic passage from Zechariah was read as a histrical prophecy, and the character of the repetition was not noted:

Εἴπατε τῇ θυγατρὶ Σιών Ἰδοὺ ὁ Βασιλεύς σου ἔρχεταί σοι πραῢς καὶ ἐπιβεβηκὼς ἐπὶ ὄνον καὶ ἐπὶ πῶλον υἱὸν ὑποζυγίου. πορευθέντες δὲ οἱ μαθηταὶ καὶ ποιήσαντες καθὼς συνέταξεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς. ἤγαγον τὴν ὄνον καὶ τὸν πῶλον, καὶ ἐπέθηκαν ἐπ’ αὐτῶν τὰ ἱμάτια, καὶ ἐπεκάθισεν ἐπάνω αὐτῶν.

Matthew 21:5-7

The Old Testament quotation was misunderstood by the writer, with unfortunate consequences for his narrative about Jesus. The other three gospel writers interpreted the lines correctly…” [15]

From the foregoing discussion, we may conclude that the author of Matthew took the liberty, unabashedly so, to have prophecy historicised rather than history prophecied. Instead of reporting events as they were, Matthew, armed with his theological motivations and agenda, did not shy from inventing historical events. As he liberally distorts the meaning of Zechariah 9:9, most likely due to complete ignorance of the Hebrew literary device involved, he exposes his gospel as one that contains fraudulent data and information, leading to the unavoidable conclusion that the Gospel According to Matthew was not inspired by the Divine but a product of human creative invention. Commenting on Matthew with reference to Matthew 21:5, the New Testament scholar W. R. Telford writes:

“The evangelist, however, frequently distorts the Hebrew Bible to fit the event (e.g. 2:15, ‘Out of Egypt  have I called my son’, Hos. 11:1, which refers to Israel and not the Christ child), or distorts his tradition or source to fit the Old Testament (e.g. 21:4-5 which, as previously noted, introduces two animals into Mark’s story of Jesus’ triumphal entry on the basis of Zec. 9:9).” [16]

The two animals of Matthew 21:5 that he introduces out of his misreading of Zechariah 9:9, resulting in Jesus’ odd circus performance of riding both creatures at the same time in Matthew 21:7 serves as proof positive of Matthew’s human origins rather than divine inspiration, for God would not have inspired his scribe to quote his revelation and misinterpret it with a completely innovative meaning that contradict the originally intended one.

Finally, the act of riding a donkey into Jerusalem was quite commonplace and would have held little significance to Jaresalemites. Every Tom, Dick and Harry that had money or held some prestige in the community would have used this is his common mode of transportation into Jerusalem. Therefore, if Jesus did indeed enter Jerusalem on a donkey, it should not have garnered the populace’s hoo-ha that the gospel of John tries to portray, which in contradistinction, is tamed in Luke as he portrays a somewhat smaller festive occasion participated only by Jesus’ companions. The gospel writers, however, instead of seeing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (or in Matthew’s case of a donkey and a colt) as an everyday event, saw it as a special occasion with special significance. This understanding was based on a strain of tradition that was first picked up by the Gospel According to Mark and retained by the Gospel According to Luke and the Gospel According to John, but modified, most likely out of ignorance and carelessness, by the Gospel According to Matthew. Thus, from a simple event of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a common mode of transportation i.e. a donkey, the gospel writers envisioned and propagated a messianic fulfillment of prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 in the person of Jesus. Highlighting Matthew’s mistake that he makes in his excitement to make his model of Jesus fulfill what he perceived as prophecy of the messianic kind in Zechariah 9:9, Geza Vermes writes:

“Riding on a donkey was not uncommon in the circumstances. We learn from Rabbinic literature that ass drivers did lucrative business at the approach of festivals by hiring out their beasts to wealthy or important pilgrims. But the evangelists transform the incident into a royal messianic event, hailing the arrival of the Son of David. To make the messianic aspect more patent, Matthew cites the words of Zechariah, ‘Behold your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.’ ‘On an ass’ and ‘on a colt, the foal of an ass’ is of course the usual Hebrew poetic device of parallelism, the same idea being expressed in two similar expressions identical in meaning: they designate a single donkey. But in his zeal to equate prophecy and fulfillment, Matthew, unlike the other three evangelists, presents Jesus with two animals, a she-ass and her colt, and gives the impression that he was riding on both.” [17]


[1] Menken, M. J. J. (2004). Matthew’s Bible. Belgium: Leuven University Press. p. 6

[2] Mcdonald, L. M. (2009). Forgotten Scriptures: The Selection and Rejection of Early Religious Writings. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.

[3] Repschinski, B. (2000). The Controversy Stories in the Gospel of Matthew: Their Redaction, Form and Relevance for the Relationship Between the Matthean Community and Formative Judaism. Gottingen: Vendenhoeck & Ruprecht. p. 31

[4] Ray, C. A. (2008). The Story Behind the Story: The Use of the Old Testament in Matthew’s Birth Narrative. Ann Arbor, Michigan:ProQuest LLC. p. 40

[5] Anon. (2011). The New American Bible. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 1663

[6] Kimchi, D. (n.d.). Rabbi David Kimchi’s Commentary Upon the Prophecies of Zechariah (Rev. A. M’Caul, trans.). London: Macintosh. p. 88

[7] The New American Bible. Op. Cit.

[8] Shepherd, M. B. (2011). The Twelve Prophets in the New Testament. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. p. 57

[9] Viviano, B. T. (1990). The Gospel According to Matthew. In Raymond E. Brown (Ed.), The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. p. 664

[10] Vermes, G. (2005). The Passion. London: Penguin Books. pp. 6-7

[11] McDonald, L.M. Op. Cit.

[12] Hahn, S. & Mitch, C. (2001). The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. p. 44

[13] Viviano, B. T. Op. Cit.

[14] Broadribb, D. (1964). An Attempt to Delineate the Characteristic Structure of Classical (Biblical) Hebrew Poetry. Australia: Bookleaf Publishing. pp. 9-10

[15] Ibid. p. 10

[16] Telford, W. R. (2014). The New Testament. London: Oneworld Publications. p. 158

[17] Vermes, G. Op. Cit. p. 6

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One Response to “Matthew’s Jesus performs a circus trick”

  1. hussain says:


    “2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one[b] on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,[c] one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

    here is the odd thing. missionaries want to worship the man jesus. in mark 9 above, jesus converses with elijah and moses. the peter wants to make a dwelling for each person. one would think that the disciples have seen there god transfigured and even here they don’t call out to him as a god? they instead choose to make dwellings? note that even in transfiguration the appearance is with elijah and moses? this trance contained elijah and moses and missionaries want to believe god sekinah came around . so why not bow down and worship moses , elijah…?
    according to their pagan logic maybe moses and elijah were incarnations of their god?

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