Many of us are familiar with the account of Jesus's so-called "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem, which is one of the few stories told by all four gospels. But was it the simple, humble donkey ride into the city that it is often portrayed to be, or was it specifically designed to be much more: a pre-arranged, mock coronation ceremony orchestrated by Jesus to portray himself as the promised king of Israel in fulfillment of both royal and prophetic tradition?
Did the triumphal entry into Jerusalem involve the crowd's spontaneous praise of the meek and humble Jesus on the back of a lowly donkey, or was it an event planned by Jesus to make him appear like a classic king of Israel?
Mark 11:2–10 records the earliest account of Jesus's entry into Jerusalem:
"And [he] said to them, 'Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, "Why are you doing this?" just say this, "The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately".'
They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, 'What are you doing, untying the colt?' They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
'Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!'"
Here we see the main elements of the story. Jesus instructs his disciples to go and get a colt, to bring it to him, and then once he has the colt, he sits on it, and rides it from the Mount of Olives in the east, westward into Jerusalem. Note that Mark quotes the well-known line from Psalm 118:25–26: "Hosanna!...Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!" And that’s the story we know.
The author of Luke tells a nearly identical story in 19:35–38, where he writes:
"Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
'Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!'"
Here again we get a line that echoes Psalm 118:25–26, which reads, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"
The account in the Gospel of John—which is usually quite different from the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)—is actually very similar in this story. John 12:12–13 reads:
"The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, 'Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!'"
While John doesn't yet mention the colt upon which Jesus rides, he does record the palm branches and the crowd. John also appeals to the Psalm 118:25–26 passage that proclaims Hosanna! (Hebrew: הושׁיעה נא), which in Hebrew is pronounced hōshīʿah nāʾ, and literally means "save us," followed by, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord."
Apparently, this was taking place while Jesus is still walking toward Jerusalem (cf. v. 12 above), because the text says in John 12:14–15 that Jesus then finds a donkey—two elements that differ from Mark's and Luke's account. John 12:14–15 reads:
"Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, 'Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt'!" (cf. Zechariah 9:9)
John's account differs a bit from that of Mark and Luke, as John's account has Jesus "discovering" a "donkey" on his way into Jerusalem instead of pre-arranging the use of a colt for transportation as he did in Mark 11:2–10 and Luke 19:29–40. However, John does mention the Psalm 118 "Hosanna" passage, and does ultimately mention a colt. However, in his account, John cites from the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 that mentions a king seated on "a colt of a donkey." John's reference to the prophecy in Zechariah 9 is not only the key to understanding what is actually happening in this "triumphal entry" episode, but it also helps to explain one of the classic textual problems with the final gospel account of the triumphal entry: Matthew's version.
Matthew's First Problem: Two Animals
Now, the Gospel of Matthew also mentions the donkey, and quotes the Zechariah prophecy about the donkey, but does two other things that are unique among the gospel accounts. First, let's read Matthew 21:1–7:
"When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, 'Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, "The Lord needs them." And he will send them immediately.'
This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet saying, 'Tell the daughter of Zion, "Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey".'
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them."
While Matthew states that Jesus rides on a donkey and does so in fulfillment of the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 (like John's Gospel), there are two glaring issues with Matthew's citation of the prophecy.
First, Matthew’s account describes two animals being summoned by Jesus, while the other three gospels correctly mention only one animal. And while this is an obvious discrepancy between Matthew and the other gospel accounts, it may not entirely be Matthew’s fault. This is because the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which was Bible used by most Jews in the Greco-Roman world, commonly abbreviated as the LXX), mistranslates the last line of the poem in Zechariah 9:9. If Matthew was reading from the LXX and not from a Hebrew scroll of Zechariah 9:9, this might explain Matthew's error.
The Hebrew text of last lines of Zechariah 9:9 reads:
and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey
This is a fairly common literary technique in Hebrew poetry called synonymous parallelism. It's essentially when you say the same thing twice in two different ways.
One good example is Psalm 18:4–5 (HB 18:5–6), which demonstrates the repetition of lines in parallel using synonyms:
The cords of death encompassed me;
the torrents of perdition assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me.
Here the psalmist is using synonymous parallelism to capture his distress poetically, variably altering the words cords, torrents, and snares; death, perdition, and Sheol; and encompassed, assailed, entangled, and confronted.
The same is true a few verses later in Psalm 18:13 (HB 18:14):
The LORD also thundered in the heavens,
and the Most High uttered his voice.
Clearly, no one will argue that "the LORD" and "the Most High" are two different deities, but rather, the psalmist is using synonymous parallelism to refer to the same God of Israel twice poetically in two different ways—"the LORD" and "the Most High."
We see this again in Psalm 91:9:
Because you have made the LORD your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
Once again, no one will argue that "the LORD" and "the Most High" are two different beings, one serving as our "refuge," and the other serving as our "dwelling place." This is simply a poetic way of saying the same thing two different ways.
So when we read Zechariah 9:9, this is how readers of Hebrew read the last line:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey (חמוֹר, ḥamor = "male donkey"),
on a colt (עיר, ʿayir = "young male donkey"), the foal (בן, ben = "son") of a donkey (אתן, ʾaton = "female donkey").
This is simply an example of the prophet utilizing the well-known Hebrew literary technique of synonymous parallelism to say the same thing twice. There is one animal. Line five tells us it is a donkey. And line six synonymously describes the donkey as "a colt," that is, a young donkey, using a different Hebrew word.
However, the Septuagint (mis)translates the last lines of Zechariah 9:9 as follows:
ἐπιβεβηκὼς ἐπὶ ὑποζύγιον καὶ πῶλον νέον.
riding on a donkey and a young colt.
The Septuagint translates line five properly, rendering חמוֹר (ḥamor) as ὑποζύγιον (hupozúgion), or "donkey," but completely missed or misunderstood the synonymous parallelism present in the verse and mistakenly translates line six as a separate animal. It reads the Hebrew conjunction, waw, as an "and" and translated it as such (with the Greek word καὶ), instead of leaving it appropriately untranslated (as does the NRSV, NIV, JPS, and others), or translating it as "even" (as does the ASV).
The Septuagint also completely leaves out a word in line six, translating "on a colt, the foal of a donkey" as "on a young colt." The second reference to the אתן (ʾaton), or "female donkey" in line six is completely omitted, leaving only the word עיר (ʿayir), or "colt," which is translated as πῶλον (pôlon), meaning "colt," and modified with the word νέον (néon), or "new, young," which is redundant, as colts are by definition young, be they donkeys or horses.
Thus, the Septuagint erroneously translated the end of Zechariah 9:9 as referring to not one, but two animals. So, if Matthew was consulting the Septuagint and not the Hebrew version when citing this prophecy, we can understand how Matthew might have made the mistake he makes, while the other gospel authors managed to avoid it, as they all reference only a single animal. Matthew, however, perpetuates the Septuagint's mistake, and this is why only Matthew's Gospel confusingly depicts Jesus as riding two animals at once.
Mark 11:7: "Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it."
Luke 19:35: "Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it."
John 12:14: "Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it;"
Matthew 21:7: "They brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them."
Matthew's Second Problem: Leaving Out Part of the Prophecy
There is a second, and I’d argue, much more significant issue with the text in Matthew—the omission of an entire line of poetic prophecy! Specifically, Matthew leaves out the line in Zechariah 9:9 that calls the one returning on a donkey to Jerusalem "triumphant and victorious."
And when we look at the context of the oracle in Zechariah 9, we can understand why. Zechariah's oracle is a prophecy of doom. It is a rundown of the lands of Canaan, prophesying the destruction of each individual people. So the entire oracle to this point is about someone going in and completely waylaying all of Israel’s neighbors in Aram (Syria), Phoenicia, and the Philistine Pentapolis. And it is at this point that we get our verse in Zechariah 9:9:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant (צדיק, tsadīq = "righteous, just") and victorious (נוֹשׁע, nōshāʿ = "having been saved") is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
So Zechariah is actually portraying the king of Israel as one who has been out fighting battles, waging war, combatting other nations, and then returning home to Jerusalem צדיק (tsadīq), that is "righteous," "just," or "vindicated," as well as נוֹשׁע (nōshāʿ), which is from the verb ישׁע (yashaʿ), meaning "to save." However, we must note that נוֹשׁע (nōshāʿ) is in the nifal, or passive form, meaning it should not be translated as "savior" or "the one who saves," but in a passive sense as "the one who has been saved" or who has been spared from injury in battle!
I would also suggest that the word commonly translated as "humble," עני (anî), should actually be translated as "afflicted," as it is in many other places like Exodus 3:17 and 2 Kings 14:26. This is especially true given the overall context of the verse describing a battle-tested king returning from the fight, as well as the context of the previous verses, which describe the vicious afflictions that overtook all of the other peoples of Canaan, which Israel's king also faced, and yet survived.
Zechariah 9:9 is describing a warrior king returning home from a fierce battle victorious; afflicted, but having been saved from death by God because of his righteous character and valiant efforts.
However, this obviously does not fit what Matthew is trying to portray—Jesus as a meek, humble king riding into Jerusalem on the back of a poor mule—or in Matthew's case, two mules at once. So, Matthew simply leaves out (!) the line about the conquering warrior from his account of the triumphal entry. Look for yourself:
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
"Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
It’s actually a very clever exegetical maneuver, but one that requires a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, along with a familiarity with Israelite royal traditions, Hebrew prophecy, and the occasional inadequacies of the Septuagint's translational ability in order to recognize.
What's Actually Happening
In the end, I’d argue that there is nothing humble whatsoever about this entire episode. This is because what Jesus is attempting to do is none other than make a claim to the throne of Israel, and he does it without saying a word.
Remember, Jesus set up this whole event. He knew he would be traveling westward from the Mount of Olives in the east, down through the Kidron Valley, and back up into Jerusalem. Instead of simply walking this relatively short distance, he instructed his disciples to go into the city, get the donkey, and bring it to him.
So essentially, Jesus is choreographing a ride, from the east, down through the Kidron Valley, and up into Jerusalem, on the back of a donkey. And while this may seem like something very "humble" to us, this was no such thing in ancient Israel. In fact, it was quite the opposite!
In 1 Kings 1:33, we have King David himself giving instructions to his court prophet Nathan regarding how to inaugurate his son, Solomon, as king after him.
"Take with you the servants of your lord, and have my son Solomon ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon."
Keep in mind that the Gihon Spring is in the Kidron Valley in between the Mount of Olives (to the east) and Jerusalem (to the west). First Kings 1:34–35 continues:
"There let the priest Zadok and the prophet Nathan anoint him king over Israel; then blow the trumpet, and say, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ You shall go up following him. Let him enter and sit on my throne; he shall be king in my place; for I have appointed him to be ruler over Israel and over Judah."
This is the coronation ceremony of King Solomon. And note that it takes place in the Kidron Valley, at the Gihon Spring, between the Jerusalem Temple and the Mount of Olives. Note also that the king rides on the back of David's own royal mule, and that the people rejoice and shout praises, as they all march up the hill from the east to the west into Jerusalem.
Does this sound familiar?
Far from being "humble," Jesus is orchestrating a re-enactment of the ancient Israelite coronation ceremony of the Kings of Israel. From atop the Mount of Olives to the east of Jerusalem, he instructs his disciples to go and get a mule. Remember, he told the disciples to go and get the mule. They were confused, but he said, "If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately'" (Mark 11:3), as if it were all arranged. They bring the mule to him, and he sits on it. They then proceed down into the Kidron Valley, past the Gihon Spring, and then back up into Jerusalem, while people are rejoicing and shouting praises to the king. How did the people even know to be there? John 12:12–13 says, "The great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, so they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him," again clearly because someone had told them in advance that Jesus was coming.
Jesus and his disciples arranged this entire episode in order to portray Jesus as the coming king.
And of course, everyone at the time—especially Jesus—was familiar with the royal custom of anointing Israel's kings in the Kidron Valley at the Gihon Spring on the royal mule as recorded in 1 Kings 1:33–35 and were fully aware of the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 celebrating the return of a bruised, but triumphant king to Jerusalem after battle riding on that same royal mule.
Many Jews of that time expected a king, a messiah, to return and deliver them from the Romans. And in this episode, recorded in all four gospels, Jesus reenacted the ancient Jewish equivalent of walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, waving to the crowds, and climbing up the capitol steps to take the oath of office. And he did so without saying a word.