Jesus: One Donkey or Two?
Matthew 21:7 And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon.

Matthew's variation from the other Gospels on this point raises two questions -- was there one donkey or two, and did Jesus ride one or two?

Strictly speaking, one could point out for the first question that there is no technical, logical contradiction, since the other Gospels do not say there was only the colt there -- they merely don't bother mentioning the mother. Yet her presence is likely in this context, even if it is not mentioned. Keener [Matthew commentary, 491] notes that an unbroken colt "might require the mother's presence to keep it calm amid shouting crowds" -- we know well enough from American rodeos what chaos an unbroken animal might cause.

Then comes the question, Is Jesus riding on both donkeys?

The question may be varied to say, was Jesus riding them in alteration, or (if the Skeptic has a sense of humor) on both at once -- maybe one on top of the other?

Not really -- this is just an amusing grammatical ambiguity; the "them" on which Jesus sat could refer back to the clothes, not the animals.

A final consideration: Some suppose that Matthew includes momma because he is wrenching out a bad meaning from Zech. 9:9: "...riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass."

This is unlikely. The Hebrew of Zech. 9:9 renders the "ass" in the male gender -- and Matthew's knowledge of the Hebrew text elsewhere shows that he knew this was the case [ibid.]. For more on harmonizing, see here.

Objection: If Jesus actually was only going to ride one animal and the second creature was simply a 'mother's presence' to calm the ridden beast, why would the disciples put cloaks on both animals?

As Albright and Mann note [252], the whole purpose of the cloaks was to show honor to the rider. To use a modern comparison. If the President rides to town in his limousine, and another vehicle follows him (for whatever reason), will what follows him be a beat-up jalopy? Will it even be a limouseine that looks bad compared to his own?

Of course not. By the same token the appearance of honor could only be maintained if BOTH animals were similarly "accountremented".

Even conceding that Matthew shows "knowledge of the Hebrew text elsewhere," this is not proof that an error wasn't made in Matthew 21. A historian may demonstrate great knowledge of world history, but this would not preclude that person's making a historical error.

World history is an enormous field with ranges of subjects over immense geographical and chronological ranges; knowledge of the Hebrew OT, in contrast, is a minor thing, especially for one like Matthew who shows clear knowledge of a variety of OT texts and rabbinical exegetical techniques.

To make this objection work, the arguer needs to find some evaluations of Matthew's knowledge of the Hebrew text and as a whole and not merely pursue generalities. Otherwise it is like saying, "Well, we know that's true for Matt as a whole, but maybe, for the convenience of this thesis, this time it's an exception."

Indeed, one commentator, Prabhu, puts it this way:

"...That Matthew (the presumed author of the formula quotations) should have misunderstood the Hebrew and given us an over-literal translation, is per se possible, specially since his translation, unlike that of the LXX does in fact correspond word for word with the Hebrew. But it is very unlikely, given that Matthew (or, for that matter, whoever is responsible for the formula quotations) shows an excellent command of Hebrew in the other quotations he presents. The hypothesis of a mistranslation, in fact, is tenable only if we are prepared to admit that Mt 21,4f has an origin different from that of the other formula quotations of the Gospel – a drastic way out, with little to recommend it."

"It is better, then, to suppose that Mt's version of the quotation is a deliberate, ad hoc, targumizing translation, in which Mt has intentionally and according to approved rabbinic techniques interpreted the w'al of the Hebrew as copulative, in order to read two animals into Zechariah's text. This is not without parallel in the NT itself. The fulfilment quotation of Din 19,24 refers...Ps 22,19, which in the Psalm are two parallel ways of saying the same thing, to two distinct actions: the partitioning of the garments (himatia) of Jesus, and the casting of lots upon his tunic (chiton). Read in this disjunctive way, the Psalm becomes an astonishingly literal prediction of the events at the Cross! As to why Matthew should have deliberately broken up the parallelism of Zech 9,9 in an even more flagrant way, it is not too difficult to guess. Michel suggest that he is thinking of a triumphal ride on an oriental throne-seat carried on two animals. Lindars, that Matthew has deduced the existence of the mother ass from Mk's reference to the "unriddenness" of the colt. But both suggestions are surely a little far-fetched, with no support whatever in the text. It is more likely, then, that Matthew has read the two animals into Zechariah's text, because his particular tradition of the event figured two animals instead of one. That this tradition may have rested on some genuine historical reminiscence is possible, but an attempt like that of Gaechter to show, through an elaborate excursion into animal psychology (!), that the mother ass must have been present if the unbroken colt (though, note that Matthew does not present it as such) was to have been ridden at all, is surely an example of fundamentalist exegesis verging on the grotesque."

I agree with all of this with one exception: Grotesque to whom, we'd like to know? Prahbu likely knows or knew little about "animal psychology"; but in any event, allows for a genuine historical reminiscence, and I can also accept a deliberate reworking like this in my paradigm.

The commentator Buchana says that if the colt is so small it still needed its mother, it would not be a donkey that would be ridden at all.

How big and heavy does Buchanan think people were at this time? The average height was no more than a little over 5 feet; on a diet that would make us cringe at the thought of starvation, weights were probably similarly low. Until someone load-tests a donkey over time and shows that this is any more than a wild guess, it cannot be given consideration.

-JPH