When Jesus entered Jerusalem during the Triumphal Entry, how many animals did he ride? It seems like there should be an obvious answer: he rode one animal, a donkey or a colt. And that in fact is what is said in three of the Gospels, including Mark 11:7. In Matthew’s Gospel, however, this triumphal act is said to fulfill prophecy; as we have seen, Matthew sets great store on the fulfillment of Scripture, and in 21:5 he states, quoting Zechariah 9:9:
Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey
…In Matthew, Jesus’ disciples procure two animals for him, a donkey and a colt; they spread their garment over the two of them, and Jesus rode into town straddling them both (Matthew 21:7). It’s an odd image, but Matthew made Jesus fulfill the prophecy of Scripture quite literally. (Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted, page 50)
We find ourselves visiting yet another passage of Bart Ehrman’s, pertaining to the donkey(s) Jesus rode into Jerusalem in His Triumphal Entry. Mark, Luke, and John all say something different from Matthew, and Ehrman never fails to remind us that this is a “contradiction” — despite the fact that, again, Ehrman is assuming that the accounts are meant to be separate, isolated accounts that have next to nothing in common — or rather, accounts that aren’t meant to give a true picture of what Jesus did.
Without further ado, let’s get into the so-called contradiction of the two donkeys.
The Tale of Two Donkeys: The Four Gospels and Old Testament prophecy
One thing to consider about Ehrman’s quote above is that Mark, Luke, and John all say that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on one donkey. Matthew’s is the one that differs (his Gospel says that Jesus rode in on two donkeys, an adult and a baby donkey).
Let’s get into the passages of Scripture now.
Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me. 3 And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.”
4 All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying:
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your King is coming to you,
Lowly, and sitting on a donkey,
A colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
6 So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them. (Matthew 21:1-7)
Now when they drew near Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples; 2 and He said to them, “Go into the village opposite you; and as soon as you have entered it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has sat. Loose it and bring it. 3 And if anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it,’ and immediately he will send it here.”
4 So they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it. 5 But some of those who stood there said to them, “What are you doing, loosing the colt?”
6 And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded. So they let them go. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it. (Mark 11:1-7)
28 When He had said this, He went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 And it came to pass, when He drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mountain called Olivet, that He sent two of His disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village opposite you, where as you enter you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Loose it and bring it here.31 And if anyone asks you, ‘Why are you loosing it?’ thus you shall say to him, ‘Because the Lord has need of it.’”
32 So those who were sent went their way and found it just as He had said to them. 33 But as they were loosing the colt, the owners of it said to them, “Why are you loosing the colt?”
34 And they said, “The Lord has need of him.” 35 Then they brought him to Jesus. And they threw their own clothes on the colt, and they set Jesus on him. (Luke 19:28-35)
12 The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 13 took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out:
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’
The King of Israel!”
14 Then Jesus, when He had found a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written:
15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion;
Behold, your King is coming,
Sitting on a donkey’s colt.” (John 12:12-15)
Matthew says that a donkey (adult) and a foal (baby donkey) were the animals (“s” for plural) that Jesus sat upon, while Mark, Luke, and John all affirm that one donkey was used for the Triumphal Entry. The best way to reconcile these accounts with Matthew’s two donkeys is that the other three writers could have seen only one donkey, while Matthew saw two.
Matthew had a more vested interest in the number of donkeys than the other writers because he was there at the Triumphal Entry (unlike Mark and Luke who weren’t present) and Jesus riding in on two donkeys fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah in Zechariah 9:9 according to the Old Testament.
Matthew would have likely noticed the animals because his Gospel writing is characterized by how Christ fulfilled Old Testament Scriptures. Matthew and John are the only two Gospel writers that mention the donkeys as Old Testament fulfillment, but this isn’t surprising because they were eyewitnesses.
There are other details that add to our understanding of the number of donkeys. What we’ve been saying up until now, however, is that the Gospel writers often show their “eyes” for detail, adding things in one testimony that are absent or completely missing from others. For example, Luke gives details of the day of Jesus’ birth, though Matthew, Mark, and John bypass it altogether. Matthew only mentions Jesus as a toddler, and that is all from the Gospel writers that we get regarding Jesus’ childhood (until He’s 12, that is).
The same can be said for the passages above regarding the number of donkeys. When it comes to geography, the Gospel writers don’t match the details word for word; some writers are more generic about geography while others are more specific. For example, Matthew says in Matthew 21 that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem “and came to Bethphage” (v.1); Mark says that the disciples were on the way to Jerusalem (matching Matthew) but were also getting closer to “Bethphage and Bethany.”
Luke says the same as Mark, that Jesus and the disciples were drawing near to Bethphage and Bethany, and John says that Jesus and the disciples were getting closer to Jerusalem. Mark and Luke provide more detail regarding the location of Jesus and the disciples as opposed to Matthew and John, but Matthew and John provide the Old Testament fulfillment of Jesus on the donkeys — and Matthew tells us that it was two donkeys instead of one. These details show us that the Gospel writers focused on various particulars regarding the details of the events in the life of Jesus.
There are other particulars, but Ehrman (and those who agree with him) can only claim “contradiction” if some writers said “there was only one donkey Jesus rode on” and then Matthew claimed “Jesus rode in Jerusalem on two donkeys.” Instead, we see that Mark, Luke, and John mention one donkey, but Matthew provides even more detail (2 donkeys). I’ve looked over Zechariah 9:9 and, while Ehrman says that it is Hebrew parallelism at play, I believe that there’d be no need to mention “the foal of a donkey” if the word “donkey” was good enough. Thus, like Matthew, I agree that Jesus entered Jerusalem on two donkeys and not one.
Ehrman wants you to think “contradiction” when you think of the Bible, and when any details differ (whether one or two donkeys), he wants you to believe that these eyewitness accounts can’t be reconciled. Of course he does: that’s to get you to believe that Scripture contains errors. If you assume Scripture can’t uphold Scripture, then you’re going against an interpretive rule that has dominated the church throughout the centuries.
And yet, Ehrman’s not a believer anymore. It’s not hard to throw off God when you’ve already removed the Bible from its exalted place in your heart and mind. Think about it: Ehrman wants the Gospel writers to fight and clash with each other, but Jesus never taught the disciples that. He taught them to be on one accord and love one another, and that through their love (their unity, might I say?) that the world would know they belonged to Him.
It is only the work of unbelievers to divide the Gospel writers, but believers can unite them and reconcile their Gospel accounts. Thus, we agree here with all three Gospel writers and disagree with Ehrman regarding the two donkeys in the Triumphal Procession.