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Whose “Ass” Is It, And How Many: By Jonathan Brackens

Exploring the Johannine and Matthean Redactional Intent As An Example Of Christian Aggrandizement & Impact on Faith

Last time we discussed how the NT, at times, perhaps, exaggerates the significance of certain events to either promote retention or build the case of Jesus’ awesomeness, and how the same can negatively impact our faith as we compare ourselves to the scripture. Well, we have another example. Matthew and John’s asses.

Jesus is awesome—by himself—and does not need us to provide spurious affirmations of fact. Unfortunately, some redactors did not get this memo and some translators did not assist. An affirmation of fact is a statement made by the seller to the buyer prior to purchase regarding a specific type of quality or condition of the good that is material. A material quality is one that is part in parcel of why the buyer seeks to purchase the good. One accepting Jesus as Lord may be the result of scriptural affirmations of his kingship and Messianic fulfillments; however, Matthew and John’s asses are an aggrandizement as a simple occurrence purported as an affirmation of fact that negatively impacts our personal faith.

The Gospels’ Asses:

Remember Mark was the first Gospel written and serves as a plumbline for other accounts. The Vaticanius shows that in Mark, Jesus needs a donkey (singular) temporarily and will send it back (Mark in Vaticanius states " αὐτὸν ἀποστέλλει πάλιν", which is written in the present tense). Jesus, having traveled from Jericho to Bethphage (21 miles), needed a donkey for a roundtrip travel from the mountains of Bethphage to Jerusalem (6 plus miles of mountainous terrain) before it got late (Mark 11:1, 11). This is a simple journey, no need for aggrandizement. "Matthew" changes the Greek “present tense” to “future tense,” adds that there are two donkeys (an adult and its colt), that the Lord needs both, and does not mention that Jesus will return the donkeys (Matthew 21:1-7). The future tense plays well with “prophecy.” Here, English translations like NIV and NRSV do what the Greek does not: they specify the donkey's gender as female (i.e., "her"); again, the Greek in Matthew only states that it is a donkey (ονον), not a female donkey, and Ancient Greek did not use masculine or feminine tenses to represent the actual gender of a thing. Luke 19:29-35 harmonizes with Mark in that it is a single donkey and that it is written in the present, not future tense. John provides a truncated rendition of the story and offers its significance as the fulfilment of Zechariah 9:9. There, John's Greek states that the king would ride on a—singular—donkey ("ονου").

In the Septuagint, Zechariah 9:9 states that the king would ride on an unspecified animal (ὑποζύγιον) and a young colt (καὶ πῶλον νέον). Whatever the adult animal is, that animal, per the Greek, is a "beast of burden" (i.e., ὑποζύγιον). It does not state that the animal is a donkey (ονον) which is the word used by John, Luke, Mark, and Matthew. Note, the Septuagint’s Greek states the king rides/mounts two animals (plural). This means that Mark, Luke, and John's "one" donkey does not qualify for Zechariah 9:9 in the Septuagint. However, Matthew—a master redactor—likely "fixes" this issue by stating that Jesus asks for two donkeys (an adult and its colt); however, the gender of the adult is still unknown in the Greek.

Compounding the affirmation, Christian translators insert what the Greek does not: the donkey’s gender, apparently, it’s female. Why? Because Zechariah 9:9 in the Hebrew Bible states:

Be exceedingly happy, O daughter of Zion; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem. Behold! Your king shall come to you. He is just and victorious; humble, and riding a donkey and a foal, the offspring of [one of] she-donkeys [אָתוֹן].

Rabbi A.J. Rosenberg’s translation states that two animals will be mounted (i.e., “and”), while the Stone Version and THE JPS TANAKH: Gender-Sensitive Edition translate it as a single donkey. However, the Hebrew suggests that the dependent clause after “foal” is superfluous because, though the “foal” is male (עַיִר), all donkeys are born of she-donkeys, so the point of the dependent clause is unknown. Nevertheless, neither the Hebrew or Greek state—as far as I can tell—that the mother was the adult donkey in Rosenberg’s translation or the Septuagint. However, this conflict in Hebrew translations points to Christian translators’ confusion and desire to come to Matthew and John’s aid. Thus, to make Jesus' need to ride a donkey for his round trip from the mountains of Bethphage to Jerusalem "fit" the "King" and Messiah (See Rashi) narrative of Zechariah 9:9, English Translators likely "finished the job" by making the adult in Matthew female. Only the Tanakh states the gender of the colt’s birthing parent (i.e., she), the Tanakh seems to be where translators pulled this from, because it was not the Greek.

John, Matthew, and Christian translators likely have an agenda: to provide further affirmations of fact that Jesus is King and Messiah. John's estimation is not that Jesus’ need for a donkey is a function of fatigue from traveling from Jericho nor that he needed to pick-up the pace to make it from Jerusalem to Bethany before nightfall (Mark 11:11); rather, that the mere riding of a donkey into Jerusalem means Zechariah’s fulfilment. And Christian translators likely sought to legitimize John’s affirmation by gendering Matthew’s adult donkey to fit the Hebrew’s “she-donkey” reference.

The Harm:

When simple travel is aggrandized, it negatively impacts believers’ self-assessment and exercising of faith (i.e., trust), makes some believers think that even traveling must be influenced by the supernatural, and it misrepresents facts that induce conversion. If Jesus is not appealing without aggrandizement we have a larger problem, and if we cannot be honest about the text, we have a problem. Faith grows in everyday, regular life; it does not require making things into what they are not.

Wrapping Up:

  1. The earliest Markean account states that Jesus only needed one donkey, and that he would return it after his journey.

  2. The Greek text does not specify the gender of the donkey; however, translators likely inserted the detail that it was a female donkey to make the story fit with the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9.

  3. This aggrandizement of the story has a negative impact on believers' faith, as it makes them think that they need to believe or experience supernatural events in everyday life as evidence of salvation and relationship with God. Also, it encourages people to make the insignificant, significant.

  4. Faith is trust that grows in everyday life and does not require making things into what they are not.

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