When Jesus of Nazareth entered Jerusalem in triumph, he rode — but accounts differ as to what he was riding on, and how he got it. Take Matthew: in the First Gospel, Jesus sends his disciples for a colt and a donkey, in order to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah, “Look, your king is coming to you […] mounted on a donkey, and on a colt.” (Matthew 21.5, all verses cited from the NRSV). Yet it seems Matthew inserted that “and” — Zechariah 9.9 is actually talking about one animal, but repeating for dramatic effect. So Matthew describes Jesus summoning two animals to fulfill a prophecy that doesn’t say what he thought it said.
The insertion of the donkey is all the more clear when we consult Mark 11.1-7. Here Jesus sends for just a colt. He also takes some pains in his instructions, telling the disciples what to say if anyone tries to stop them, and promising to send the animal back immediately — a nice thought, since otherwise some random inhabitant of Jerusalem would have lost a valuable animal. Jesus’ foresight pays off, as one would assume it did regularly, for sure enough someone asks the disciples about their errand, and the words of the master set everything straight.
Luke backs up Mark’s story, by and large, with just one animal; he also includes the disciples being questioned about their task. He fails to note the promise to return the animal — an odd omission, considering Luke is in many a way the most compassionate gospel.
The Gospel of John, hurrying ahead to more important things, gives the incident almost no mention: “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it” (John 12.14). Like Matthew, it’s a donkey, and it’s a fulfillment of Zechariah, although John’s reading of the prophet is more accurate.
As differences between the gospels go, this is absolutely trivial. No points of theology or doctrine hang on whether or not Jesus promised to return his mount. But other differences between the Gospels are not so light-weight. And even this miniscule difference in text does lead us to wonder, “Who was right?”
I am a historian by trade and training, so my first instincts are to treat this as a historical puzzle.
All such conundrums about the past boil down to to sources: primary sources, which are the eyewitness or contemporary accounts, and secondary sources, which are later analyses. What we have here are four primary sources, the gospels. (Some point out that the Bible is one source; but the gospels predate the Bible as currently compiled by centuries. St. Athanasius finally listed out the twenty-seven books of the New Testament in AD 367. And even the root word, biblia, is a plural.) For secondary sources, we have the enormous literature and criticism that has been built up around the gospels, from the church fathers like Origen to whatever was published last week. These secondary sources hinge on the primaries, however; all they can really do is talk about the gospels and give differing opinions based on them. Secondary sources do inform me, though, that Mark is the earliest of the four, probably written between AD 60 and 70, with Matthew and Luke later in that century, and John around AD 80 or 90. Not quite eyewitnesses, the historically scrupulous will point out, but of the era, which is more than all later scholarship can say.
The secondary sources also point out that Matthew and Luke clearly borrowed from Mark. While Luke is non-specific, he says right up front that he read up on all he could find before writing out his gospel, and alludes to others making the same effort (Luke 1.1-3). So while Matthew and Luke seem to have had information that Mark didn’t, or didn’t include, we really only have two sources for the colt story: Mark and John. John seems to claim a link to “the beloved disciple,” perhaps indicating it was written at the behest and under the guidance of someone who walked with Jesus. Mark makes no such claim — but historians generally give more credence to earlier sources rather than later. The principle is simple: the longer it’s been since the events, the more likely it is that memory has faded, failed, or simply been faked.
Those who discuss the copying errors in handing down the gospels might add, however, that the older a book is, the more time it’s had for people to make changes in it, historical or not; but after two thousand years, a few decades here or there probably makes little difference. We have no “original” copies of Mark or John, so everything we read must rest on the hopes that the scribes got it mostly right, at least on the aggregate. Studies of the even-older Hebrew scriptures show that such accuracy is entirely possible.
Even when dealing with more recent and more thoroughly-documented events, however, there often comes a time when historians finally have to admit they don’t know the whole truth of a matter, and, aside from those most scrupulously bound to their sources, have to make a guess. Often they go on what feels most probable to them. Here we have a little help, in the story of Jesus and the colt he rode in on; reassuring the owners that the animal will be returned feels like something Jesus would do. He’d think ahead, and he’d know the owner would need the colt back. And so with a little historical technique and a little gut instinct, I suggest that of the four variants, Mark’s is the closest to the truth.
Again, this is a dramatically minor point of contention. Nothing is riding on what Jesus rode, and my assertion of Mark’s superiority on this is essentially meaningless. The story reveals, however, that the gospels do give different versions of the story, and that does matter. In fact, with Matthew’s blunder in reading Zechariah, it reminds us that the Bible can, in fact, contain errors.
There are those in the world for whom that statement alone is sacrilege and heresy. Yet I must stand by it; the Bible contains mistakes, a few great stumbles and many small ones. The simple act of copying by hand so many words for so many years practically guarantees it — in hand-writing my first outline for this essay, I spelled “inerrancy” with three Rs. Consider: Genesis begins with two rather different accounts of creation. There are three different versions of the last words of Christ; he may have spoken all the words given, but they cannot all have been said last. And, in the case of the colt, it’s the work of a moment to flip back to Zechariah 9.9 (in many editions it will only be a few pages, with only Malachi intervening!) to see that Matthew simply counted wrong. There are mistakes, blunders, additions, and deliberate alterations.
Personally I find this does not diminish the Bible’s power. An early printed edition of the King James Version accidentally left the word “not” out of the seventh commandment, giving us “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Yet the “Wicked Bible,” as this deeply unfortunate edition came to be known, still held the Sermon on the Mount, still contained the Greatest Commandment, still taught “For God so loved the world…” One error did not break the rest. No, the Wicked Bible and all the other changes and mistakes over the centuries teach us two things: one, the Bible should be read with care, and two, the Bible should be read.
Indeed, a multitude of versions actually has some weight with historians, who recall that eyewitnesses to the same event can give wildly differing accounts of what happened, but will still tell you that something occurred. If we had only one gospel we could call it an invention. Having four, including two written independently, plus all the letters of Paul, we know that something of vast significance occurred in Palestine in the reign of Tiberias. We should try and figure out the truth, of course. Like pieces of a mosaic, having multiple gospels helps here as well. Mark, in is simplicity and as the earliest, seems like historical bedrock. We can look to Mark and see the outlines of a story: a man who lived and taught, and was crucified, and rose again — even if Mark sometimes says little more! As a historian this appeals to me. As a teacher, however, I find that Matthew and Luke resonate deeply with me, Matthew with the Sermon on the Mount and all the other lessons, Luke with his parables and his care for the downtrodden. Finally, as I am a man who tries to live his life by love, there is John. I struggled with the Fourth Gospel at times — standing apart, clearly written in an altogether different way, and sometimes with manifestly added passages. Once I even found myself thinking, “This is redundant.” The next lines I read were these: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.12-13). I have taken that as a lesson that nothing is wholly redundant when it comes to the Good News.
From a historian’s standpoint, Mark is the most “accurate.” But the four gospels remind me of teaching the same lesson of US History to four separate classes in my public school days. Each class, being different, required a different emphasis, and each class got the benefit of my experience teaching the ones before.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem. You have four versions to choose from if you must select just one; but you can also draw on all four and learn much. After all, the important part is not what Jesus rode or how he got it, but the part all four versions agree on perfectly: that he rode in triumphant.