Sunday, April 09, 2006

Textual Observations on Palm Sunday

Today, as many of you know, is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week. This morning the text for both my Sunday School class and our pastor's sermon came from Mark 11:1-11, in which Jesus finally enters Jerusalem, riding a colt. The text is an interesting one not just because of the story contained in it, but because it is one of the few stories which can be found in all four canonical Gospels. In addition to the version found in Mark's Gospel, you can also find it in Matthew 21:1-9, Luke 19:29-38, and John 12:12-15.

The story is often held as an example of how the Gospel writers told stories to try to connect the life and ministry of Jesus to sections of the Hebrew Bible. In this case, as Matthew and John disclose, the verse to which the story connects is Zechariah 9:9, which in the NRSV reads:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The textual problem, for those who see the Bible as being literally penned by God, without any sort of contradiction, is a simple one: What sort of animal did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on? The passage from Zechariah contains a single animal, but the way that animal is described leads to some confusion as the Gospel writers connect that passage to Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

In the Hebrew poetry, the donkey is the colt. So you have a single animal, which is a donkey, also describes as a colt, the foal of a donkey. Mark sides with the description of the animal as a colt, saying, in chapter 11 verse 7:

Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it; and he sat on it.

Luke also sides with the colt. But John, who unlike Mark and Luke quotes the verse from Zechariah, describes the animal in question as a donkey, saying, in chapter 12 verse 14-15:

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
"Do not be afraid, daughter of
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey's colt."

Matthew (who also quotes the passage from Zechariah), however, failed to appreciate what one commentary calls "the parallelism of the Hebrew poetry" in which "donkey is equivalent to colt." As such, he has Jesus riding on both a colt and a donkey! Consider his version of the story, through the 7th verse of the 21st chapter:

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent the 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." [some manuscripts read: 'The Lord needs them and will send them back immediately.'] This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

"Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your kind 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.

So, what kind of animal did Jesus ride, some critics ask: Was it a colt, a donkey, or both? And, of course, this is a good question, particularly if you are clinging to a notion of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, literally penned by an omniscient God. But phrasing the question like that, with three options, is repeating Matthew's mistake. This is because the verse from Zechariah, to which each of the Gospel stories points, uses colt and donkey interchangeably, to refer to the same animal.

But that doesn't solve the problem of reading the Bible literally, as though it were a systematic work which never disagrees with itself. After all, even if colt and donkey are the same thing, bringing three of the four Gospels into agreement on this point, Matthew with his two animals instead of one still sticks out. There is simply no way to twist his version to make it conform to the other three, as best as I can tell.

But does this pose a problem for those of us who read the Bible as a book which, while neither systematic or always literally true, still in a very real and powerful way reveals the nature of God to us? If we read the Bible first for meaning rather than truth value, it does not.

How then do we read these apparently conflicting Gospel stories for meaning? By looking at the verse from Zechariah to which they all point. In doing so we will see how early Christians understood Jesus, and Jesus' role in revealing the nature of God. Then we can bracket off the question of whether or not the stories are inerrantly true, or whether they just reflect Christian memories of Jesus interpreted through the lens of the Hebrew Bible.

The ninth chapter of Zechariah, which contains the verse to which each of these Gospel stories point, tells the story of the Divine Warrior, who is to restore Diasporic Israel. Verses 1-8, which set up the verse in question, have the Divine Warrior triumphally moving toward Jerusalem, in anticipation of the "day of the Lord."

Jesus in each of the Gospel accounts also moves triumphally toward Jerusalem, anticipating the climax of his ministry, which we remember during this Holy Week. Each of the Gospel stories in question today, with their reference to Zechariah 9:9, have Jesus finally entering Jerusalem, the Holy City at the center of the religion of ancient Israel. Jerusalem was the most significant city, the home of the Temple, the only place where sacrifices could be offered. Jesus, in his mission to invert the values of the Judaism of his day, had to at some point "conquer" Israel.

So, with images from the Divine Warrior, the Gospel writers bring a triumphant Jesus into a captive Jerusalem, where he is greeted as a hero and a liberator, a Messianic figure who will, like Zechariah's Divine Warrior, restore Israel.

This brings us to the verse in question, Zechariah 9:9. In it the Divine Warrior enters Jerusalem as a king, set to rescue the oppressed Daughter of Zion. But the imagery of the verse doesn't quite fit what would be expected for such a warrior. This triumphant king arrives "humble and riding on a donkey." This, according to one commentary, indicates "his peaceful intentions."

Of course, the story of the Divine Warrior does not end in peace, whatever his intentions in verse 9. After all, after the Lord sounds the trumpet in verse 14, we read this in verse 15:

The Lord of hosts will protect
and they shall devour and tread
down the slingers;
they shall drink their blood like wine,
and be full like a bowl,
drenched like the corners of
the altar.

The Lord's allies, then, not only triumph over their enemies, been even sacrifice them! They "drink their blood like wine," and become "drenched like the corners of the altar." The altar was the place where animals were sacrificed. It was drenched with blood!

The Gospel writers still use some of this imagery in parallel to their story of Jesus. Jesus, like the Divine Warrior, enters Jerusalem with peaceful intentions, and is received like a hero and a liberator. And the story of Jesus also ends in violence and (per the Priestly macro story) human sacrifice. But it is Jesus, not the supposed enemies of God, who is the victim rather than perpetrator of the violence. And it is Jesus, not his vanquished enemies, who becomes the human sacrifice.

And, in the Eucharist, it is Jesus whose blood (at least metaphorically) is drunk like wine.

Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week, a week which begins and ends in triumph, but has tragedy throughout.

This morning our pastor gave each person at worship a cross made from a palm branch as a visual reminder that the journey which starts with a road full of palms eventually leads to the cross.


Troy said...


this is very, very good. I feel like I've read a good sermon. And at the risk of seeming like blog stalker I'll post to your blog again (spring break; more time on my hands than usual).

I had to toss inerrancy long ago; the bible is such a human book. Though I'm not sure what to replace innerrancy with. In fact, outside the gospel record and the most elevated passages in the epistles, I'm still looking for the God-bearing message in the texts (I may find it yet).

I've read your post again and remain very impressed. I'm sure you had good reasons to leave vocational ministry, but you write clearly on complex passages and with theological vision here.


Sandalstraps said...


Thanks. You don't have to replace inerrancy with anything. But you ought to look at each passage you read in as much context as you can bring to it. In seminary they teach you to see the historical, cultural, textual, and linguistic contexts of a passage.

That is, you set the passage in its place in history, and see the historical concerns surrounding that passage, which the passage. You try to see it through the eyes of the culture which created it, asking what concerns that culture would bring to it, and how it might address those concerns. You look at the passage in the language in which it was written (I'm no good at that - I didn't get that far. I rely on what "language people" tell me about the linguistic context); which is not a realistic expectation for the laity. And you place the passage in question in the context of the passages which surround it. What is the main concern of this book, and how does this passage speak to that concern? What is the main concern of this section of this book, and how does this passage speak to that concern? In other words, how does this passage fit in with the project of the surrounding text?

Since then I've been reading about reading scripture in community, which is very different from this more academic approach. You can see my wrestling with that notion here and here.

Tom said...

I wish I was in your church on Sunday instead of mine. Details later in private.

Anonymous said...

Great article! I'm reading Borg's "Jesus" as part of my "agnostic/seeker" Bible study; and was doing a little online research. Your article is great; I see no answer to this from "innerant" minded protestants.

I've run into doublets while learning about higher criticism; this seems to be a possible example of that sort of thing. And translations are always troublesome, "young maiden" or "virg-n"?

As a programmer I understand this. Many times when you add functionality to a program you have to leave the existing program alone for backwards compatibility, so instead we wrap it in the new functionality instead of modifying it.

It's the same, reverence of "source code", and I'm sure operates for similar reason.