Sunday, May 12, 2024

Of Foals and Fools

As I noted in yesterday’s Mining the Minors instalment, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each penned an account of the triumphal entry. As usual with gospel accounts of the same events, these are complementary, not contradictory, much as any honest eyewitness accounts invariably reflect the personality, preoccupations, purposes and intended audience of the storyteller.

Bart Ehrman, Bible scholar and self-acknowledged unbeliever, would desperately like the accounts to contradict even if they don’t.

As a result, he makes much of the differences between the four:

“According to Matthew, Jesus fulfilled the Scripture in an oddly literal way. As is commonly known, in ancient Hebrew poetry, poetic lines were coupled not by rhyming schemes, as with some English poetry, but by various kinds of conceptual parallelism. In a two-line sequence (a couplet) the first line might say something, and the next line might say the same thing in other words; or it might repeat part of the first line with an additional thought; or it might express the opposite side of the same coin. There were several ways such poetry could work. But it was poetry, not straightforward descriptive prose.

The line from Zechariah about one ‘seated on a donkey, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass’ was the first kind of parallelism I just mentioned, where the second part (a colt, the foal of an ass) is saying the same thing as the first part (a donkey), only in other words. Matthew apparently didn’t understand how the parallelism worked. He took it literally. For him, Scripture predicted that there was to be both a donkey and a colt. As a result, in his version, Jesus tells his disciples to secure two animals. They do so. And Jesus rides into town straddling them. It is, needless to say, a very peculiar memory of the event.”

Ehrman’s argument continues in a second post in which he expresses further doubts about the historicity of the gospel accounts of the triumphal entry, but we cannot pursue it further since Ehrman has tucked everything but the post’s controversial introduction behind a subscription paywall. (I’m not about to cough up $2.99 a month for lame critiques of scripture that others produce for free. Sadly, Ehrman is not sufficiently popular these days for the post to turn up on one of the archive sites, so that’s the end of that.)

However, we can figure out the argument’s substance because another blogger has attempted to rebut it here, and it’s worth looking at because The Huffington Post has regurgitated it here almost word for word. Great work, Bart!

Oddly Specific

Let’s start with what Ehrman gets right. He is a scholar after all, with thirty books to his credit, so he’s not an idiot even if he’s determined to find things in the text that aren’t there. Zechariah’s prophecy, which both Matthew and John quote, is oddly specific, and we ought to consider that. But the oddity is in Zechariah, not in Matthew.

Donkeys can interbreed with horses (and zebras, for that matter, but it’s a fairly rare event). The offspring of a donkey and a horse is called a mule. Mules are incapable of reproducing their own kind without help from other equines, though donkeys can do it just fine. For the technically minded, this is because donkeys have 31 pairs of chromosomes and horses have 32. Anything conceived by mating a horse and a donkey ends up with 63 total chromosomes, which cannot split into an equal number of pairs. Therefore, mules are not capable of reproducing with mules. They are the end of the line. (They can breed with horses or donkeys.)

In short, only two donkeys can produce a third donkey.

The Hebrew language can be ambiguous at times, but in the case of donkeys and mules, it’s about as precise as any language can possibly be. A female donkey (KJV: she-ass) is an 'āṯôn, and a male donkey (KJV: ass) is a ḥămôr. A colt (young male donkey) is ʿayir, and the word “foal” is bēn, meaning child. A mule, though technically the child of a donkey, has its own specific designation, which is pereḏ. In Hebrew, the word for mule comes from a root that literally means “separate” or “divided”. No kidding. The poor animal can’t reproduce its own kind. Absalom famously rode a mule when he had his bad hair day.

Putting that all together, an amplified English version of Zechariah 9:9 would read as follows:

“Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a male donkey, on a young male donkey, the offspring of a female donkey.”

A Very Particular Donkey

Now, one might reasonably ask why the prophecy is so very specific, but if a female donkey can produce either a donkey or a mule*, depending on the father, then it would be insufficient to specify only “the offspring of a female donkey”, which may include mules. This rather complicated formula excludes them, apparently deliberately. The Lord wanted a donkey’s donkey, not the genetic by-product of two different animals.

Why this might be the case is a matter for speculation because Zechariah doesn’t say, but it is very much consistent with the provisions of the Law of Moses that forbade mixing things of one type with another: “You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.” As with much of the law, these legal provisions conveyed important practical truths in symbolic form. The apostle Paul explains one of these in 2 Corinthians. But whatever the reason, the Lord wanted not just a donkey, but a very particular donkey.

So then, Zechariah’s prophecy is oddly specific, and it explains Matthew’s preoccupation with the way in which it was fulfilled. The level of detail he provides concerning how the Lord fulfilled Zechariah’s prophecy was both necessary and appropriate in writing to Jews, as Matthew unquestionably did. It was entirely irrelevant to Gentiles, to whom Mark, Luke and John wrote. There is no reason they would have mentioned a second animal, and every reason not to. Each had other matters on which he was focused.

Matthew’s Ignorance of Hebrew Parallelism

On to the matter of Hebrew parallelism. Ehrman is correct that ancient Hebrew poetry often states its case in the first line and amplifies or qualifies it in the second. This is not just a feature of poetry but other genres as well, including proverbs and prophecy. So I’m quite sure he’s correct when he says Zechariah’s prophecy should be read something like this:

“Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,

that is to say, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The last line explains and qualifies the third line. Zechariah is predicting the Lord would ride the colt, not its mother or father.

This is what makes Ehrman’s assertion that Matthew didn’t understand how Hebrew parallelism worked so far beyond absurd that it gave me the giggles when I first read it. The idea that Matthew — who was not only Hebrew but exceptionally intelligent, literate and well versed in the Old Testament — could possibly have failed to grasp how one of the most common devices in all of scripture operates is positively surreal. It’s like suggesting Michelangelo didn’t know anatomy or Steely Dan don’t know jazz chords. Nobody who believes in the inspiration of scripture would ever suggest it, not because it’s theologically unsound, but because it’s dumber than a bag of hammers. For anyone who has ever read the rest of Matthew’s gospel even once to make such a statement suggests not ignorance, but a well-schooled, very deliberate intent to deceive the ignorant.

There is another problem for Ehrman, if he had bothered to look. If it had turned out there were two different donkeys in Zechariah’s prophecy, they would have both been male. The Hebrew nouns are that specific. That would make the existence of a foal a mystery even Isaiah wouldn’t have attempted to solve. Not even the most unseasoned Hebrew could have missed that, and Matthew was not.

Matthew the Liar

Compounding the bizarreness of Ehrman’s position, he makes poor Matthew not just a drooling idiot but a liar to boot. According to Ehrman, Matthew tells the story wrong because he’s determined to make it match the prophecy for his readership even if it didn’t happen.

This ignores yet another glaring feature of the account, and that is this: that Matthew was one of the Lord’s original disciples. Unlike Luke and possibly Mark, he was physically present at the triumphal entry with working eyeballs. Not only that, he was writing roughly 25 years after the events, while many Jews who had been there were still alive, and his narrative is clearly targeted toward those very people. Only a foolish eyewitnesses lies to other eyewitnesses, and only the most foolish of all puts it in writing and distributes it.

How many eyewitnesses were there that day? Probably thousands. It was a week before Passover, and Jerusalem would have been full of not only its regular Jewish inhabitants, but thousands of visiting diaspora Jews and Jews from the local Judean countryside.

In short, there would be no worse event about which to start telling fibs. Other “gospels” were later rejected as non-canonic because of obvious fabrications. Matthew survived, and for good reason. None of the Church Fathers had any problem with Matthew’s story, nor have dozens of other modern commentators who don’t have Ehrman’s bizarre determination to pick at nits.

A Better Take

There are two much more likely possibilities than our Lord straddling two horses, and both are consistent with the text and the other gospels:

The Lord took turns riding both the mother and the colt. As written in Hebrew, Zechariah’s prophecy does not require the Lord to ride both mother and foal, but it’s possible he did so anyway, probably not by straddling them, which would indeed be odd, but by taking turns as he moved through the city. Why would he have done this? The city was full of Jews, not just the local Hebrews but also the aforementioned diaspora Jews who spoke only Greek. These would be familiar with the Septuagint reading of Zechariah, which reads as follows in English, and apparently fairly represents the underlying Greek: “He is meek and riding on an ass [in Greek a neuter noun, identifying the ass as neither male nor female], and a young foal.” That is definitely less clear than when translated directly from Hebrew to English. To some of those present, perhaps, the subtleties of Hebrew may not have been so obvious at one translational remove. Since the point of the exercise was to fulfill the prophecy, perhaps the Lord elected to cover his bases, even if riding both animals had not been Zechariah’s original prediction. In doing so, he would have fulfilled both the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament regardless of how the onlookers chose to interpret them.

The Lord rode the colt and the mother walked alongside. In fact, Matthew never says the Lord Jesus rode both animals. That is Ehrman’s supposition. He writes, “They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.” As Greek scholars have pointed out, there is nothing in the original language that tells us whether the “them” Matthew is referring to is the cloaks or the animals themselves. Having been instructed to bring both donkeys, it may have been that the disciples were unaware which the Lord would choose to ride and placed cloaks on both to give him the option, after which he mounted the colt and the mother walked along with them through the city. Of the 32 different versions of this verse on Bible Hub’s main page, the translation teams of 29 have Jesus sitting on the cloaks, while only three have him unambiguously atop one or more of the donkeys. If both donkeys walked through the city side by side, that would be entirely consistent with the other gospel accounts.

In Summary

Either of the above options would fulfill both translations of Zechariah, would be true as recorded in all four gospels, and neither option would make Matthew either an idiot or a liar, let alone both. At worst, he may be slightly ambiguous, and that’s a feature of the Greek language.

Those of us who require further clarification of the passage can look to the other Synoptics or to John, all of which have the Lord Jesus unambiguously riding the colt.

* In English, we would call the male offspring of a male donkey and a mare a “mule” and the female offspring of a stallion and a female donkey a “hinny”. The Hebrew makes no such distinction, so I’m using the English “mule” even though it’s not technically accurate.

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