Matthew’s interpretation of Zechariah 9:9 has come up a lot in my academic career. When I was writing my senior thesis at DePauw University, I wanted to show that Matthew was Jewish, since my thesis was that he used Jewish methods of exegesis in his interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. That’s how I planned to explain his disregard of many passages’ contexts: Most Jews ignored context, so Matthew did it too.
Most commentators agreed in labeling Matthew “the Jewish Gospel.” But I encountered one who did not: John P. Meier contended that Matthew could not have been Jewish, for he did not understand basic Hebrew parallelism.
Hebrew parallelism is the poetic repetition of a single idea. Let’s take the passage that Matthew supposedly misunderstood: Zechariah 9:9. The verse says the following:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (NRSV).
The passage says twice that the king is riding on a donkey. Matthew, however, seems to assume that the king will ride on two animals: a donkey and a colt, for he presents Jesus doing precisely that (Matthew 21:2-7). According to Meier, Matthew was unaware of the Jewish practice of saying the same thing twice, for he took Zechariah 9:9 much too literally. The passage does not say that the king will ride on two animals, but it states twice that he will ride on a single donkey. Consequently, in Meier’s reasoning, Matthew was obviously not Jewish.
Well, I searched up and down for an explanation, and I found some interesting thoughts. One that sticks out in my mind is something Dale Allison said in The New Moses. Allison points out that Matthew sometimes duplicates things. Mark has one blind man crying out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:46), but Matthew presents two (Matthew 20:30). And so that’s what Allison thinks is happening in Matthew’s telling of the donkey scene: Matthew doesn’t misunderstand Zechariah 9:9; he’s just doing his usual practice of duplicating. That means he can still be Jewish.
Well, I tried to use that in my paper, and my professor laughed it off. “Matthew misunderstands Zechariah 9:9,” he said. “That’s a big impediment to him being Jewish!”
When I went to Harvard Divinity School, I took a class with Harvey Cox on “Contemporary Interpretations of Jesus.” Dr. Cox talked about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, and he asked us to evaluate three possibilities concerning its relationship to Zechariah 9:9: (1.) Zechariah 9:9 predicts that the Messiah will ride on a donkey, and Jesus fulfilled that as the Messiah; (2.) The Gospel authors made up Jesus riding on a donkey, for they were writing a story based on the Hebrew Bible; and (3.) Jesus rode on a donkey in a conscious attempt to fulfill Zechariah 9:9.
I defended Option 1 to play my role as the provocative conservative, and some people looked at me as if I didn’t know what I was talking about. But one student made a defense of Option 2 that was rather interesting. She pointed out that Mark has one donkey, while Matthew presents two. In her mind, Matthew was not presenting what really happened but was fashioning the story according to his own ideology. That screamed to her that the whole story was made up in an attempt to bolster a point of view.
When I went to Jewish Theological Seminary, a professor said that traditional Jewish exegesis didn’t pay much attention to parallelism in the first place. That told me that Matthew could have been Jewish while disregarding (or not being aware of) Zechariah 9:9’s parallelism.
At Hebrew Union College, the issue got fleshed out some more. A Jewish professor of New Testament who denies Matthew’s Jewishness, for example, argues that Matthew not only misunderstands Hebrew parallelism. More than that. In his view, Matthew doesn’t really have a deep knowledge of Hebrew, for the Hebrew word translated as “and” can also mean “even.” For the professor, Matthew should have known that the Hebrew can mean, “He rides on a donkey, even on a colt.”
In my rabbinic classes, I learned specifically how the rabbis disregarded parallelism. In rabbinic exegesis, God is the author of Scripture, and he says everything he says for a reason. God is not redundant. He does not need to repeat himself. He only makes a point once. Consequently, if there’s an idea that appears to be repeated throughout Scripture, then we must be missing something, for each passage is communicating its own unique idea. And that’s how many of the rabbis approached parallelism. They didn’t believe that God was repeating himself, but that what seems to us to be a repetition was actually stating something different and unique.
And I’ve encountered the issue of the two donkeys in my own reading. Biblioblogger and scholar John Hobbins proposes that Matthew may be conflating Zechariah 9:9 with Genesis 49:11, which says that Judah brings his donkey’s colt to a choice vine. The rabbis often tied verses to one another, so Matthew may have followed customary Jewish practice when he claimed that Jesus rode not only on a donkey, but on a donkey’s colt as well.
In Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 4, Michael Brown raises some other important points: (1.) When Matthew says that Jesus rode on them (Matthew 21:7), he doesn’t mean the two animals (as if Jesus is a rodeo rider), but the garments he placed on the donkey; (2.) Matthew appears to understand Hebrew quite well, as when he cites Isaiah 53:4a in Matthew 8:17 (a citation that differs from the Septuagint and resembles the Masoretic Text); and (3.) the rabbis sometimes approached the Hebrew Bible in a hyper-literal fashion, as Matthew does in his treatment of Zechariah 9:9 (18-19).
What is my assessment of all this?
First of all, I don’t think that the Gospel writers made up Jesus riding on a donkey. In my opinion, Mark didn’t read Zechariah 9:9 and say, “Hey! The Messiah will ride on a donkey! That must mean that Jesus rode on one. So I’ll write a story in which he does that.” Mark doesn’t seem to have Zechariah 9:9 in mind, for he does not refer to it. He may simply be recording what happened. And something can be historical while coinciding with Scripture, for Jesus may have consciously acted according to what he read in the Bible about the coming king.
Secondly, I do believe that Matthew is trying to conform Jesus riding on a donkey more to Zechariah 9:9. Throughout Matthew, the author attempts to tie Jesus’ life to Scripture in an explicit manner, for he cites the Hebrew Bible on numerous occasions. So I can envision him saying, “I’ve heard this story that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. But Zechariah 9:9 says that he’ll ride on two animals: a donkey and a colt. So it must have happened that way! Perhaps Mark missed something.” Jesus riding on a donkey wasn’t made up, but Matthew tried to make it coincide with a literal interpretation of Scripture. And he wasn’t acting non-Jewish in doing so, for Jewish exegesis often disregarded biblical parallelism.
And I do think that Zechariah 9:9 plays a key role in what Matthew is doing. I don’t believe that he’s just following his usual practice of duplication, or that he’s conflating Zechariah 9:9 with Genesis 49:11. Matthew’s citation of Zechariah 9:9 says that the king enters on an onon and a polon (Matthew 21:5), which are Greek words for “donkey” and “colt,” respectively. And Matthew 21:7 depicts Jesus riding on an onon and a polon. Matthew’s understanding of Zechariah 9:9 obviously shapes how he tells the story.
Third, does Matthew understand Hebrew? I’m not sure if I’d rely on his citation of Isaiah 53:4a to answer this, for Matthew could have used a Greek translation that was faithful and literal with respect to the MT. But I wouldn’t rule out him knowing it just because he doesn’t see the Hebrew word ve as “even.” Matthew’s citation of Zechariah 9:9 uses the Greek word kai, which can mean “and” or “even.” So does Matthew not know Greek, since he reads kai as “and” rather than “even”? But Matthew writes in Greek, so he must know it!
We shouldn’t dismiss Matthew’s Jewishness just because he defies our expectations of how a Jew would read Zechariah 9:9. I read English, but I don’t know every meaning an English word can have! Sometimes, not every meaning is in my mind when I read a given passage. I’m a human, not a walking thesaurus! And so we should cut Matthew the same kind of slack.
And so this issue has dogged me for some time! And I’m sure there’s still more for me to learn.