Friday, September 28, 2012

Enter, Stage Jerusalem

In the final stretch of Jesus' Jerusalem approach, Jesus prophesied His impending death, and some Disciples argued over which of them would be given great honor in the coming Kingdom. Then, somewhere around Jericho, Jesus healed one or two blind men as He was arriving or leaving the town (Matthew 20:29-34, Mark 10:46-52, Luke 18:35-43). Luke also relays that Jesus Saved Zacchaeus, but gave the Parable of Minas to emphasize how Salvation comes with responsibility. At least, that is according to the Synoptic Gospels.

According to John, Jesus resurrected His dear friend Lazarus in Bethany (~2 miles/3.2 km from Jerusalem); the news of that miracle and its associated conversions of believers prompted the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to plot to kill Jesus. This forced Jesus to withdraw to a small desert town (John 11:54). Meanwhile, the Sanhedrin put out orders for Jesus' arrest (John 11:55-57). Six days before Passover, Mary (one of Lazarus' sisters) anointed Jesus with perfume at a feast held in His honor, and large crowds of Jews came to see both the recently-resurrected Lazarus and Jesus (John 12:1-11).

Enter, Stage Jerusalem
Does a prophesy count as being fulfilled if you force the sign to happen? I would think not. Generally you want a sign of prophesy to be something of reasonable difficulty to fulfill so that you know that either only divine wisdom could have predicted it or divine effort could have brought it to fruition. Think of the tale of King Arthur pulling the sword, Excalibur, from the stone. Now, what if the prophesy had been simply that the would-be King Arthur would ride a donkey instead? Not so impressive, right? However, if you are looking for support for your claim of divinely authorized kingship, any shred of prophesy, no matter how trivial, will do.

Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, and John 12:12-19 all record Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. What exactly happened? That depends on which Gospel you consult. So let us start with Mark, being that it is the primary source for the story used by Matthew and Luke.

According to Mark 11:1-10, as Jesus and His Disciples approached Bethphage and Bethany, Jesus had two Disciples go borrow a donkey's colt from the village by saying "The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly." They brought it back to Jesus, who then rode the colt the rest of the way into Jerusalem. "Many people" (likely the followers of Jesus) spread their cloaks and branches in the road in front of Him; roughly the ancient equivalent of rolling out the red carpet to honor Him as Lord (reference Leviticus 23:40). Those people joyously shouted about Jesus coming in God's Name, and the coming "Kingdom of our father David."

What is the deal with Jesus riding the colt? That comes from Zechariah 9:9 (which is misquoted in Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15):
"Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." NIV
There are a few different ways to render that verse, but you get the basic vision here: the king will be riding humbly on a donkey's colt. Jesus makes this happen, purposefully arriving into Jerusalem via colt-back in order to fulfill the prophesy, but did that really fulfill the prophesy?

Read Zechariah 9, and it may yield you a different impression. In the beginning, Zechariah 9:1-8 is largely about God's wrath against Hadrach, Damascus, Hamath, Tyre, Sidon, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and Ashnod, and ending in Zechariah 9:8 with God's promise that:
"But I (God) will defend My house against marauding forces. Never again will an oppressor overrun My people, for now I am keeping watch." NIV

The mention of wrath on those foreign nations of a bygone era suggests that the opportunity to fulfill this prophesy has passed by now, but we have seen God's people, a.k.a. the Jews, oppressed time and time again. Obviously, the prophesy has failed.

Yet the prophesy of Zechariah 9 could be in two sections, as Jewish manuscripts have indicated using spacing to suggest two separate sections. The second section begins at the donkey-riding verse. So what do we find within Zechariah 9:9-17?

In Zechariah 9:10, we see that this king will rule in peace from the Euphrates River in the east to the western ends of the land. Zechariah 9:12 speaks of God restoring twice what people (implicitly the Jews) had before (implicitly before their exile). Zechariah 9:13-15 speaks of the Jews going to war against the Greeks, and defeating them with little effort thanks to God's help! This does not match up with Christianity; at least not today's Christianity.

There are three ways to reconcile with this prophesy: One way, the most common modern way, is to spin the interpretation of the rest of the prophesy such that it refers to sometime after Jesus' Second Coming, when Jesus will rule in eternal peace after the ultimate battle between good and evil. The second way is to suggest that the early Christians did believe that the rest of the prophesy would be carried out very soon since Jesus had initiated the sequence of events as described. The third way is that either Jesus or the person who crafted this part of the story was taking advantage of the Zechariah verse out of context to bolster support for the Jesus-as-the-Messiah claim. I believe that the third way is most probable based on other prophesies misused by the Gospel writers, but note that these three options may all be accurate simultaneously. :-)

OK, back to Mark for a quick wrap up. After this triumphant entry in to Jerusalem, Mark 11:11 ends on a hilariously anticlimactic note:
Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the Temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve. NIV

Yeah. It is late. There is not much going on here, and I am a little tired... Now if you thought that was funny, or at least a little odd, let us take a quick look at how Matthew tweaked the story.

Because of the slightly vague language in the Zachariah 9:9 verse, Matthew 21:1-7 has Jesus ride both a donkey and her colt simultaneously! As opposed to Mark's version which seemed like Jesus' entry pageant consisted of Jesus' pre-existing followers, Matthew 21:8-11 suggests that a very large crowd attended, and "the whole city was stirred" due to the event. Finally, when Jesus entered the Temple area that day, Matthew 21:12-13 has Jesus chase off the merchants and money changers; an event which Mark 11:12-18 claims happened the following day.

Luke is much less comical, and actually takes on a dark aspect. Luke 19:28-35 has Jesus only riding the colt. Luke 19:36-40 explicitly agrees with what Mark implied; that the crowds were just Jesus-following disciples. Contrasting Matthew's city-wide recognition of Jesus' entry, in Luke 19:41-44, in a tone which could be taken as antisemitic, Jesus condemns Jerusalem with a prophesy of siege and capture for not recognizing Him. (This "prophesy" likely indicates Luke was written after the event happened in 70 C.E.) Luke 19:45 also has Jesus drive out the merchants from the Temple area that same day.

Finally we come to John where, siding with Matthew's version but contrasting Luke's version, a great crowd of people ushered Jesus into Jerusalem, even proclaiming that He was the "King of Israel" in John 12:12-13. However, as opposed to sending disciples to get a donkey for Him, in John 12:14-16 Jesus got His own colt to ride. John 12:17-19 explains that the massive crowd welcoming Jesus had been largely influenced by Lazarus' resurrection, such that Pharisees remarked "how the whole world has gone after [Jesus]!" John does not record Jesus going immediately to the Temple area, or clearing out the merchants at that time, because he had recorded that a long, long time ago in John 2:12-17.

In summary, the prophesy regarding Jesus' donkey-riding has been taken out of context, so it cannot apply. Furthermore, the accounts vary far too much across the four Gospels to be taken as a whole as factual. This evidence suggests that either no such triumphant entry pageant took place, or that it did happen but the story that we have in the Gospels has been embellished beyond what actually occurred.


  1. Good stuff, when I read these passages I definitely didn't like the idea that he seemed to be forcing the prophecy to come true. I hadn't gone to the trouble to go look at the original verses from Zechariah. That was interesting to see.

  2. Thanks Hausdorff! The prophesy angle has been the most interesting one to me, because I have not found one yet which has no apparent contradictions with either the role of Jesus as the Messiah or the path of Christianity.