Reason #3: Gospel Inaccuracy no.1 — Jesus’ Rodeo Trick

This post deals with a specific objection to Christianity rather than a general objection. An example of the latter would be something like, “The Bible contains contradictions in it.” In this case, since this can’t be shown a priori, the proper response is: “Do you have an example?” The only way this objection has force is by giving an example. Sometimes, general objections will not suffer otiosity like in the above case. The logical problem of evil is one such example. The problem of evil can be raised both a priorly and a posteriorly—and sometimes forceful versions make use of both forms. In this post I’ll address one specific example non-Christians have brought forward to show that the Bible contains errors. Our series responding to 100 objections will include a few responses to particular inaccuracies (factual and logical errors will be included under this heading) in the Bible. A subset of “Biblical inaccuracies” will be “Gospel inaccuracies.”

To be a bit more precise, these kinds of objections (examples of inaccuracies) are not only given by atheists and from adherents of non-Christian religions—especially those who make much of the unreliability of the Bible (e.g., Islam, Mormonism)—but these examples even arise from within the Christian tradition. Christians who are errantist or infallibilist-only have used these examples to justify their stance on the classical attributes of Scripture. Often, the claim made by the latter group is that the Bible is without error in matters of faith, but can err in its affirmations of ordinary, mundane, mere factual matters. They will claim that none of the tenets of faith (e.g., God exists, God is a trinity, Jesus is divine and human, faith in Christ saves, etc.) will change if we discover that Abraham did not come from the land of Ur of the Chaldeans, but from, say, the city-state Dûr-gurgurri. This wouldn’t undermine God’s existence, or salvation by faith alone, they say. One obvious problem with this view is that in some places—some key places—these categories overlap (and I leave aside the issue of whether any error in the Bible compromises tenets of the faith), with the most obvious example being Jesus’ existence and resurrection.

In this post I will not be addressing this infallibilist-but-not-inerrantist position. In fact, everything I say below will be consistent with that position, assuming that that position does not rest on one and only one ostensible case of error—the one I happen to address! The “problem” I will address is a popular one skeptics trot out. It concerns an alleged “error” between the Gospel’s report of the putative fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, which reads:“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.” The problem goes like this: Mark (11:1-7), Luke (19:29-35), and John (12:14-15) all report that the disciples were instructed that they would find one donkey, the disciples later laid their cloaks on it, and then Jesus rode on it. Matthew (21:1-7), on the other hand, has Jesus instructing the disciples that there would be two donkeys and, after the disciples brought them back and placed their cloaks on both of them, Jesus then sat on them. So were there one or two donkeys? Moreover, how absurd is it for Jesus to ride two donkeys into town, like some kind of rodeo clown? The skeptical explanation of this embarrassment is this: Notice that Zechariah uses standard Hebrew poesy, describing the donkey twice with different words. Matthew did not catch this, and thought the prophet was describing two donkeys. Thus, Matthew crafted his version of the story to fit his misunderstanding of Zechariah.

So that’s the problem; well, problems: (a) A contradiction (two or one but not both), and (b) silliness. The latter objection paints Jesus as a rodeo star. I’ll respond to (a) and (b) below.

As I mentioned above, this objection has some popularity. Online skeptics use it, Bart Ehrman has used it, and it was used by a Harvard Ancient Near East PhD student in a private email exchange I was involved in. Closer to home, it was also trotted out by a theology professor I had. He appealed to both (a) and (b) above—and when he appealed to (b), he actually pretended to be on two donkeys while he ridiculously plodded around the classroom. He had invited me for some private one-on-one time and while in his office he asked me if I had any questions about his arguments in class. The above wasn’t the only (or biggest) issue I had with his arguments against inerrancy and classical theism, but one of the things I addressed was his use of the above problem as his key argument against inerrancy. He asked how I would “resolve” it. What follows is along the lines of what I told him:

Responding to (a): Unless you have an exegetical argument that shows that Mark, Luke, and John intended to assert that there was exactly one donkey, you don’t have a formal contradiction. It is logically consistent to have one X whenever there are two Xs. One might be tempted to say that when Jesus told the disciples they would find a foal (while not mentioning the other donkey), he conversationally implied that there was only one. But this is uncertain and there’d be no way to prove it; moreover, this appeal demands that the non-Matthean Gospels intended to give an exact quote of Jesus’ command. This is another assumption that is needed to make (a) fly but is not demonstrable from the text.

Finally, if outside assumptions are allowed in, the one who defends the substantial truthfulness of these passages is not without her own appeals. For the Gospels mention a foal, a colt. What is the probability that this colt was weaned? In contemporary times, city folk might think that saying you will find a colt tied up conversationally implies exactly one equid. But would it to country folk, or people in the first century? I don’t think so. Weaning takes place after many months. For the first few months of a foal’s life it drinks its mother’s milk and is very emotionally dependent on the mother. Take any given foal, is it probably weaned or not? In our day, after a year it’s not called a colt anymore. And weaning is done today, all things considered, between 4 and 7 months. In the wild, this can longer than a year, though. And who knows how long the standard practice in the ancient world was. So it’s not at all clear to me that “You’ll find a colt tied up” doesn’t have first century implications about its mother being there too. And, if it hadn’t been weaned, they disciples hardly would rip it away from its mother’s teet and pile cloaks on top of it for a ride into noisy Jerusalem. So there’s a good probability that the text (all of them) implicitly mentions two equines in virtue of mentioning one colt. But, if we’re not allowed to make assumptions about what was implied in the text, then this hurts the skeptic, for given all the text explicitly says, there’s no formal contradiction.

Responding to (b): So there were probably two donkeys and all Gospel writers knew it. This leaves us with the question of whether Jesus rode on two donkeys. This is the “rodeo clown” objection. It’s supposed to point out that the Gospel’s endorse silliness. But, what if Jesus did ride on both donkeys? So what? This isn’t a “problem” so much as an autobiographical report on the times the objector lives in. From where I’m standing vis-à-vis world history, I find a lot of stuff people did back then “silly” (as I’m sure the future will hold similar unkind judgments about us). Another point is that granting the “two animal” thesis, we’d need that Jesus rode on them simultaneously to be added to the text to get the “silly” picture. So again, the skeptic must add to the text in order to get his objection through. But aside from this, it’s the objector’s poorly thought-out objection that is silly. For the “them” in “Jesus sat on them” refers to the cloaks and not the donkeys. “The second ‘them’ in v.7 has as its nearest antecedent in Greek the ‘cloaks,’ of which there is little or no justification here for the common accusation that Matthew has created an absurd picture of Jesus straddling two animals” (Blomberg, “Matthew,” TNAC, p. 313). Along with Blomberg, more liberal New Testament scholars agree. Renowned Greek scholar A. T. Robinson believed the “them” referred to the cloaks too, same with German scholars Winer and Meyer, as well as a host of other scholars. So Matthew failed to grasp neither the Hebrew (of which even skeptics note he was well-versed in) nor common sense (as if he intended to paint Jesus as riding on two donkeys simultaneously).

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