Matthew Chapter 21:1-17

With this chapter we begin the Holy Week cycle, opening with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. If you recall from our treatment of Mark, the description there didn’t sound as much like a parade passing along a route filled with new people as it did a single group of maybe a few dozen that formed something like an entourage that surrounded Jesus and walked with him into the city. Of course, Jesus Christ Superstar has Simon the Zealot singing about a crowd of 50,000; that crowd estimate was simply not borne out by the account in Mark. As such, the commentary will probably deal with how Matthew’s story is similar to, and different from, that of Mark.

1 Καὶ ὅτε ἤγγισαν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ ἦλθον εἰς Βηθφαγὴ εἰς τὸ Ὄρος τῶν Ἐλαιῶν, τότε Ἰησοῦς ἀπέστειλεν δύο μαθητὰς

2 λέγων αὐτοῖς, Πορεύεσθε εἰς τὴν κώμην τὴν κατέναντι ὑμῶν, καὶ εὐθέως εὑρήσετε ὄνον δεδεμένην καὶ πῶλον μετ’ αὐτῆς: λύσαντες ἀγάγετέ μοι.

3 καὶ ἐάν τις ὑμῖν εἴπῃ τι, ἐρεῖτε ὅτι Ὁ κύριος αὐτῶν χρείαν ἔχει: εὐθὺς δὲ ἀποστελεῖ αὐτούς.

And they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethany to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, (2) saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied (i.e., tied to a post, or something such) and a colt with her. Loosening, bring it to me. And if someone says to you something, say that ‘The master of you has need’.” Immediately he sent them.

Just a few points to make. From this description, it sounds like both Bethany and the Mount of Olives are outside the walls of Jerusalem proper. This is reinforced by the fact that Jesus sends them into “the village”. The standard meaning of this in Classical Greek is that of an unwalled town, as opposed to a town fortified with walls. Jerusalem, of course, was fortified, so the implication is that Bethany is outside. And later we will be told that Jesus was to stay in Bethany for the the night. A reasonable inference is that Jesus is sending his disciples into Bethany to the house of one of his followers, whom Jesus knows to have an ass with a colt.

Note that the existence of the ass is a new detail that was not present in Mark. If you’ll recall, the word “colt” is generic enough that it could refer to the offspring of either a horse or a donkey. Perhaps familiar with the ambiguity, Matthew clarifies for us. That it is a donkey will be important later. Other than that, this is pretty much taken directly from Mark.

1 Et cum appropinquassent Hierosolymis et venissent Bethfage, ad montem Oliveti, tunc Iesus misit duos discipulos

2 dicens eis: “Ite in castellum, quod contra vos est, et statim invenietis asinam alligatam et pullum cum ea; solvite et adducite mihi.

3 Et si quis vobis aliquid dixerit, dicite: “Dominus eos necessarios habet”, et confestim dimittet eos”.

4 Τοῦτο δὲ γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος,

5 Εἴπατε τῇ θυγατρὶ Σιών, Ἰδοὺ ὁ βασιλεύς σου ἔρχεταί σοι, πραῢς καὶ ἐπιβεβηκὼς ἐπὶ ὄνον, καὶ ἐπὶ πῶλον υἱὸν ὑποζυγίου.

This was done in order that the writing be fulfilled according to the prophet saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘behold the king of you comes to you, meek and coming upon an ass, and upon a colt the son of a draught animal.” 

The last word originally meant any animal yoked for farm labour. However, according Liddell & Scott, it became specifically a donkey* in the NT. Almost all of the examples they cite for this are from the NT, and one is from the LXX. There is a certain amount of animal husbandry, zoology, and agricultural knowledge that goes into assessing this definition. What it implies is that in the ancient Near East, the donkey was the standard draft animal. Elsewhere, it was generally the ox. Oxen are much larger and more powerful animals, but for that reason are more expensive to keep. A donkey, the domesticated form of the onager in that part of the world, was probably less expensive because it could forage to some degree, and not require as much fodder [ I don’t know this for sure, but it seems plausible ]. So the idea is sort of like, just as all tissues are called “Kleenex” because that is the most famous brand of the product, so all draft animals are donkeys.

*A quick Google search tells me that a donkey is a domesticated ass. A jack ass is a male ass.

The idea of a Jewish king riding a donkey is interesting. Horses are very expensive animals; hence, the words “chevalier” and “caballero” literally are men who ride horses. Tied up with this is the issue of when riding horses became the thing to do. Back in the Bronze Age, horses were used to pull chariots, but the idea of riding them was not terribly wide-spread. The Persians rode horses; one of the famous debates about the Battle of Marathon, in which a small force of Athenians beat a much larger army of Persians, is whether the Persian cavalry participated. Herodotus tells us of the special horse-transport ships that were built to convey the horses from Ionia to mainland Greece. Part of it too, is that horses were native to the steppes north of the Black Sea, which is where they were probably first domesticated. All of this is by way of asking whether an Israelite or Judean king circa 600 BCE  would have ridden a donkey?

This is not a simple question. In the contrary, it’s extremely complicated. The implication of the prophecy is that it was not normal; that riding a donkey would be an act of humility, which is why, I presume, it says that he is “meek” when he comes. The issue is that this question is tied up with when things were actually composed, as opposed to the historical setting when they supposedly took place. For example, Isaiah is usually put in the 8th Century, before Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, but even a cursory reading or examination will, I think, show that this is patently not true*. Then, there is the added issue that this comes from Deutero-Isaiah, which is generally considered to have been written well after the first part of the book. How much later, of course, is a good question. For my part, I would suggest that the later this was written, the less likely it would be that the king would be riding a donkey. Riding donkeys was probably a royal thing to do back in the 8th or 9th Centuries when horses were scarce. But after the Persian conquest, I think the idea of riding a horse had much wider circulation. As such, that would put the passage of Isaiah into the post-exilic period. But this is a question that should be answered by archaeology. When did donkeys and horses first show up in the archaeological record? When did they become common? When did donkeys become the standard draught animal? All my speculation and historical arguments pale before the evidence of what is buried in the ground.

*I have reasons for this, but I’m not sure this is the time/place to examine them. For now, suffice it to say: Isaiah and several others are called “literary prophets”. Think about that. A prophet does not sit alone in a room and write a scroll. A prophet is someone who goes out and, well, prophesies. Of course, there may have been a prophet Isaiah who did just that, and his prophecies were recorded later, but that’s exactly my point. Unless he had a scribe following behind him, writing down all that he said, the words of “Isaiah” end up being largely composed at that “later” date. I put this “later” in the 6th Century, at the earliest, after the return from the Exile. If pressed, I may consider pushing this back into the period of the Exile, but no further. So much of what Isaiah says is a blatant attempt by the restored kings of Judea to create a rationale for Judea to assert a legal, or at least legitimate, claim to the erstwhile territory of Israel. Much of the OT is like this. For example, Judges, which is held to be a fair record of early days, says in 1:2 that Judah would be the first to attack the Canaanites. And it goes on from there.

4 Hoc autem factum est, ut impleretur, quod dictum est per prophetam dicentem:

5 “Dicite filiae Sion: / Ecce Rex tuus venit tibi, / mansuetus et sedens super asinam / et super pullum filium subiugalis”.

6 πορευθέντες δὲ οἱ μαθηταὶ καὶ ποιήσαντες καθὼς συνέταξεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς.

Departing, the disciples also did according to the what Jesus had arranged.

Interesting to note that Matthew omits a good-sized chunk of Mark here. Most of it concerns what happened when the disciples found the colt, how they were questioned about it, and how the disciples answered as Jesus told them and so were allowed to go on their way with the animal(s). Why? Again, I think we’ve entered that realm of “magic”; in this case, prophecy. One almost gets the impression that Matthew considered these acts of Jesus to be parlour tricks or something; that is, that they were sort of showy, but not altogether dignified. In short, rather a vulgar display of power, don’t you think? 

6 Euntes autem discipuli fecerunt, sicut praecepit illis Iesus,

7 ἤγαγον τὴν ὄνον καὶ τὸν πῶλον, καὶ ἐπέθηκαν ἐπ’ αὐτῶν τὰ ἱμάτια, καὶ ἐπεκάθισεν ἐπάνω αὐτῶν.

8 ὁ δὲ πλεῖστος ὄχλος ἔστρωσαν ἑαυτῶν τὰ ἱμάτια ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, ἄλλοι δὲ ἔκοπτον κλάδους ἀπὸ τῶν δένδρων καὶ ἐστρώννυον ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ.

9 οἱ δὲ ὄχλοι οἱ προάγοντες αὐτὸν καὶ οἱ ἀκολουθοῦντες ἔκραζον λέγοντες, Ὡσαννὰ τῷ υἱῷ Δαυίδ: Εὐλογημένος ὁ ἐρχόμενος ἐν ὀνόματι κυρίου: Ὡσαννὰ ἐν τοῖς ὑψίστοις.

Leading the donkey and the colt, and they put down upon them their cloaks, and he sat upon them (the cloaks, presumably). (8) And the multitudinous crowd spread their cloaks in the road, and others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road. (9) And the crowd those going before him and those following him cried out saying, “Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed is he coming in the name of the lord. Hosanna to those most high!” 

The description of the passage is very similar to Mark’s account. And note that Matthew, like Mark, talks of those going ahead of him and those following behind. As a reminder, this description more closely resembles an entourage, a bubble of people before and behind, rather than Jesus passing between rows of people on either side of the road/street. We think of this sort of event as a parade, and this is how we generally think of Jesus’ entry: as a parade, passing between two rows of people on either side of the street. But that is not at all what the description indicates.

And there is one thing I just noticed. Jesus is coming in the name of the lord; he is not coming as the lord. This seems to be a significant distinction between Jesus and The Lord, who is God the Father. Now, is this distinction simply the result of standard Jewish thinking that the Messiah was a human agent of the Lord? Most likely, sure. So once again, this is a pointed reminder that the orthodoxy on Jesus was evolving, that he was morphing from the human Messiah to the Divine Son of God/Messiah. Now, there are those–Boyarin, whom I’ve cited previously–who have attempted to argue that the Jewish thinking on the Messiah was not entirely clear, and that some strains of Judaism, at least, considered that the Messiah was divine. That may well be the case, but generally, the Messiah was thought of as human. IIRC.  

7 et adduxerunt asinam et pullum; et imposuerunt super eis vestimenta sua, et sedit super ea.

8 Plurima autem turba straverunt vestimenta sua in via; alii autem caedebant ramos de arboribus et sternebant in via.

9 Turbae autem, quae praecedebant eum et quae sequebantur, clamabant dicentes: “Hosanna filio David! Benedictus, qui venit in nomine Domini! Hosanna in altissimis!”.

10 καὶ εἰσελθόντος αὐτοῦ εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα ἐσείσθη πᾶσα ἡ πόλις λέγουσα, Τίς ἐστιν οὗτος;

11 οἱ δὲ ὄχλοι ἔλεγον, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ προφήτης Ἰησοῦς ὁ ἀπὸ Ναζαρὲθ τῆς Γαλιλαίας.

And he coming into Jerusalem, the whole city shook, saying “Who is this?” (11) And the crowd said, “He is the prophet Jesus, he from Nazareth of Galilee.

A bunch of interesting little things here. The first is the distinction between Bethany and Jerusalem. The first was described as a village/town/unfortified smallish settlement; Jerusalem is called a city. This makes absolutely clear (I think) that the colt and the donkey were found in Bethany, a village outside of the walls.

Second, note that Matthew here adds that the whole city shook, presumably with excitement. Now we have something approaching (if not fulfilling) our usual picture of this as truly a triumphal entry, something in which a very large number of the citizens of Jerusalem participated. That this does not entirely fit with the description of the entry, with Jesus advancing in the midst of an entourage, as it were, is a pretty good demonstration of how Matthew was trying to elevate Jesus, and the entire event. Matthew doesn’t care if the two don’t exactly support each other, that his story is not completely internally consistent. This is Truth; accuracy doesn’t matter.

Finally, and most interestingly, is the crowd’s response to the question posed by those in Jerusalem. They ask “who is this”, and Matthew has the crowd respond by saying “this is the prophet Jesus…” What is most salient about this, I believe, is that this was not in Mark. Matthew added it of his own accord. The part that makes this noteworthy is that a prophet was entirely a human figure; unlike with the Messiah, there is no minority opinion like that of Boyarin, claiming that the prophets were divine creatures. But this is exactly what Matthew tells us: the prophet Jesus. Now, there is a question. Is Matthew saying this because he believes it, or is he putting these words into the mouths of Jesus’ followers to indicate that, even at this late date, they thought of him as a human prophet? I am inclined to the latter explanation. I have no real evidence to support this, but it’s the sense I get based on everything else I’ve seen so far. One possibility is that it’s Matthew’s equivalent to Mark’s “Messianic Secret”, in which Jesus was constantly admonishing people and demons and the disciples not to tell anyone who he really was. Why did he do that? Why does Matthew have the followers of Jesus say that Jesus was a prophet? Or are we going down a blind alley by looking for reasons to explain these quirks? That is certainly possible. The point is, however, that we need to be aware of what Matthew is saying, and thereby to realise that we need to ask these questions.

Now, of course there is the possibility that Matthew said this without having any hidden meaning. If one is to assert this, however, one must be mindful about how much purpose one ascribes to the rest of Matthew’s choices. We cannot go about claiming that Matthew is a mastermind who masterfully arranged the (alleged) Q material and then say, “oh well” when asked about his words here. Sure, there are no doubt places where Matthew got fatigued and went from second-person singular to match his narrative to second-person plural because that is what Mark has. If one is going to insist that Matthew was consistent, then one must take some care to be somewhat consistent about how we interpret Matthew’s editorial skills and intent.

10 Et cum intrasset Hierosolymam, commota est universa civitas dicens: “ Quis est hic?”.

11 Turbae autem dicebant: “ Hic est Iesus propheta a Nazareth Galilaeae ”.

12 Καὶ εἰσῆλθεν Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὸ ἱερόν, καὶ ἐξέβαλεν πάντας τοὺς πωλοῦντας καὶ ἀγοράζοντας ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ, καὶ τὰς τραπέζας τῶν κολλυβιστῶν κατέστρεψεν καὶ τὰς καθέδρας τῶν πωλούντων τὰς περιστεράς,

13 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Γέγραπται, Ὁ οἶκός μου οἶκος προσευχῆς κληθήσεται, ὑμεῖς δὲ αὐτὸν ποιεῖτε σπήλαιον λῃστῶν.

And Jesus entered the Temple, and he expelled all the sellers and the buyers in the Temple, and the tables of the money-changers he overthrew, and the seats of those selling the pigeons, (13) and he said to them, “It is written, ‘My house a house of prayer shall be called’, but you have made it a den of thieves”.

The most important thing here is that, once again, Matthew has abridged Mark’s narrative to some extent. In Mark, after his entry, Jesus goes to the Temple, looks around, and then goes back to Bethany for the night. He then returns the next day and clears the temple. Here, of course, it’s all done upon arrival. On the one hand, this is not a big deal. The point is that he cleared the Temple, right? But why change it? It’s another instance when Matthew shortens Mark’s narrative for reasons that are not at all clear; but it seems that it was done for no other reason than to abridge the narrative by trimming away excess verbiage.

It’s also a bit of a blow to those who would say that Matthew wrote first, and that Mark is an abridgement of Matthew. If Mark is shortening, why does he elongate certain stories? And a lot of them? We see it here, we saw it with the compression of the healing of two blind men into a single episode, we saw it with the bleeding woman and the Gerasene demonaic. I do not believe that there are a lot of people who believe that Matthew was the first gospel written, but they are out there, and let it be said that I emphatically and vehemently disagree with that thesis. There is very little evidence for it aside from the belief of the early fathers who thought Matthew was the original, and so put it first in the NT. However, with the early fathers and Matthew-priority camp, we are seeing wishful thinking as a replacement for actual analysis and argument. It would be so much nicer if Matthew wrote first. It would eliminate the need for a messy theory like Q, and it would make it so much more possible that all of Matthew’s words could be easily traced back to Jesus. But I will go on a limb and say that this theory is wrong. Not that it lacks merit as an argument; it is so lacking in merit that it’s close to impossible. IMO.

12 Et intravit Iesus in templum et eiciebat omnes vendentes et ementes in templo, et mensas nummulariorum evertit et cathedras vendentium columbas,

13 et dicit eis: “ Scriptum est: “Domus mea domus orationis vocabitur”. Vos autem facitis eam speluncam latronum ”.

14 Καὶ προσῆλθον αὐτῷ τυφλοὶ καὶ χωλοὶ ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ, καὶ ἐθεράπευσεν αὐτούς.

15 ἰδόντες δὲ οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ γραμματεῖς τὰ θαυμάσια ἃ ἐποίησεν καὶ τοὺς παῖδας τοὺς κράζοντας ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ καὶ λέγοντας, Ὡσαννὰ τῷ υἱῷ Δαυίδ, ἠγανάκτησαν

16 καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Ἀκούεις τί οὗτοι λέγουσιν; ὁδὲ Ἰησοῦς λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ναί: οὐδέποτε ἀνέγνωτε ὅτι Ἐκ στόματος νηπίων καὶ θηλαζόντων κατηρτίσω αἶνον;

17 Καὶ καταλιπὼν αὐτοὺς ἐξῆλθεν ἔξω τῆς πόλεως εἰς Βηθανίαν, καὶ ηὐλίσθη ἐκεῖ.

And approached him the blind and the lame in the Temple, and he healed them. (15) Seeing the high priests and the scribes the marvels which he did and the children shouting in the Temple and saying, “Hosanna to the son of David”, they approached (16) and said to him, “Can you hear what they are saying?” Then Jesus said to them, “Yes. Are you unaware that, ‘From the mouths of children and suckling (babies) you mend a story”. (17) And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany, and he passed the night there.

There are a few points to be made here. The most glaring is Verse 14. Jesus has just finished turning over tables and chair, then those seeking to be healed approach and are healed, and only then do the (presumably) Temple officials come up and speak to him? And the thing is, they don’t even seem to be particularly concerned about upsetting the commerce; what bothers them is that the children are proclaiming him the son of David. Really? 

Does that sequence of events, or description of events not seem a bit odd?

There are some–Sandars, IIRC–that believe that the cleansing of the Temple was the act that got Jesus arrested. But, in Mark’s story, Jesus cleared the Temple and then came back the next day and had a casual chat with the Temple authorities. And here, well, it’s even worse. He overthrows the tables and then hangs around to heal the lame? This story is simply not credible. And it’s not even like we are told that the Temple authorities are off plotting Jesus’ death. They’re sort of taking a poll: can you hear? And we’re not even told that they’re angry, or frightened, or anything. Just asking questions. Have to say, based on the overall story, you could cut out the three verses that describe the “cleansing” and the narrative wouldn’t indicate there was a hole. As a result of all this, I have to conclude that the Cleansing of the Temple never actually happened. I say this even though John tells us that Jesus did it twice.

One other interesting aspect to this is Jesus’ response to the question “can you hear what they’re saying. It is usually translated as “you have perfected praise”, where I have translated it “you mend a story”. Yes, I did this just to be annoying, but there is a purpose. My translation is what both the words for mend/perfect and story/praise most commonly mean. For example, Mark and Matthew use the first word to describe the sons of Zebedee as “mending their nets” when Jesus calls them. From here, one can see the progression to “to complete” and so “to perfect”. But L&S do not cite “to perfect/make perfect” as a standard meaning for the word. It does cite Matthew 4:21 as an example for “to mend”, but it does not cite this passage as a meaning for “to perfect”. The word is used 13 times in the NT; in six of those, the meaning is other than “to perfect”. So even NT usage for the word is not overwhelmingly in favour of “to perfect”. The second word, always translated as “praise (n)”, is used twice in the NT, both as “praise”. The word has this meaning in The Odyssey and in Pindar, but basically nowhere else. However, the Vulgate does render this as ‘to perfect praise’. So, despite all the protestations that we have to go back to the original Greek in creating new translations only goes so far.

The point of all this is to demonstrate that to render this as “to perfect praise” requires a certain amount of mental gymnastics with the meaning of the words. So, just as I did with John the Dunker, so I do here. This is all by way of letting everyone know that these meanings, these readings of translations are not always clear-cut and one-for-one. There is a certain level of ambiguity and consensus involved. And let’s face it: St Jerome was a bishop; he had a vested interest in propagating a certain way of understanding the Bible when he did his translation. Given this, that he glosses the words a bit should not surprise us. Rather, it should make us sit back and consider this long and deeply.

Even beyond all of that, we need to note that Matthew has added Verses 15& 16 to the story of Mark. Why? I suppose the idea is to provide some indication of the widespread acclamation that Jesus received upon entering Jerusalem. It’s more, and more intense than it was in Mark’s gospel. Here we are on our way to the sort of spectacular reception that we now think of when we think of Palm Sunday, an enormous throng (50,000?) all shouting “Hosanna”. This is another step in the process to elevating Jesus, his legend and his stature growing exponentially over the years. Luke will take it even further.

Finally, there is Bethany. As in Mark, Jesus will spend the night in Bethany. Why? As I suggested before, this happens because Jesus had followers in Bethany, but he didn’t have any in Jerusalem. Later, in Chapter 26, we are told that Jesus was at the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany that the woman (not yet named) came to anoint Jesus with the expensive perfume. Is this where Jesus stayed for the duration of his sojourn in the Jerusalem metropolitan area? Did the ass and the colt belong to Simon the Leper? These are the sorts of connexions that often drive me nuts; however, in this case, I would be willing to consider the likelihood. Based on the Passion narrative, one doesn’t get the impression that Jesus had many friends in the area; as such, the fact that Simon was named may be an indication that this is, indeed, where he stayed. Of course, this makes one wonder–or it should, anyway–about the acclamations that “shook the city” upon Jesus’ entry. It also makes the description of the procession with an entourage into Jerusalem a little more likely. Jesus had a base at Simon’s house, and may have attracted some of Simon’s friends into the fold. These people, then, would have been those who formed the entourage. As for who the children were shouting in the Temple precinct, well, it’s very likely that this didn’t happen.

14 Et accesserunt ad eum caeci et claudi in templo, et sanavit eos.

15 Videntes autem principes sacerdotum et scribae mirabilia, quae fecit, et pueros clamantes in templo et dicentes: “Hosanna filio David”, indignati sunt

16 et dixerunt ei: “Audis quid isti dicant?”. Iesus autem dicit eis: “Utique; numquam legistis: “Ex ore infantium et lactantium perfecisti laudem”?”.

17 Et relictis illis, abiit foras extra civitatem in Bethaniam ibique mansit.

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on February 19, 2016, in Chapter 21, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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