What Can A Donkey Teach Us About Jesus?

Essay by Eric Alexander on 5 October 2017 7 Comments

This series begins an exploration into the real Jesus. By which I mean, that character historically known as Yeshua of Nazareth. Which is in contrast of course to the other character more popularly known as Jesus Christ.

I make a distinction there because I think Yeshua of Nazareth and “Jesus Christ” are two very different icons. And in my opinion, it is doubtful that future institutions will last much longer around the Jesus Christ icon, but it’s possible (and maybe very beneficial) that the historical Yeshua of Nazareth could sustain. This series is going kick off an exploration into those contrasting portraits, and seek to identify what the “real” Jesus might have been like, and how that might change the way we do Christianity, church, and spiritual community in our modern times.

Before going further though, I will readily acknowledge that some of you may react to what I’ve just said by noting that we cannot know if Yeshua of Nazareth ever really lived. And I concede that. I know we have smart readers here, and I freely acknowledge that we are always on amorphous ground when talking about a historical Jesus. But for the purposes of this series we won’t worry about that. We will simply focus on discovering the figure called Yeshua of Nazareth, who was chronicled throughout the early biblical tradition. If you don’t happen to think Jesus was real, then perhaps we can just settle for finding the real fictional Jesus here.

One of the most important things in understanding how “Jesus Christ” came into being is to look at some very specific examples within the Bible to uncover some real clues. That’s what Bible scholars (should) do. So today I want to explore an interesting truth about the triumphal entry, and this will help establish the paradigm for later installments. I want to begin with a scripture lesson from a donkey. Well, not directly from a donkey because donkeys don’t actually talk. (Or do they? Num 22:28 )

In the Book of Zechariah, written by a prophet from the region of Judah around 520 BCE during the reign of Darius of Persia, it states: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The author of Zechariah wrote this to comfort the people who were returning from exile, and who were awaiting a proper homeland and king. This verse is germane to our first smoking gun, because many Christians today, and at the time of the writing of the gospels, believed that this passage was fulfilling a messianic prophecy.

But the author of Zechariah was not thinking about a future messiah who would come hundreds of years later. The story was written to provide hope and encouragement to those folks who were alive during the time of its writing. Zechariah was offering them assurance that they would soon have a great king who was worthy of God’s trust and abundance.

Back then, donkey’s symbolized peace and humility – as opposed to a horse which symbolized conquest and power. The author of this passage was talking about a king who would bring peace in their current age, not a king that would arrive over five hundred years later. After-all, how or why would a king showing up five centuries later be of any interest to them in their moment of need? I can’t think of a single human being who could find relevance in anything happening five hundred years in the future.

So let’s look at that verse more closely to see what clues we can uncover about how this interpretation came to be. The passage from Zechariah states that the messiah would come “riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Now consider for a moment what that might be saying? Would the messiah be on a donkey? Or would he be on a colt? Or on both a donkey and a colt? Here’s what the gospel writers thought:

The authors of Mark and Luke recorded that Jesus said “go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden…untie it and bring it here.” Of interest in this version was the addition of the line “that no one has ever ridden on.” That could have possibly been added to imply that the donkey was young. Or maybe it was to imply some supernatural powers of Jesus being able to just hop on an unbroken donkey and gallop through town without a hitch. That verse was written verbatim in both the gospels of Mark and Luke, so it was likely taken from an earlier source, or maybe one of the authors copied the passage over from the other. It gets more interesting though.

The writers of John kept it simple and recorded: “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, “as it is written, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” This is a nice and basic paraphrase of the event, and we can see that the writers of John cleaned it up a bit to more closely match their interpretation of the original verse in Zechariah. Nothing too controversial there, just making their case for one young donkey.

But the creator of Matthew records it differently. He writes: “Jesus said, go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me… They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.” As it is written “your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

When contrasting the other three gospels with the gospel of Matthew, this exercise illustrates how the gospel writers took creative liberties as it related to prophecies, either by adding to historical stories or even completely redesigning stories from scratch to fit their evangelical perspectives. And here’s why this situation is a solid example of that:

Matthew’s misunderstanding of the original scripture from Zechariah highlights that the author of Matthew was not at that event in person; nor was he even hearing about an event via credible word of mouth – but rather he was attempting to retrofit the event to his (misunderstood) interpretation of the Old Testament scripture having two donkeys. He was creating his evangelical case, not documenting Jesus as a historian or eye witness.

Once we can come to terms with what the gospels are, and what the intent was of those who designed the gospels, we can then look at these stories in new and exciting ways. In this case, whether some derivative of the triumphal entry ever historically happened or not, one of the most informative truths that we can glean is that Jesus was indeed a humble and peaceful type of leader.

Therefore, from this account we can at least learn that Yeshua of Nazareth was a peaceful man who rejected his role as king and powerful leader. And that is a good first clue to work with in discovering the real Jesus, and hopefully also a good review of the ways we can learn more by reading between the lines.

Next time we will look at what Jesus meant by “the Kingdom of God / Heaven,” and why it may still matter for today.

~ Eric Alexander



Do you have any reliable estimates of the number of Christians worldwide who do not subscribe to the viewpoint that "salvation comes only through Jesus Christ”?

I just wrote a letter to the editor (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) challenging such a statement, but then wondered how many of the >2 million Christians in the world (2011 Pew Research estimate) share a less conservative belief.

Thank you for your attention, and thank you for your witness in the world!


Dear Evelyn,

You ask a very difficult question that I do not think anyone can answer accurately. There are a several things that get in the way, but let me try.

First, there is the general challenge of people not wanting to talk about their religious beliefs, regardless of what they are, unless they are evangelical and believe it is their mission to share the gospel from their own perspective.

Secondarily, there is the complicated issue of terminology. What do you mean by “salvation,” or being “saved?” If I was leading a difficult or maybe a self-destructive life, and I read a book about Jesus, maybe I would change my self-destructiveness. The book or books might be by a progressive author that made no promise of an afterlife, but focused on Jesus teachings about loving our neighbor, or about not being afraid to live life, or about sharing or maybe about learning there are no enemies, or…well, you get the idea. Maybe there was something about those teachings that gave me new insight and I changed my life. Have I been saved? I might think so. But most people who call themselves Christian would want something more.

Thirdly, how far do you take that question? For example, after forty years of serious study, I no longer hold the belief that Jesus died for my sins or that believing something like that can purify or “take away” my sins.  However, I view Jesus as a fully human being who lived in the history of his time and was one of several enlightened beings throughout the ages, who left us with some amazing life lessons. Does that make me a Christian? Does that make me a believer? I believe in what Jesus taught but not the 3rd century idea of personal salvation. For example, I am a follower of Jesus, but how would I show up in the PEW report?

That being said, your numbers are a little skewed. Christians remained the largest religious group in the world in 2015, making up nearly a third (31%) of Earth’s 7.3 billion people, according to a new Pew Research Center demographic analysis. (In the last two years, the Muslim faith has slight outdistanced Christianity). A large percentage of Christians, roughly a 1/3, live in the African and Asian countries. The African, and I suspect the Asian, slant on Christianity is often like nothing we have seen in modern USA. Most likely this is true for developing nations. However, Christians make up roughly 70% of the USA population. That is a drop from 80% a little over ten years ago. Now of course we have to ask, “What do they mean by calling themselves, Christians.” For example less than 45% of those claiming to be Christian attend church on a regular basis. Then, of course, we have to ask what church do you attend? What do they believe? And are you saved?

Now I can tell you that there are more people like me who no longer attend church. In fact church attendance has dropped so much that they are closing churches every week, all over the country. Right now less than twenty percent of the population go to church on a regular basis and researchers are telling us that only 7% of the millennials will be attending church in the future. That does not bode well for Christianity or any of the institutional religions in our country.

How many people are like me and the numerous authors we post on our website regularly? How many people are like the authors we pay to write for us weekly? There really is no way to tell, but our website attracts over 300,000 people a year, we have 11,000 people on our mailing list and our Progressing Spirit (previously called John Shelby Spong) weekly goes out to over 5,000 people every week. Bishop Spong wrote a book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, in 1998. I think that says it all.

Thank you for writing,

Fred C. Plumer, President


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Bible, Corporal Punishment and Human Guilt - Part 1


"He who spares the rod, hates his son; but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. (Prov. 13:24)."

"Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with a rod, you will save his life from Sheol (Prov. 23:13,14)."

"Folly is bound up in the heart of a child; but the rod of discipline drives it far from him (Prov. 22:15)."

"Spare the rod and spoil the child" is the typical way that these texts are usually quoted. This shorthand version has become a popular saying, referred to often enough to enable it to be passed on to the next generation as self-authenticating folk wisdom. Most people do not know either its source or its literal form. That is not surprising. These texts are located in a seldom-read part of the Old Testament called Proverbs, which is quite frankly a rather boring book and is generally ignored by most Ecclesiastical Lectionaries.

A few sayings from Proverbs are, however, still quoted by people, who usually have no idea of the source: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10);" "A soft answer turns away wrath (Prov. 15:1);" and calling a friend "closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24)." The great film, focused on the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee, bore the title Inherit the Wind, which was a phrase, lifted from Proverbs (11:29).

When Paul wrote in the 12th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans (v.20), "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty give him drink, for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head," he was quoting Proverbs 25:21,22. The author of the Fourth Gospel, when composing his opening hymn to the divine logos or the "word," appears to be leaning on a text from the 8th chapter of Proverbs (v.22-31). So the book had its influence in Christian history.

Yet the words that affirm the rightness of corporal punishment are still the best-known part of this book. They seem to touch something deep in either the human psyche or the human experience. If one is the victim of corporal punishment, these words suggest 'deserving' and they seem to play into a self-negativity that rises from a definition of humanity that is deemed sinful or fallen. If one is a perpetrator of corporal punishment, these words seem to feed a human need to control, to exercise authority or even to demonstrate that forced submission is a virtue. If a child is assumed to have been born in sin, it is clearly the duty of parents or their surrogates to curb that tendency toward evil. It matters not that child psychologists and child development experts generally condemn this style of parenting. Since the responsibility to punish children for their misdeeds fits comfortably into a view of God who is also perceived as a parental figure ready to punish sinful adults, it becomes easy to justify. It is of interest that Christians from the very beginning have applied the image of the "Suffering Servant" from II Isaiah to the story of Jesus, so that it is said of him, "With his stripes we are healed," (Isa.53: 5) and that "the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:6.)" It sounds very much as if God has a heavenly woodshed reserved for the physical disciplining of God's "wayward children," or at least for Jesus, our surrogate.

Physical discipline has been supported through the centuries by a variety of pious claims, allowing it to wear the mask of intellectual credibility. Only in recent decades has Western consciousness been raised on this subject, and corporal punishment has begun its inevitable retreat into the past. Yet the glorification of physical discipline for children still lingers in those pockets of our culture that, not coincidentally I believe, are identified with conservative Christian churches. Parochial schools are notorious for their use of physical discipline. The nuns were quite clearly feared by the students. When that reality is augmented by the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests that now appears to have been present in almost epidemic abundance, the sickness present in the attitude of the Church toward children becomes very clear. Not to be outdone in this evil by the Roman Catholic tradition, we discover that corporal punishment is still defended today in Protestant fundamentalist circles in the United States by such people as Dr. James Dobson and his "Focus on the Family" organization. To press the connection one step further, Philip J. Greven, a Rutgers University professor, has written a book entitled, Spare the Child, in which he seeks to demonstrate that, almost to a person, the popular radio and television evangelists in American history have revealed approvingly in their preaching or in autobiographies that they were physically punished as children. Dr. Greven has suggested that this life experience is not just coincidentally related to their message, which portrays an angry God standing ready to punish sinful people through all eternity unless they repent. It is rather part and parcel of their thinking.

During the late 90's a task force on children in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, made a report to the Diocesan Convention. This report included the following resolution offered for adoption: "Resolved, that there are no circumstances in which corporal punishment is appropriate as a method of disciplining children." The news of this report and its resolution began to circulate through the pre-convention meetings designed to inform delegates of the issues coming before them. We then discovered that the secular press wanted to follow this debate quite enthusiastically. Covering the typical church convention is not normally on the agenda of most daily newspapers unless there is some hint of scandal.

When the resolution was placed before the assembly, the debate was quite revealing. It was for me, as the presiding officer, like watching over 600 people engaged in group therapy. We had people justifying publicly their own behavior as parents by praising their methods of discipline and the ways their own parents had disciplined them. "My father beat me regularly," said one gentleman well in his 70's, "and it made a man out of me." Another said, "My children have said to me that the discipline I meted out to them was the best thing I ever did for them." Still another used the old cliché, which attempts to turn violence into virtue by insisting "I did it for their own good and it always hurt me more than it hurt my children."

Other delegates to this convention, however, spoke with very different tones, as childhood memories emerged through adult voices, to speak of their sense of being violated and humiliated in ways that were so deep they had never spoken of it publicly before. They told of the psychic damage they had sustained, the rage they had felt and the residual anger they still felt. They shared openly feelings of being humiliated a second time when their parents would speak of this disciplining session to their friends and family in a casual manner, as they sought to gain approval for their form of parenting.

The debate was interesting in one other detail. This was a relatively well-educated, socially prominent assembly of approximately 150 clergy and 450 lay people. Yet, no consensus ever emerged and they were not willing to vote the resolution up or down. Finally, in a face-saving leap toward easing the assembly out of this dilemma, one priest offered an amendment. For the words "corporal punishment," he moved to substitute the words "injurious or humiliating treatments" so that the resolution then read: "Resolved, that there are no circumstances in which injurious or humiliating treatments are appropriate as a method for disciplining children." No one thought their use of corporal punishment was either "injurious or humiliating," and amendment passed almost unanimously, which in church gatherings means that it falls into the same category as resolutions opposing sin and extolling virtue or what politicians call, "God, motherhood and apple pie" resolutions. It committed, to use an improper but expressive double negative, "no one to nothing." Yet the emotions expressed, the anecdotal stories shared, the anguish and anger that were revealed painted an unforgettable portrait of inner conflict and provided insight into unresolved feelings. It also revealed a deep cultural ambiguity about who we are as human beings, what it is that we think we deserve from God, and why it is that we are taught that the physical punishment of children is somehow validated in a book we call the "Word of God."

Violence is a constant presence in our world. What begins with helpless children facing their parents expands to helpless students facing their teachers or principals, then stretches to include helpless adults facing authority figures. Finally it confronts us with the picture of helpless sinners facing an angry God.

The journey into this text will continue next week.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published June 16, 2004




7 thoughts on “What Can A Donkey Teach Us About Jesus?

  1. In light of the topic, it seems the main issue is not whether or not Jesus existed (Ehrman has done a nice, scholarly piece to put this to rest for most) but that one can discern the ‘real Jesus’ in the writings of the gospels and thus distinguish between Jesus Christ and Jesus of Nazareth. As you have said, “we are always on amorphous ground when talking about a historical Jesus.” The well know biblical scholar Dale Allison and others seem to state this distinction might not be possible.

    In addition the part about the ‘supernatural power’ of Jesus to ride an untamed (young) donkey seems a bit “one sided” – never heard this ‘scholarly interpretation’ before.

    Also, isn’t it old news that the gospels writers took material and wrote it for their particular audience? That the donkey story was not a prophecy of a future messiah is accepted by critical biblical scholars and many who would consider themselves progressive Christians. That Matthew misread Zechariah and seemingly tried to cover all possible readings to make sure he left no doubt that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy is also not much of a surprise or news. In addition, since we don’t know the actual authors of the gospels and since Matthew is dated around 85 CE (50+ years after the entrance to Jerusalem – be it by foot, donkey or cart) isn’t it accepted that ‘Matthew’ wasn’t there? Further, isn’t it accepted that rather than ‘hearing about an event via credible word of mouth’ he and Luke took a great deal of their writings from Mark (or Q) – and ‘retrofit’ this and other ‘events’ – whether a mistaken interpretation or not – to make his evangelical case? None of these writers were ‘documenting Jesus as a historian or eye witness’ they were telling his / their story and proclaiming the good news of the Messiah Jesus.

    Finally, if we can “glean … that Jesus was indeed a humble and peaceful type of leader” from these stories , then there might not be so great a distinction between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ. The evangelical perspectives meet the historical man: Jesus was humble, peaceful and a leader. What is certain is that without these writings, without the gospel perspectives, we would not know either Jesus.

    I look forward to further essays.

  2. Thanks for your comments Thomas. Sorry for the delay, I had some issues logging in to make a comment.

    I understand all you’ve said. This post was a sort of level set to get on the same page with how we will look at the Bible in the series. Some may already know everything I’ve said, but others may not.

    Also, even though Bart Ehrman says Jesus existed doesn’t make it a closed case. While I agree with him, I think it’s always debatable.

  3. Rob, I usually use the NRSV when sharing quotes. Sometimes I just paraphrase. In this case I don’t think there is much debate about the translations. If there is an ancient Greek or Aramaic scholar who sees this thread maybe they can shed more light though. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Thanks Eric, I think you are the first to respond to people directly on an essay.

    I allowed for the initial set up but still wanted to make a few comments. Perhaps I’m wrong but thought most (not all) folks on a Spong site, especially for a number of years, would be more or less on the same page. Sometimes it seems a number of the essayists are going over ‘old’ ground. If most are moving to or arrived at the big umbrella of PC, it would be interesting to see how people re-formulate or re-tell the Christian Story for a modern, non literalist audience.

    Agree on Ehrman but he does make a strong case and the only ones I know who truly doubt that the man Jesus existed are the mythicists. From my readings of critical biblical scholars, the existence of Jesus is not seriously doubted.

    Be that as it may, I know those, like you, who contribute to this site have ‘other lives’ but some back and forth might help preserve and prolong interest. I guess people read the site but the number of those interested enough to comment on essays is not encouraging.

    Again, thanks,


  5. Tom, thanks for your feedback. Regarding the comments, we are close to launching a new system which will change the low engagement quite a bit. This current system is out of date and a number of our writers (including me) are much more used to social media style threads, and also notifications about a received a comment. I have had lots of trouble logging into comments the past couple months so I also haven’t responded much. So watch that space, hopefully good changes coming.

    Regarding other essays, we are in the process of evaluating current contributors and looking at where we might make any changes to keep it more advanced, so you will probably like that.

    Regarding me, and my old ground on this essay, I know a number of Spong fans who like pushing the envelope and treading new ground, but some are not aware of the theological intricacies about why. So now and then I like to take a step back and offer thoughts for various types of folks.

    And that leads to Ehrman, I have been following him for 15 years, but maybe others haven’t been so they may not have a strong stance on why we think Jesus was real or not. My take in this essay was to simply make a point that it often doesn’t matter either way.

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