30 July 2010

The Smoking Donkey

Back on the Donkey post (seriously, guys, are you REALLY trying to claim that the anonymous author of the Gospel of "Matthew" was trying to make a deep point, or is it actually Facepalm Sunday??), Peter took exception to my characterisation of "Matthew" sexing up his dossier. Am I looking for Donkeys of Mass Destruction? Or the Mother of All Donkeys?

It's all very simple. Yea verily, Matthew was trying to link the story of Palm Sunday to the prophecy in Zechariah 9. As was Jesus. Except that Zechariah only has ONE donkey, and he emphasises this by the parallelism of "a colt, the foal of a she-ass". A bit like "the son of man", I suppose.

But there it is. The simplest, easiest, most clear-cut example you could wish for that the bible is 1. prone to error, and 2. not the word of god. And, as is perfectly obvious to millions of people, the historical basis for the supposed resurrection is revealed to be very shaky.

So why do some apologists continue to claim there is any historical basis to the resurrection at all?


  1. Shane,

    First of all, is it OK if I ask Graham what the ‘interweb’ is? An interweb might explain a lot of things for me :-)!!

    Anyway it wasn't an "exception", it was a joke.

    But I wouldn't worry about The Mother of all Donkey's... the mother of one will be quite sufficient ;-) That'll be the "she-ass" then.

    But are we actually going to get onto whether or not the writers were faking and what you think the actual arguments for fakery are and what you think was going on to cause such 'fakery' (like I said on the last thread)?

    So here's a couple of questions to get us going: Fakery? Why “tart up” the text? Could any of what else he said be allusions to other parts of the Old Testament. Was it mere invention to add weight? What do you think the writers were trying to address, why did it happen, how did it happen, for whom did it happen? What purpose did their fixing achieve? Are there any other possible ways of understanding this? What do you actually think?

    Oh, and there's another explanation for Matthew's mention of a second donkey (you know, the "she-ass")... there was one. Nowt deep about it.

    And when the disciples went to fetch the colt (like I outlined on your other blog-o) they said, "Crap, boys, here it is, she-ass an' all."

    And the donkey in your picture isn't smoking, that's a lolly in it's mouth. Maybe the donkey is called Kojak :-)


  2. Peter, if you are going to defend your fringe opinion, you need to DEFEND it. Don't bother asking questions "to get us started" - ANSWER some.

    Here's my hypothesis - you recognise perfectly well that Matthew changed the text of Mark in order to make it match the Zechariah 9 prophecy. You also recognise that this was unnecessary, since the original version was perfectly adequate. However, you are *theologically* unable to accept that, so you make up ludicrous post hoc justifications, and attempt to hide beneath a blanket of cabbage.

    So why don't YOU say what Matthew was trying to do here? The notion that Matthew was making a "deep point" is a distinctly minority opinion; most historians agree that he was in fudge mode. So you have some work to do.

  3. How long did it take to find that picture?

    (The Blogs looking well!)

  4. Shane

    Well, I suppose telling me that I have to answer questions about a 'fringe opinion' is one way of not having to respond to mine. I'll ask one more though. Do you see the relevance of those questions to the wider discussion we are having and how they impact on your position as well as mine?

    And the bottom line on the donkeys... there is no need to suppose a misreading, and I'm guessing you know that. There was a donkey/colt/foal and there was a mum. The colt is the focus of this part of the story so it gets top billing (Zechariah Matthew Mark Luke John) this colt was the foal of a donkey (Zechariah) and the donkey gets a mention (Matthew). Like I said ages ago, it isn't an issue.


  5. Peter, there is no point in asking me to consider "what the author was trying to say" when it is perfectly obvious - even *explicit* - what the author was trying to say. There is no need fo subtlety here - Matthew uses two donkeys because he thinks the prophecy in Zechariah *demands* two donkeys - and he is mistaken in that.

    This reveals something very very interesting about "Matthew", something entirely human, entirely understandable. I am not making him out to be a "bad man" - merely noting that he was doing what many many people have done before and since - "fixing" texts to make them appear to say what he thinks they *should* say, rather than what they *do* say.

    This causes no problems for historians - historians are used to documents being altered in such ways. It causes MAJOR problems for the minority who cling to "biblical inerrancy", because it shows that a/ the books were not composed by "MMLJ" but by later authors; b/ they were not composed by eye-witnesses, but by people collecting manuscripts and stories (and "controlled informal oral tradition" does not change the fact that these stories evolved and were added to / embellished); c/ authors of later gospels were perfectly happy to correct "mistakes" in earlier gospels for theological reasons; d/ the stories of the resurrection itself were composed to lend spurious weight to the theological "fact".

    In other words, the extra donkey (and thanks for your special pleading, but it really does not cut the mustard) is simply the one example of a problem that pervades the whole NT - it is unreliable in matters of fact.


  6. Shane

    Because Matthew thinks Zechariah demands two donkeys and he didn't understand the prophecy because he wasn't a Jew and misunderstood. And he wasn't even Matthew.

    Which would be a bit odd given the rhetorical Jewish writing styles which we find in the gospels and which illustrate that these writings, whatever else we think of them, came out of a Hebrew culture.

    You can dismiss this historical/cultural point again if you wish but unfortunately that won't change the... fact of it.


  7. Peter, that is completely irrelevant. The point is that we know that Matthew contains embellishments for rhetorical effect. Done. Tick the box. Job's a good un.

    And I am not arguing that the author (who was not Matthew, but you know that) was not from a Jewish background - just that his knowledge of Hebrew idiom was poor, probably like most Jews of his time. He was working off the Septuagint, Mark and a Greek Q. Plus some other snippets of hearsay. I appreciate that you want to maintain the fiction of an honest evangelist, but the facts refute such a primitive view. The author was human and flawed.

  8. Oh, I'm not at all sure that it is a rhetorical embellishment. If a first century Palestinian like Matthew could read Zechariah that way, so could a first century Palestinian like Jesus.

    Maybe the Lukan and Matthean accounts of Judas' death would suit your purposes better? Two different oral traditions agree that Judas died a dishonourable death, but they seem to explicitly disagree about the means of that death.

    But historically this leads to the conclusion that there's a high probability that Judas did die a dishonourable death. Not that the Resurrection never happened!

  9. "some other snippets of hearsay..." is demonstrably false.

    Paul is aware of large sections of Jesus ethical and eschatological teaching, yet there isn't the slightest sign of literary dependence in either direction. Also compare his tradition of the last supper to Luke's. No literary dependence, but strong similarity.

    We could also add the book of James. Knowledge of "Q" material, not a jot of literary dependence.

    This "hearsay" approach is just a hangover from Form Criticism.

  10. Shane

    First up there was a bundle of stuff I didn’t learn in Sunday School and a bundle of Sunday School stuff I dumped. In fact we actually dumped Sunday School altogether... our kids don’t go. I think we sent them for a few months and then rescued them!

    Next, “the author of Matthew was human and flawed” - yes. You think that discounts him from contributing to the biblical record?

    Your case seems to be built on the idea of a misunderstood Hebrew idiom or style of writing or, as I have described it, rhetorical form. Which is precisely why I raised the issue of ‘oral traditions’ (the point is that these were ordered to exclude mere hearsay), rhetorical forms as in the ending of Mark (which we Westerners and those influenced by Protestantism miss [being so keen to get to the ‘saved’ bit]), why I raised the issue of the purpose served by fakery and, in my last comments, raised the Jewish style of Matthew.

    Those are four substantial points.

    If, as you maintain, the writer didn’t have a sufficient grasp of Hebrew idiom, if he was isolated from the wider oral culture, if he was setting out to embellish for some purpose or other, or because of a mistake, then at the very least we need to explain why the Hebrew idiom found in the writings of the Old Testament *reappears* in the New Testament and specifically in Matthew. If you want I can give you examples, like I did with the end of Mark, I can’t do it exhaustively because I’m still learning, but the examples are there.

    So, how did a writer with a poor knowledge of Hebrew idiom write in what is clearly a Hebrew style?


  11. Peter, none of what I have said is really that controversial. You are confusing two different usages of the word "Hebrew". Sure, the author had some background in a Hebrew community, but could he speak the ancient Hebrew language? Not very well.

    An example is the common misunderstanding of "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo" in the "English" community.

    You seem to continue in your misunderstanding that I am trying a hatchet job on the poor anonymous sod who codged together the gospel that much much later got called "Matthew". That is not what I am doing. All I am doing is showing that the author embellished the texts that he was working from.

    This is uncontroversial. It is not new. It is not surprising. And it is not a hatchet job.

    It is merely a demonstration that the view that some people hold that the bible is "inerrant" is incorrect, and an even clearer view that some people (like your good self) would rather make up the most laughable cock-and-bull post-hoc rationalisations and fictions to try to preserve that dogma than to actually let the ancient texts speak for themselves.

    You have my pity.

  12. Shane,

    You mean there was only one Romeo?


  13. :-)

    Well done, Peter - I'll not give up on you just yet!

  14. Shane, it's HUGELY controversial to use a literary model to understand the variations between the Gospels. You can't write off the last 10 years of Historical Jesus research because it makes Bart Ehrman look foolish.

  15. Out of curiosity - you think Matthew's Hebrew wasn't very good? Or his hermeneutics?

    Because if your approach to Zechariah is correct, Matthew would just be using a "pesher" interpretation of Zechariah. Which is thoroughly Jewish, and which understood the difference between the literal meaning and the use which the interpreter was making of the text.

  16. Hi Graham,
    And what part of my argument do you think your comments actually address? The first gospeller's command of ancient Hebrew is actually neither here nor there - his mashing of the OT is a separate issue.

    Pesher, my ass! FWIW I do think a strong case *can* be made for G1's Q being a Greek translation of an Aramaic original, but I acknowledge that is controversial.

    As for "the last 10 years of historical Jesus research", please don't make me laugh. You're no further on that you were 100 years ago. Do not misrepresent my argument.

    I *am* saying that "Matthew" used "Mark" as a documentary source, and tarted it up. The only beef you seem to have with that statement is whether the word "tarted" seems a little rough for your delicate palate.


    To save misunderstanding, you do agree, don't you, that G1 was not written by Matthew the disciple, and that the author/editor/redactor (whatever you want to call him) used documentary Mark as his primary historical source?

    If you disagree, please spell out exactly why, and also spell out exactly why you think Matthew could not have made an error here (and in many other places).

  17. Hold your donkeys, Shane.

    Was his Hebrew poor or not?

    Was it a mistaken reading of Zechariah or not?

    Never mind the number of donkeys, you've about a dozen different versions of your objection on the go here!!


  18. No, Peter.

    As it *happens*, his reading of Zechariah was wrong; he can be forgiven for that, because it's not as if he actually knew what he was talking about or anything - he was not in a privileged position. The point is that he tarted up Mark's text.

    And since this is one area where we *know* he did this, it seems rather likely that the other areas where he has tarted up Mark's text have also been for theological reasons that post-date the death of Jesus the Nazarene.

    Do YOU still cling to the nonsense of inerrancy? Or, if you do, do you still cling to the nonsense of "Matthew" having "canonical" status? On what basis?

    Nothing I am saying here is remotely contentious - all you are offering in reply is post-hoc cobbled together *excuses*.

    So your donkey ate your homework?

  19. Hmmm. Well, can I kind of disagree with everyone?

    1. Matthew, we know, has a slightly overzealous desire to see prophecy fulfilled. This is often cited as evidence of his Jewish sitz. So, it certainly isn't far fetched to me to think that Matthew incorporated the parallelism into the story.

    2. But, the evidence is very weak to argue that it is Matthew's misreading of the Hebrew, or of his misunderstanding of Jewish literary forms, that is to blame.

    3. We have no idea what the Hebrew said that Matthew might have had access to. As far as I know we don't have this at Qumran (and even if we did the variation in the texts we have multiple copies of at Qumran suggests we shouldn't over-interpret a single version), so we're relying on a centuries later Hebrew text and reconstructions from various intermediate translations. Although I suspect the converse, it could well have been that the "and" form was in the Hebrew Matthew used, and that Mark is simply a failure to mention the extra donkey.

    4. Matthew is very likely to be primarily working from a descendent of a Greek text-tradition which suggests a reading of two asses. So it seems unlikely to me that the form is one created by Matthew: it seems more likely that he could have just been reading the text he had. Given that this form doesn't contradict what he's reading in Mark, it doesn't seem to me to be something that could introduce any difficulties for Matthew.

    5. Even if this really does trace back to Matthew's gospel, it seems plausible to me that Matthew isn't deriving this directly. "Q" is a concept that lots of students misunderstand - you have to understand that for reconstructed sources we can't tell the difference between one single source and multiple sources. We could be dealing with an older prophecy fulfilment in different versions here. I think it less likely, but certainly not a position that is easily discarded.

    6. Eisegesis is always easy. Given any bit of random nonsense, one can always find some 'deeper' meaning in it. I remember being asked to write an essay on the hidden meanings in "Mary Had a Little Lamb" at uni, as a sectional exercise in understanding eisegesis. But eisegesis is a fine and dandy (maybe even essential) thing to do as a person of faith, it just isn't scholarship. But then are you not trying to argue that this passage is self-defeating a particular type of faith? If so who cares about scholarship?

    7. So for inerrancy, well here's where I don't understand your original point Shane. I don't know many inerrancists who would claim that different tellings of the same event can't differ in reconcilable detail. Remember that an inerrancist will believe that the Zech prophecy is just another witness to the same event: a miraculous witness in advance of the event (remember they won't accept your unwritten assumption that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy at the hands of Matthew's telling). Some of those describe both donkeys, others only give the important one. It seems to me like the inerrancist view is actually stronger here than a kind of Synoptic+Inspiration view (with the qualification that I hold neither view), and is unaffected by discussion of the Zech text that Matthew would have access to.

    There are better examples of irreconcilable differences, I think (or at least differences that require *lots* more post-hoc invention to reconcile).

  20. I'm saying that you're too hung up on literary relationships, and the importance of written texts for transmitting info about Jesus in the first few generations of the Church.

    And the Third Quest did rather well, IMHO.

  21. "and the importance of written texts for transmitting"

    Since this is a story that is connected with Zech, which is an extant written source at the time of Matthew's composition, I don't understand how the literary relationship could be overstated.

    "And the Third Quest did rather well, IMHO."

    Really? Other than re-establishing a kind of Jewish awareness about Jesus's setting, what specific outcomes of the third quest would you say are useful or reliable?

    Most scholars I know are pretty derisory about the fact that everybody's Historical Jesus is different. There are more different 3rd quest historical Jesuses than there are gospel Jesuses (non-canonicals included). Surely by any standard that is a pretty poor outcome.

  22. Thanks Ian - good points; I wish I could disagree! I'm actually not too hung up on contradictions in the bible - in many ways they are old hat, and inerrancy is a quaint fantasy generally only held by strange people.

    What I am (perhaps clumsily) trying to highlight here is what appeals to the historian in me - the *process* by which the Matthean gospel arose - and that is why I find the donkey issue so revealing.

    Back in the olden days, people used to think that the bible was "inspired" and that it was "true", whereas now we know that the various books are significantly more nuanced and complex than that. There is *information* in there - information that can tell us a lot about how the books arose, almost like the way genetic information frozen in the genome can tell us about our ancestors.

    Now, for rhetorical effect, I have laid a lot of blame at the feet of "Matthew" (it *is* my favourite gospel, btw!), but you are right in that this is perhaps a little unfair. I have portrayed him as a clueless klutz, but this is also rather unfair. Sure, he was no historian (nor was "Luke"), but it's the little things in the gospels that give us insights into the actual history - and we *can* see a lot in there - not by the wishful thinking that is standard theistic eisegesis (what a word, eh?), but with historical analysis. We can see how the resurrection stories evolved and shifted in time and place, and how belief in a purely spiritual resurrection was supplanted by belief in a physical one.

    Mrs Hansen never got to learn this, which is rather sad I feel.

  23. It is interesting that Matthew actually switches from quoting the LXX to the MT. The LXX talks about a "pack animal and a new colt". The MT "a male donkey and upon a male donkey the foal of a [female] donkey".

    Now if Matthew is not interpreting the LXX, my point stands. Matthew is familiar with a Palestinian environment, and often changes wording to meet Palestinian expectations (eg. "The Kingdom of Heaven").
    So if 1st Century Palestinian like Matthew could have interpreted Zech 9v9 this way, why couldn't Jesus?

    Best to focus your fire on the two accounts of Judas' death. I haven't a clue how to respond on that issue.

    But some of the harmonisations are pretty fun!

  24. But Graham, my issue with this has never been that it's a contradiction; it's that it tells us a lot about the author. Hey, have you checked out the latest "reasonable doubts" episode? You'd like it. It contradicts some of what I've been saying, but I broadly endorse it. Lecture by Jeremy Beahan. Deffo check it out (that goes for you too, Rich! )

  25. Shane, it all tells us something about the author!

    The issue Graham raises is interesting and my first temptation is to say, well, Judas was dead, but... what I find equally interesting, if not more interesting, is the Acts passage where this is recorded, Acts 1: 18-22. In verse 20 Peter is recorded as quoting two Psalms, taking a bit from one, a bit from the other and connecting them both to the death of Judas and the selection of Matthias.

    Whatever was going on here, and my knowledge is limited, it points to the or a way in which the (for want of a better word) apostles used the Old Testament in the New. Of course you may wish to say that this is just another example of the boys wingin' it but it also points to the kind of cultural custom and practise we have been discussing.

    I'm simply not convinced that we can read the bible without taking into account the wider Hebrew culture of the day. For me, part of understanding what I make of it is to try and understand something of what they made of it.


  26. Good boy, Peter, I do think the light is starting to dawn for you here! Yes, read it in the context of the time. Not from a modern Christian standpoint.

    Now, with that realisation, square this circle for us: if we accept that the editors found it acceptable to do exactly what you have said, what us your basis (if any) for suggesting that dead people *actually* *historically* got up and wandered round Jerusalem at the time of the resurrection?

    Do you agree with me that this did not actually happen, and "Matthew" is making another little play reference?

  27. Why would the use of metaphor or whatever preclude historical events?

    Not debating details here, just asking a question.

  28. Peter, it's a bit rude of you to not answer the question before asking your own!

    I don't think the dead got up and walked around Jerusalem; that is actually neither here nor there.

    What I am asking YOU is if YOU believe this is a historical event or whether it is just part of the freedom "Matthew" had as a gospel writer to make allusions to the OT and elsewhere.

    If you think it is just Matt making more allusions, and that it didn't actually happen, that's fine. But if you're saying that DEAD PEOPLE actually got up and wandered round Jerusalem, that is a shockingly big claim, and you might wish to remark on why this went completely unrecorded by a/ any historians of the period, and b/ by ALL the other gospel writers.

    So I ask you: what was Matt trying to say here? That the dead really roamed Jerusalem, or was he making some smart-ass reference to the OT?

    Please answer the question before asking any more; when we have addressed this, you can have your opportunity.

    [PS Glad you finally found the name button! ;-)]

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