Good question: Did Matthew simply Double the people in his miracle stories?


[Draft: Sep 9/2010]


I got this question in my INBOX--a couple of times over the years--so it is time to address it (smile)…



I would like to ask you a question "Why are there two demon possessed men in the Gerasene tombs in Matthew, but only "one" in Mark and Luke? (Matthew 8: 28-34, Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39)



This passage is one of the so-called 'doublets' in Matthew, in which (it is alleged) Matthew expands a 'historical one person event' into a 'literary two person event'. Most such allegations assume that Matthew was NOT an eyewitness, and was only working with pre-existing material from Mark (and possibly others). There are four such passages in Matthew, and here is a table of the possible parallels from the other gospels.



It should be noted that there are other healings of blind men mentioned in the other gospels, which are NOT mentioned in Matthew's gospel:


Technically speaking, there are two kinds of doublets discussed below. The main type of doublet for this discussion is the ‘doubling of one character into two characters’. A secondary type of doublet is the ‘doubling of one event into two events’. Matthew is often accused of the former type—and this is the main focus of our article—but some also accuse him of the latter.



Introductory Remarks


The first thing I want to point out here is that one's view of gospel authorship makes a huge difference in how one explains the phenomena in Matthew. If one believes, for example, that Matthew was an original apostle who witnessed firsthand these events (like I do), then the answer to the 'why two?' question is obvious: 'because there WERE two there'. [The question then changes to 'why did the other evangelists only mention one?'--a question which we will turn to later.]


If, on the other hand, one believes that the author of the gospel of Matthew was some later figure, without firsthand knowledge of the events and dependent solely upon the Gospel of Mark (in its basic form), then the answer to the 'why two' question is not obvious. The answer must be surmised from presumed motives on the part of the writer/editor.


The scholarly disciple called 'redaction criticism' looks at the differences between two presumably-related texts/traditions (one prior, one posterior) and attempts to 'guess' at the motives for changes made to the prior text. As one might suspect, there is a huge amount of subjectivity and hypothesis construction (read: 'plausible speculation'…smile) involved in both (a) identifying the prior-posterior texts, and (b) 'getting inside the head of' the redactor/editor.


So, many of the mainstream commentators on this issue make the 'standard' assumptions that Matthew is solely dependent on Mark, and that 'Matthew' sought to 'improve upon' (for his or her literary purposes) Mark's accounts. As a consequence, the amount of speculation and conjecture generated is quite amazing (even from 'moderate' commentators).


For example, consider these representative comments:

"The narrative comes exclusively from Mark 10:46–52*, 2 except that in vv. 30b–31* Matthew makes use of the earlier omitted Mark 1:43*. Matthew will bring up the story of the blind Bartimaeus again in 20:29–34* in a version that on the whole is closer to Mark. The changes are redactional. At the most we might ask whether the version of the Markan text available to Matthew was slightly different from ours. There is thus every reason to believe that the two duplications also come from him: One blind man becomes two, one story becomes two. More easily understandable is the duplication of the blind man that has its parallel in 8:28*. It makes it easier to see the blind as types, strengthens the agreement with 11:5*, 5 and corresponds with a law of popular storytelling. The duplication of the story causes greater problems. Matthew has to include the healing of a blind person before 11:5*, but he could have simply included the story here and omitted it in chap. 20. Furthermore, he tells it in 20:29–34* so differently that the reader has the impression that there are two different healings of blind people. But why does he speak both times of the healing of two blind men? It is clear that Matthew did not have our problems concerning historical truthfulness. That was made easier for him by the fact that doublets can be found repeatedly in the synoptic tradition. For Matthew the truth of a gospel story obviously does not depend on historical faithfulness in detail. That is the only way to understand the freedom with which he was able to create a new narrative thread in chaps. 8–9 that is chronologically connected but historically fictitious. [Luz, Hermeneia]

"F. Matthew likes repetitions and creates doublets that emphasize his intention. The Gospel of Matthew contains many repetitions. Source critics with a simplistic approach have been accustomed to claim here that Matthew (and Luke even more) was such a poor master of his material that he leaves variants from different sources, such as the two demands for signs in 12:38–40* and 16:1–4* or the discipleship sayings of 10:38–39* and 16:24–25*. That is totally wrong. Repetitions are a didactic device. They imprint a scene on the minds of the readers as “typical.” They emphasize things that have been said earlier. … One can see how consciously Matthew used this device in the doublets he created himself. Duplications can serve different purposes. They create, for example, a compositional framework around certain sections (e.g., 4:23*/9:35*; 19:30*/20:16*; 24:42*/25:13* = inclusions) They underscore especially important matters (e.g., 9:13*/12:7*). Sometimes they help in dealing with the same material under different aspects (e.g., 10:17–22*/24:9–13*; 7:16–19*/12:33–35*). Or they serve particular purposes such as demonstrating continuity in preaching among John, Jesus, and the disciples (cf. 3:2* with 4:17* and 10:7*). It is especially noteworthy that Matthew does not hesitate to relate the same miracle story twice and to do so as different stories (9:27–31*/20:29–34*; 9:32–34*/12:22–24*). Here we see the creation of variants as it were in situ. This feature does not fit well the image of Matthew as a tradition-bound evangelist. Still, it is not without analogies in the OT tradition. In this way the readers are able to appropriate and to repeat main ideas. Here too it becomes clear that Matthew presupposes a continuous reading of his book. Only then do such techniques make sense. [Hermeneia, intro]

"The two most striking changes introduced are the “two” and Gadara for Gerasa. In view of the brevity of Mt. as compared with Mk. in this section and the following, and to a less extent in the preceding one, it seems not improbable that when the editor came to Mk 1:45 and was proposing to pass on to Mk 4:35–5:20, he did not unroll Mk.’s Gospel to these verses, but summarised them from memory, perhaps purposely shortening them. If that was the course adopted, δύο may be a slip of the memory; but it should be borne in mind that, having omitted a previous history of a demoniac, he may purposely have duplicated here by way of compensation. Cf. 20:30, where he has two blind men and Mk. has one, with the fact that he had previously omitted a history of a blind man, Mk 8:22–26. [ICC]

The most striking peculiarity of Matthew’s account is that what is in Mark and Luke a single individual (though possessed by multiple demons) has become in Matthew “two demon-possessed men.” If this case stood alone it might be possible to explain this duplication as a rather clumsy way to alleviate the idea of many demons in a single individual—though 12:45 shows that multiple possession was not an unfamiliar concept; cf. also Luke 8:2. But the same thing occurs in 20:30–34, where one blind man in the other gospels becomes two blind men in Matthew, and in that case the duplication is further compounded by Matthew’s telling of a similar story of two blind men in 9:27–31, so that Mark’s single blind man has become four altogether! An arguably similar case is 12:22, where a deaf demoniac in Luke 11:14 is parallel to a blind and deaf demoniac in Matthew; in that case the person remains single, but the complaint is doubled. I do not know of any really satisfactory explanation of Matthew’s tendency to see double (Davies & Allison, 2.80, list nine, none of which satisfy them). … The reason for Matthew’s “seeing double” remains a matter of speculation. [NICNT, France, R. T. ]

"There can be little doubt that Matthew has introduced two demoniacs into Mark’s (and Luke’s) story of a single demoniac. It is easier to explain why Matthew would have increased the number than why Mark would have reduced it. The same phenomenon may be observed in Matthew’s doubling of the single blind man of Mark 10:46–52 (and Luke 18:35–43) in 20:29–34 (cf. also the two blind men of 9:27–31). A possible reason for Matthew’s doubling here may be to compensate for his omission of Mark’s first exorcism story (Mark 1:23–28) from his narrative (Gundry, Green, McNeile) as well as an earlier story of the healing of the blind man (Mark 8:22–26). Matthew apparently has a liking for these stories of pairs of healed individuals and may well regard such a practice as justifiable, given the large number of exorcisms and healings that Jesus performed. [WBC, Hagner, at Matt 8.28]



Part of the problem, of course, is in the identification of the presumed-parallels and/or presumed-dependencies. Most passages in the gospels with presumed parallels (with the exception of some sayings of our Lord and some deeply-imprinted historical events) differ somewhat from their 'textual twins'. Commentators argue as to whether the similarities or the differences are more determinative in deciding whether a parallel exists or not.


In our cases, this issue surfaces in the alleged parallel between the earlier 2-blind-men story and the later 2-blind-men story in Matthew (chapters 9 and 20), and in the possible parallel between Mark 10 and any/all of Matthew's blind men stories.


As you might imagine, the similarities- versus-dissimilarities dilemma is answered differently by different commentators. One can be frustrated by this seemingly arbitrary method, but it is a warning to us that any conclusions we reach based on any such decision will only be a firm as its foundation.


So, consider some of the similarities- versus-dissimilarities discussions in OUR material here:


Luz argues that Matthew 20 is the same event as that of Matthew 9, which is dependent on Mark 10, but still recognizes the significant differences:

The narrative comes exclusively from Mark 10:46–52, except that in vv. 30b–31 Matthew makes use of the earlier omitted Mark 1:43 … Missing in 9:27–31 are, among other things: the location at Jericho, the accompanying crowd, the statement that the blind men are sitting at the roadside, the crowd’s rebuke, and Jesus’ mercy. Missing in 20:29–34 are the faith motif and the command to silence. The features unique to the version in our text are due on the one hand to the fact that the context is different from that in Mark 10 and Matthew 20, on the other hand to the fact that Matthew is introducing motifs from earlier stories into our text. [Hermeneia]


But Hagner can argue that Matthew 9 has no 'dependence' on Mark 10--noting most of the same details as Luz:

"Matthew has two narratives about the healing of two blind men (see also 20:29–34). The relationship between these two narratives remains unclear (for a full survey of possibilities, see Fuchs, 18–37). The second of them is by far the most closely related to the healing of the blind man in Mark 10:46–52. … The contacts between the present passage [Mt 9.27ff] and Mark 10:46–52 are so few that any dependence here seems unlikely. The following are all that can be listed: the plea ἐλέησον, “have mercy,” together with the address υἱὸς (Mark: υἱὲ) Δαυίδ, “Son of David” (v 27; cf. Mark 10:48); the fact that in both passages the person(s) to be healed comes to Jesus (v 28; cf. Mark 10:50); and the reference to πίστις, “faith,” in connection with both healings (v 29; cf. Mark 10:52). Matthew’s passage indeed finds no other true parallel in the Gospels (Luke 18:35–43 follows Mark 10:46–52). … [WBC, Hagner, at Matt 9.32ff]


But that Matthew 20 is a doublet of Matthew 9:

"Clearly our passage is much closer to Mark 10:41–52 than is the earlier narrative of the healing of two blind men in 9:27–31. It seems probable that the latter is a doublet of the present passage. The common elements between the two Matthean pericopes are particularly striking: (1) both concern two blind men (δύο τυφλοί), who (2) cry out with nearly the same cry, ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς [κύριε not in 9:27], υἱὸς Δαυίδ, “have mercy on us, [Lord,] Son of David,” (3) to Jesus as he passes by, and (4) whom Jesus heals by touching their eyes (ἥψατο τῶν ὀφθαλμῶνͅὀμμάτων αὐτῶν, “he touched their eyes”). These common elements between the two passages are more impressive than the differences, such as that in 9:27 the blind men follow Jesus (rather than sitting beside the road) and go into a house for their healing, that in the earlier narrative faith is stressed (as it is not here), and that the earlier passage closes with the messianic secret motif (whereas secrecy is here no longer a factor; cf. the imminence of the entry into Jerusalem). Thus what was probably originally a single story serves two different purposes in Matthew’s narrative." [WBC, Hagner (at 20.30)]


France can argue--noting the same details-- that Matthew 9 is not the same event as Matthew 20:

"This episode [Matt 9] has no parallel in the other synoptic narratives, but it is usually explained as a doublet of the story of the blind man (Matthew: two blind men) healed at Jericho in 20:29–34. It has in common not only the healing of two blind men but also the appeal, “Show mercy on us, Son of David.” Most of this pericope, however, is conspicuously not parallel to 20:29–34: the men following Jesus, the location inside the house, the question about faith and their response, the word of healing, Jesus’ “fierce warning” (a remarkably strong word not found elsewhere in Matthew) to keep the healing secret, and the men’s disobedience to it. With so much that is distinctive, it seems to me more likely that this is an independent tradition preserved only by Matthew (just as another healing of the blind is preserved only by Mark, Mark 8:22–26), and that the similarity in the men’s initial address to Jesus results from the natural process of assimilation of miracle stories (especially since “Son of David” finds its way also into another Matthean miracle story in 15:22), than that the one story was created out of the other…. On the parallel in 9:27–31 see comments there, where I have pointed out that the differences between the two stories are sufficient to cast doubt on the assumption that the one story is simply a “doublet” of the other. That story is set in Galilee, this outside Jericho. The specific parallels are restricted to two blind men, “Show mercy on us, Son of David,” and the touching of their eyes to restore sight; in all other ways the stories are different [NICNT, RT France, at Matt 9 and Matt 20]


Blomberg notes the narrative similarities, but points out that the verbal correspondences (the textual data upon which a literary dependence claim is based) is missing between Matthew 9 and 20:

"This episode closely resembles 9:27–31, but only a handful of words are exactly parallel." [NAB, Blomberg]


These are earnest scholars who disagree on how to understand the phenomena, but they illustrate this introductory point I am trying to make here--that the assumption of dependency (for the historical core--not necessarily for the linguistic form) can easily generate more questions than it answers. And, correspondingly, if there is no real reason to assume dependency (since the data cannot support it adequately), then the answers to 'why two?' or 'why one?' have to be sought elsewhere.

Okay, so let's work backward from the 'dependency model' and see how well the 'surmised motives' explain the data. We will look at the various motives imputed to the presumed editor/redactor/writer of the Gospel of Matthew and see how well they can explain the data. Then, we will look at the 'two people there' position and explore the textual implications of that. Finally, we will look at the 'two animals' passage, since it uniquely involves a citation from the Hebrew Bible.



Surmised Motives for Matthew 'adding a second person' into the narratives


One: Exaggeration for Effect. This position basically maintains that Matthew 'inflated' the 'scope' of the miracle by doubling the beneficiaries and/or telling the same story twice (as if they were different events) for creating a specific impression on the reader (or even that folktales 'grow in size' with the retelling).

Luz can suggest exaggeration:

"Matthew likes repetitions and creates doublets that emphasize his intention. The Gospel of Matthew contains many repetitions. Source critics with a simplistic approach have been accustomed to claim here that Matthew (and Luke even more) was such a poor master of his material that he leaves variants from different sources, such as the two demands for signs in 12:38–40* and 16:1–4* or the discipleship sayings of 10:38–39* and 16:24–25*. That is totally wrong. Repetitions are a didactic device. They imprint a scene on the minds of the readers as “typical.” They emphasize things that have been said earlier. … One can see how consciously Matthew used this device in the doublets he created himself. Duplications can serve different purposes. They create, for example, a compositional framework around certain sections (e.g., 4:23*/9:35*; 19:30*/20:16*; 24:42*/25:13* = inclusions) They underscore especially important matters (e.g., 9:13*/12:7*). Sometimes they help in dealing with the same material under different aspects (e.g., 10:17–22*/24:9–13*; 7:16–19*/12:33–35*). Or they serve particular purposes such as demonstrating continuity in preaching among John, Jesus, and the disciples (cf. 3:2* with 4:17* and 10:7*). It is especially noteworthy that Matthew does not hesitate to relate the same miracle story twice and to do so as different stories (9:27–31*/20:29–34*; 9:32–34*/12:22–24*). Here we see the creation of variants as it were in situ. This feature does not fit well the image of Matthew as a tradition-bound evangelist. Still, it is not without analogies in the OT tradition. In this way the readers are able to appropriate and to repeat main ideas. Here too it becomes clear that Matthew presupposes a continuous reading of his book. Only then do such techniques make sense. [Hermeneia, Intro]


But others point out that this just doesn’t really make sense here:

"8:28–34 Two Demoniacs or One? When we compare Matthew 8:28 with Mark 5:2 and Luke 8:27, there is one major difference: Mark and Luke refer to one demonized man while Matthew refers to two. This is not the only place in which Matthew has this difference in number. In Matthew 9:27, which may be parallel to Mark 8:22–23, there are two blind men, in Matthew 20:30 there are also two blind men, although Mark 10:46 has only one, whom he names as Bartimaeus… What are we to make of these Matthean doublets, as they have been called? … Several explanations have been given. First, it is quite possible that there were two men in each instance and that Mark has left one out. While this might be understandable in Mark 10:46, since he might know the name of only one of them or perhaps only one of them continued as a follower of Jesus, this is more of a problem in this passage. What reason could Mark have had for leaving one person out? Is it not more frightening and more dangerous and therefore a more significant miracle to be confronted by two demonized men than one? It is difficult to understand why Mark (and Luke, who, of course, may never have read Matthew and only copied Mark) would be so consistently different without any motive. … Second, some scholars have argued that it is simply the nature of miracle stories to grow in the telling. Thus, like a fish story, where originally there was one man, now there are two. This explanation is far too simplistic. If the stories were just being exaggerated, why would the number always be two? Why would not some of the stories have had two and others three or perhaps five or six? This explanation gives no reason for the consistency.[HSOB]

"It is unlikely, however, that the doubling is simply due to such a tendency in the telling of folk stories (cf. Bultmann, History, 314–17) . [WBC, Hagner, at Matt 8.28]

"Again many see in these verses [Matt 9.27ff] a “partial doublet,” this time with 12:22–24; and again the verbal parallels are minimal. Hill (Matthew) says that 9:32–34 has been formed out of 12:22–24 “in order to complete the cases of miraculous healing presupposed in 11:5 and 10:1.” But Matthew 4:24 shows that Jesus performed many exorcisms. Was Matthew so pressed for another example that he had to tell the same story twice? If so, why is the demon-possessed man in Matthew 12 both blind and mute and this one only mute? Moreover, if 9:34 is genuine, it is surely not surprising that the charge of being in league with Beelzebub (12:24) should begin on a private scale and take some time to explode into the open (12:24). In any case the charge is presupposed by 10:25. [EBC]


Two: Collapsing two one-person events into one two-person event, because he omitted one of the one-person events earlier.

This position holds that Matthew knew of Mark's solo miracle in 1.23-28 or but since he did not include it in his narrative, he smuggles it into his own narrative by 'adding an extra beneficiary' into an event in which said 'extra beneficiary' did not actually participate.

So, Allen [ICC]:

"If that was the course adopted, δύο may be a slip of the memory; but it should be borne in mind that, having omitted a previous history of a demoniac, he may purposely have duplicated here by way of compensation. Cf. 20:30, where he has two blind men and Mk. has one, with the fact that he had previously omitted a history of a blind man, Mk 8:22–26. [ICC]


And Hagner [WBC]

"There can be little doubt that Matthew has introduced two demoniacs into Mark’s (and Luke’s) story of a single demoniac. It is easier to explain why Matthew would have increased the number than why Mark would have reduced it. The same phenomenon may be observed in Matthew’s doubling of the single blind man of Mark 10:46–52 (and Luke 18:35–43) in 20:29–34 (cf. also the two blind men of 9:27–31). A possible reason for Matthew’s doubling here may be to compensate for his omission of Mark’s first exorcism story (Mark 1:23–28) from his narrative (Gundry, Green, McNeile) as well as an earlier story of the healing of the blind man (Mark 8:22–26). Matthew apparently has a liking for these stories of pairs of healed individuals and may well regard such a practice as justifiable, given the large number of exorcisms and healings that Jesus performed. [WBC, Hagner, at Matt 8.28]


But even Luz sees this as questionable and unnecessary:

"Other changes are even more difficult to explain. Why does Matthew speak of two demoniacs? The suggestion that one often reads to the effect that he wanted to make up for having eliminated Mark 1:23–28 is too risky. He follows the same practice in 9:27–31 and 20:29–34 without having to replace something. [Hermeneia, Luz]


As do others [HSOB]

"Third, other scholars have argued that Matthew has deliberately increased the number to two to make a theological point. … What, then, could be Matthew’s point? First, Matthew may be indicating that he has left out a story about a demonized person which he found in Mark (Mk 1:23–28); he also omits one story of healing a blind man (Mk 8:22–26, assuming that Mt 9:27 is too different to be a version of this story). On this view he is playing “catch-up” and indicating that Jesus did this sort of thing more than once. Yet, we may ask, why would he not be content with the single instance? Would it not be enough to show that Jesus could do these things? [HSOB]



Three: Matthew needed 'two witnesses' to Jesus' identity, in order to satisfy Jewish legal requirements

This position holds that the good Jewish 'author' Matthew had to invent another beneficiary (or a second story) so that there would be 'two witnesses' to the event--to satisfy 'standard legal procedure' of the Jews (his target audience) at the time. This would be based upon the Deut 19.15 passage he references/cites at 18.16 and 26.60.

This is one of the more commonly held (or at least 'mentioned') positions.

"But Matthew elsewhere includes two characters, where parallel accounts have one (9:27; 20:30); so he may be uniquely concerned to follow the principle of Deut 19:15, that a testimony be confirmed by two or three witnesses. [NAC, Blomberg]

"Mark and Luke mention only one possessed man, but Matthew here (as in 20:30; cf. 9:27) says there were two, perhaps because the story is recorded as a witness to Jesus’ power and in Jewish law two witnesses were needed. [NBC, Carson]

"There can be little doubt that Matthew has introduced two demoniacs into Mark’s (and Luke’s) story of a single demoniac. It is easier to explain why Matthew would have increased the number than why Mark would have reduced it. .... It may also be the case, given Matthew’s Jewish-Christian readers and their debate with the synagogue, that Matthew is thinking of the importance of more than one witness in Jewish tradition (so too Lamarche; Loader). And as Gibbs notes, in each instance of the pairs produced by Matthew, there is an important christological confession (cf. France). Thus Matthew alone among the evangelists quotes the OT text—granted in another context, but at least showing that Matthew had the verse in mind—which says that every matter is to be “confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (18:16, quoting Deut 19:15, cf. Matt 26:60) . [WBC, Hagner, at Matt 8.28]

"We need to remember, second, that it is Matthew who, ever conscious of the law, in Matthew 18:16 quotes Deuteronomy 19:15 to the effect that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Furthermore, each of these passages has an important confession of Christ. In Matthew 8:29 it is “Son of God.” In Matthew 9:27–28 and 20:30–31 it is “Lord, Son of David.” Thus without having to tell two or more stories he gets his two witnesses to the title of Christ by including more than one demonized person and more than one blind man in the respective stories. While this might not be our idea of accurate reporting (for we, unlike Matthew, can simply add a few more pages to a book to fit in whatever we feel we need to), it would certainly fit the ancient concept, for Matthew has brought out the truth of the matter (for example, that Jesus did heal more than one demonized person and than (sic) many of them gave witness to him as the Son of God) in how he paints his picture. … Even if one chooses to accept that it is easier to believe that Mark left one of the persons out in each case (for we can never know for sure that this was not the case), the explanation above would certainly be a factor in why Matthew felt that having two was so important and Mark, lacking his concern about the law, would not have felt that it mattered. [HSOB]

"The details of this pericope [20.29] present several difficulties when compared with the accounts in Mark and Luke (cf. Mark 10:46–52; Luke 18:35–43; and Blomberg 1987:128–130). … Two blind men. Matthew has previously included another story of the healing of two blind men (9:27–31), but this is a different event. Perhaps Matthew intended that the two stories provide two witnesses to Jesus’ power (Deut 19:15). [Cornerstone, Turner]


But this generally falls flat due to lack of evidence:

"Matthew has two demoniacs where Mark and Luke have only one. This is one of a number of doublings in Matthew. They probably represent nothing more than an insistence that the incidents were not ‘one-offs’ but part of a larger pattern. There is likely to be some relationship to the importance in Jewish law of double witness, but Matthew is not focussed [sic] on legal proof. In sharp contrast to Mark, the two demoniacs here do not attract reader sympathy; rather, they are presented as being a public menace, making that area unpassable. [Nolland, J. (2005). The Gospel of Matthew : A commentary on the Greek text (375). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.]

"Matthew mentions two men; Mark and Luke only one. This pattern occurs elsewhere (20:30), making it very unlikely that Matthew changed the number because he saw an implication of more than one man in Mark’s “Legion” (applied to the demons). It is even less likely that Matthew introduced the extra person to make up the legally acceptable minimum of two witnesses, since not only is the witness theme not found either of the two Matthean pericopes (vv. 28–34; 20:29–34), but here Matthew has eliminated the witness theme (cf. Mark 5:18–20). While the disciples could have served as witnesses, the best explanation is that Matthew had independent knowledge of the second man. [EBC]

"The suggestion that the doubling is intended here to provide “two or three witnesses” to Jesus’ status as “Son of David” is rather weakened by the fact that the title is not new here in Matthew; but I have no better explanation to offer. [NICNT, RT France]

"The rather common suggestion that Matthew increases the number of blind men to two because two was the minimum number of witnesses for attesting Jesus’ messiahship is misguided. To experience the healings would not prove Jesus was the Messiah. He might simply be a prophet. On the other hand, if the miracle confirmed or promoted belief in Jesus’ messiahship, it might do so as easily for those who witnessed the miracle as for those who experienced it. The “large crowd” would have provided witnesses aplenty. The “two” therefore has no theological motivation, but shows personal knowledge of the events. There may have been many blind people in the Jericho area; for the region produced large quantities of balsam, believed to be very beneficial for many eye defects (cf. Strabo 16.2.41). These two were sitting by the roadside, doubtless begging (Mark-Luke), and, hearing that Jesus was passing, cried out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” [EBC]


Especially in the case of the 'two animals' passage!

"This is not, therefore, another example of Matthew’s “doubling” of characters in the stories (as in 8:28–34 and 20:29–34); if the suggestion that those doublings were connected with the need for “two or three witnesses” has any merit, it could not apply here: the donkeys are not witnesses to anything. In those cases there was no OT text underlying the story, but here there is, and its expansive poetic wording has given Matthew scope for adding a further creative twist to his concept of “fulfillment.” [NICNT, RT France]


None of these possibilities really have any strong evidence--textual, historical, or logical--and hence are inadequate to account for the textual data we have in front of us. So, let's move on to explore the implications of holding to a 'two men there' position.



Reality Check: Implications of asserting the "Two men there" position


One: No 'surface' contradiction . This is just an explicit statement that there is no contradiction between the two-men statements of Matthew and the one-man statements of others--at the surface level of the text. Mark and Luke do not affirm that there was 'only' one man present in the events. This seems like a rather 'technical point', but it should be made here anyway:

"Why Matthew mentions two demoniacs, while Mark and Luke tell the story of one is not known, but such a variation in reporting is not uncommon even today. It has been suggested that the demoniac to whom Mark and Luke refer was the leader and spokesman, but this opinion is merely a guess. It should be noted, however, that these other evangelists do not say that only one demoniac met Jesus that day. No one, therefore, has a right to speak about a Matthew versus Mark-Luke “contradiction.” [Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953-2001). Vol. 9: New Testament commentary : Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew. New Testament Commentary (413–414). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.]

"Only Matthew speaks of two demoniacs, but he does not thereby contradict Mark and Luke. Neither of the other Evangelists refers to “only” one. Perhaps one of the two dominated the conversation. [NAC, Blomberg]


Two: Not a pattern. There's really not enough data here to make an actual 'doubling pattern'. Matthew has plenty of miracle stories shared with the other evangelists in which no doubling occurs--so it's not a pattern per se. Some of these overlapping miracle stories would not be 'subject' to doubling (e.g. Peter only has one mother-in-law), but most have anonymous beneficiaries which COULD have been doubled--if this was a 'double vision' problem of Matthew's. The man with leprosy (Mark 1.40) could have become two, the paralyzed man (Mark 2.3) could have become two, and so on. Therefore, any theory that tries to explain the 'doubling phenomena' has to start with just the individual passage in front of them, since Matthew doesn't seem to double as a practice.

"In several cases, one Gospel refers to two characters where the parallels mention only one (two blind men in Matt. 20:30 vs. one in Mark 10:46, two demoniacs in Matt. 8:28 vs. one in Mark 5 :z, or two angels at the tomb in Luke 24:4 vs. one in Mark 16:5). Yet this phenomenon does not recur often enough to enable one to speak of a tendency in the oral tradition to add characters or of a redactional concern to provide two witnesses to an event, as some have tried to do. It is more natural to suggest that there really were two characters present in each case, but that one acted as spokesman for the two and dominated the scene in a way that left the other easily ignored in narratives that so regularly omitted non¬essential details." [BLOM2, 193f]


Three: Matthew actually avoids event-doublets. Even those who affirm that doublets exist in Matthew point out that his does NOT use them at the macro level, and that the (alleged) presence of doublets in his text is perhaps intended for rhetorical and/or literary purposes. From my perspective, if he avoids event-doublets, then this suggests that character-doublets would not be his 'first choice' either.

"Since Matthew controls his sources with precision and avoids doublets at least in larger text complexes, we must ask whether he does not intentionally permit those texts to remain that source criticism explains as doublets. That must be regarded as a possibility with the following texts: 5:29*/18:8–9*; 5:31–32*/19:7–9*; 10:38–39*/16:24–25*; 12:38–39*/ 16:1–4*; 17:20*/21:21*; 20:26*/23:11*. For example, the discipleship sayings of 16:24–25* deepen what Jesus has already said in 10:38–39* about his own suffering (16:21*); 20:26* = 23:11* describes a basic attitude of the believers derived from Jesus’ passion. [Luz, Hermeneia]


Four: More attentive to numbers. Matthew typically relates the shared stories more briefly than does Mark/Luke, but perhaps also typically (for a tax collector!) references 'numbers' more. We might therefore expect his 'twos' to be simple eyewitness memories of someone with a 'quantitative background'.

So, in the case of the two blind men in 20:

"Matthew typically tells the story more briefly than Mark, with less attention to the person(s) healed: Matthew does not tell us his name (Bartimaeus) or that he was a beggar, does not mention the crowd’s reassurance or the man’s throwing off his cloak and jumping up, and does not include the probably symbolic comment that he followed Jesus “in the way.” The focus in Matthew thus falls on the act of healing." [NICNT, RT France]

If we compare the passages in Matthew which use cardinal numbers (e.g. one, two, three) with the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, we note that Matthew consistently observes and reports the number. In some of these cases, we actually have the 'content' of the number, and so they can actually be used as 'controls' or evidence to support the thesis that doubling and/or inflation of the figures is not really occurring elsewhere either.

So, here are the passages in which Matthew uses cardinal numbers in his description. [I have excepted the use of numbers in the words of Jesus, in formulaic sayings, and/in historically 'carved' images--such as the 'two' others crucified with our Lord.] Notice how the other Synoptists give the same details but omit the number.

Mark 1.16: Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.

Matthew 4.18: While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.


Mark 1.19: And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets.

Matthew 4.21: And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them.


Luke 22.28: You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Matthew 19.28: Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.


Mark 10.37: And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

Matthew 20.21: Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”


Mark 14.33: And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled.

Matthew 26.37: And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled.


Mark 14.56: For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. 57 And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ ” 59 Yet even about this their testimony did not agree.

Matthew 26.60: Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, 60 but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward 61 and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’ 


Mark 15.6f: Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. 7 And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. 8 And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. 9 And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead.

Matthew 27.21: The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.”


[There is one 'reverse' data point that I can find: Matthew does not report the cost of the ointment in Matthew 26.9, whereas both John and Mark give a figure of around 300 denarii. This might be, though, a simple case of the 'omitting details' for brevity sake: "Except for ‘a lot’ (πολλοῦ), which replaces Mark’s more precise ‘more than three hundred denarii’, Matthew draws his language from Mk. 14:5, but he leaves out as much as allows for the preservation of the basic sense." (Nolland, J. (2005). The Gospel of Matthew : A commentary on the Greek text (1053). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.)]

All of these passages use numbers, and some of them demonstrate that Matthew's numbers are 'correct'--they match the other content in the narrative.

This data would suggest that Matthew's use of 'two' in the passages under discussion are simple reporting of what he saw (or what his 'independent tradition'--wink, wink--reported).


Five: Similarity of language would not imply duplication. This point basically says that when passages have similar language or narrative elements this does not, in itself, indicate duplication and/or doubling of the event. That is, just because Matthew uses the same/similar terms to describe two different healings, does not mean they are the same historical event.

"Matthew illustrates yet another category of illness Jesus can overcome. Isaiah 35:5–6 predicts the healing of the blind and deaf mutes in the messianic age. This passage is unparalleled in Mark and Luke but closely parallel to Matt 20:29–34, which is paralleled in the other Synoptics. Matthew’s account here is thus often viewed as a “doublet,” created by Matthew to reinforce the theme of the more well-attested episode. But Jesus frequently healed the blind (11:5); it would be natural for Matthew as a storyteller to use similar wording where events were similar, and there are significant differences between 9:27–31 and 20:29–34. So the two accounts should be taken to reflect distinct events in Jesus’ ministry. [NAC]

"Some of these common elements (between Matt 9 and 20) may result from crossover in language between the passages, perhaps during the transmission of the separate stories in oral tradition. Thus the language of one passage may have to some extent influenced the language of the other, producing some of the agreements noted. [WBC, Hagner, at Matt 9.32ff]

"This episode closely resembles 9:27–31, but only a handful of words are exactly parallel. Surely Jesus encountered blind people more than once, and it would be natural for Matthew to tell the story of similar events with similar and even stereotyped language. [NAC, Blomberg]


Six: Natural grouping of the infirm. This point is that, in the ancient world, the infirm often grouped themselves together. This might be due to attraction to some 'magical place' (cf. the Bethesda pool in John 5), isolation to a common quarantine location (e.g., 'outside the camp' in the OT), common place for asking for alms (e.g., at the entrances to temples), or just companionship. In the gospels, we have the ten lepers in Samaria who were together in Luke 17.12 and the many people at Bethesda pool. Although this might not apply easily to the two demoniacs (but recognize that cemeteries were considered to be the haunts of demons--and more than one--in the ancient world), it would be natural for blind men to be in pairs:

"Nor would it be unusual to find blind men in pairs; they would commonly have sought companionship among others like themselves. [NAC, Blomberg]


All in all, one would not actually accuse Matthew of ‘doubling the number’ in these narratives, if the parallels in the other gospels did not exist. They would simply be taken as a ‘historical reminiscence’, as many commentators are willing to at least allow for:

“Matthew apparently has independent knowledge of a second demonized man, because Mark (5:1–20) and Luke (8:26–39) specify only one such person. [ZIBBCNT]

“While the disciples could have served as witnesses, the best explanation is that Matthew had independent knowledge of the second man. [EBC]

“It is possible, though by no means certain (contra Fuchs; Gibbs), that Matthew has generated this story on the model of the Markan story he uses in 20:29–34 in order to represent the many instances of the blind being healed by Jesus (cf. 15:30–31) and in order to have an example of this prior to the sending out of the twelve (chap. 10) and prior especially to the response to the disciples of John the Baptist (11:5). Matthew’s ες τν οκίαν, “into the house,” on the other hand, is an unnecessary detail (going against Matthew’s economy of words) that finds no parallel in any of the other healing-of-the-blind narratives and may well indicate a specific and independent story that Matthew gleaned from oral tradition available to him (see Roloff, Kerygma, 132, for other un-Matthean elements). [WBC, Hagner, at Matt 9.32ff]

With so much that is distinctive, it seems to me more likely that this is an independent tradition preserved only by Matthew (just as another healing of the blind is preserved only by Mark, Mark 8:22–26)… [NICNT, RT France]

“Two blind men. Mark (10:46) supplies us with the name of a single blind man, “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus,” but this is obviously a conflation of the Greek with the Aramaic, and what we have in effect in Mark is “son of Timaeus” repeated. Luke has a single man (Luke 18:35). It is possible that Matthew’s tradition was confused, or that there was indeed a tradition that two men were involved. [AYBC, Mann]


So, what this means is that the problem is not a ‘one into two’ problem, but why the other evangelists present us with a ‘two into one’ problem instead.

In my estimate (contra Hagner), it is easier to explain a reduction in the number than it is to explain the increase (cf. the examination of the possible motives above). Redaction critics do this all the time – even in these passages where they explain Matthew’s omission of details as ‘in the interest of brevity’ or ‘focus on the healing itself’.

There are a gazillion reasons why authors abbreviate, condense, telescope, emphasize, omit details, make characters anonymous, leave out background information, add translations and explanations of local idioms, etc.

In our cases, the most probable reason for them to focus on one character is quasi-abridgment, by having one of the characters (perhaps more dominant or speaking for the pair). The omission of the extra characters themselves is just a narrative option for the author.

Consider this OT example—the death of Saul and the rescue of his body.

In I Samuel 31:1-13 we have the story of the death, desecration, and recovery of Saul’s body:

Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. (2) The Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua the sons of Saul. (3) The battle went heavily against Saul, and the archers hit him; and he was badly wounded by the archers. (4 Then Saul said to his armor bearer, “Draw your sword and pierce me through with it, otherwise these uncircumcised will come and pierce me through and make sport of me.” But his armor bearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. So Saul took his sword and fell on it. (5) When his armor bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword and died with him. (6) Thus Saul died with his three sons, his armor bearer, and all his men on that day together. (7) When the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley, with those who were beyond the Jordan, saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned the cities and fled; then the Philistines came and lived in them. (8) It came about on the next day when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. (9) They cut off his head and stripped off his weapons, and sent them throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people. (10) They put his weapons in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan. (11) Now when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, (12) all the valiant men rose and walked all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. (13) They took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.


Notice that in this very tight narrative, the author describes explicitly that Saul and his sons died in battle, and that they were found by the Philistines. But also notice that only Saul’s body is said to have been fastened to the wall (verse 10)—even though the bodies of his sons had been treated so as well (from verse 12). The narrator simply focuses the narrative on Saul’s body (one body) instead all the bodies (4 bodies). Had there been a parallel passage to this, that said ‘they fastened their bodies to the wall…’, we would have had a similar situation to Matthew and Mark. Omission of details/actions about one character—even when that character is mentioned elsewhere in the narrative (!)—is completely legit.

[BTW, even if one of the other evangelists had used the 'only one' phrase, we would not necessarily have to assume a contradiction with 'two'. All we would have to do is assume that one of the two was 'less important for the narrative to the point of being almost negligible'. A case like this can also be seen in the OT/Tannach, in 1 Kings 12. Vers 20 says "There was none that followed the house of David but the tribe of Judah only" and then in the next couple of verses it refers to "Judah AND Benjamin"--'When Rehoboam came to Jerusalem, he assembled all the house of Judah and the tribe of Benjamin, 180,000 chosen warriers, to fight against the house of Israel, to restore the kindgom to Rehoboam the son of Solomn. But the word of God came to Shemaiah the man of God: 'Say to Rehoboam the son of Solomon, king of Judah, and to all the house of Judah and Benjamin, and to the rest of the people...'"]



And this is the common way commentators understand the abbreviation/condensation on the part of the other evangelists—that the ‘one’ of the Mark or Luke was the ‘one’ doing most of the talking. It wouldn’t certainly be an ‘official spokesman’ of course, but more like someone just ‘doing most of the talking’.

“Only Matthew speaks of two demoniacs, but he does not thereby contradict Mark and Luke. Neither of the other Evangelists refers to “only” one. Perhaps one of the two dominated the conversation. [NAC, Blomberg]

“Matthew apparently has independent knowledge of a second demonized man, because Mark (5:1–20) and Luke (8:26–39) specify only one such person. Matthew is often concerned only with giving general details of the narrative, so he merely mentions that there are two demoniacs; Mark and Luke, giving a more detailed account, single out the spokesman of the two and describe him in more detail. [ZIBBCNT]

“Mention of only one by the other Gospel writers is not problematic. Not only was one sufficient for the purpose at hand, but where one person is more remarkable or prominent, it is not uncommon for the Gospels to mention only that one (cf. “I saw John Smith in town today. I hadn’t seen him in years”—even though both John and Mary Smith were in fact seen). [EBC]

“In a final display of His authority before He reached Jerusalem, Jesus healed two blind men near the city of Jericho. The other Synoptic writers (Mark and Luke) repeat this story with a few differences. Matthew wrote of two men; Mark and Luke spoke of one. Mark included the name of the blind man, Bartimaeus. Undoubtedly two men were there and Bartimaeus was the more noticeable of the two. [BKC]



Gundry objects that there couldn’t be a Gardarene ‘spokesman’ because the text says that both men spoke ("Do Mark and Luke mention only the spokesman in a pair of demoniacs? Hardly, because according to Matthew both demoniacs spoke to Jesus (v 29)."), but surely this objection is a bit oblique here. There is more than enough narrative freedom to allow one man to say what two men said in the actual experience, based on the gospel literature (and the literature of the times).

In the gospels alone, for example, a spokesperson is sometimes mentioned and sometimes completely omitted:


So, there is no reason to complain if Mark or Luke man one of the two men into the ‘main speaker’. This is just not a real problem. They have the same freedom to ‘reduce details’ as Matthew had—they just differed in which details they chose to omit, and how they summarized/condensed/abridged the story.


So, in the two-versus-one man stories, we can summarize:

  1. There is a high degree of speculation in answers to the question of ‘why one’ or ‘why two’.

  2. There is a high degree of subjectivity in the similarities versus dissimilarities in identifying supposed parallels, dependencies, and event-doublets.

  3. The alleged motive of ‘exaggeration for effect’ doesn’t fit, since the number 2 is not THAT much ‘bigger’ than 1—and the pattern is just not consistent enough anyway (e.g. why wouldn’t Matthew double EVERYTHING?)

  4. The alleged motive of collapsing 'two events with one person', into 'one event with two persons' doesn’t fit, since there is no real need for Matthew to even do this, and since he doesn’t evidence this tendency anywhere else.

  5. The alleged motive of needing two witnesses to satisfy a biblical theme flounders on lack of evidence—he doesn’t mention them as witnesses and the crowd present there already functions for this purpose.

  6. None of these commonly proposed motives for Matthew to double the person-count fit the data we have.

  7. There is no real textual or narrative contradiction between 2-in-Matthew and 1-in-Other-Evangelists anyway.

  8. There is not enough ‘doubling-data’ in the gospels to actually identify it as a pattern.

  9. Matthew actually avoids event-doubling in certain major cases.

  10. Matthew’s use of ‘two’ to accurately describe events fits the ‘control data’ we have, and also fits his general pattern to use cardinal numbers in descriptive settings.

  11. Similarity of language used to describe similar events does not imply ‘event doubling’.

  12. Essentially, then, these simply look like historical reminiscences of an eyewitness (whether Matthew or some other source).

Thus, the question moves from ‘why two?’ to ‘why one?’, and the ‘standard’ explanation of authorial selectivity, narrative focus on a dominant event participant, or unofficial spokesman is more than adequate to account for this ‘un-doubling’ phenomena of the other evangelists.



The Two Animal Problem

The two-animal problem in Matt 21 is somewhat different from the two-men passages, so I want to treat it separately. It is complicated by the presence of an OT quote from Zechariah, and by the Hebrew/Greek translation possibilities.

Here are the relevant passages (or portions) and the relevant Hebrew/Greek words used:


Zech 9.9b Hebrew:

He is humble and riding upon a male donkey (hmr) and upon an ass (‘ir), the son (ben) of a she-ass (‘thnoth, plural of ‘thn)


Zech 9.9b in LXX:

He is mild and mounted upon beast-of-burden (hupozugion) and a young (neos) foal (polos)


John 12.14-15

Jesus, finding a young donkey (onarion), sat on it; as it is written, “FEAR NOT, DAUGHTER OF ZION; BEHOLD, YOUR KING IS COMING, SEATED ON A DONKEY’S (onos) COLT (polos).”


Mark 11.1ff

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt (polos) tied, on which no one has ever sat [note: all other references in the passage to this animal uses the same Greek word polos]


Luke 19.29ff:

When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt (polos) tied, on which no one has ever yet sat” [note: all other references in the passage to this animal uses the same Greek word polos]


Matthew 21.1ff:

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey (onos) tied, and a colt (polos) with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” 4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, 5 “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey (onos), and on a colt (polos), the foal (son) of a beast of burden (hupozugion).’ ” 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7 They brought the donkey (onos) and the colt (polos) and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.


[One should note at the outset here that John’s version demonstrates that narrative details can be easily omitted, according to whatever main point the author is trying to make. John has Jesus finding the donkey, instead of sending out some of the disciples; only implies the ‘not ridden on yet’ by the diminutive term use for the ‘young donkey’; and omits the Zech 9.9a parallel line entirely—simply paraphrasing the passage.]


Matthew’s account here is noticeably more detailed and perhaps more ‘Hebrew-ish’, with references to the Zechariah passage and his reference to the colt and his mother.

The more I look at Matthew’s passage, the more obvious it is to me that modern ‘objections’ to his wording and narrative details have ‘overestimated’ his ‘creativity’ here. The best way to see this might be to look at the passage as two isolated units first.

The first unit would be the simple historical narrative without the OT/Tanach fulfillment quote. It would thus read like this:

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey (onos) tied, and a colt (polos) with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” [SNIP] 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7 They brought the donkey (onos) and the colt (polos) and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.


This is a perfectly consistent, intelligible, and Hebrew-ish passage:


One. He uses the standard Greek word for donkey (onos) and for colt (polos).


Two. He has the mother and the colt being handled as a unit [A colt/mother pair was almost inseparable in 1st century Judaism—they were always sold together].

“Clearly the key to the problem lies in the fact that an unbroken colt (note Mark 11:2, “upon which no one had sat,” which is known to Matthew although omitted by him) was usually introduced into service while accompanied by its parent (on the inseparability of the two, see m B. Bat. 5:3… [WBC, Hagner] [WBC, Hagner]

(Mishnah: He who sells an ass has sold the foal. (b. b. Batra 5.3, Neusner)

“This prophecy was effectively realized when Jesus made his messianic entry into Jerusalem. One of the interests of the Matthean redaction is to note the relation of the colt, which was male, with its mother: “the colt with her” (pōlon met’ autēs, Matt 21:2). Because this foal had never been ridden, its mother was led along with it to make it more docile: “they led the ass and the colt” (ēgagon ton onon kai ton pōlon, 21:7). We have numerous papyri relating the sale of an ass with her young and giving the description of one or the other (BGU 982; PSI 882; P.Grenf. II, 46; P.Wisc. 15; P.Oxy. 3145; etc.) notably P.Stras. 251 (AD 69–79), and this latter published with a learned commentary by Sophia M. E. van Lith in CPR VI, 3, n. 2: In AD 114, in the Arsinoite, an ass and her male offspring were sold for eighty-eight drachmas; the color, sex, [teeth], and age of the animal are specified: peprakenai autō onon thēleian myochroun kai ton epakolouthounta pōlon arrena melanon anaporriphous. The mother is referred to as a “female ass” (onon thēleian), gray in color; her colt is male (pōlon arrena) and full-grown (epaklouthounta).” [Spicq, C., & Ernest, J. D. (1994). Vol. 2: Theological lexicon of the New Testament (589–590). Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson.; Notice how the ‘onon’ term had to be qualified by a gender term to indicate the distinction between he-ass and she-ass.]


Three. Both colt and she-ass would have received cloaks on them, due to the festival (public animals were always decorated in the ancient world for festivals).

“… the festive occasion required that the mother, even though not ridden, should also be given a saddle cloth. [NICNT, RT France]


Four. The Torah emphasis on animals which had ‘never been ridden on’ (noted by Mr and Lk) is implied here by the presence of the mother with the colt.

“Only Matthew mentions two donkeys; Mark and Luke state that Jesus rode a colt that had never been previously ridden. Matthew’s mention of the colt’s mother highlights its youth and the fact that it had not been ridden before. … [Cornerstone, Turner and Bock]

“The description of the colt as one which had never been ridden is significant in the light of the ancient provision that an animal devoted to a sacred purpose must be one that had not been put to ordinary use (cf. Num. 19:2; Deut. 21:3; 1 Sam. 6:7). This detail emphasizes the appropriateness of the colt for the sacred task it will perform and characterizes Jesus’ entry as a symbolic action possessing profound messianic significance. [Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (395). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.]

The king had a royal donkey on which no one but he ever rode. The fact that Jesus came riding on a donkey, particularly on one that had never been ridden, is a fulfillment of the prophecy mentioned in v. 5, from Zech. 9:9, with a possible allusion to Isa. 62:11. [Utley, R. J. D. (2000). Vol. Volume 9: The First Christian Primer: Matthew. Study Guide Commentary Series (173). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.]

“The fact that the colt had never been ridden is meant to honor Jesus, as in 1 Sam 6:7 the ark of the covenant was placed on a new cart and pulled by oxen who had never been yoked. [Black, A. (1995). Mark. The College Press NIV commentary (Mk 11:1). Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co.]


Five. The practical need for the continuing presence of the mother to keep an un-ridden colt calm during the shouting of the festival crowd during the ‘loud entrance’ is satisfied. [This is not noted by Mr/Lk]

”Assuming that he rode on only one animal (and Matthew does not tell us whether it was the mother or the foal), the presence of the other is probably best explained at the narrative level by the comment of Mark and Luke that the “foal” had not been ridden before, so that its mother’s presence would help it to cope with the new experience (and the frightening noise of the crowd… [NICNT, RT France]

Since the colt was unbroken (cf. Mark 11:2), it seems reasonable that the mother would be brought along but not necessarily mentioned. Entering Jerusalem on a donkey would indicate a mission of goodwill (an aggressor would have ridden a war-horse; cf. Pss. Sol. 17:23–27). [Mounce, R. H. (1991). New International Biblical Commentary: Matthew (194–195). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.]

“They brought the donkey and the colt (21:7). Zechariah’s prophecy specified in synonymous parallelism that a young colt, the unbroken foal of a donkey, was the animal on which the peace-bringing king of Israel would enter Jerusalem. Matthew alone mentions two animals (cf. Mark 11:4, 7; Luke 19:33, 35), which adds a touch of historical reminiscence. An unbroken young colt would be controlled best by having its mother ride alongside to calm it in the midst of the tumult of entering Jerusalem. [ZIBBCNT]

It is hard to think that Matthew misunderstood Zechariah's synonymous parallelism in making its first line refer to a mother donkey; for this disagreements with the LXX show consultation of the Hebrew text; and a misunderstanding of the common Hebrew work hamor, 'male donkey,' as a mother onos is unlikely. Ambiguity in the gender of onos, however, gave him opportunity to make a distinction. That the male colt had not been ridden… opens the possibility of a historical reminiscence in the mention of two animals. For the sight of an unridden donkey colt accompanying its mother has remained common in Palestine up to modern times. " [Gundry, Matthew, in loc.]


Six. The ‘he sat on them’ is commonly understood by commentators to refer to the ‘cloaks’ and not to the gymnastically-intricate possibility of Jesus straddling the two animals.

“But common sense dictates that the second occurrence of the pronoun 'them' in the sentence that reads, 'they led the donkey and her colt and placed upon them garments and he sat upon them', refers back to the garments, not to the donkeys (and to more than one garment on one particular donkey). [BLOM2, 193f]

“21:7 They … threw their garments over the colt and he sat on it. The Gr. text says the disciples put their garments on both donkeys and that Jesus sat on them. Grammatically the pronoun “them” may refer either to the donkeys or to the garments thrown on the donkeys. It seems doubtful that Matthew is affirming that Jesus somehow straddled both animals, although some scholars argue that Matthew did intend this due to a misunderstanding of the Heb. parallelism in Zech 9:9 (Meier 1978:21–22, 144). Hagner (1995:594) thinks Matthew understood the parallelism but maximized the details of the correspondence with Zech 9:9 with a typically rabbinic hermeneutic. Instead, the idea is probably that Jesus rode on the garments spread on the colt (cf. Mark 11:2; Luke 19:35; John 12:14). [Cornerstone, Turner and Bock]



So, this part of the passage is entirely reasonable, and the omission of the mother by Mark, Luke, and John might simply be no different from any other omission of details… But I think Matthew’s mention of the mother might also be related to the fulfillment motif—but not in the way commentators generally think.


Ok—that’s the narrative part. Now let’s treat the fulfillment quote of Matthew’s by itself. Here’s how it reads:

This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, 5 “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey (Greek onos, for Hebrew hamor), and on a colt (polos, for ‘yr), the foal (son, huios for ben) of a beast of burden (hupozugion, for ‘thn).’ ”


Now, if we read this in isolation from the narrative context, as just a translation of Zech 9.9, something odd (relative to the history of interpretation of the Matthew passage) becomes apparent:


One. The word Matt uses to translate the Hebrew he-ass (hamor) is the standard Greek word onos.

“Greek, like English, is not so well supplied with terms for donkeys as Hebrew. Matthew’s version, even though not following the LXX (which oddly does not use the standard Greek term ὄνος at all in this verse), uses its word ὑποζύγιον, a more general term for a beast of burden, to represent the second of two Hebrew terms for donkey in this verse (in this case more specifically a female donkey), which in the poetic parallelism function as synonyms. [NICNT, RT France]


Two. The form of the word in the Greek is ambiguous—it can be either male or female.


Three. Unlike in the narrative, in the quote there is no definite article or adjective to indicate that onos is feminine (which would be a different word in Hebrew; she-ass is ‘thn and not hamor).


Four. Matthew could not have translated Zech 9.9a any ‘truer’ to the Hebrew text of he-ass (hamor) if he tried. Matthew translates 9.9b closer to the Hebrew than to the Greek translation of the LXX, by including the ‘son-of’ construction (ben in Hebrew, huios in Greek). The Hebrew passage uses the most common three Hebrew words for domesticated donkeys (male donkey-hamor; female donkey-‘then; foal—‘yr) and Matthew, unlike the LXX, uses three separate words too (male donkey-onos; female beast of burden-hupozugion, colt--polos).

“Zc. 9:9 begins ‘Rejoice greatly, daughter Zion’, but that does not quite fit Matthew’s context where Zion does not rejoice, but the crowd accompanying Jesus into Jerusalem (Mt. 21:8–9). But Is. 62:11 is thematically similar (‘See, your salvation comes’) and is introduced with ‘say to daughter Zion’. Matthew makes a substitution. What text form does Matthew reflect? For Is. 62:11 the LXX at this point is the natural translation of the Hebrew, so it could be either. The same is true for ‘See, your king comes to you’ from Zc. 9:9. For the rest of the quoted matter Matthew has πραΰς καὶ ἐπιβεβηκὼς ἐπὶ ὄνον καὶ ἐπὶ πῶλον υἱόν ὑποζυγίου where the LXX has πραΰς καὶ ἐπιβεβηκὼς ἐπὶ ὑποζύγιον καὶ πῶλον νέον. Both the similarities and the differences are striking. Given the range of options for translating both ʿny (‘humble’) and rkb (‘riding’) into Greek (evident already in LXX usage), the coincidence strongly suggests dependence on the LXX form. By contrast, Matthew has three different words for donkey, as does the MT (ḥmwr, ʿyr, and ʾtn), and both Matthew and the MT use a ‘son of’ construction. The coincidence with the LXX in the use of ὑποζύγιον (lit. ‘under the yoke’) and πῶλον (for its meaning see at v. 2)—but in different positions—may point to some secondary influence from the LXX form here as well. Once again Matthew shows himself to be master of multiple text forms. [Nolland, J. (2005). The Gospel of Matthew : A commentary on the Greek text (835). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.]


Five. He uses the most common Greek equivalent for foal/colt in Hebrew (‘ir) – polos.


Six. Commentators (at least modern ones) are pretty confident that Matthew knew the Zechariah passage was not talking about two animals, having demonstrated understanding of synonymous parallelism elsewhere in the gospel.

“That Matthew is quite comfortable with synonymous parallelism is clear from its presence in the quoted material of Mt. 4:16; 8:17. And as we have seen above, Matthew is a master of multiple text forms and would not therefore be restricted to what he perceived to be the sense of the LXX text. [Nolland, J. (2005). The Gospel of Matthew : A commentary on the Greek text (837). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.]

But it is quite unreasonable to suggest that Matthew, who demonstrably had a good command of Hebrew (cf. Gundry, Use of OT, p. 198), added the extra animal to fit a text he radically misunderstood (contra McNeile, Schniewind). Nor is it more reasonable to assume that Matthew knows there actually were two animals and quotes Zechariah because the prophet’s words might barely refer to two; for his Jewish readers would not likely be convinced. [EBC]

“But was it one or two animals? It is commonly argued that Matthew, who alone among the evangelists speaks explicitly of two animals, has misunderstood the device of synonymous parallelism (e.g., McNeile, Grundmann, Gnilka, Meier, Beare), so common in the Hebrew Bible: the second phrase is the restatement, and perhaps refinement, of the first phrase, to be translated (if at all) with a preceding “even” (thus Zech 9:9 points to a single animal). It is very difficult, however, to believe that with the full Jewishness of Matthew’s perspective he would have been ignorant of something as obvious as synonymous parallelism (so too K. Stendahl, School of St. Matthew, 119, 200). And it is almost impossible to argue that Matthew believed two animals were necessary, rather than the single animal of Mark, for the prophecy of Zechariah to be regarded as fulfilled. [WBC, Hagner] [WBC, Hagner]


There is thus not the slightest reason to believe that his use of onos in 5a is referring to a female donkey—but rather is a faithful and optimal rendering of the Hebrew.

One question that comes up in my mind, though, is why did Matthew use ‘beast of burden’ to translate ‘she-ass’ in Zech 9.9b—but the answer seems obvious now. The Greek language (like English) does not have a separate word for he-ass and she-ass, but renders both by the exact same word/form (onos). The probability of confusion is therefore quite high.The only way to know that any underlying Hebrew word was male or female would be the use of gender-differentiated definite article, adjective (e.g. English ‘his’ and ‘hers’), or gender-inflected modifier clause —or by context. Had Matthew used onos in both the 9.9a and 9.9b translation (for both the ridden animal and its mother!), some readers might have made the improper conclusion that they were referring to the same animal (like some commentators do today!). By substituting an alternate term (beast-of-burden) for donkey in 9.9b, Matthew is able to ‘save the good word’ (onos) for the he-ass in 9.9a, and still make sure the reader knows that the colt is a ‘son of a donkey’—like the Hebrew text says.


So, in treating the Zechariah text, Matthew has shown great sensitivity to the underlying Hebrew text and semantics, and translates with sensitivity to possible confusions by his readership.


Now, when we put the two pieces (i.e, the narrative event and the OT fulfillment quote) back together again, we can avoid some of the common errors of assumption often made about this passage.

For example, if you look in English-Greek interlinears for how they understand the word onon in 5a, they typically (I cannot find an exception in my library) give the gender of onos there as feminine—although there is not a single textual clue to indicate this. There is no ending on onos, there are no gender-differentiated modifiers, and the parallelism indicates a masculine use. The ONLY possible reason one would think it to be female would be if one ASSUMED that the onos of the quote referred back to the onos/mother of the previous narrative. But there is no reason to assume this, because the mother onos in verses 1-4 is referred to in 5b by a different word--the more generic term hupozugion (beast of burden) in the ‘son of X’ construction.

The only possible way Matthew could have been clearer would to have used hupozugion for the mother term in 1-4, but that would have been risky, since hupozion can refer to animals other than donkeys (e.g. mules, horses, even oxen).

“ὑποζύγιον, ου, τό (Theognis, Hdt.+; ins, pap, LXX, Philo; Jos., Ant. 14, 471 al.; Ath. 31, 3) orig. ‘draught animal, beast of burden’ (lit. ‘under the yoke’) hence ‘pack animal’ (acc. to X., Oec. 18, 4 oxen, mules, horses) in our lit. donkey, ass [Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.) (1037). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.]

“ὑποζύγιον,-ου (Gn 36,24; Ex 4,20; 9,3; 20,10.17) draught animal, beast of burden, ass, mule or horse [Lust, J., Eynikel, E., & Hauspie, K. (2003). A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint : Revised Edition. Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: Stuttgart.]


So, to be clear that the colt was the he-ass of Zech 9.9a, Matthew had to ‘start with’ onos for the mother, but he could ‘end with’ hupozugion for mother and onos for the colt.

So, with onos of verse 5 referring to the colt instead of the mother (male use instead of female), we have a completely ‘perfect’ story. And the inclusion of the mother in the story (as opposed to the abbreviated forms in the other parallel accounts) is simply to show vividly the fulfillment of the ‘son of a donkey’ term in the end of 9.9b. The mother is present historically for practical reasons (as noted above), but is mentioned in the narrative for reasons of fulfillment motif: “a colt, the son of a donkey”. The presence of the mother illustrates even further that the Zech passage is being fulfilled—and was probably what struck Matthew the most about his eyewitness experience of this event.

This understanding of the passage removes the need for many of the ‘awkward’ (?) explanations put forth in some commentaries (e.g. Matthew was ignorant of Hebrew parallelism; Matthew wanted to impress his semi-rabbinic readers with ‘creative’ use of the text; Matthew doubled the animals to have two ‘witnesses’!).

In fact, the presence of the mother (for the practical reasons mentioned about) is often considered evidence of a ‘historical reminiscence, whether of Matthews or his purported sources:

They brought the donkey and the colt (21:7). Zechariah’s prophecy specified in synonymous parallelism that a young colt, the unbroken foal of a donkey, was the animal on which the peace-bringing king of Israel would enter Jerusalem. Matthew alone mentions two animals (cf. Mark 11:4, 7; Luke 19:33, 35), which adds a touch of historical reminiscence. [ZIBBCNT]

There is thus an ipso facto probability that historically two animals were involved in the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Matthew, either deducing this fact from general probability or possibly knowing from an eyewitness tradition that there were two animals (Gundry, Matthew [409], speaks of “a historical reminiscence”)... [WBC, Hagner] [WBC, Hagner]



So, the two-animal problem is not as ‘intractable’ as it might look like at first, since all the elements actually fit together quite well—for both the narrative and for the fulfillment quote:

  1. The parallel in the Gospel of John shows that abbreviation of both narrative and fulfillment quote is legitimate for an author, and that therefore a reduction of mother-and-foal (in the event) to colt-only (in the gospel narrative) by other gospel writers is perfectly natural.

  2. Matthew uses all the standard terms for the animals, and these terms match the Hebrew of Zechariah perfectly.

  3. His description of the dual-action of mother-colt fits what we know of animal handling, festival proceedings, and basic practice of the period.

  4. His language is such that no one need asset that Jesus straddled two animals!

  5. His use of Hebrew texts and parallelism elsewhere in his gospel shows us that he did not misunderstand Zech 9.9, and that he would ‘know better’ than to try to foist a ‘dualist’ interpretation upon his Jewish readership!

  6. His could not have translated the Zechariah quote any truer or any more carefully, for proper communication to his readership.

  7. His use of the mother donkey in the story can be easily and naturally explained by the vividness of its impression upon him as an eyewitness—the visual image of the ‘colt, the son of a she-ass’ communicated the concreteness of God’s fulfilling His promises to Israel for her messiah.


So, as in the case of the two-men, the two-animal passage seems to ring true to the textual and historical data, the narrative patterns, and what we know about Matthew (the final or source author of the Gospel of Matthew).


I hope this helps,


Glenn Miller, 2010



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