Why Did Jesus Ride a Donkey Into Jerusalem? (It’s Symbolic)

In one of the most iconic scenes from the New Testament. Attested by all 4 gospels is Jesus’ riding a donkey entering Jerusalem.

Considering the significance of the event, a donkey might seem an unusual choice for a king’s entrance at first glance.

Raising the question, Why did Jesus ride a donkey into Jerusalem?

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, declaring himself as the prophesied King, the “anointed one” by Zechariah 500 years earlier in line with Jewish traditions of kingship.

This choice of ride was very intentional.

Compared to numerous alternatives, a donkey held profound significance. Meaning and symbolism that further exemplified his identity, affirming his mission.

Some of that symbolism has been confused over the last two millenniums.

People are connecting reasons why they think Jesus chose to ride a donkey into Jerusalem. The religious centre of Judaism of his day.

But these symbols may be missing the point.

Donkey Symbolism

Donkeys in ancient times, as now, had symbolic value. Symbolism that greatly influenced people’s perception of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Humility

Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem was the epitome of humbleness and self-denial. Donkeys, unlike horses, symbolize humility and meekness.

Jesus’ choice of a donkey as his mode of transportation was a deliberate display of his humility.

Living out his teaching that “the last should be first,” and when you are invited to a banquet, do not sit in the most prestigious place but humble yourself for you may be exalted in front of the guest.

Peace

Donkeys had become a symbol of peace often used in the enactment of treaties.

Donkeys, a beast of burden, were used to work the fields and transport people during times of peace.

Fingers Made Into a Peace Symbol

Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem riding on a donkey showed that he was coming in peace. Unlike a conquering king, powerfully announcing his arrival.

Jesus meekly arrived in peace.

Carrying the Weight of the World’s Sins

Some propose that donkeys being “beasts of burden.” Jesus chose a donkey to represent the burden that he was about to bear.

That soon he was to bear the burden of sin. Suffering for the world on the cross in Jerusalem.

He was also weighted down with the sins he had to carry because of the world’s transgressions. Just as a donkey would be weighed down with a load as he carried the burdens of others.

Identifying With the Marginalised

It is often considered that Jesus spent much of his time with the marginalized of society. The outcast and those on the fringe.

Horses were for the wealthy. The elite of society.

“Jesus used the donkey to connect with the common people. “

Kat Cendana

A donkey was for the common people.

Therefore, Jesus, being a man of the people, chose to enter Jerusalem in the same fashion that many of them would have done.

Prophecy

Matthew and John propose that Jesus rode a donkey to fulfill prophecy.

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Zechariah 9:9

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey not because of what it represented but because over 500 years ago, it was prophecied that the king of Isreal would come on a donkey.

Open Glowing Bible

Interestingly, John remarks, “his disciples did not understand all this.” (12:16). Possibly, the disciples thought it was some other reason that Jesus requested a donkey to ride into Jerusalem.

But Luke tells us that it was the disciples who welcomed Jesus with joyful praise.

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Luke 19:38

Mark quotes it slightly differently, emphasizing the “kingdom of our father David.” (Mk.11:10). Wrapping it up with more of a prophetic sense of the coming of a new kingdom. The one longed for for centuries by the Jews.

The donkey may not have made sense to the disciples. But that Jesus’ arrival was an announcement of a coming kingdom was clear to them.

Raising a good question

If Jesus was announcing the arrival of a new King. Himself.

Why did he not ride into Jerusalem as a king would? A majestic creature of power. A horse.

Why a Donkey, not a War Horse?

Since Alexander the Great’s conquest on his trusted Bucephalus. A large black horse with a star on his forehead trampled over all who opposed him. The image of a conquering king mounted on a horse.

Powerful Horse on his hind legs

An image used by the writer of Revelation.

I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

Revelation 6:2

But when we think of a donkey, we think of a humble beast of burden.

But this may be the wrong image that we are drawing from.

“The donkey was a royal steed in the Old Testament. The king rode on a donkey, that’s very, very important. Not a horse, because then He’d have to be a conqueror, but because He was in charge here, He rode on a donkey.”

Doug Bookman

Bookman sees the difference in action.

An attacking King would ride a horse.

The one rightful king would ride a donkey. He did not need the power and majesty of a horse because he was already in power. A donkey’ gentler approach was better suited.

Riding a donkey created a contrast between a conquering King and a humble Messiah.

But we may also be looking to the wrong culture to explain Jesus’ actions.

The proud stallion is Greek, not Jewish symbolism.

Yes, Jesus’ culture was highly influenced by Greek culture, but he was Jewish first.

The symbols and examples that he would draw from would be primarily Jewish. He would look to his own people’s examples as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Biblical Figures Who Rode Donkeys

In ancient Israel, donkeys or mules were very common.

So, it should not surprise us that many of Israel’s leaders rode donkeys.

  • Jair of Gilead 30 sons (Judges 10:4)
  • Abdon, son of Hillel’s 70 sons/grandsons (Judges 12:14)

In Judges 5:10, Deborah mentions riders of donkeys in her song.

But I think the more important historical event is Solomon—a son of King David.

When David declares him to be his successor (1 Kings). Announcing to all of Israel that Solomon is the new King. He has him ride on his mule (donkey).

A key event in Israel’s history.

But one in which the king comes riding on a donkey.

It is not without precedent in Jewish history for their king to come on a donkey.

Jesus may have looked to this imagery more than the Greek of a conquering hero on a horse.

Resources

  • https://encounterchurchfw.org/blog/why-did-jesus-ride-a-donkey
  • https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/193175.pdfpa, New York.
  • https://www.christianity.com/wiki/jesus-christ/why-did-jesus-ride-a-donkey-into-jerusalem.html
  • https://amazingbibletimeline.com/blog/why-did-christ-ride-a-donkey-on-his-triumphant-entry/
  • https://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/topical.show/RTD/cgg/ID/20184/Riding-Donkey-as-Sign-Royalty.htm
  • https://www.colorado.edu/classics/2018/06/19/horses-ancient-greek-life
  • https://wernerbiblecommentary.org/?q=book/print/431
  • https://aleteia.org/2022/04/08/why-did-jesus-ride-a-donkey-on-palm-sunday/
  • https://ehrmanblog.org/did-jesus-really-have-a-triumphal-entry-into-jerusalem/

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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