A Messianic Triumphal Entry? | A Palm Sunday Reflection

Should we understand the Triumphal Entry as a royal, messianic event? The most obvious indicator that the answer is “yes” may be the reference to the "Son of David" in Matt. 21:9. Additionally, in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, both Matthew and John explicitly quote Zech. 9:9. It is also probable that the Zechariah text is implicitly in view in Mark. The Zechariah text reads:

“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.”

Indeed, an association between the royal line of Judah and a donkey can also be found in Gen. 49:11. We may note also the right of Old Testament kings to draft their animals for use in transportation in 1 Sam. 8:17; Num. 16:15.

However, others argue (e.g. Ernst von Dobschütz) that the assertion of messiahship is veiled, much like the messianic secret––only those who have eyes to see it, see it. Indeed, for all the apparent pomp and circumstance surrounding Jesus’ entry, neither the high priests nor the Romans took immediate action against him. Albert Schweitzer thus argues that the Entry was messianic for Jesus, but not for the people. The Kingdom of David is hailed as near, but Jesus is not overtly identified with the messiah himself. But I don't think you can have one without the other.

Still others say that an original spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm over being in Jerusalem was later interpreted messianically under the influence of Zech. 9:9 (Julius Welhausen, Rudolf Bultmann). Thus, the action could originally have been eschatological, but not messianic (Rudolf Otto). But I don't think the early church missed the point.

As for me, I think the Triumphal Entry was an overtly messianic act, though an anti-climactic one. Jesus does not stay in Jerusalem to claim his crown; he will return in a day on his way to the cross. And the only crown he will receive will be a crown of thorns, given in mockery by the very ones over whom he rules as Lord. Disappointed over his apparent failure, are some of those who cried "Hosanna" at his entry the same ones who cried "Crucify Him" at week's end?

As for the symbolic significance of the act of riding on a donkey, Vincent Taylor argues that Jesus' teaching concerning his suffering had failed (!), so that Jesus resorts again to a prophetic action by sending for the colt.[1] Thus, the entry is intended to declare that Jesus is the messiah, but that he is a lowly one: "Unable to deny that He is the promised Messiah He is no man of war, but lowly, and riding upon an ass" (Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, p.452). The crowds are thus puzzled because Jesus does not enter the way they expect; he is not the messiah of their hopes. For example, see b. Ber. 56b:  "Whoever sees a donkey in a dream anticipates the messianic kingdom, for it says (Zech. 9:9):  Look, your king . . ." (translated from Pesch, Markuskommentar, 179).  Yet Pesch thinks that Jesus' humility is shown in the fact that he only borrows the donkey and promises to send it back! Supposedly, this is why they later turn against him. But I am convinced that Jesus is not borrowing the donkey; he is claiming it as his own.

In my view, Jesus’ actions, specifically in relation to the donkey, are intended by him to communicate his messianic, Davidic, royal identity. As the messianic King, Jesus is the “Lord” of all, including the donkey. For as Pesch argues, the αὐτού in Mark 11:3 must be read as a possessive pronoun to ὁ κυριος, so that the donkey is designated to be the "messiah's animal" (p.180). The phrase would thus be rendered, “His master/Lord has need,” not, “the master/Lord has a need of it.” Mark is seeking to demonstrate that, as the Messiah, Jesus is the Lord of the animal, i.e. its owner or master. The owner of the donkey according to Gen. 49:11 and Zech. 9:9 is the messianic king, so that Jesus is exercising his right as king over the donkey.[2]

Jesus' triumphal is his claim to be the Messiah, but one who comes humbly, though he rules the world as Lord.


Dr. Scott Hafemann is a Reader in New Testament at St. Mary's College at the University of St. Andrews. His research and teaching emphases include the apostles Paul and Peter, New Testament use of the Old Testament, and Marks' Gospel. Dr. Hafemann is the theological mentor for the Saint Anselm Fellowship of the Center For Pastor Theologians


[1] Cf. the saying of Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi (c. A.D. 250):  "Behold, the Son of Man comes 'on the clouds of heaven,' and 'lowly, and riding upon an ass.'  If they (Israel) are worthy, 'with the clouds of heaven;’ if they are not worthy, 'lowly, and riding upon an ass.'" (b. Sanhedrin 98a).

[2] Cf. syntax of Mark 2:17; 14:63.  oJ kuvrio" is used of Jesus in Mark only indirectly in the OT citation in 1:3 and in 11:36f.; kuvrio" + genitive of a thing is found in 2:28; 13:35; cf. the parallel in Luke 19:33f. Gundry, Mark, p.624, summarizes the data supporting the reading, "his master":  "Though creivan takes an objective genitive, which would here yield, 'need of him [the colt],' elsewhere Mark's genitives depending on creivan follow the verb e[cw, 'have,' which as here is preceded by creivan (2:17; 14:63).  Moreover, Mark's genitives usually follow their governing nouns."