Jesus Steals a Donkey

Jesus Steals a Donkey
Matt 21:1–7; Luke 19:29–35; John 12:14–15; Mark 11:1-7;

…the Lord needs it. That person will send it here at once. (from Mark 11:3, God’s Word translation)
…Our Master needs it, and will send it back here without delay. (same passage, New English Bible)

No, of course, Jesus does not steal a donkey. In fact, the donkey belongs to God, and therefore belongs to Jesus. And its human owner is happy to provide the animal.

In the mean time, we note something in this well-known story you may have missed. We observed it ourselves while reading the NET translation of the gospel of Mark, and have discovered that some English translations add clarity to our passage of interest while others do not.

Question: When Jesus sends the disciples off to obtain a donkey for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, his disciples ask what to do if they are confronted by the animal’s owner. What does Jesus tell the men to say? Do you remember the full passage?

We will examine Matthew 21:1–7, Luke 19:29–35, John 12:14–15, Mark 11:1-7. And we will later narrow our focus to Matt 21:3 and Mark 11:3.

First, here is the story in all four gospels, as provided in the New King James Version. Look closely for Jesus’ instruction to the disciples for what to say to anybody who asks the disciples why they are “stealing” the donkey:

Matt 21:1-7 NKJV: Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose [them] and bring [them] to Me. 3 “And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” 4 All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: 5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, Lowly, and sitting on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.’ ” 6 So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set [Him] on them.

Mark 11:1-7 NKJV: Now when they drew near Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples; 2 and He said to them, “Go into the village opposite you; and as soon as you have entered it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has sat. Loose it and bring [it]. 3 “And if anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it,’ and immediately he will send it here.” 4 So they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it. 5 But some of those who stood there said to them, “What are you doing, loosing the colt?” 6 And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded. So they let them go. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it.

Luke 19:29-35 NKJV: And it came to pass, when He drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mountain called Olivet, [that] He sent two of His disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village opposite [you], where as you enter you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Loose it and bring [it here]. 31 “And if anyone asks you, ‘Why are you loosing [it]?’ thus you shall say to him, ‘Because the Lord has need of it.’ “ 32 So those who were sent went their way and found [it] just as He had said to them. 33 But as they were loosing the colt, the owners of it said to them, “Why are you loosing the colt?” 34 And they said, “The Lord has need of him.” 35 Then they brought him to Jesus. And they threw their own clothes on the colt, and they set Jesus on him.

John 12:14-15 NKJV: Then Jesus, when He had found a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written: 15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion; Behold, your King is coming, Sitting on a donkey’s colt.”

The thing Bible Bits noticed does not appear in the NKJV translation. Now let’s try the good ol’ King James Version, and again, look closely at Jesus’s instructions to the disciples for how to respond to anybody questioning the theft of the donkey:

Matt 21:1-7 KJV: And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples, 2 Saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose [them], and bring [them] unto me. 3 And if any [man] say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them. 4 All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, 5 Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass. 6 And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, 7 And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set [him] thereon.

Mark 11:1-7 KJV: And when they came nigh to Jerusalem, unto Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount of Olives, he sendeth forth two of his disciples, 2 And saith unto them, Go your way into the village over against you: and as soon as ye be entered into it, ye shall find a colt tied, whereon never man sat; loose him, and bring [him]. 3 And if any man say unto you, Why do ye this? say ye that the Lord hath need of him; and straightway he will send him hither. 4 And they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door without in a place where two ways met; and they loose him. 5 And certain of them that stood there said unto them, What do ye, loosing the colt? 6 And they said unto them even as Jesus had commanded: and they let them go. 7 And they brought the colt to Jesus, and cast their garments on him; and he sat upon him.

Luke 19:29-35 KJV: And it came to pass, when he was come nigh to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount called [the mount] of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, 30 Saying, Go ye into the village over against [you]; in the which at your entering ye shall find a colt tied, whereon yet never man sat: loose him, and bring [him hither]. 31 And if any man ask you, Why do ye loose [him]? thus shall ye say unto him, Because the Lord hath need of him. 32 And they that were sent went their way, and found even as he had said unto them. 33 And as they were loosing the colt, the owners thereof said unto them, Why loose ye the colt? 34 And they said, The Lord hath need of him. 35 And they brought him to Jesus: and they cast their garments upon the colt, and they set Jesus thereon.

John 12:14-15 KJV: And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written, 15 Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass’s colt.

The thing we noticed in the NET Bible translation does not appear in the KJV either.

Over this entire episode and passage, the synoptic gospels match each other fairly closely, and John, as usual, does his own thing with the account. There is a subtle difference in Luke, as compared to Matthew and Mark, where our Bible Bit item occurs.

Look closely now at Jesus instructing the disciples how to respond to any bystander, or the animal’s owner, who might ask what is going on with this apparent theft. Jesus instructs the disciples that if anybody asks them what they are doing, to say:

Matt 21:3 KJV …The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them.

Mark 11:3 KJV …the Lord hath need of him; and straightway he will send him hither.

Luke 19:31 KJV …the Lord hath need of him.

And in the New King James Version:

Matt 21:3 NKJV …’The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them. (Notice the quotation marks.)

Mark 11:3 NKJV …’The Lord has need of it,’ and immediately he will send it here.

Luke 19:31 NKJV …’Because the Lord has need of it.’

Luke does not include the curious second clause of our concern. We are interested particularly in the accounts of Matthew and Mark, and the second part of Jesus’ reasons for taking the animal:

Matt 21:3 NKJV …and immediately he will send them.
Mark 11:3 NKJV …and immediately he will send it here.

And in the Lexham English Bible translation:

Matt 21:3 LEB …‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.”
Mark 11:3 LEB …‘The Lord has need of it, and will send it here again at once.’

What do these words mean? Send it where? Where is here? Who will send the animal? The man (bystander? owner?) will send the donkey with the disciples to wherever Jesus sits? Or will Jesus send the animal — somewhere? Where? Is “here” the location of Jesus and disciples outside of town or the location of the donkey inside of town?

Aside: Let’s set aside the plural and singular differences when referring to two animals vs a single animal. That can be a Bible Bit for some other day.

We read both Matthew and Mark (at least in the translations we have shown so far) to be paraphrased as follows:

Jesus: Hey guys, go into town and you will find a donkey. Grab it and bring it to me.
Disciples: Okay boss, but what do we do if the owner confronts us?
Jesus: If anybody confronts you, tell them that Lord Jesus needs the donkey. The guy will understand, and that guy will tell you to take his donkey and lead it to Jesus straight-away.
Disciples: Sure boss! We are on it!

But now, let’s read the Mark 11:3 phrasing in a few other translations:

NET: ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here soon.’

NJB: ‘The Master needs it and will send it back here at once.’ (Note the quotation marks around the entire phrase.)

ESV: ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’

HCSB: ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here right away.’

PHILLIPS: ‘The Lord needs it, and will send it back immediately.’

TLB: ‘Our Master needs him and will return him soon.’

NABRE: ‘The Master has need of it and will send it back here at once.’

NASB: ‘The Lord has need of it’; and immediately he will send it back here. (Why do the quotation marks not extend across the full phrase?)

NIV: ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’

NLT: ‘The Lord needs it and will return it soon.’

NRSV: ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’

MOUNCE ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here as soon as possible.’

MSG ‘The Master needs him, and will return him right away.’

WEB ‘The Lord needs him;’ and immediately he will send him back here.

Return. Back. Return the donkey back. Return the donkey back to its human owner. At the location where the disciples found the animal.

Big difference yes? Interpreting the Greek to explicitly provide the English “back” makes a big difference.

Note, by the way, the subtle declaration that the donkey is owned by Christ himself, provided in a footnote of the New English Bible:

NEB: If anyone asks, “Why are you doing that?”, say, “Our Master [fn Or: Its owner. ] needs it, and will send it back here without delay.”

Now our understanding of the passage, at least here in Mark 11:3, changes our paraphrase to read as follows:

Jesus: Hey guys, go into town and you will find a donkey. Grab it and bring it to me.
Disciples: Okay boss, but what do we do if the owner confronts us?
Jesus: If anybody confronts you, tell them that “Lord Jesus needs the donkey and Jesus will RETURN the donkey BACK to you the human owner as soon as possible.”
Disciples: Sure boss! We are on it! We didn’t think you wuz a thief!

This was the Mark passage. The Matthew passage does not receive the same clarification. We find no English translations which clearly declare a Jesus promise to RETURN the donkey BACK to its earthly owner. The one exception is the New English Bible which uses a footnote to suggest that Jesus will return the donkey. Even so, one might still (maybe, if you wave your hands in the air sufficiently) interpret the Matthew phrasing to mean this, or imply this, but no translations makes it as clear as some (but not nearly all) of the Mark passages do.

Here are several English translations of Matthew 21:3:

Amp: If anyone says anything to you, you should say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and without delay the owner will send them [with you].”
CEV: If anyone asks why you are doing that, just say, ‘The Lord needs them.’ Right away he will let you have the donkeys.”
Lexham: And if anyone says anything to you, you will say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.”
Mounce: If anyone says anything to you, you are to say, ‘The Lord has need of them.’ And he will send them at once.”
NABRE: And if anyone should say anything to you, reply, ‘The master has need of them.’ Then he will send them at once.”
NRSV: If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”
NIV: If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
NLT: If anyone asks what you are doing, just say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will immediately let you take them.”
ESV: If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.”
NASB: “If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.”
NKJV: And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.”
KJV: And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them.
CSB: If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them at once.”
CEV: If anyone asks why you are doing this, just say, ‘The Lord needs them.’ He will at once let you have the donkeys.”
GNT: And if anyone says anything, tell him, ‘The Master needs them’; and then he will let them go at once.”
HCSB: If anyone says anything to you, you should say that the Lord needs them, and immediately he will send them.”
NET: If anyone says anything to you, you are to say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.”
WEB: If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and immediately he will send them.”

But, observe the note in the New English Bible. We do not know whether this reflects the translator’s interpretation of the Greek, or if he has synthesised Matthew with Mark:

NEB: If anyone speaks to you, say, “Our Master needs them”; and he will let you take them at once.’[fn Or: Our Master needs them and will send them back straight away.]

So, does Jesus steal a donkey? Ultimately, the answer is of course “no,” as the animal (or two animals) belong to God. And the owner allowed it. And perfect Jesus is no thief.

But for our little Bible Bits exercise, and for our examination of the clause of interest, we observe the following:

  1. John avoids the episode pretty much altogether.
  2. Luke avoids our question by not including the clause of interest.
  3. Both Matthew and Mark include the clause of interest.
  4. All English translations of Matthew seem to indicate that the human owner of the donkey will happily send the donkey to Christ, as opposed to stating instead that Jesus will return the animal back to its human owner. It may be argued that the English implies that Jesus will return the donkey.
  5. Many English translations of Mark follow #4 regarding Matthew.
  6. Many other English translations of Mark clearly state that Jesus will return the donkey back to its human owner.

By the way… We wonder, given the commotion about to happen in Jerusalem, whether and how any of the followers of Christ actually fulfilled Jesus’ promise to return the animal. Is that poor donkey still wandering around lost in the streets and alley ways of Jerusalem?

One can of course examine the Greek of our passage and the various manuscripts. We have not done so here. But for those of you who can read the Greek, here:

Matt 21:3, Nestle-Aland: καὶ ἐάν τις ὑμῖν εἴπῃ τι, ἐρεῖτε ὅτι ὁ κύριος αὐτῶν χρείαν ἔχει· εὐθὺς δὲ ἀποστελεῖ αὐτούς.

Mark 11:3, Nestle-Aland: καὶ ἐάν τις ὑμῖν εἴπῃ· τί ποιεῖτε τοῦτο; εἴπατε· ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ χρείαν ἔχει, καὶ εὐθὺς αὐτὸν ἀποστέλλει πάλιν ὧδε.

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2 thoughts on “Jesus Steals a Donkey

  1. I think they stole the donkey, however I think that Jesus’s righteousness or the fact it fulfilled the prophecy somehow trump the world understanding or the interpretation of the law “Thou shall not steal or covet thy neighbors donkey. Probably why they hung the dude. But that’s my guy, I Love you Jesus.

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  2. They steal de donkey. so Jesus can act the king prophesy, Jesus has to manipulate a plot because he can’t summon a donkey by himself. but playing the king act is a plan for Jesus’ ego: He really wants to be portrayed as a king.

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