The Owner of the Donkey and the Need of the Lord

The Owner of the Donkey and the Need of the Lord April 15, 2019

There is a double entendre in Mark 11:3 and its parallels, in phrasing that remains fairly consistent across the Gospels, perhaps for that reason. The Greek text says  Ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ χρείαν ἔχει, which is usually translated in one of the two possible ways that it could be, “The Lord has need of it.” But the reader of the text in English may miss the other possible meaning of the Greek text. The word that means “of it” comes after the word “lord” and the word κύριος, usually translated with “lord” in this passage, also indicates an “owner” (see for instance Matthew 20:8 as one example of this within the New Testament). The result is that the same phrase could equally mean “the lord has need of it” and “its owner has need.” This double meaning is clearly intentional. It remains a very interesting question what (if anything) this indicates about the scenario, whether on the level of the Gospel narratives or in a possible historical event lying behind the texts. Did Jesus make prior arrangements and have a donkey ready for his use, with a prearranged signal to those charged with tending it? Did Jesus supernaturally know about and gain possession of a donkey that belonged to some random person living in this area? Or did Jesus use a pun to get his disciples to, in effect, steal a donkey for him, instructing them to say something if questioned that would make it sound as though the owner of the donkey had sent them, when in fact their Lord was not the donkey’s owner?

Craig Evans’ commentary shows awareness of these possibilities and discusses them and even others.

What’s your impression of this text? Did you read it on Sunday? Did you read it in Greek even if the congregation you were in was reading it in English? Did you notice the double entendre, and assuming you agree that the Gospel authors intended for there to be two ways of understanding the text, what is your impression of what Jesus and/or the Gospel authors intended?

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  • Thinking of the underlying historical event – would the original participants have used Greek? Can this same ambiguity be reproduced in Aramaic?

    • The same basic ambiguity seems at least possible in Aramaic, more or less, but it also seems to work particularly well in Greek. The Peshitta (Syriac) has “our Lord” and so doesn’t have the ambiguity, but that’s a translation into an Aramaic dialect rather than what the Gospel authors, or Jesus, may have crafted.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I never knew this. Thanks.

  • robrecht

    As much as I love the idea (I really do) of Jesus teaching his disciples to be Irish travelers (yes, I’m Irish too) or rather Jewish grifters, I suppose I should probably refer you to Adela Yarbro Collins’ commentary and notes (including text-critical notes), pp 512, 518: “‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately’ (ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ χρείαν ἔχει καὶ εὐθὺς αὐτὸν ἀποστέλλει πάλιν ὧδε). The second clause, about sending the animal back, makes clear that the first clause should not be translated ‘Its owner needs it’.”

    • The variation across the Gospels is interesting. You can perhaps tell that in church this past Sunday we read Luke’s version, and I had checked that the ambiguous phrase was the same in Mark (ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ χρείαν ἔχει) but had forgotten about the additional words there. What do you make of the differences between the Gospels? Luke’s fits what I suggest in the blog post better than Mark, but why would Luke shift the range of possible understandings in that direction – unless, of course, this is an instance of a Mark/Q overlap?

      • robrecht

        Maybe Luke was an Irish traveler?

        Or maybe it never occurred to him that by editing out the second part he would be inadvertently teaching future grifters about how to successfully steal donkeys?

        I prefer the former, but fear the latter.

        • robrecht

          Bovon, AB Commentary on Luke, III, 1249, points to Luke’s change to οἱ κύριοι αὐτοῦ in Lk 19,33 to rule out the fun meaning here (‘though he seems to think it’s possible in Mark). Luke would be portraying Jesus as a rather inept or unlucky grifter.

  • Gary

    “It remains a very interesting question what (if anything) this indicates about the scenario, whether on the level of the Gospel narratives or in a possible historical event lying behind the texts.”

    I would say a slight nuance in language would be entirely the author’s invention, and have nothing to do with the historical event. Unlikely that anyone would consider the source and details about acquiring a donkey 30 to 40 years after the event, as important enough to commemorate in an oral or written story. Probably the only thing historical was the fact that there was a donkey. How it was acquired isn’t important to the story.