Matthew 21:7 has posed a problem for some readers. “They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.” (ESV) Did Jesus ride on two animals or only one as the other Gospels record (note John’s citation of Zech. 9:9 is cut short to only include a donkey and not the colt)?
Some English versions translate this in an effort to alleviate the apparent difficulty. The The NLT reads, “They brought the donkey and the colt to him and threw their garments over the colt, and he sat on it.” The do offer a note which provides a more literal translation.
The 1984 NIV read “They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them.” The 2011 NIV removes some of the difficulty: “They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.” The latter makes the reference to Jesus sitting on the cloaks more explicit.
A quick scan of the standard study Bibles (ESV Study Bible and NIV Study Bible among others) took the position that the reference to what Jesus sat on (“them”) was the cloaks and not the animals. The CEB Study Bible was a bit of a disappointment. It reads, “Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a strict fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 (see 1 Kgs 1:33). In doing so, however, Matthew seems to have imagined that Zechariah referred to two animals, a donkey and a colt, rather than referring to one animal in two different ways. As a result, he portrays Jesus riding on both a donkey and a colt at the same time.”
I found a much more satisfying answer in The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture by Michael Graves. He first notes that Hebrew poetry “is often fond of giving two parallel lines in a row, connected by ‘and,’ which refer to one and the same thing.” (e.g., Psalm 20:2; sanctuary and Zion refer to one and the same object, the Temple in Jerusalem.) Matthew preserves the “and” in his citation of Zechariah. Graves is not satisfied with seeing the cloaks as the reference to what Jesus sat on. He notes how writers are often very attuned to the particulars of a text. The following paragraph is the most relevant for our discussion:
“In a similar way, but with different goals in mind, the Gospel of Matthew believes in the significance of details. The Gospel’s central belief is that Jesus fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament, that Jesus so thoroughly accomplished the goals of the Old Testament that he fulfilled the sayings of the prophets with absolute accuracy. Matthew knows that Jesus entered on a donkey, and he knows that Jesus fulfilled Zechariah 9:9. When the Gospel writer looks at the Zechariah passage and sees the possibility of finding two animals through a hyper-literalistic reading of the text, he takes the opportunity to portray Jesus as entering on two animals—against the grain of the simply history—but precisely in keeping with the very words of the sacred text. Matthew’s quotation of Zechariah 9:9 is an excellent illustration of the confidence with which early Christians believed that Jesus had fulfilled the promises made in the Old Testament Scriptures.” (58-59)
I think R.T. France expresses something similar when he writes:
“That is not to say, as some have suggested, that Matthew simply invented a second animal because his wooden reading of the Hebrew parallelism told him that it was needed. The author of this gospel was not ignorant of OT idiom, and would surely have recognized parallelism when he saw it. His mention of the second donkey is due rather to a typically Jewish interest in the form of the text, so that even though he knew it referred to only one animal, its wording nonetheless lent itself to the mention of the other.” (The Gospel of Matthew, 778-79)