In the coming week, as we head into Palm Sunday, we're going to be looking at Matthew's telling of the so-called "triumphal entry" of Jesus into Jerusalem.
The text, Matthew 21:1-11, is a perfect example of the Bible's intertextuality.
Simply put, intertextuality is when one Biblical author pulls in a passage of scripture from another author and re-applies it to a different situation. In doing so, the meaning of the original text is either changed or takes on a different set of concerns than its original author intended.
In this gospel passage, we find two instances of this:
- Zechariah 9:9 "Rejoice, daughter of Zion ... your king comes to you ... riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." And
- Psalm 118:25-26 "Save us, we beseech you ... Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord."
All 4 gospels recount the event. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey to the acclamation of a crowd. It's reasonable to assume that some such event happened. Everybody loves a parade. It would also be natural for crowds in Jerusalem for the Passover, a national holiday celebrated in the shadow of an occupying power, to chant Psalm 118 celebrating the arrival of a king to deliver them from oppression. We see a similar thing happen when Black Lives Matter crowds chant the songs of the 1960s civil rights movement. That is one kind of intertextuality, where a community recalls it's own words that spoke powerfully in one time and reuses them to address similar circumstances.
The Zechariah quotation, however, is a second kind of intertextuality, and one that we must approach with a higher degree of suspicion and risk. Only Matthew and John are concerned with Zechariah's prophecy and its fulfillment in this event. That leaves us with the question whether the connection was Jesus' intention or Matthew's making the connection afterwards. It's a question that we cannot answer with any certainty.
What we do know for certain is that Zechariah's prophesy was addressed to Israelites in Jerusalem around 520 B.C.E., who were living under the oppressive regime of King Darius of Persia. It paints a picture of a king who would impose world peace by mopping the floor with the blood of all Israel's enemies. Zechariah did not have a magical vision of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on two animals simultaneously, the way Matthew's story pictures it. Zechariah's own vision was one of an Israelite king rising from obscurity to exact Israel's dominance and vengeance on the world. The same oracle (prophetic utterance) that begins with the king riding in on a donkey ends "They," the victorious Israelites, "shall drink their blood like wine, and be full like a bowl drenched like the corners of the altar." (And then they all have an orgy.)
This is obviously not how the Jesus story ended. But Matthew's community 60 years later consisted mostly of Jewish folk who had accepted Jesus as the awaited Messiah. For them, the reassurance of fulfillment, a term Matthew uses frequently, had become necessary as proof that they were right about Jesus, over against the majority of their neighbors and kin who did not accept Jesus in that way.
We hear this second kind of intertextuality being used in modern life whenever someone grabs a single verse out of context to lend proof or reassurance to some circumstance completely foreign to the verse's original meaning or concern. For example, using Leviticus 18:22 ("You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.") to condemn the gay community. Or, quoting Romans 8:28 ("In all things God works for good") to deny the pain of something that's obviously bad. The word for this is "proof-texting", and even the devil does it. (See Matthew 4:6.)
So, what to make of these cases where this kind of proof-texting happens in the Bible itself? The best opportunity for learning comes from understanding the situation that prompted it. In Matthew's Palm Sunday story, we may do well to explore what kind of social pressures were at work that made the need for reassurance so acute. Once we understand that, we can examine our own community's response when someone challenges our own deepest convictions.
Beyond that, we can recognize the the Bible is, through and through, an intertextual text. Made up of many different documents, written over the course of 2 millennia, later writings draw over and over again from the earlier ones. Whenever we spot this, we are blessed with at least 2 opportunities to explore: the original context, and the re-appropriation.