This week millions of Christians around the world have, in various ways, been celebrating ‘Holy Week’, during which they seek to relive the events of the last week of Jesus’ life before his crucifixion. Among one of the best known stories from the week is the story of Jesus’ arrival, on a donkey, in Jerusalem. Christian preachers and biblical scholars will be familiar with the echoes from the Old Testament prophet, Zechariah, announcing the arrival of Jerusalem’s King on a donkey, but it turns out that there may be more material for these preachers and scholars to mine following a report from a international team of archeologists led by Dr Shlomo Ben Israel from the New University of Tel Aviv.
The team have discovered a likely familial link between the Palm Sunday donkey and the ‘little donkey’ which is alleged to have carried Mary on her journey to Bethlehem ahead of the birth of Jesus. The discovery hinges on the finding of an ancient journal that is thought to have belonged to a Jewish landowner living just a few miles from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. In one entry he writes about his acquisition of several donkeys that had previously belonged to his cousin in Bethlehem. The donkeys were apparently of a particular type, dubbed by archaeological specialists as asinus orientalis (eastern donkey). The researchers were unable to find any other examples of this type of donkey anywhere else in the Middle East. A painstaking study of DNA material found in the area suggests that these donkeys trace their origin back to the area around Nazareth, a fact that would support the idea that Mary travelled on a donkey from there to Bethlehem. The discovery of the ancient journal then appears to connect the Palm Sunday donkey to Mary’s donkey.
The findings were welcomed by a spokesman for the European Council for Ecumenical Celebration who said, ‘I have always enjoyed the donkey stories in the Bible, from Balaam’s talking donkey through to Palm Sunday. This discovery underlines the importance for all of us to ask, which donkey am I most like?’
Unfortunately the archeologists have so far been unable to confirm the presence of a little drummer boy in Bethlehem, or the names of the wise men. But there is still plenty of time until Christmas. Meantime, work is underway to discover potential links between Balaam’s donkey and the donkeys lost by the father of King Saul.