Who is “The Lord”? A “kurios” question.

This is the first post based on my study of the New Testament in the original Koine Greek. It doesn’t require a knowledge of Greek to follow it, but I would especially love to hear thoughts from other Greek scholars.

Matthew 21: 1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, (John 12:12-19)

Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey

Recently it was Palm Sunday, and the reading for the day took us to the so-called Triumphal Entry. There is one aspect of this story that I find quite odd, however. On arriving at the Mount of Olives, having come up the long ascent from Jericho, Jesus apparently steals a colt to ride into Jerusalem! This is not the Jesus I know.

Of course, there have been many explanations for this, most of which involve some sort of pre-planning by Jesus, but I think there is another explanation, and it lies in what He tells the disciples to say if anyone tries to stop them taking the colt: “say ‘The Lord has need of it’”. At least that is how it is normally translated.

The problem I have with this lies in the translation of Ὁ κύριος (ho kurios) as “the Lord”. Κύριος is a word with, to our ears, a wide range of meanings. It can mean Lord, but it can also mean master, sir, or owner. The question is, which does it have here?

On a side note, I once had a preacher try to convince me that κύριος is always a title of Jesus in the New Testament, which is quite absurd when one sees the chief priests address Pilate as κύριε (the vocative form, i.e. that of address). This led me to do a study of the uses of the word in the gospels and I found that Matthew never uses it as a title for Jesus, nor does Mark (excluding the later long ending), John only uses it after the resurrection, it is only Luke who uses it regularly. Jesus himself never uses it of himself (unless this is a case) and the closest he comes is during the Last Supper where he admits that His disciples call Him κύριος, Master.

So, is Jesus here, alone in all the gospels applying this title of Lord to himself—and this despite His assertion that although He is, indeed, the Master, He came as a servant? I don’t think so, and I don’t think the original Greek says so either.

The actual phrase, in the original Greek is: Ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ χρείαν ἔχει, literally “The κύριος of-it a-need has”. How you interpret κύριος depends then on two things: 1) your presuppositions, and 2) what you believe the word αὐτοῦ is attached to. αὐτοῦ is a genitive and translates as “of he/she/it”, in this case, since it refers to the colt we choose “of it”, but does it go with the preceding or the following two words? Most seem to take it with the following words, thus “the κύριος has need of it”, because, I think, they want to be able to translate κύριος as Lord and have it be a reference to Jesus. However, I would contend that in any context other than the New Testament the obvious way of taking it is to attach it to the preceding words, thus “the κύριος of it has a need”.

That sounds a bit odd in English, but in Greek it is not unusual to omit what can be supplied easily from the context, thus the need is clearly for the colt in this case. Given this, the logical translation of κύριος is “owner” and the phrase becomes “Its owner needs it”.

The problem now, of course, is that it seems very unlikely that Jesus is the owner, so what does He mean? Well, given the situation I think it is quite easy to supply what is missing. Jesus has come from Jericho and is going to be staying in Bethany, probably with Lazarus and his family. We are told that Jesus sent disciples ahead of Him to prepare the way and make the arrangements, so presumably Lazarus, and quite possibly others of His followers in Bethany knew He was coming and might well have met Him at the summit of the ascent. One of these, perhaps Lazarus himself, owns the colt and, seeing that Jesus is tired from the climb perhaps, suggests Jesus sends someone to fetch it. We are not told, but I imagine Jesus gesturing in some way at the colt’s owner when he says this to the disciples, so they know what He means.

This is more the Jesus I know. Not one to stand on His true position as Lord of all, but the servant who is gracious in accepting help from a concerned follower.

I have examined the Mark account of this story in 30 English translations, and have only found it translated like this in two of them, though a couple more add it in their notes as an alternative reading. I wonder a bit why this is, why translators ignore the most obvious reading. I suspect it is from a desire to honour Jesus with the title Lord, but there are plenty of other places where this is appropriate, not here.

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