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Tucker Montgomery, Kyle Wimberly and Paxton Montgomery enter Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church during last year’s Palm Sunday observance.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Tucker Montgomery, Kyle Wimberly and Paxton Montgomery enter Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church during last year’s Palm Sunday observance.

Palm Sunday
Judaic scholars support Gospel accounts of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem in advance of Passover

By Eric Fleischauer · 340-2435

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Zechariah 9:9

And rejoice Jerusalem did, or at least some of it, said Eric Meyers, director of the Judaic Studies Program at Duke University and president of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

“The first thing to say is that the followers of Jesus were Jewish,” Meyers said. “The majority of people who welcomed him (into Jerusalem) and accepted him were mainstream Jews. There were no other alternatives. The only gentiles around were generally Romans.”

Judaic scholars agree on the basics of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem in advance of Passover, commemorated by Palm Sunday, Meyers said.

“Absolutely yes,” Meyers said. “I don’t know anybody who would doubt this. The witness of the New Testament is conflictual and has different accounts, but absolutely. I don’t know anybody but odd ducks here and there that might question that. I don’t think there’s any question about the veracity of the account.”

They also agree that the “priestly caste” in Jerusalem cooperated with Roman authorities, leading to the crucifixion, Meyers said.

Time of excitement

Passover was a time of great excitement in Jerusalem, Meyers said. Already a major city, its population would double or triple at Passover.

“Jerusalem was thriving,” Meyers said. “It was one of the wonders of the ancient world. In the time of Jesus, the temple was largely finished. It was a magnificent spectacle to behold.” People wanted to make a pilgrimage there “either on a regular basis or at least once in a lifetime if they were coming from really far away.”

The influx also created infrastructure hurdles.

“You can imagine the fact there are no porta potties and other hygienic facilities. It was a challenge, to put it mildly, to accommodate all these people, to provide water and food and all the other necessities.”

Water was plentiful, but had to be brought in from an aqueduct, which supplied the temple with water coming from as far away as Bethlehem, and from the spring of Gihon.

“They’d have to go over there with their donkey and bring water back daily,” Meyers said.

Many of the pilgrims would camp in the area of the Temple Mount. Others would stay in Jerusalem homes.

“At the time of the Passover, when presumably the triumphal entry occurred, you had an additional throng of pilgrims that had come to the temple to celebrate,” Meyers said. “That could be in the hundreds of thousands of extras. They would have been camped out and filled every B&B (bed and breakfast) — there were B&Bs by the way.”

Festive mood

Even without the celebration surrounding Jesus’ entry, the mood was festive.

“Noisy, absolutely. Wonderful smells of food cooking. Great excitement. Passover was one of the three pilgrim feasts,” Meyers said. “There were special sacrifices, special worship.”

Jerusalem’s architecture, dominated by the temple, was Greco-Roman. A heavy Greek influence existed in the city that didn’t exist in Galilee or other outlying areas.

“Lots of Greek was spoken by the upper classes and shopkeepers, whereas in Galilee, Greek was virtually unknown at the time of Jesus,” Meyers said. “Jerusalem was the capital and the heart of the nation.”

It was also the seat of power, and the powerful feared Jesus and his followers.

That fear was complex. Certainly it included the priestly caste’s fear that it could lose power. Much of it, however, involved how Rome would react to a popular Jew who said things that threatened the establishment.

As explained in the Gospel of John, fear of Rome weighed heavily on the priests as they decided how to deal with Jesus.

“If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation,” John quoted the Pharisees as saying. The high priest, Caiaphas, was emphatic, according to the Gospel writer. “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

But Jesus wasn’t subtle, Meyers said.

“He comes in riding an ass, which is an image of royalty in ancient Near-Eastern myth, and is included in Zechariah 9, verse 9,” Meyers said. “It certainly got the attention of the Roman authorities. It would have been a challenge to their authority, and that ultimately led to his crucifixion and death.”

Even if Rome could have missed the significance of Jesus’ entry, the priestly caste could not.

“I don’t think that his threat to the religious structure in Jerusalem is overstated,” Meyers said. “Both kingship and messiahship were so engrained in the Jewish understanding of scripture that this was the most authentic way for someone of his stature to have emerged on the scene.”

The image of Jesus’ triumph necessarily brought with it an image of the defeat of the powerful priests.

“The ones who had the most to lose were the establishment Jews, especially the Saducees — the priestly caste — who would have not wanted to allow this event to escalate,” Meyers said. “Jesus had said things that challenged their authority and their integrity.”

The status quo was good for the priests, but also for Jerusalem. They were under Roman control, but that control was largely benign and allowed for Jewish beliefs.

Jesus’ ambivalence toward the temple — and the activities taking place within it — won him no friends among the priests, either. The role of the temple in Jerusalem can hardly be overstated.

“The temple was the economic center for the people. It collected the half-shekel tax (see Exodus 30:13),” Meyers said, “which maintained the establishment and maintained the large impact that the temple infrastructure had on the economy.”

The temple was not just a place of worship. It was Jerusalem’s economic engine.

“Look, it brought hundreds of thousands of tourists, pilgrim-tourists so to speak,” Meyers explained. “The priestly caste lived off temple contributions, the food and the half-shekel tax. The temple had an enormous economic impact.”

Power tied to temple

The power of the priests and the dominance of Jerusalem were tied to the temple.

“Jerusalem was the pulse of the nation. It was the economic center of the country until 70 (when Rome destroyed the temple). The temple infrastructure and priests were very much part and parcel of that.”

Jesus was a threat to much that made Jerusalem great, the priestly caste knew. His popularity as confirmed by his entry into Jerusalem made that threat impossible to ignore.

“The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!’ ” — John 12:12

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