HISTORY OF PALM SUNDAY
The week we now call Holy Week or Passion Week starts this weekend with Palm Sunday. Why was this week so important that three of the gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) devote a full third of their contents to reporting this week, and The Fourth Gospel (John) dedicates its entire last half?
Jerusalem, which had a normal population of about 50,000 at the time of Jesus, had at least tripled in size because of the influx of pilgrims celebrating the Jewish holiday Passover. Early Sunday morning, Jesus made his dramatic public entry into the city. This was the end of any privacy and safety his ministry had afforded previously. It marked the beginning of an inevitable collision course with the religious and political authorities: both Jewish and Roman.
Geography of Palm Sunday
The procession started at the Mount of Olives, across the land bridge of the Kidron Valley that ran along the eastern side of the city and through the eastern gate into the city. There is some debate among scholars about which of the two gates on the eastern wall of the city Jesus would have entered.
Located on the northeast corner of the Old City, which I’ve walked through myself, the Sheep Gate is a natural choice from the land bridge and a common gate that Jesus used to enter the city. It was so named as lambs destined for Temple sacrifice entered here. They did not leave alive.
For centuries, during Easter Week, Christian pilgrims begin their procession inside this gate. The route is called the Via Dolorosa, “the way of suffering (or sorrow),” and marks the Stations of the Cross that Jesus followed on his way to Mount Calvary.
Others contend that the Golden Gate on the center-eastern part of the city is the one. However, it’s currently sealed up and has been for five centuries since the mid-16th century by Suleiman the Magnificent, a sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Jewish tradition states that Messiah will enter through that gate when he comes in the new age to rule.
Whichever gate Jesus entered near the Temple, crowds began to gather to see the rabbi from Galilee. The procession began accompanied by shouting and singing from the throngs as they threw down their garments on the pathway to cushion his ride — an Oriental custom still observed on occasions — as well as palm fronds, the symbol of triumph.
The Old Testament prophet Zechariah had foretold the arrival of the Messianic king in Jerusalem via the humble conveyance of a colt. Here the crowd hailed Jesus as “the son of David,” a loaded name used at a loaded time. The Bible had predicted that the Messiah would be the son of David. The priestly establishment was understandably disturbed, as the palm was the national emblem of an independent Palestine. These were essentially Jewish flags. What if Jesus should claim to be the heir of King David?
The Palm in Archeology
Archeological excavations have turned up Roman coins with the head of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, but on the other side features a seated woman holding a palm. The inscription reads, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus. “The coin, referring to Augustus as a god, would be considered idolatrous to the Jewish subjects, hence the presence of money changers at the Temple to convert this Roman denarius, or Tiberius Penny, into Temple money.
Context of Palm Sunday
The “conspiracy” against Jesus by the religious leaders had been building for at least 3 years. The sources record seven instances of official plotting against him, two efforts at arrest, and three assassination attempts before this time. Indeed, this intrigue was no spur-of-the-moment idea. A formal decision to arrest Jesus had, in fact, been made several months earlier.
The Jewish religious officials of the Sanhedrin were afraid that if Jesus were to continue performing his signs, he would win over the people, and the Romans would come in and destroy the Temple and nation. According to legal custom at that time, a court crier had to announce publicly or post an official “wanted” handbill in the larger towns of Judea about forty days before a trial. Small wonder that there was some debate over whether Jesus would dare appear in Jerusalem for the next Passover. This discussion ended abruptly on Palm Sunday with his public appearance.
Politics of Palm Sunday
There were political reasons for dealing with Jesus. There had been a dozen uprisings in Palestine in the previous 100 years tracing back to the Roman occupation by Pompey in 63 B.C., most of them subdued by Roman force. Another Messianic rebellion under Jesus would only shatter the precarious balance of authority, break Rome’s patience, and might lead to direct occupation by Roman legions.
Religiously, Jesus was a dangerous item to the current establishment. The people were hailing the Teacher from Galilee as something more than a man, and Jesus was not denying or blunting this “blasphemous” adulation. The Pharisees had been bested by Jesus in public debate, being called vipers, whitewashed tombs, and devourers of widow’s houses. Humiliated, they would be only too happy to conspire with the scribes, elders, and chief priests.
Finally, there were economic motives for opposing Jesus. Seeing the commercialization of the Temple, Jesus drove the dealers and animals out and turned over the tables of the money changers, causing major business disruption.
There were many reasons for dealing with Jesus.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Inspired in part by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time