Was Palm Sunday Actually Sukkot?

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Every year, the Palm Sunday procession in Jerusalem follows the same route that Jesus walked from Bethany to Bethpage, up over the Mount of Olives and down to the Kidron Valley, ending at the gates of Temple Mount.

This year, 2016, the world’s two main Christian calendars mark Easter more than a month apart. Western Christians, who follow the Gregorian calendar, celebrated Easter on March 27. Eastern Orthodox Christian, who use the older Julian calendar, will not celebrate Easter until May 1. Given that we are currently in the intermediate period between these two Easters, I would like to devote this week’s post to the event which marks the beginning of Holy Week, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

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A painting of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem by the Slovenian artist Leopold Layer, 1821.

Let us review the background to the story. In the spring of the final year of his life, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover. Given the huge numbers of pilgrims in town, Jesus could not afford to rent a room inside the city and had to resort to staying with friends in Bethany. This is the modest village of Beth-Ania, (“the house of the poor”), located about 2 miles east of Jerusalem on the backside of the Mount of Olives. According to John, the first thing Jesus does is raise Lazarus from the dead, an act which made him very unpopular among the authorities. For this reason Jesus became worried and fled to “a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness” (John 11:54). After a few weeks, Jesus returned to Bethany where he was anointed by Mary, and from here, proceeded to enter Jerusalem in royal fashion.

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The eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, featuring the village of El-Eizariya = biblical Bethany. The slender spire at the top of the hill is the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, from which pilgrims could see the baptismal site of Jesus in the Jordan River. The photo was taken sometime in the early 1940s and belongs to the G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection; The American Colony Photo Department in Jerusalem.

Here is John’s version of the story:

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” [Ps. 118:25-26] Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written: “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” [Zech. 9:9] At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him. Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (John 12:12-19)

Because the entry into Jerusalem is such a significant event, it is not surprising that it is one of the few scenes that appears in all four Gospels (Mt 21:1-11; Mk 11:1-1-10; Lk 19:28-40; Jn 12:12-19). Surprisingly, John is the only evangelist who explicitly mentions the waving of palm fronds. This scene is often referred to by scholars as the “triumphal entry.” The word “triumph” refers to a Roman military procession (triumphus) welcoming a victorious general back to Rome following an important battle abroad. The Gospel authors do not use this word, but they employ some of the imagery that was common in these parades in order to depict Jesus as a victorious for the Roman readers. This helped counter-weigh the negative impression that many Romans had of Jesus; namely, that he was a criminal who was crucified for anti-Roman sedition.

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One of the most famous depictions of a Roman triumph from the Arch of Titus, celebrating the victory over the Judaeans in the First Jewish War (70 CE). The victorious Titus is riding a quadriga, a chariot pulled by four horses and is escorted by various divine figures.

What is the reason for one of the most curious features of this story, namely, the waving of palm branches the week before Passover, only mentioned by John? In the Jewish tradition palm branches, lulavim, are waved on Sukkot (the autumn Festival of Booths or Tabernacles), not Passover! Although there are scholars who have suggested that the triumphal entry took place on Sukkot of the previous year (six months before Passover), the use of palm fronds in this scene likely has nothing to with Sukkot. In the lifetime of Jesus, waving palm fronds had become an instantly recognized Jewish national symbol.

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A coin struck during the first year of the Bar Kochba Revolt. 132-135 CE. One side features a grape bunch on vine with small leaf; “Year One of the Redemption of Israel” (in Hebrew). The other side depicts a palm tree with two bunches of dates; “Eleazar the Priest” (in Hebrew).

For example, in the year 141 BCE – a full generation after the Hanukkah miracle – the Maccabees finally managed to capture the Jerusalem Citadel and rejoiced in the following manner:

Simon and his men entered the fort singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving, while carrying palm branches and playing harps, cymbals, and lyres (1 Macc 13:51).

Similarly, Jewish coins struck during the Great Revolt (67-70) and Bar Kochba Revolt (132-5) contain images of palm fronds. Thus, there is no reason to think that the waving of palms is necessarily linked with Sukkot and that this scene is out-of-season.

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Examining an etrog at the Four Species Market in Tel Aviv before the Festival of Sukkot. On the left, etrogim, citrons. On the right, lulavim, closed palm fronds.

The crowds shout Hosanna (the original Hebrew is הושיע-נא hoshia-na: “save us, we beseech you!”) a quotation from Psalm 118, one of the Hallel psalms which is recited as part of the Jewish festival liturgy. But the crowds don’t merely recite this psalm; they explicitly refer to Jesus as the messianic king by adding the phrase “king of Israel” which is not in the original text of the psalm. This is perhaps the most dangerous part of this scene. Six days later, Jesus will be crucified under a placard that reads “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (John 19:19). We might make the argument that this anti-imperial royal procession was the reason that Jesus was condemned to the cross. Another important messianic element here is the donkey that Jesus sits upon, which is a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. It would be difficult for either a Roman or a Jew watching this scene not to realize the overt messianic implications of this display. Of course, this raises the question: if the triumphal entry was such a seditious act, why did the Romans wait five days to arrest Jesus?

About the author

Jonathan LipnickJonathan Lipnick believes that a truly comprehensive understanding of Scripture must be capable of penetrating beneath the printed words to reveal the authentic world of the Bible: the landscapes, smells and sounds of ancient Israel. He is the dean of the faculty of Holy Land Studies at Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, and is the author of the course "Exploring the Biblical Land of Israel"

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