Mark 11:1-10 par; John 12:12-19
This week we will be looking at the Triumphal Entry episode in the Gospels. This episode marks the celebration of Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. It also serves to bring to a close our recent critical studies on the Gospels. In this study, I will be presenting a critical overview and summary of the episode, briefly examining each area of Biblical criticism.
The first area, that of Textual Criticism, does not require much comment. The text of the episode, in all four Gospels, is generally secure. The only significant variant occurs at Luke 19:38, and you can find this discussed in a supplemental note. It demonstrates, among other things, that the Gospel writers had more freedom to alter or vary the response of the crowds to Jesus’ entry. While the basic substance of the response is consistent across the Tradition, the detail of how it is recorded differs slightly in each Gospel.
This episode is part of the so-called “Triple Tradition”, meaning it is found in all three Synoptic Gospels, just as was the case with a number of the other passages we have examined recently. The wording is quite consistent across all three versions, which suggests one of two possibilities:
- Matthew and Luke have essentially reproduced the version in Mark, or
- The episode was firmly fixed in the Tradition by the time each Gospel writer received it, and the author, in each case, was not at liberty to alter or modify it except in very small ways
Of special note is the way that all three Gospel faithfully record the opening portion (Mk 11:1-6 par), which contains both the introductory narration (v. 1), and the instructions given by Jesus to his disciples, etc (vv. 2-6). In this regard, Matthew and Luke follow Mark quite closely (Matt 21:1-6; Lk 19:28-34); all three Gospels include this portion, even though it may be said to weaken the episode, from a literary standpoint (compare the shorter and more dramatic version in John, 12:12-15ff). While it is possible that these introductory verses represent a Markan composition that the other two Gospels have essentially copied, I think it more likely that the entire Synoptic narrative, as embodied in Mk 11:1-10, reflects a well-established tradition which the Matthean and Lukan authors, whether or not they inherited it directly from Mark’s Gospels, felt compelled to reproduce faithfully.
The Triumphal Entry is one of the few episodes in the “Triple Tradition” that has a parallel in the Gospel of John (12:12-19). There is little evidence to suggest that the Johannine author made use of the Synoptic Gospels, or that he was even familiar with them. A close comparison reveals similarities in basic outline, but few (if any) details that would indicate literary contact between John and the Synoptics. This means that two separate (and independent) lines of tradition are involved, and that the general points of similarity likely derive from a common historical tradition. This common Gospel tradition would have taken shape in the period between c. 35-55 A.D., before branching out to form the distinctive Synoptic and Johannine lines of tradition, respectively.
Our historical-critical examination should begin with the historical tradition that underlies both the Synoptic and Johannine narrative. The common details may be summarized as follows:
- The setting of Jesus coming (in)to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival
- A crowd accompanies (or meets) Jesus as he enters
- Many in the crowd are carrying/waving branches that were cut from nearby trees
- Jesus was riding on a donkey
- The crowd shouts an exclamation that is based on Psalm 118:26, adapted (in the Gospel context) to identify Jesus as the coming (Messianic) king from the line of David
- [Some reference is made to the surrounding populace being stirred up or disrupted]
To this we may add the interesting fact that Matthew and John have each (independently) cited Zech 9:9, noting that the episode was the fulfillment of prophecy. In passing, it should be mentioned that Matthew’s citation (21:4-5) introduces a problematic detail into the narrative. In Matthew’s version, Jesus directs the disciples to acquire two animals—a female donkey and her young colt. This detail (of which there is no trace in the other Gospels) is apparently the result of an over-literal interpretation of Zech 9:9, and one which (apparently) misunderstands the parallelism of Hebrew poetry. The lines in question are an example of synonymous parallelism—
“…riding upon a donkey,
upon a mule, son of a she-donkey”
where two phrases essentially refer to one thing—that is, in this case, the king riding upon a young (male) donkey. By his peculiar application, the Gospel writer has created a strange situation in which Jesus rides into Jerusalem astride the two animals. Again, it must be emphasized that in the other three Gospels there is only a single animal (young donkey) involved.
Apart from this aberrant detail in Matthew, the tradition common to both John and the Synoptics would seem to be historically reliable (on objective grounds), stemming from authentic historical tradition. It is natural, and quite in accordance with the wider evidence of the early Gospel Tradition, that a crowd of Jesus’ followers and admirers would have identified him as the Davidic Messiah. At a very early point, the similarities with Zech 9:9 would have been noticed; it is no surprise that two different Gospel writers would have specifically made the connection, independently of each other.
This raises two historical-critical questions that are rather more serious:
With regard to the second question, the folkloric tenor of Mk 11:2-6 par, along with the fact that nothing of the sort occurs in the Johannine version of the scene (indeed, Jesus appears to find the donkey only after he has entered the city [Jn 12:14]), has led critical commentators to question the historical authenticity of those verses. However, on the surface, there is nothing implausible in Jesus instructing his disciples to obtain a donkey for him to ride. It is perhaps more important to consider the purpose of those introductory verses in the context of the Synoptic narrative. The details they contain emphasize a number of key points that will be developed in the chapters that follow (including the Passion narrative):
- Jesus’ care in making preparations with his disciples for the events leading up to his Passion (to be repeated in Mk 14:12-16 par)
- Jesus’ foreknowledge, which takes on greater prominence in the Passion narrative
- The suitability of the young colt (not yet broken in) as an animal for a king to ride on his entry into the city
- The wordplay involved in the statement “the Lord has need of it”, which could be rendered “its master has need of it”, but of course the term kýrios (“Lord”) has a deeper theological meaning for early Christians, as it is applied to Jesus. He is much more than the lord of the animal, he is Lord of all, in the sense of his identity as the Messiah and Son of God.
This leads to the question of Jesus’ own Messianic awareness, and whether he intentionally evoked the association with Zech 9:9. The issue needs to be examined from both an historical- and literary-critical standpoint, and may be expounded with a series of three related questions. Let us briefly consider each of them in turn.
How do the crowds in the narrative understand Jesus’ entry?
It seems unmistakable that the people, as their acclamations are recorded, have a definite Messianic idea in mind—that Jesus would be the coming Davidic king who will restore the kingdom of Israel. This seems most clear in John’s description of the crowd carrying palm branches to meet him (the Synoptics seem to depict crowds following along with Jesus [Mark 11:7-9 par.], John describes crowds coming out to meet him [12:13]—two separate groups?) Some have suggested that this indicates the time of Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles), but a nationalistic reference to the Maccabean revolt and the Dedication (Hanukkah) seems more appropriate (1 Macc. 13:51; 2 Macc. 10:7; cf. Brown, Anchor Bible [AB] 29 p. 461).
How did Jesus understand the event and his own actions?
So much attention is given in the Synoptics to the acquisition of the colt, it would seem to have been of considerable importance to Jesus. Whether or not he was consciously fulfilling prophecy is difficult to say. The fact that Zech 9-14 seems to have had a considerable influence over Gospel Tradition (Jesus himself cites 13:7b [Mark 14:27 par.]), means that the earliest believers, at least, saw the connection. I think it likely that Jesus indeed identified himself with the king of Zech 9:9, “righteous and [himself] bearing salvation, poor and riding upon an ass”. If the Synoptic position of the Cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15-19 [par]) is historically correct, Jesus also manifested judgment as well, but not at all the kind that would have fulfilled popular Messianic expectation.
How did the Gospel writers understand the event?
It is interesting to consider the possible connection in John between Zech 9 and Zeph 3—many of the same themes appear, but with a different emphasis in the latter passage: the conversion of the nations (vv. 9-11), the purification of Israel (the “remnant”, v. 12-13), including a sanctification of the appointed feasts (v. 18). The passage parallel to Zech 9:9ff (vv. 14-17) is perhaps even more appropriate as applied to Christ, see v. 17: “the Lord your God is in your midst [or ‘within you’], strong he shall save, he will have joy over you with gladness, he will make quiet in his love, he will rejoice over you with shouting”.
Next week, we will continue our study from the standpoint of literary criticism. In particular, we will examine how the Triumphal Entry scene fits within the context of the Passion Narrative for each Gospel. In so doing, by focusing on how the Gospel writers understood the death of Jesus, as an expression of his Messianic identity, we will be preparing the way for a celebration of his resurrection (on Easter Sunday). For more on the early Christian use of Psalm 118:26 and Zech 9:9, the Scriptures central to the Triumphal Entry scene, see the upcoming articles in my series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”.