The Sunday before Easter, marking the start of the Easter Week (or Holy Week), is traditionally called “Palm Sunday”, the day on which Jesus made his “triumphal” Entry into Jerusalem. This event is recorded in all four Gospels (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-19), and clearly is based on a common tradition. Despite this, the precise historical circumstances, and even the basic interpretation of the episode, are disputed by commentators. For example, even though the Entry is set in the context of the Feast of Passover (see esp. John 12:1), certain details suggest that the Feast of Tabernacles might be more appropriate (e.g., the use of palm fronds [only in John], the application of Psalm 118 and Zechariah 9 [on which, see below]). As for the interpretation of the scene, this ought to be examined from three basic perspectives:
- How did Jesus (and his disciples) intend or understand the event?
- How did the crowds receiving him understand it?
- How did the Gospels writers (and early Christians) understand it?
This is particularly important with regard to: (1) The words shouted by the people, as recorded in each Gospel; and (2) The scripture passages applied to the event (by the people and/or the Gospel writers). I will here look at each of these in turn.
1. The words shouted by the crowds (Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:9-10; Luke 19:38; John 12:13)
It is useful to compare each of these side by side (translated words in italics represent details unique to each Gospel):
w(sanna/ tw=| ui(w=| Daui/d:
Hosha’-nâ to the son of David
eu)loghme/no$ o( e)rxo/meno$ o( basileu\$ e)n o)no/mati kuri/ou:
Blessed is the (one) coming—the king—in (the) name of (the) Lord
First, note what is common to all of the Gospels:
(a) w(sanna/—a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic an` uv^oh (hôša± nâ) (Hebrew aN` hu*yv!oh [hôšî±¹ (n)nâ]), which would be translated “Save, please…” or “Save, I pray…” (an being a particle of entreaty). This verb form (with or without the particle) reflects a real request from a petitioner (toward the king, or God) everywhere it occurs in the Old Testament; however, gradually, it came to be used as an acclamation or exclamation of praise (something like “God save the king!” in Britain). Its appearance here is certainly a result of its use in Psalm 118 (v. 25)—it may originally have indicated a prayer for victory and/or prosperity: in the context of Sukkoth (harvest festival) it is intended as a prayer for rain. Of the Gospels, only Luke omits any w(sanna/ exclamation.
(b) Psalm 118:26a—all four Gospels include the first half of verse 26, which is an exact quote from the Septuagint (and an accurate translation of the Hebrew): eu)loghme/no$ o( e)rxo/meno$ e)n o)no/mati kuri/ou, “blessed is the (one) coming in the name of the Lord” (Hebrew hwhy <v@B= aB*h^ EWrB*). The reference originally was most likely to the king returning from battle (see below), but it is possible that a more general festal setting is intended (at least for vv. 25-29). Certainly the verse came to be used in reference to pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the Feast (Sukkoth, Passover, etc). For more detail on the use of Ps 118, see below.
(c) Reference to king/kingdom—In all four Gospels, some mention is made of a king (basileu/$, John 12:13, Luke 19:38), a kingdom (basilei/a, Mark 11:10), or David (Matthew 21:9, Mark 11:10). This would imply that the crowds (and/or the Gospel writer) had a Messianic context in mind.
(d) e)n toi=$ u(yi/stoi$—this phrase occurs in all three Synoptic accounts (though Luke is quite different, see below). Literally, the phrase would be rendered “in the highest (place)s”, i.e., in heaven, or in the highest heaven. The rare instances where this phrase occurs in the Septuagint (Psalm 148:1; Job 16:19), it translates <ym!orM=B^ (“in the heights”) parallel to “heaven” (<y]m^v*, ou)rano/$). The usage in Matthew and Mark (with w(sanna/) probably represents a climactic intensification of the acclamation.
Secondly, what is unique to each Gospel:
(a) Mark adds eu)loghme/nh h( e)rxome/nh basilei/a tou= patro\$ h(mw=n Daui/d (“blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David”), as a parallel to Psalm 118:26a—”blessed is the one coming…blessed is the kingdom coming”. Here the Messianic connotation could not be more explicit: not just the king, but the kingdom itself is coming; that is, the restored Davidic kingdom will be ushered in. One is reminded of the annunciation to Mary: “he shall be great and shall be called Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32).
(b) Matthew adds tw=| ui(w=| Daui/d to w(sanna/: “Hôsha’-nâ to the son of David”, so that the exclamation of praise (or entreaty, in the original Psalm) is addressed specifically to the “Son of David”. This is a clear Messianic title which is applied to Jesus on a number of occasions (only in the Synoptic Gospels, most frequently in Matthew). It should be noted that generally it is the crowds (or other individuals) who use this title, never Jesus himself: in fact, the only time Jesus mentions it occurs in a brief exposition of Psalm 110:1 (Mark 12:35-37; Matthew 21:41-45; Luke 20:41-44) the precise meaning of which remains difficult to determine. Matthew records the same phrase (w(sanna/ tw=| ui(w=| Daui/d) being uttered by children in the Temple; Luke has a similar notice (without the phrase) involving the disciples (Luke 19:39-40).
(c) John follows Psalm 118:26a with the phrase [kai\] o( basileu\$ tou= )Israh/l (“and the king of Israel”). This addition seems to specify who the coming one is—”even the king of Israel”.
(d) Similar to John, Luke seems to have added o( basileu/$ to Psalm 118:26a; however, the text is uncertain. The majority text (ac A K L D Q P Y f1, 13 28 565 700 etc) reads o( e)rxo/meno$ basileu/$ (“the coming king”); a few manuscripts (W 1216), lectionaries and Church Fathers do not have basileu/$; Western witnesses (D a c d ff2 i r1 s) have a reading harmonized closer to that of John (transposing basileu/$ and repeating eu)loghme/no$); MS B with some versional witnesses ([arm, syr?]) reads o( e)rxo/meno$ o( basileu/$ (“the one coming, the king”). More notably, Luke has, apparently, modified and expanded the phrase e)n toi=$ u(yi/stoi$, so that it is a clear echo of the angelic announcement to the shepherds: “in heaven peace, and glory in the highest (place)s” (compare Luke 2:14). The climactic moment of Jesus entry into Jerusalem (cf. Luke 9:51) parallels the entry of Jesus into the world.
2. The Scripture passages applied to the event
Psalm 118 (esp. vv. 25-26)
This Psalm was discussed briefly above. The original context was, most likely, of the king returning victorious in battle (the victory being won by God, vv. 6-16ff), and welcomed as one “coming in the name of the Lord”. However, this is not certain, and a more general festal setting is possible (see esp. vv. 25-29). Certainly, by the Maccabean period, it would seem, this Psalm was included among the Hallel Psalms (113-118) recited by pilgrims during the great feasts (Sukkoth [Tabernacles], Passover, Pentecost, the Dedication). In this context, one who “comes in the name of the Lord” would refer to the pilgrim. Jesus cited this Psalm in relation to the (religious) opposition he faced—v. 26 (in Matthew 23:39), and v. 22-24 “the stone the builders rejected…” (Parable of the Tenants, Mark 12:10-11 & par.). If it is possible that the crowds and followers of Jesus are reviving the royal setting of the Psalm, welcoming Jesus as the Messiah who will restore the Davidic Kingdom, for Jesus the message seems to have undertones of his impending suffering and death.
Zechariah 9 (v. 9)
Only Matthew (21:4-5) and John (12:15) specifically apply this prophetic passage to the Triumphal Entry, but each not without difficulties. Matthew’s citation is tied to curious and problematic details (the two animals—ass and foal) which I will not go into here. The citation in John has actually been modified from Zech 9:9—instead of “rejoice much daughter of Zion” (LXX xai=re sfo/dra qu/gathr Siwn), the text reads mh\ fobou= quga/thr Siw/n, “do not fear daughter of Zion”. R. E. Brown in his classic commentary (Anchor Bible 29 p. 458) suggests that this phrase may have been taken from Zephaniah 3:16, and that the earlier addition [kai\] o( basileu/$ (see above) may likewise have come in from Zeph 3:15. This passage in Zechariah (similar to what may have been the original setting of Psalm 118) depicts the surrounding hostile nations defeated and cowed by the power of God (vv. 1-8); with an even more destructive scene of judgment against the nations in vv. 13-15. In between we have the scene of the king coming to Jerusalem (v. 9) which ushers in a time of peace and prosperity (vv. 10-12, see also the reprise of this theme in vv. 16-17).
So, to return to the initial questions:
How do the crowds in the narrative understand Jesus’ entry?
It seems unmistakable that the people (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?) 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—some have suggested that this indicates the time of Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles), but a nationalistic reference to the Maccabean revolt and the Dedication seems more appropriate (1 Macc. 13:51; 2 Macc. 10:7; cf. Brown, 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 (see above)—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”. For the rest, I would point to the discussion above, as well as encourage each believer toward a careful study of the passages.