Palm Sunday and History

Palm Sunday and History March 20, 2016

I had a commenter on the blog make the ridiculous claim that, since there is reference in the Jewish Scriptures to the riding of a donkey, we can therefore have no basis on which to conclude that such a thing actually happened in the life of Jesus.

I would have thought it would be obvious that that makes no sense. After all, we wouldn’t consider it at all plausible if someone were to suggest that an American president could not have said or done something, because it echoed the actions or words of an earlier president.

Or, to use examples from closer to the time of Jesus, no one would consider it plausible to say that, when Josephus said that a man named Thaddeus led people to the Jordan and claimed that it would part for them, or another messianic pretender of the era led people out into the wilderness, Josephus must be making it up, because there were scriptural stories about the Jordan parting and people being led into the wilderness. We recognize that people would pattern themselves on past leaders, precisely and especially when they were claiming to be in some way like them.

Jesus seems to have believed himself to be the long-awaited descendant of David, destined by God to restore the dynasty of his ancestor to the throne. And so we would expect him to say and do things, to orchestrate events, so as to convey this to others.

One of my first articles that I published about the New Testament, way back in 1997, was “Uncontrived Messiah or Passover Plot? A Study of A Johannine Apologetic Motif.” It appeared in the journal Irish Biblical Studies, and it is now available online on my Selected Works page. The article is an examination of how the author of the Gospel of John made efforts to combat this natural understanding of the earlier Gospels, namely that Jesus did things that the Davidic Messiah was expected to do because he made arrangements to accomplish precisely that.

It seems to me that there are too many people today who accept uncritically the Christian claim that Jesus fulfills predictions in the Jewish Scriptures. Having accepted that claim unquestioningly, they then feel that they are left with two options: that Jesus did in fact fulfill predictions, or that the stories were invented on the basis of those predictions. But this is a false dichotomy, which leaves out not only the possibility that Jesus himself sought to appear to fulfill predictions, but also one that fits most of the evidence better still: that the texts in question, in most instances, were not predictions at all. But even if Zechariah 9:9 is different from texts that Jesus is said to fulfill (such as Hosea 11:1), and reflected Zechariah’s disappointment that Zerubbabel did not bring about the restoration of the Davidic dynasty and thus his hope that someone else would come along to do so, the natural way to relate this to Jesus is in terms of his having decided to act in a way that other readers of the Jewish Scriptures would understand.

Instead of getting distracted by unconvincing mythicist-style claims in a case like this, we would do better to ask how to account for the disconnect between the use of palms and Psalm 118, and the situating of the story against the backdrop of Passover in the Gospels rather than connecting it with Tabernacles (Sukkot) as would be more natural. Is this a story whose original setting has been shifted by Mark, to fit the one visit to Jerusalem by Jesus that he recounts? If so, then that would have a number of different kinds of significance, one of which would be the likelihood that it provides evidence that the author of the Gospel of John knew one or more of the Synoptic Gospels. But are there other alternatives? Is there an explanation of why Jesus and his followers might have engaged in a symbolic event at Passover that used imagery from the Feast of Tabernacles?

Browse Our Archives