The Historicity of Jesus Christ’s ‘Triumphal’ Entry

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Jesus Christ’s entry into the city of Jerusalem at the end of his ministry is normally called the “triumphal entry” and it refers to the start of Christ’s final week before his death by crucifixion. This was the moment in Christ’s ministry when he and his disciples ventured to Jerusalem for the Passover feast, like thousands of other religious pilgrims coming to the feast (Mark 11:1-10; Matthew 21:1-11; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-15).

This entry examines this event and demonstrates why most scholars accept it to be a genuine episode in Christ’s life. We will also provide an interpretation of Christ’s entry into the city in order to determine what he wished to communicate to others through his behaviour.

An “Atriumphal” Entry

We refer to Christ’s entry as “atriumphal” because it was likely a much smaller event than has been typically thought by Christians and readers of the gospels (1). Many of us have likely viewed media in which Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is accompanied by swarms of people running up to meet him at the city gates, perhaps as if he were a hero returning home. But such a scenario is almost certainly fictional. What is indeed historical, as will be shown, is that Christ did in fact make an entry into Jerusalem and he staged it deliberately. In this case he chose to speak through his actions rather than through his words.

There are a few reasons why one might suspect that Christ’s entry was a much smaller event than often thought. A strong reason is that Christ was not arrested as one would have expected. This is easily explained if Christ was accompanied by a small number of disciples and followers who, in the presence of large approaching crowds of pilgrims, were unlikely to have caught much attention. It has been estimated that Jerusalem’s population expanded three times its normal size during Passover, which could reach 150 000 (2). This would result in a flood of pilgrims trying to enter the city and the temple, which would have made it unlikely that Christ’s entry and his followers would have been noticed by Roman authorities. The only way Christ’s entry would have been noticed is if it was indeed a large and elaborate one (akin to an entry enjoyed by an important dignitary such as prefect like Pontius Pilate, for which Christ would have been arrested had he tried to emulate; see more on this below) or if it disturbed the peace through acts of violence.

Further, there are hints suggesting that Christ’s group of disciples was not particularly large since we read in Acts 1:15 that only 120 disciples were gathered in Jerusalem after his death a week later. And although Matthew’s gospel gives readers the impression that “most of the crowd” met Christ at the gates (21:8), Matthew indicates just two verses prior that this group is said to be mostly disciples (21:6). Biblical scholar Brent Kinman explains that,

“[O]ne need not imagine that the crowd accompanying Jesus outside Jerusalem was so large to have commanded the attention of the soldiers, who were primarily concerned with events inside the city and temple. In fact, one valid way of reading the texts is that the lack of military intervention suggests a smaller group accompanied Jesus than is often envisioned” (3).

The Historicity of Christ’s Atriumphal Entry

There are sufficient historical grounds for accepting the atriumphal entry. This is because the event satisfies two criteriamultiple attestation and embarrassment.

Regarding multiple attestation, we have two independent sources attesting to this event (4). Working from the basis that historians are content to have two independents witnesses to an event of history we can be confident that the atriumphal entry satisfies this criterion. The logic of this is “straightforward,” writes New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, and this is that “if a tradition appears in an early source and in another independent source, then not only is it early, but it is also unlikely to have been made up” (5).

Reading the specifics, the entry is attested in all four gospel accounts. However, Matthew and Luke derive their source material from Mark, so these three sources only count as one independent testimony. John, however, is distinct and counts as a second source for the entry. There are good reasons to maintain that John’s account, despite being the last of the four gospels to be written, is independent. For one, it clearly lacks any discussion of the event being arranged as Mark, Matthew, and Luke inform their readers. Further, Mark, Matthew, and Luke treat Bethany as the backdrop to the event’s origin but John’s account has a different focus. Where Mark, Matthew, and Luke narrate a story of Christ healing a blind man, John’s author tells the story of the raising of Lazarus. Finally, the description provided on the size of the crowd accompanying Christ differs. Mark, for instance, narrates disciples leading Christ in with little notion or sense of a larger crowd whereas John’s gospel notes crowds throughout. These differences point to independent attestation in the form of two sources. Theologian William Lane Craig states that,

“Although Mark and John’s accounts differ in various circumstantial details, they fully agree on the core of the story: that at the beginning of the final week of his life Jesus of Nazareth rode into Jerusalem seated on a donkey and was hailed by the crowds who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual Passover feast with shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!,” as they anticipated the coming of the kingdom of God” (6).

A second strong reason for accepting the historicity of the atriumphal entry is that it satisfies the criterion of embarrassment. This argues that the writers of the gospels would not have created a story that would embarrass its figures, particularly its important figures, or create problems for themselves that they otherwise would not need to face. This criterion claims that in light of the inclusion of an embarrassing and problematic detail, the author is likely narrating and conveying a genuine historical event that he would not have fabricated. We find that the atriumphal entry satisfies this criterion for the reason that the early church knew a conspicuous entry into Jerusalem was a political act and would have been interpreted as such. Yet we also learn that church was normally very careful about actions that could be perceived as seditious against the ruling Roman Empire who controlled first-century Palestine and the city of Jerusalem. For example, we note such care in Paul’s trials of defense where he evidently goes to great lengths to ensure that he was doing nothing to disturb the peace or be a problem to Rome (Acts 24:12, 25:8). Thus, a public entry into Jerusalem on Christ’s behalf does not seem like something that the early church would invent. There are further reasons why the church would not invent this. Already the Christ-followers were treated with suspicion because they functioned separately from Roman culture and their leader had even been executed for sedition. That Christ’s followers focused on and worshiped one God was to set aside the many gods of Rome, a tendency of the early Christian movement that led them to be called “atheists” by the Romans. The religious belief of these early Christians was, according to the ancient Roman historian Dio Cassius, alien, foreign, strange, and even hostile to Rome,

“Those who attempt to distort our religion with strange rites you should abhor and punish, not merely for the sake of the gods… but because such men, by brining in new divinities in place of the old, persuade many to adopt foreign practices, from which spring conspiracies, factions, and cabals” (Dio Cassius 52.36.2).

Clearly then the Christians were viewed with much suspicion and were a challenge to important aspects of Roman culture and life such as its religion. The question would then by why two independent Christian gospel writers would create more stories, such as Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, which would put them and their movement in an even more negative light than it was already in? This suggests that we are dealing with a genuine historical event in Christ’s atriumphal entry rather than a fabrication or a legend. Not only is this event attested in two independent sources it also puts the church in an uncomfortable light that challenges the power and privilege of Rome.

Comparing Christ’s “Atriumphal” Entry with Pilate’s Triumphal Entry

But what did Christ intend to communicate through this event? We can partly come to an answer by comparing him to Pontius Pilate, the governor (prefect) of the Roman province of Judaea. Pilate represented Rome and was in Jerusalem at the time Christ made his entry during the Passover (he is also the one responsible for later sentencing Christ to death). Pilate would himself have, due to his role as prefect, entered Jerusalem with an elaborate ceremony reserved for important persons and dignitaries. Indeed such an entry was used to communicate a point, which was to demonstrate the power of Rome and deter anyone from acting against the empire being represented.

We may suggest that the Sadducees, a powerful Jewish political sect who cooperated with the Roman Empire, would have wanted to make Pilate feel welcome in their city and would have met him at the gates. One learns of this custom of reception in a broad array of historical sources and persons. Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero describes that when he (acting as the proconsul of the province of Asia) visited a city “extraordinary throngs of people have come to meet me from farms, villages, and every homestead” (Ad Atticum 5.16). We learn of a similar reception from a record narrating King Attalus III’s visit to his capital city in the second century BCE (7). Greek historian Diodorus Siculus noted that “wherever the king appeared the cities poured forth bodily to meet him, their people clothed in festive garb and rejoicing greatly” (Diodorus Siculus 37:26). Jewish historian Josephus Flavius writes that when Alexander the Great came to Jerusalem some three centuries earlier, God told the chief priest to “adorn the city with wreathes and open the gates and go out to meet them, and that the people should be in white garments, and he himself with the priests in the robes prescribed by law” should go out to meet the arriving official (Ant. 11.8.4). There are many more cases of such receptions many of which were followed by speeches of welcome and flattery from select members of a welcoming delegation. Strong evidence thus suggests that it was custom for religious, political, and social leaders in Egypt, Palestine, and Asia Minor to venture outside a city to greet the visiting dignitary and to provide a formal welcome and escort. Writing for the Journal of Biblical Literature, Kinman reveals that,

“The arrival of a royal or other dignitary was an occasion for an ostentatious display designed to court the favor and/or placate the wrath of the visiting celebrity… At the approach of the dignitary, a band of municipal officials and other citizens, including the social, religious, and political elite, would proceed some distance from the city in order to meet the celebrity well in advance of the city walls” (8).

Pilate would have almost certainly enjoyed a similar reception upon arrival. He would have likely entered Jerusalem with a sizable number of troops and horseman as a show of Rome’s force. It would have been clear to those watching who was in control of whom and the city’s inhabitants would have had no choice but to acknowledge Rome’s authority even if many did not want to.

The entries between Pilate and Christ could not have been more different. In Christ’s case, no-one came out of the city gates to greet him and those who did accompany him were disciples streaming into Jerusalem alongside him and other pilgrims. No soldiers or horsemen were by his side in a show of force and military might. Christ did not ride a powerful warhorse but a simple donkey and he claimed to present the God of Israel, not the gods of Rome. Indeed Christ’s entry is atriumphal when compared to Pilate and his lack of welcome might have even been perceived as insulting; Kinman continues,

Set against the background of celebratory greeting in the ancient world, Jerusalem’s response to Jesus must be regarded as an appalling insult. Why? As noted earlier, the xapoaoia of emperors, Hellenistic kings, and other distinguished figures featured a splendid welcome in which virtually all segments of society participated: boys and girls, young men and women, citizens and their spouses, merchants and traders, the religious, political, and social elite. Compared with that, Jesus’ entry is not triumphal” (9).

The Atriumphal Entry Evidences Christ’s Royal Connections

But to Christ’s disciples, this entry was of great significance. To them, Christ was the one blessed by God and was a king returning to his capital, just as King Solomon of the Old Testament entered Jerusalem on a mule (1 Kings 1:33). Christ intended to present himself to Jerusalem as Israel’s king and as an eschatological figure of hope. Further, the detail of the disciples heaping their garments upon the colt for Christ to sit on and using the garments to pave a path for Christ and the animal to proceed (Mark 11:1-8; Matthew 21:1-3; Luke 19:29-36) finds similarity with the Old Testament account of Jehu’s accession to power. There, after Jehhu is recognized as king, bystanders place a garment on the steps under his feet (2 Kings 9:13). Christ’s riding on a mule appears to be a prophetic fulfillment of Zechariah where the king is “Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). Luke’s gospel further shows Christ accepting the label of the son of David, hence him being a descendant of royalty (18:35-43), which leads one to conclude that all of these details are attempts to reinforce the royal imagery of Christ and his visit to the city. Christ is the true king selected by a God whose power far outmatches that of Rome. This is what mattered, not how many soldiers one had at his side or how large the welcoming party was.

References

1. Ellis, Edward Earle. 1974. The Gospel of Luke. Marshall, Morgan & Scott. p. 223.

2. Sanders, E. P.1993. The Historical Figure of Jesus. Penguin. p. 249-251.

3. Kinman, Brent. 2005. “Jesus’ Royal Entry into Jerusalem.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 15(2): 223-260.

4. Meier, Paul. 2001. Jesus: A Colloquium in the Holy Land, edited by James Dunn and Doris Donnelly, 45-84. p. 81.

5. Borg, Marcus., and Wright, N. T. 1999. The Meaning of Jesus. HarperCollings. p. 12.

6. Craig, William Lane. The Triumphal Entry. Available.

7. Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum lines 33-38.

8. Kinman, Brent. 1999. “Parousia, Jesus’ “A-Triumphal” Entry, and the Fate of Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-44).” Journal of Biblical Literature 118(2): 279-294. p. 281.

9. Kinman, Brent. 1999. Ibid. p. 290.

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