Entry into Jerusalem
Much of the material in the four Gospels
presents us with a dilemma when we're trying to boil it down into "what
really happened" - that is, into good history. But even though incidents in
the gospels may be heavily contaminated with non-historical material, we can
quite often be reasonably sure about the bare bones of the history behind
One such incident is the account of Jesus entering
Jerusalem. The traditional view of this account turns out to be an
interpretation of the meaning of Jesus in history, rather than an account of
what really happened. The gospel authors were not much interested in the
history part. Their main concern was with the meaning of Jesus within the
traditional Jewish scheme of things. Only when the first Christians came
into contact with Greek tradition, which placed greater emphasis on reason,
was a greater emphasis placed on historical accuracy.
A clue to the interpretive nature of the narrative is given by the
traditional title for Mark 11.1-11 - "The Triumphal Entry into
Jerusalem". The Markan account is paralleled by Matthew 21.1-11 and Luke
19.28-40. Scholarly analysis of these three passages leads to the certain
conclusion that the versions of Matthew and Luke have been based on the
Markan original. All are stressing that Jesus was more than he appeared to
the ordinary gaze. Far from being a peasant, he had been chosen by God to
rule over the whole world. Hence the wonderful welcome he got when he
entered God's holy city.
One of the signs that the gospel authors were writing theology and not
history is the use they make of the Hebrew Scriptures (the "Old Testament"
to us). In Psalm 118.26-27 is to be found a text of which Mark 11.9 is a
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
Up to the horns of the altar.
An even more direct theological allusion is derived from Zechariah 9.9
in the versions of Matthew and Luke:
Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king comes to you in all modesty
and mounted on a donkey and a colt,
the foal of a pack animal.
Whenever the gospel authors hark back to scriptural authority in this
way, modern readers who are interested in "what really happened" should be
alert. In this case it seems that the Hebrew Scripture is being called
upon in relation to the early Jewish-Christian conclusion that Jesus was
the Messiah. In Greek and Roman terms (as well as in our own) the
equivalent to the title "messiah" would have been "king" or "emperor".
We can only guess how the gospel authors thought about such things.
This is because they perceived events very differently from us. Their
reasoning may have gone something like this:
This man Jesus was so special that his life must have been the
result of God's action in the world and in the affairs of humanity. We
know that the Scriptures record what God has done for his chosen
people, the Hebrews. God has spoken to them through his chosen ones,
especially the prophets.
When we examine the Scriptures carefully, we find that God has
indeed forecast the life and events of Jesus. Certain parts of these
Scriptures tell us the significance of his life and works.
They tell us that the Messiah will rule over the world like a
king or emperor. This will be God's new kingdom or empire.
We know that Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time at a
Feast of the Passover. The Scriptures can't be wrong, so the crowds in
the city at the time without doubt welcomed him just as was predicted
Unlike the gospel writers, our modern minds are concerned with deriving
meaning from objective "facts". My teenage son is behaving badly. What
should I know about his problems? This poem's rhythm and verbal pattern
are staccato and terse. What is the best interpretation I can put on it?
What emotional impact does it have on me?
The Gospel writers, in common with almost everyone else of the time
tended to refer to authorities from the past for their understanding of
the present. I need to milk the cow on the Sabbath, one would ask. What do
the Scriptures say about this necessary task? The Roman Emperor's image is
on many of the coins I must use to buy and sell the fish I've caught. The
Scriptures and the Rabbis say that any representation of a human being is
an idol. Will I annoy God if I use these coins? In other words,
observation of their environment and analysis of data was not how they
We have to note that this event is included in all four Gospels. But
analysis of the details make it nearly impossible to accept the whole
thing as good history.
Mark's Gospel contains an ongoing theme of Jesus as the "secret
Messiah". That theme is continued here, indicating that he has a
doctrinal interest in the account of the entry into Jerusalem.
We don't know which particular Jewish feast was the occasion of
the entry into Jerusalem because Mark's chronology is artificial
throughout. If the event happened, it was a Passover feast - but we
don't know which one in which year. Not that this would have bothered
the gospel writers, mind you.
Jesus is supposed to have traveled from Jericho to Jerusalem. We
don't know why Mark reverses the order in which Jesus would have passed
through the towns of Bethphage and Bethany (11.1) on the way. He would
have come to Bethany first, and then gone on to Bethphage nearer the
city, probably close to the Mount of Olives.
It's highly probable that Mark intended to use the story about
the "colt" as miraculous confirmation of Jesus' powers and the claims
about him. This sort of story was common folklore of the time.
Verse three is the only place in Mark where the Greek title
"Lord" (kurios) is used in reference to Jesus. This is usually a
good indication of text written or altered at a late date.
The word Hosanna is of uncertain meaning. We can be pretty
sure it was not a ceremonial greeting for the Jewish Messiah. But this
is precisely what Mark intends it to mean - another indication that he's
doctored the story.
Mark 11.11 is pointless detail which Mark probably put in to
serve his artificial sequence of events.
Another feature is worthy of comment. The Mount of Olives lies roughly
to the east of Jerusalem. Zechariah was thought to have prophesied that
the Messiah would embark upon his final conquest of Israel's enemies from
On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies
before Jerusalem on the east ... And the Lord will become king over all
the earth ... (14.4 & 14.9)
Given the way the gospel authors thought about the meaning of Jesus, we
can't be certain of the reference to the Mount of Olives because it seems
so heavily laden with theology. It would not have occurred to them the
gospel writers that anyone would worry about this in terms of history. The
latter was, after all, a discipline developed from early beginnings only
many centuries later.
The interpretations and theology of the gospel authors have to be
stripped away to satisfy our need to work out what's good history and what
isn't. What is left is as near as we can get to "what really happened".
Having examined all the details one important fact indicates that, even
though we can't be certain about the details, and even though what really
happened is overlaid with theology, the entry into Jerusalem probably
It is that the narrative also appears in John's Gospel (12.12-19). It
includes references to Psalm 118 and to Zechariah. But apart from that,
John's account of the entry into Jerusalem bears little resemblance to the
other gospels. This is in keeping with the whole gospel, which has very
little material in harmony with the other three gospels. So when an
account in John does back the others up, we can put a good deal of extra
weight on it in terms of good history.
So we can conclude that in terms of "bare bones history" [a] that Jesus
did enter Jerusalem on at least one special occasion when [b] the band of
people with him celebrated his entry in a particular way, indicating they
thought he had been sent by God as the messiah or king of the heavenly
kingdom. But we can go little or no further because the details of all the
accounts are not convincing.