During the first century, Christians did not believe that the official calendar of Rome, or the local calendars that honored the deities of various cities, marked real time. In their minds, the only time that mattered was eternity and the moment when God would dissolve this world in a final judgment that would bring his own people into Paradise. They were convinced that Jesus had been the first person to make this transition.
Baptism emerged as a key Christian ritual. Baptized Christians who had prepared themselves to follow Christ, after an extensive period of study, prayer and fasting, shared in his death and resurrection on Easter, the Sunday after Passover. They, too, would someday join him in Paradise.
The logic that joined Passover, baptism, and Jesus’ death and resurrection is a principle of the entire liturgical calendar of Christianity that endures to this day in the penitential season of Lent.
Liturgical logic, rather than historical reason, often guides the Gospels. The result is sometimes disagreement from gospel to gospel, and sometimes outright anachronism. John’s gospel presents Jesus’ death at the time the paschal lambs were slain, just before the Passover (John 19:14, 31). The Synoptic Gospels, however, portray the Last Supper as a Seder, the Passover meal when this same lamb was eaten (Matthew 26:17–19; Mark 14:12–16; Luke 22:7–13). Both portrayals cannot be right, and there is good reason to believe both are wrong.
The identification of the Last Supper with the Passover Seder is implausible. No mention is made of the Passover lamb in the account of the Last Supper (much less its selection and preparation days before), nor of the bitter herbs, the unleavened bread (matzah) or the Exodus from Egypt, all of which are formally prescribed in the Book of Exodus (chapter 12) as understood in ancient Judaism. More important, the Temple authorities are presented as deciding not to have Jesus arrested during Passover, but only before or after the feast itself, in order to avoid a riot (Matthew 26:3–5; Mark 14:1–2). That would have been reasonable, because Passover drew tens of thousands of pilgrims and required that the priests keep stricter purity than would be consistent with close dealing with Roman soldiers. It seems clear that Jesus died near the time of Passover, but he must have entered Jerusalem much earlier. In the Gospels, however, his entry and death were tightly coordinated with Passover itself under the later influence of the liturgical practice of the Church.
To think historically, we need to avoid being dazzled by the impression, frequently drawn from a hasty reading of the Synoptic Gospels, that Passover was the only feast that mattered greatly to Jews or Christians. The dominance of Passover in the New Testament is primarily a function of how the Pascha (as Christians called the Passover in Greek, reflecting the Aramaic pronunciation) emerged as the main Christian feast.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is likely to have occurred well before the time of his death in the spring, prior to Passover. His procession at or near the time of Sukkoth (Tabernacles), the great feast of the autumn harvest, would help to explain the texts of the Gospels. Leafy branches dominated by a palm frond (lulav in Hebrew; plural, lulavim) featured prominently in the procession of Sukkoth. The bundle also included myrtle and willow, all of which were waved about with a citron, a lemon-like fruit called an etrog in Hebrew (see Mishnaha Sukkah 3:1–4:5). These bundles of abundance are a key symbol in the gospel scene when leafy branches are laid before the entering Savior (Matthew 21:8; Mark 11:8; John 12:13). Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is also marked as a ritual occasion by the recitation of material from the Hallel, a group of psalms (Psalms 113–118) that were sung all through Sukkoth. All four Gospels quote slightly varying parts of Psalm 118:25–26. In Mark 11:9 the welcoming crowd sings: “Hosanna!b Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest” (see also Matthew 21:9; Luke 19:38; John 12:13).
Procession to the Temple with lulav in hand was a requirement of the eight-day Sukkoth festival, even on the Sabbath, because it was an intrinsic part of the festivity (Mishnah Sukkah 4:4). There was a vigorous, sometimes even contentious strain in all this. The same passage of the Mishnah relates that attendants used to scatter lulavim for worshipers 086to collect as they would, but that led to people fighting over them and even hitting one another with the palm fronds, until that practice was stopped. The problem will be familiar to anyone who has tried to keep order in a Sunday school on Palm Sunday. Although my congregants can find it a nuisance, I have long enjoyed this rambunctious affinity with the genuine setting of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
The Aramaic Targumc of the last chapter of the Book of Zechariah predicts that God’s kingdom will be manifested over the entire earth when the offerings of Sukkoth are presented by both Israelites and non-Jews at the Temple. It further predicts that these worshipers will prepare and offer their sacrifices themselves, without the intervention of middlemen. The last words of the book promise that “there shall never again be one doing trade in the sanctuary of the LORD of hosts at that time” (Targum Zechariah14:21). The thrust of the targumic prophecy motivated Jesus in the dramatic confrontation he provoked in the Temple when he expelled both traders and their animals (Matthew 21:12–13; Mark 11:15–17; Luke 19:45–46; John 2:14–17). Zechariah’s vision of a Sukkoth that restored the land to Israel and the Temple to the sacrifice God desired was a fundamental aspect of Jesus’ purpose during his last months in Jerusalem.
Zechariah 9:9 presents the messianic king as riding on a colt. For a royal figure, garments might well be strewn in the way (2 Kings 9:13). That was all the more natural at Sukkoth in the case of Jesus, who was a descendant of King David (see Matthew 21:4–9; Mark 11:7–10; Luke 19:35–38). In all of this, there is a deep connection between Jesus’ messianic role and the Book of Zechariah. Understanding the historical timing of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at Sukkoth opens all this up to us.
During the first century, Christians did not believe that the official calendar of Rome, or the local calendars that honored the deities of various cities, marked real time. In their minds, the only time that mattered was eternity and the moment when God would dissolve this world in a final judgment that would bring his own people into Paradise. They were convinced that Jesus had been the first person to make this transition. Baptism emerged as a key Christian ritual. Baptized Christians who had prepared themselves to follow Christ, after an extensive period of study, prayer and fasting, shared […]