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The Memory of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry

Two chapters of my book Jesus Before the Gospels involve discussions of “distorted memories” – that is, recollections of events from Jesus life that appear not to represent what actually happened.  One of the chapters deals with events leading up to Jesus’ death (the most remembered part of his life), the other with his public ministry.  Just to give a taste of how I proceed in these chapters, I will excerpt here my discussion of the Triumphal Entry.  The discussion is a little long for a single post, so I will divide it into two.  Today’s post explains what the memory is (one many people still have today!); the next one will try to show why it is best seen as not being a “true” memory.

 

The Triumphal Entry

There seems to be no reason to doubt that Jesus spent the last week of his life in Jerusalem looking ahead to the celebration of the Passover feast.   Passover was by far the busiest time of the year in Jerusalem, when the city would swell many times its normal size as Jewish pilgrims from around the year would come to enjoy the feast in the capital city.   They would normally arrive a week early to prepare for the big day.

The festival was, and is, celebrated to commemorate the exodus of the children of Israel from their slavery in Egypt during the days of Moses, over a millennium before the birth of Jesus.   The historical basis for the feast is given in the book of Exodus.  There we are told that the people of Israel had been in Egypt for centuries and had been enslaved there.  God, though, heard their cries of despair and sent a great leader Moses, who through his miracle-working power brought the Israelites – well over a million of them – out from their slavery and eventually brought them to the Promised Land.[1]  Jewish people throughout the world have celebrated this great exodus event, in some respects the founding event for the people of Israel, once a year at Passover.  Since the festive meal in the days of Jesus was to involve eating a sacrificed lamb, the only place on earth to celebrate it properly was in Jerusalem, as it was only there, in the temple, that animal sacrifices could be made to God.   And so those who had the time and money to do so would come to Jerusalem for the feast.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that…

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It would be a mistake, though, to think that most Jews in Palestine were celebrating this feast out of purely antiquarian interests, to recall what God had once done many centuries before in freeing his people from the bondage of a foreign oppressor.  In the first century, Israel was once again subject to another power, this time not Egypt but Rome.   Many Jews surely anticipated that as God had acted on behalf of his people in the past, so he would do once more in the future, liberating his oppressed people from the tyranny of a foreign power.

The Roman rulers of Palestine understood full well that this time of year was especially incendiary.  Not only were there large crowds of Jews in Jerusalem, but some of these crowds were eager to drive the Romans out of the Promised Land, or to have God do so.    The Roman governor, in this case Pontius Pilate, normally stayed at his palatial residence on the Mediterranean coast in Caesarea.   But Passover was one time of the year when he would come to stay in Jerusalem, along with his troops, which he would station around the city in order to quell any problems that arose, to squelch any riots before they got out of hand.

That is the historical reality of Passover around the year 30 CE, when Jesus and a group of his followers came to the city along with thousands of other pilgrims for the festival.  That reality itself should call into question the memory of how Jesus arrived in town, in the episode known throughout Christian history as the Triumphal Entry.

In our earliest version, found now in Mark 11, as Jesus and his disciples draw near to the walls of Jerusalem, he sends two of them into a village to procure for him a colt on which he can ride into town.   They do so, and Jesus comes into Jerusalem to the acclamation of the gathered crowds.   Some throw garments on the road for him to ride over; others cut leafy branches from the fields.   The throng of people both before and behind him acclaim Jesus to be the new king who has come to restore the kingdom of David to his people:  “And they were crying out, ‘Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  Blessed is the Kingdom of our father David that is coming!  Hosanna in the highest” (Mark 11:9-10).

Matthew has an intriguing variation of this memory of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  According to Matthew, Jesus’ ride into town was a fulfilment of Scripture:  “This took place in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, who said, “Speak to the daughter of Zion, behold the king is coming to you, humble and seated on a donkey, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass” (Matthew 21:5)   This is a quotation of the Jewish Scripture (see Isa. 62:11; Zech. 9:9).   According to Matthew, Jesus fulfilled the Scripture in an oddly literal way.   As is commonly known, in ancient Hebrew poetry, poetic lines were coupled not by rhyming schemes, as with some English poetry, but by various kinds of conceptual parallelism.   In a two-line sequence (a couplet) the first line might say something, and the next line might say the same thing in other words; or it might repeat part of the first line with an additional thought; or it might express the opposite side of the same coin.  There were several ways such poetry could work.   But it was poetry, not straightforward descriptive prose.

The line from Zechariah about one “seated on a donkey, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass” was the first kind of parallelism I just mentioned, where the second part (a colt, the foal of an ass) is saying the same thing as the first part (a donkey), only in other words.   Matthew apparently didn’t understand how the parallelism worked.   He took it literally.  For him, Scripture predicted that there was to be both a donkey and a colt.  As a result, in his version, Jesus tells his disciples to secure two animals.  They do so.  And Jesus rides into down straddling them.  It is, needless to say, a very peculiar memory of the event.

But is the event itself an accurate memory?  Was there really a Triumphal Entry?

 

[1] Exodus 1:37 indicates that there were 600,000 men, which does not include the women and children.


The Triumphal Entry as a Distorted Memory
Weekly Readers’ Mailbag: March 4, 2016

42

Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  March 5, 2016

    I have always wondered about the donkey and the colt. Tried to visualize how Jesus would have sat upon both at the same time. Maybe stood on their backs, one foot upon each–except the colt’s back would presumably be lower. Awkward.

    Looking foward to the rest of this.

  2. Avatar
    john76  March 5, 2016

    There’s no reason to think the triumphant entry ever happened. In Mark, Jesus’ “triumphant entry” is paired with Jesus’ “humiliating exit” when he went to the cross. The “triumphant entry/humiliating exit” is a literary device showcasing an example of Mark’s use of IRONY. As a case of bonus irony, don’t you find it weird that all the people knew Jesus well enough to celebrate his entry into the city, but the officials needed the kiss of Judas to identify him? lol

    • Avatar
      john76  March 8, 2016

      Another possibility is that The New Testament isn’t being honest with us.

      If anyone would like to read the short story I published about the possibility that the stories of Jesus’ divinity and miracles were LIES, it is published here:

      http://www.caseagainstfaith.com/the-eternal-return.html

      For an overview of the most recent arguments I have on the topic of “Jesus’ divinity and miracles as NOBLE LIES,” see the five or six posted comments I have on this blog page:

      http://vridar.org/2015/09/21/comments-open/#comment-73290

      My name is John MacDonald

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  March 15, 2016

        Why is it important to you to prove some parts are lies? You seem to have a personal stake in proving that.

        1
  3. Avatar
    plparker  March 6, 2016

    In one of these posts on your new book I wonder if you could comment on how the apocalyptic view of many early Christians would have affected collective memory. In other words, why focus on carefully preserving the sacred words of Jesus for future generations when there would be no future generations. The oral tradition that was present in some cultures, to carefully preserve the exact text of a divine figure (e.g., the Koran), would not be present in an apocalyptic culture.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2016

      My sense is that they were telling the stories not for the sake of people living centuries later, but in order to convert people so that they too would be prepared for the imminent end.

      1
      • Avatar
        Elisabeth  March 13, 2016

        And would the interest of conversion rather than historical preservation have been likely to leave the telling more open to dramaticizing, embellishment, and the like? Or would historical revisionism have been likely to play essentially the same role?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 14, 2016

          I’m not sure the story tellers were trying to convert others with an account like this — but it’s possible. It may also be because they were telling the story to fellow-believers and instilling significance into it.

          1
  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 6, 2016

    Talk about “triumphal entries,” how about the Tar Heels entry into Cameron last night????

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 6, 2016

    So…had Mark gotten the idea from that Jewish Scriptural source (which he understood correctly)? And might Matthew – despite being familiar with the passage – never have thought of it in this context if it hadn’t appeared in Mark?

    I’m guessing you’re going to say there was *some* oral tradition of bystanders greeting Jesus – maybe his disciples were shouting about him, *trying* to get people’s attention, and a few did stop and listen to them (though they’d probably forgotten it five minutes later). And the story grew with every retelling.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2016

      My view is that we don’t know really what happened, except that Jesus came into Jerusalem about a week before the Passover.

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  March 6, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,
    A slightly off-topic question. A lot of scholars talk about the Jews living under “Roman oppression” (I even get this sense from my fellow Jews when they talk about the Tannaitic period). But when I read Josephus, he makes it quite clear that the Jewish aristocracy invited the Roman’s into Judea as a hegemonic power (which, incidentally, was a regular way for Rome to expand its empire), first when Pompey was invited in to settle the civil war of succession between Alexander Janneus’ sons in 63BCE, and next when the Jewish aristocracy requested a Roman governer in lieu of a Jewish ethnarch upon the deposition and exile of Herod Archelaus by Augustus in 6CE. So in a sense, the “oppression” of the Jews was more of a class struggle (a la Marxist analysis) than most laypeople are led to believe. So, technically, wasn’t Jesus actually proclaiming the liberation of the marginalized, god-fearing Jewish commoner from the oppression of the powerful, yet corrupt and sinful Roman AND Jewish elite? I mean, sure, Caiaphas and the Temple priesthood are portrayed as corrupt and impious in the Gospels, but I don’t think the average layperson really understands the class power dynamics that were on going at the time. That is to say the ethnic/cultural dynamic (Jew vs Gentile) was also criss-crossed with the class dynamic of commoner vs aristocrat.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2016

      Jesus *may* have been concerned as well with the Jewish elite who were co-operating with Rome. But Josephus is difficult to use on this score, since his patrons were Roman and he was clearly telling his tale with a certain slant.

      • Robert
        Robert  March 12, 2016

        Of course Josephus has his own slant, but there is no good reason to doubt that his perspective was presumably representative of many of the Jewish aristocratic priests.

  7. Avatar
    amyschiwitz  March 6, 2016

    Hi Bart, can I make a suggestion? Could you put the date published by the post title? I don’t see one, but I’m on my mobile so I’m not sure if there is one in desktop format. I know this may seem very trivial, but as I’ve just signed up I’m wading through all the archived posts and it would be nice to have an idea of how old the post I’m reading is.

    Thanks for your consideration… and also thanks for your writings! I know you have said deconverting people is not your goal, but your books helped to deconvert me. I only wish I had read your books earlier.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2016

      It’s already there!

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  March 14, 2016

      I’ve went through this as well. Once a post is clicked, the date disappears if I’m on my phone or a tablet that’s turned vertically. If you turn the tablet horizontally, the date will pop up along with the post titles to choose from on the side. On my phone, the titles are at the bottom.

  8. Avatar
    sashko123  March 6, 2016

    James White is obviously upset that you don’t give him attention. He challenges you on two points on a YouTube video in the comments of your latest post on Facebook. The first is about whether any NT author at all had the view that Jesus was Yahweh; he’s certain he can completely demolish you on this question. The second is about whether Matthew’s “telescoping” in his shorter version of the story of Jairus’s daughter is a better explanation of an “apparent contradiction” as they like to put it between the Matthew and Mark accounts. Although, I admit that his hypothetical explanation for the differences seems more reasonable than saying the two accounts relate two different events, his explanation leaves me in confusion about his view of inerrancy. I mean, does the Bible report that Jairus reported to Jesus two different states of health or not? If you have the time to comment on one or both of these points, it would be interesting to me, but if you feel it’s not worth the digital ink, that’s fine, too. It doesn’t bother me too much.

  9. Avatar
    Omar6741  March 6, 2016

    Bart:
    Speaking of triumphal entries, I am just going to spend a few days in Rome on holiday this week and will be looking at the Arch of Titus.
    Can I ask for your recommendations on the three or four most essential sites to see for those interested in the history of earliest Christianity and Judaism in ancient Rome?
    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2016

      Must-sees include, of course, the forum, the catacombs, and the Vatican. Be sure to get a couple of high-quality tour-books well in advance!

  10. Avatar
    Omar6741  March 6, 2016

    Bart:
    I have just started reading Schweitzer’s “The Problem of the Lord’s Supper”. From what I have understood so far, he is trying to understand the origin of the Lord’s Supper as it is practised in light of the Gospel evidence about Jesus’ words before his crucifixion.
    Can I ask what you think is the best work on this particular problem, after Schweitzer himself?
    Thanks!

  11. Avatar
    Karol Dziwior  March 7, 2016

    Great post, dr Ehrman!

    In some of your books and here, on blog, you’ve mentioned this Triumphal Entry problem couple of times. And I think it was always in the context of how Matthew cited and used passages from Hebrew scriptures to actually make Jesus fulfill them. That is why I think that this passage show us more about Matthew’s attitude towards fulfillment of Scripture, than a memory problem.

    If Matthew was not an eyewitness, we are not talking here about his memory, but “oral tradition” memory, seasoned with Matthew’s views, right?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2016

      It’s how Matthew is “calling to mind” the event; the technical meaning of “memory” is to call something back to mind.

  12. Avatar
    Karol Dziwior  March 7, 2016

    Unrelatedly to Matthew himself and the Triumphal Entry.

    Dr Ehrman, how would you describe Jerusalem’s functioning before and during the celebration of Passover feast? Thousands of pilgrims came to this city, its’ size was couple of times bigger than normal. So where did all these pilgrims stay? Was the city itself capable of receiving that amount of people coming? How would the trade look like during that time? Was there enough food, water, supplies for these thousands and thousands of people? Do you think that the Passover time was profitable for local community?

    Of course, I don’t expect you to answer all these questions in particular (though I would love to read all of them!), but just general description of how it might have looked. Or maybe even better – can you recommend some good materials dealing with this subject?

    Thanks for your help!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2016

      I’m afraid I don’t know the answers. A good place to look would be E. P Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief.

  13. Avatar
    gavriel  March 7, 2016

    Has there been any real advances in our knowledge of the Historical Jesus since the “third quest” started? Or are we now witnessing a return to Bultmann’s assertion that only a few scattered facts can be known for sure?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2016

      No, I think people in the third quest are much more confident than that. The problem is there are so many perspectives now!

  14. Avatar
    Eric  March 7, 2016

    I wonder if any medieval or renaissance painters have portrayed this event with the weird two-beast straddle?

    I’d like to see that.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2016

      I would too!

      • Avatar
        VirtualAlex  March 10, 2016

        Matthew 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.

        I think it is JD Crossan who suggests that the final”them” refers to the cloaks on the donkeys, so Jesus was sitting on the cloaks, not necessarily on two donkeys at once. Could Matthew really have been that silly?! I don’t know how this explanation stands up to the Greek though.

        • Robert
          Robert  March 12, 2016

          It is a possible reading of Matthew, but when one looks at the text of Mark and how Matthew has stuck to it pretty closely, except for this point, it seems as if Matthew might have meant that Jesus sat upon both animals.

  15. Avatar
    jhanna2  March 7, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman. I was wondering what you thought about Darrell Bock’s comments on oral tradition? https://vimeo.com/50733796

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2016

      Haven’t seen it. But knowing Darrell, I’m pretty sure it won’t be what I myself think!

      • Avatar
        jhanna2  March 7, 2016

        It’s a short clip. If you have time, I would like your thoughts on it. I am enjoying your book so far.

  16. Avatar
    llamensdor  March 7, 2016

    I have included my version of this event in my Murdered Messiah series, but I don’t treat it as a spontaneous event–I treat it as planned by some of Jesus’ followers (including Zealots) and it is not what Jesus wanted, nor did he plan to be named king. The last thing that Jesus of Nazareth would have wanted was to be acclaimed “King of the Jews.” In the event, Pilate did it for him, but that’s another story.

  17. Avatar
    Monarch  March 10, 2016

    When you discuss the corruption of the temple in your books, I think you ussually speak almost exclusively about the money-changing activities. Do you consider it at all likely that there were many other forms of corruption, more akin to that which is depicted in the Norman Jewison version of Jesus Christ Superstar, with prostitutes, all kinds of merchants, and even bookies and other shady characters? As long as the authorities were getting their cut, they may have allowed practically anything. Indeed, I’ve even considered it possible that unblemished sheep were being sold, switched for blemished ones that were sacrificed, and then circled back around for resale (although I have no idea of the percentage of blemished to unblemished sheep, and if this would be necessary.) To what extent, then, do you think the temple market was corrupt? (Note: it is recorded that Jesus also had a problem with people “carrying anything [i.e., merchandise]” through the temple. Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2016

      No, I don’t think there was that thing going on at *all*. But I love the scene in Superstar!

  18. Avatar
    Elisabeth  March 13, 2016

    Offhand I’m blanking as to whether the author of Matthew is assumed to have been a Jew or Gentile, but is it normal that he would misunderstand the conceptual parallelism of OT poetry? I mean even as occidental readers millennia later we seem to pick up on it pretty quickly and understand it’s a restating of the same concept, so what are the chances that he was actually that dense, Jew *or* Gentile? Is there any other possible way of interpreting his strange double-ride story?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 14, 2016

      It’s debated whether he was Jew or Gentile. He appears to have wanted Jesus to fulfill the prophecy *literally*….

  19. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  March 14, 2016

    I just finished reading this section last night. I would love to go back in time and meet the author of Matthew because he’s so *out there* with some of his writing. He writes like he used a source (Q–I think you wrote?) document then found every scripture in the Old Testament that he thought related to Jesus and spliced the whole thing together without any regard to whether it made sense or was accurate.

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