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The Triumphal Entry as a Distorted Memory

In my previous post I provided an excerpt from Jesus Before the Gospels where I summarized the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry.”  Here is the second part of that two-part post, another excerpt, where I call this tradition into question, arguing that it cannot be right historically and that it must, therefore, represent a distorted memory.

It is important to recall that “memory” is not simply a recollection of what we ourselves experienced (what you had for dinner last night; the name of your first-grade teacher; etc.).  Memory involves anything that you “call back to mind” (the literal meaning of “remembering”).  It can be factual information (what is the capital of France?), even of something you haven’t experienced (e.g., if you have never been to Paris); it can be a shared understanding of a person from the past (Einstein; Karl Marx), even if you never met them.  And it can be a recollection of a past event even if you were not involved.   Such as the Triumphal Entry, to pick one example out of countless trillions.

Christians “remember” the event every Palm Sunday. But is the event itself an accurate memory?  Was there really a Triumphal Entry?

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The very broadest gist of this memory is no doubt true.  Jesus must have come into Jerusalem one way or another.  But the Gospels’ description of the event is highly implausible, and precisely for the reasons I started with.   The Roman authorities were…

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The Memory of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry

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Comments

  1. Wilusa  March 7, 2016

    Very interesting! Everything you say about the Gospel writers’ motivation makes perfect sense.

    But didn’t any of the “faithful” who heard these tales ask how those masses of people in Jerusalem, who supposedly hailed Jesus as the Messiah, could have heard of him? Even if they had heard of him as a Galilean preacher and supposed miracle-worker, it’s unlikely they would have been so ready to believe the man they were seeing was he.

    Those early Christians – not yet having been indoctrinated into thinking the Gospels were the inspired word of God – must have been extremely gullible.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  March 7, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m only a quarter of the way through the new book so I apologize if this is something you answer in it. There are several episodes in the Gospel narratives that, to me, seem implausibly detailed. That is to say, it doesn’t feel realistic that anyone within the surviving group of disciples could have known about them. Three in particular are:
    – How the disciples could have possibly known how or why Judas betrayed them
    – What became of Judas after the crucifixion
    – What was said and done during Jesus’ “trial” before Pilate/the Sanhedrin (let alone what was done with Jesus after his arrest)
    I know you’re trying to be diplomatic towards believing readers, but wouldn’t it be more accurate to presume these passages are outright fabrications, instead of mis-rememberings or some such?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2016

      Yup, read me carefully! Even if someone did fabricate such stories (an earlier story teller? the Gospel writer) — and there is no way to determine if this is the case, but even if someone did — the story entered into Christian memory and has remained in Christian memory for centuries. It may not have been the storyteller’s memory; or it may have been; but it became a way Jesus was remembered.

  3. smackemyackem  March 7, 2016

    Off topic question. After listening to a debate between two Christians, one who believes KJV only and one who does not…there arose the topic of hell vs hades/gehenna. The KJV only believes hades is heretical and the scriptures should only read “hell”. The other’s response was…that’s not what the nt writers wrote. Hades is essentially an intermediary place one goes when they die (realm of the dead)….and gehenna/hell is where they go after the judgement. So the KJV guy says Jesus descended into hell….and the other says “not so much”. My question is…where did the concept of hades come from? I know it is related to Greek mythology but why are the nt writers using it? Did ancient Jews believe in a two compartment place/Hades? Do you believe this is evidence of a Greek/Roman mythology influence upon the nt? Do you believe they were talking about hades or hell? Do you know of any books/reference materials I could read on this subject?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2016

      The problem is that people today have definitions for what the English words “hell” and “hades” mean, but in the Bible, neither word is used, since the Bible was not written in English!

  4. Stephen  March 7, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    Isn’t it possible that Jesus and his disciples DID go to Jerusalem expecting the Kingdom to be established? Even if it wasn’t an improbable “triumphal entry” or an incident in the temple it must have been some overt act on the part of Jesus or his disciples that brought him to the attention of the authorities and got him arrested, right?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2016

      Yes, I think Jesus did expect the kingdom soon to arrive. But I’d say it’s hard to know that they thought it would be that *week*. And yes, I think the temple incident was the beginning of the end.

      • jhague  March 8, 2016

        If the temple incident is historical, why wasn’t Jesus and his followers arrested right then?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 10, 2016

          Because it was a very small event, I should think.

          • jhague  March 10, 2016

            But it was a significant enough of an event to start the beginning of the end for Jesus?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 11, 2016

            Yes, I think so.

          • Apocryphile  June 14, 2017

            Hello Bart – this is a nagging question for me as well, after having read your most recent book. Other scholars do take the ‘triumphal entry’ seriously enough to consider it, along with the temple incident, as likely to have happened. It seems to me that the temple incident must have been significant enough for it to be remembered, recounted in oral form (embellished?), and later finding its way into all four canonical gospels. If so, it should have gotten Jesus arrested on the spot, as you say the triumphal entry would have. Could another hypothesis be that since the temple authorities likely knew that Jesus had a significant following (especially if he were being proclaimed as the Messiah by crowds upon his entry into Jerusalem – perhaps even on the same day in juxtaposition to Pilate and his retinue entering the city on the opposite end), they would also know that arresting Jesus in broad daylight might actually lead to a full-scale riot? Ergo…their decision to wait and arrest him quietly at night? A lot of hypotheticals here, I know, but if you give credence to the temple incident – no matter how small it may have been – it seems to me that you can’t simply dismiss the triumphal entry out of hand (which may also have been a bit more prosaic than is depicted in the gospels).

          • Bart
            Bart  June 14, 2017

            The major objection to the theory is that it doesn’t explain why they waited a week, when there were even *more* people in Jerusalem, instead of doing it right away (say, that night)

  5. MMahmud  March 8, 2016

    That was very descriptive and vivid. Didn’t realize Passover was such a big deal.

    Two questions-there is a time Christians believe he was crucified and revived. What specifically brings them to think he wasn’t just revived but also exalted to heaven? It’s one thing to come back from the dead, another to rise all the way up to heaven.

    Do you think Peter, James and the very core among his earliest followers were the first to declare him son of God and Lord over all? I think this is what you argue for in How Jesus Became God.

    If so, the common idea that Paul invented Christianity will have to be dumped. It wasn’t him but some of the 12 Disciples themselves(or all of them.)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2016

      They didn’t think he was revived because they knew that people who were crucified died. Yes, that’s what I argue (though Mary Magdalene may have been first) Paul certainly did not invent Xty.

      • VirtualAlex  March 10, 2016

        Although Paul clearly didn’t invent it because he learned it from others (then made stuff up on top of that) i do think that Christianity today is far more based on (interpretations of) his teachings, or teachings in his name (salvation, grace, predestination, church organisation and suchlike) than on Jesus’s (coming kingdom, how to behave to get in, ruling earthly King). I do think Christianity today should be called Paulianity because I don’t recognise much of Jesus in it (in more ways than one ?)

  6. living42day  March 8, 2016

    As experts have been demonstrating now for almost two hundred years, numerous stories about Jesus owe their existence not to the memory of an actual event (no matter how much it has been distorted over time by telling and retelling) but to the artful repackaging of an Old Testament text. In other words, many “memories” of Jesus have been invented by recasting earlier biblical prototypes.

    Most scholars would grant that Mark’s account of Jesus’ temple action reflects telltale contacts with Old Testament prophecy (i.e., allusions to Mal 3:1b; Hos 9:15b; & Zech 14:21b in addition to the partial quotations from Isa 56 :7b & Jer 7:11). So, regardless of what may or may not have happened when Jesus entered the temple precincts, the church’s “memory” of that event (whether distorted or invented) was likely influenced by Scripture.

    Why do you ignore these apparent scriptural influences and focus solely on the antagonistic relationship between Christians and non-Christian Jews? The subtitle of your book promises that you will explain “how the earliest Christians…invented their stories of the Savior.” How does your view of oral tradition account for the presence of so many scriptural allusions in Mark’s gospel?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2016

      I don’t think *most* early Christians were bookish, spending their time reading the Scriptures. Most of them were simple folk in conflict with others in their environment. I do think that Scripture texts were important for understanding events, but not so much for generating the stories.

      • living42day  March 8, 2016

        Indeed, hardly any of them were bookish, since there were so few who were literate. Yet the gospel stories are shot through with scriptural allusions. To me, that indicates that Mark may be responsible for having created far more of the material than the usual oral tradition approach allows. Although this is especially evident in the passion narrative, I think it’s significant throughout Mark’s gospel.

        • VirtualAlex  March 10, 2016

          Perhaps it’s more that the gospel authors were bookish, using scriptural references to frame the stories they heard. But most people would have just told the stories in the same way they do now.

      • Robert
        Robert  March 12, 2016

        But certainly the gospel authors were somewhat ‘bookish’ and definitely used the Jewish scriptures extensively to color the events they recounted. I don’t see how you can be so sure of how these stories were generated in the oral traditions prior to the writing of the gospel texts. I don’t think Mark invented everything, but so much was influenced by prior scriptures. If it was not done so during the oral tradition, it was done by Mark, right?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 14, 2016

          Yes, I agree, they are telling the events often in light of their knowledge of Scripture. But that doesn’t meant that they *invented* all the events that they told in that way. Jesus certainly came into Jerusalem (historical event); but Mark tells it in light of a passage in Zechariah (distorted memory of how it happened).

  7. llamensdor  March 8, 2016

    I’m really not certain that “Jews” were in such an antagonistic relationship with early proto-Christians (or whatever one wants to call the early followers of Jesus). I think this is as much an invention of Gospel and other Christian writers as Matthew having the Jews scream at Pilate, “His blood be upon us and our children,” which made signal contributions to the growth of anti-Semitism. Inserting Jewish antagonism backward into alleged history helps sustain the narrative of stiiff-necked Jewish obstinance, etc. I have my own version of the triumphal entry, but I also like it for my own psychological reasons as it tends to show that some Jews were not Christ-haters, let alone Christ-killers.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2016

      It’s pretty clear from the Xn sources that hte Xns were in conflict with Jews. Note what Paul says about persecution (he as persecutor then as persecuted) or what Acts has to say.

  8. plparker  March 8, 2016

    My sense of this memory is somewhat different. I don’t sense any particular hatred of the Jews in this story — that sentiment will come later, but it doesn’t seem to me to be a part of this Triumphal Entry scene. I think his followers, however many there were when he entered Jerusalem, were so excited about his appearance at the entrance to Jerusalem and the great things that seemed to be coming, followed almost immediately by the crushing experience of seeing him accused, arrested, sentenced and crucified. The stunning reversal of fortune, the emotional tragedy of it, the contrast between the high and the low is the gist of the memory. The storyteller(s) is/are embellishing the Triumphal Entry story to help explain to their listeners just how swift and devastating the reversal of circumstances was. They were so excited about the event, it was like a celebration. Who knows how many others were there celebrating with us. It felt like the whole city was with us.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2016

      Antagonism with Jews can be found as far back as we have nay Xn sources (e.g., Paul!)

      • Robert
        Robert  March 12, 2016

        In 1 Thess 2, Paul is definitely antagonistic toward the Judean authorities that opposed him as well, but he is not antagonistic toward the Jewish people. Indeed, like the later rabbis (Pirke Avoth 1,1), he believes all Israel will be saved (Rom 9-11).

  9. falter  March 8, 2016

    Hello Bart:

    Numerous commentators (Burkitt, Chilton, Kinman, Keener, Manson, Smith Tatum, etc) discuss or imply in their commentaries that the immediate events [the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem] detailed prior to Jesus’s trial and crucifixion did NOT occur in the month of Nisan but rather in Tishrei [during the Feast of Tabernacles].

    QUESTIONS: If possible, would you please explain/summarize the competing arguments and let us know on what side you favor. And, besides distorted memory, what could best explain the authors’ supposed “lack of clarity” on this subject?

    Thank you.

    Michael Alter

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2016

      The connections with Passover are clear and definitive in each Gospel and also Paul (“Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us….”) So I don’t by the Succoth option myself.

  10. gavriel  March 8, 2016

    Is it then impossible to tell if Jesus and his disciples performed some kind of symbolic acts, involving public display, during their entry to Jerusalem and the festival?

  11. godspell  March 8, 2016

    I mainly agree, but the Romans wouldn’t necessarily have quelled any disturbance immediately. They couldn’t be everywhere at once, and a smart commander knows that sending in the troops at the slightest sign of trouble can often lead to more trouble. The uprising hadn’t happened yet, Palestine had been mainly peaceful for some time–they would have let some things go.

    Do i think there was some great procession, greeted by vast cheering multitudes? It seems unlikely. Could there have been a small group of people cheering, celebrating the arrival of a healer and teacher, whose reputation might well have reached Jerusalem by then? Why not? Any excuse to break the day’s monotony. And this got enlarged in the collective memories of Christians.

    He might have ridden a donkey (not two at the same time). In either event, it’s a powerful image. And maybe his feet hurt.

    Bear in mind, the most enduring image of Jerusalem in that era that I have taken from the movies is from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Did Roman soldiers really give impromptu Latin grammar lessons at sword point? 🙂

  12. maryhelena  March 8, 2016

    Bart: ‘’Was there really a Triumphal Entry?……….. The very broadest gist of this memory is no doubt true.’’

    On the assumption that there was a historical Jesus and there were eyewitnesses to his entry to Jerusalem – what would be the memories of these eyewitnesses? No, not their eyewitness accounts of what they would have experienced in 30 c.e. – but their memories of an earlier historical entry to Jerusalem. How would they relate their current eyewitness experience to their memories of 40 b.c.e.? Obviously, people living in 30 c.e. did not have a memory blank slate. In 40 b.c.e. Antigonus entered Jerusalem and was made King of the Jews. One of the first things he did was bite off the ear of the High Priest – Hyrancus – thereby denying him the High Priesthood for ever.

    Remembrance of past events is part of our collective memory. This summer, for example, there will be a remembrance commemorating the Battle of the Somme. 100 years after this historical battle of World War I when over 1 million men were either wounded or killed. Last year, 2015, was remembered as the end of World War 2 and Japanese surrender – 70 years earlier in 1945.

    The gospel account of a Triumphal Entry by Jesus to Jerusalem is not history. To assume it was is to fail to acknowledge the impact earlier history would have had on the memories of those living in 30 c.e. i.e. 70 years after the ‘triumphal’ entry of Antigonus to Jerusalem. The gist memory of the gospel Triumphal Entry account is a historical memory of Antigonus – a King of the Jews that was later executed by the Roman, Marc Antony.

    • godspell  March 8, 2016

      That’s certainly possible, but let’s say Bart is right in his contention (that I’ve quibbled over rather a lot here) that Jesus believed he would rule over Israel when the Kingdom of God came.

      If we believe that, we must believe he’d want to make a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, or at least as triumphal as such a poor man with such a small following could muster. He might well have heard of Antigonus’ entry into Jerusalem, or other such famed processions, and want to emulate it to some extent–in his own style, of course.

      Skeptical as I am that Jesus believed he was going to live much longer, let alone reign in splendor for many years to come, I can’t help but think that he might have wanted to make a bit of an entrance to the holiest city of Judaism, no matter what kind of king he imagined himself to be. Wouldn’t you in his place?

      • maryhelena  March 10, 2016

        Entering Jerusalem, under Roman occupation, as a king, or being welcomed as a king – would be viewed as sedition against Rome. Especially so if one is doing such 70 years after the Roman execution of Antigonus. Romans had memories as well as the Jews…..and probably more likely than not would be expecting trouble on the 70th anniversary of Marc Antony’s execution of the last King and High Priest of the Jews. No Jew in their right mind would be attempting a Triumphant entry to Jerusalem in the 30/33 c.e. gospel time slot.

        The gospel Triumphant enter to Jerusalem is not history – it is history remembered. A literary memorial to a tragic event in Hasmonean/Jewish history. Indeed the gospel story is not just remembrance of tragedy in Jewish history – but it’s whole Jerusalem and execution/crucifixion story is history remembered not history itself.

  13. RonaldTaska  March 8, 2016

    I agree that it seems likely that Jesus would probably have been arrested during the Triumphal Entry and that the subsequent memory of this event was shaped by what the storytellers wanted to emphasize. It’s like the “storytellers” on Fox News every night. They are convinced that they are telling the “truth,” but they see that “truth” from a certain perspective which distorts that “truth” quite a bit……

  14. Dipsao  March 8, 2016

    I understood the crowd that shouted “Hosanna,” etc. to have been fellow pilgrims traveling with Jesus into Jerusalem for the festival. These same pilgrims would have been familiar with the activities of Jesus, since they came from the outer regions such as Galilee whereas in Jerusalem, Jesus was relatively unknown. No doubt that pilgrim crowd would have anticipated a coronation of sorts, which would lead the city folk to hold him suspect and thus eager to return to the status quo by getting rid of him. Saying, “these same people who, several days later, reject Jesus, calling for his crucifixion” might make good homiletics, (I have heard it said from the pulpit as a, “you, too, can turn against him” guilt trip), but it’s not the only way to understand the passage.

  15. Steefen  March 8, 2016

    Bart Ehrman: But it is precisely these same people who, several days later, reject Jesus, calling for his crucifixion.

    Steefen: A Highland Park UMC minister, Rev. Walt Marcum, would disagree with the statement above. It is not precisely the same people who call for his crucifixion. The setting is different and it is a different crowd.

  16. sinetheo  March 11, 2016

    Which begs to differ was Jesus really considered to be God to these very early probably almost all Jewish followers considering Mark didn’t mention it? I thought the original Like L said Jesus was a man who became devine at his baptism? If not he was a 2nd Judas the Macabre is my guess at the time.

    Or do you think with a large city with 100,000 citizens that some 500 followers wanted an apocalyptic warrior and another 500 pharisees wanted him eliminated and used fear to manipulate the Romans to do the dirty business Bart?

    Jesus from what I see in the Gospel of Thomas and even Bible seems pretty humble and not condone volience so I dunno

  17. Robert
    Robert  March 12, 2016

    “Why did the Jewish people turn on Jesus? For these storytellers it is because the Jewish people have always turned on God and his prophets. They are an unfaithful people, ultimately opposed to God rather than on his side. And they are a fickle people, hot at one time and cold at another, acclaiming God’s messiah at one moment and then calling for his blood the next.”

    But Mark is the first to produce a written account of this event and there is little else to suggest that this an emphasis of his. He clearly explains the crowds change of opinion regarding Jesus as the work of the chief priests, scribes, elders, Saducees, and the sunhedrion, the aristocratic local Roman government authorities. Even the Pharisees are only the tools of the authorities. See Mk 11,27 12,12-13.38-40 14,1-2.10-11.43.55 15,1.10-11. Mark definitely lays the blame on the Judean authorities and aristocracy that were local government in league with the Romans, but he does not seem to have any real animosity toward the Jewish people as a whole or the great majority of the people who were not part of this aristocratic ruling class.

  18. jafile  March 13, 2016

    I always thought it was odd/funny trying to imagine Jesus sitting on his disciples’ clothes while riding a pony that is itself walking on the discarded clothes of the crowd.

  19. JR  March 22, 2016

    The triumphal entry in Mark is particularly curious given the ‘messianic secret’ theme. If Jesus kept his identity secret why did everyone suddenly welcome him as messiah?

    I suppose could be argued that those he cured e.g leppers let the secret out…

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2016

      Right! I think part of the idea in Mark is that it was a secret that no one could keep….

  20. gavm  March 23, 2016

    Could the reason simply be the story has jc coming in to town like a Super Bowl champ because the authors simply wanted to make Jesus seem amazing and awesome and put him on a pedestal? Thanks again

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2016

      Yup, that’s part of it. And not just amazing, but the coming messiah!

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