Sunday, March 16, 2008

Palm Sunday: "A Planned Political Demonstration"


Today is Palm Sunday, and to commemorate this important day in the life of Christ and the Christian church I’m sharing an excerpt from The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.

Some Christians – including Catholics – give the impression of being quite threatened by the biblical scholarship of folks like Borg and Crossan. Personally, I find such scholarship to be both liberating and inspiring.

Others, however, dislike the portrait of Jesus that Borg and Crossan reveal – a portrait that seems to emphasize his humanity above his divinity. I say “seems” because it all really depends on how one defines the divinity of Jesus! (For more on this, see the homily I delivered in January 2000).

Then there are those who maintain that the scholarship of Borg, Crossan, and others associated with the Jesus Seminar demythologizes Jesus. Yet this is only true if one’s understanding of myth is related to the magical. It’s a totally different (and non-threatening) story when one understands myth as having to do, not with the magical, but with the archetypal.

Much more could be said about all of this, but for now I simply want to share some of what Borg and Crossan have to say about Palm Sunday.


Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year. In the centuries since, Christians have celebrated this day as Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. With its climax of Good Friday and Easter, it is the most sacred week of the Christian year.

One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. They had journeyed to Jerusalem from Galilee, about a hundred miles to the north, a journey that is the central section and the central dynamic of Mark’s gospel. Mark’s story of Jesus and the kingdom of God has been aiming for Jerusalem, pointing toward Jerusalem. It has now arrived.

On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman military power and Roman imperial theology. Though unfamiliar to most people today, the imperial procession was well known in the Jewish homeland in the first century. Mark and the community for which he wrote would have known about it, for it was standard practice of the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals. They did so not out of empathetic reverence for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects, but to be in the city in case there was trouble. There often was, especially at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire.

The mission of the troops with Pilate was to reinforce the Roman garrison permanently stationed in the Fortress Antonia, overlooking the Jewish temple and its courts. They and Pilate had come up from Caesarea Maritima, “Caesarea on the Sea,” about sixty miles to the west. Like the Roman governors of Judea and Samaria before and after him, Pilate lived in the new and splendid city on the coast. For them, it was much more pleasant than Jerusalem, the traditional capital of the Jewish people, which was inland and insular, provincial and partisan, and often hostile. But for the major Jewish feasts, Pilate, like his predecessors and successors, went to Jerusalem.

Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also imperial theology. According to this theology, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. . . . For Rome’s Jewish subjects, Pilate’s procession embodied not only a rival social order, but also a rival theology.

. . . Jesus planned [his entry into Jerusalem] in advance. As [he] approaches the city from the east at the end of the journey from Galilee, he tells two of his disciples to go to the next village and get him a colt they will find there, one that has never been ridden, that is, a young one. They do so, and Jesus rides the colt down the Mount of Olives to the city surrounded by a crowd of enthusiastic followers and sympathizers, who spread their cloaks, strew leafy branches on the road, and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” As one of our professors in graduate school said about forty years ago, this looks like a planned political demonstration.

The meaning of the demonstration is clear, for it uses symbolism from the prophet Zechariah in the Jewish Bible. According to Zechariah, a king would be coming to Jerusalem (Zion) “humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). In Mark [the earliest known gospel], the reference to Zechariah is implicit. . . .

Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. This contrast – between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar – is central not only to the gospel of Mark, but to the story of Jesus and early Christianity.

The confrontation between these two kingdoms continues through the last week of Jesus’ life. As we all know, the week ends with Jesus’ execution by the powers who ruled the world. Holy Week is the story of this confrontation.

- Excerpted from The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), pp. 2-5.

Image 1: Giotto di Bondone.
Image 2: Artist unknown.

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Palm Sunday Around the World (2007)


nebrshugyo said...

Sorry, but if Jesus is just another freedom fighter on the barricades in '68, I'm (to paraphrase Paul) still steeped in my sin and I'm not saved.

More eisegesis I'm afraid. Didn't Borg and Crossan come of age in the late 60's? And (to borrow our good host's rhetoric) don't they use their political experience to redact the political and cultural context of the Gospels?

crystal said...

I really like JD Crossan and have read a bit of stuff from the Jesus Seminar group. Sometimes he (and Marcus Borg too) comments on questions at On Faith ... link

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Nebrshugyo,

Neither Crossan nor Borg are saying that Jesus is "just another freedom fighter on the barricades in '68."

Believe it or not, non-violent resistance to political and economic injustice and the linking of such resistance to the advancement of just and peaceful alternatives rooted in religious convictions, pre-dates the late '60s!

I don't think it's Crossan and Borg who are stuck in the 1960s, my friend.

Your comment seems to be dismissive not only of those who resist and protest, but the many societal advancements that have been made not only in the 1960s but throughout history by those willing to confront systems of injustice and domination.



Ray from MN said...

Did the Jesus Seminar ever reveal new documents? Or did they just reinterpret, in their own hubris, the old ones?

The JS folks are my generation. We all matriculated in the sex, drugs, rock 'n roll and rebellion generation. I didn't pay attention to any of it at the time and have been saved from their errors. {I have other errors to contend with}.

Their statements are their opinions which contain no proof. And they vote like grade schoolers, using colored marbles to decide issues of infinite importance.

I would bet that current theology students aren't paying much attention to the 200 or so disiciples of the "Jesus Seminar."

I thank Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI daily for showing up the pretenders of the Jesus Seminar.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for stopping by, Ray.

I'm curious to know what exactly it is you find objectionable about the Jesus Seminar.

Also, your opening sentence about folks not revealing new documents but just reinterpreting, "in their own hubris," the old ones, could well apply to any and all biblical scholars - including (and perhaps especially) those part of the orthodox status quo.

You say the Jesus Seminar offers no "proof." Yet where's "the proof" in current orthodox interpretation?

And how exactly do Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI "daily show up the pretenders of the Jesus Seminar"?



Ray from MN said...


The Jesus Seminar folks are taking the original documents of the Church and are reinterpreting them using their own opinions.

The Catholic Church bases its teachings on the books of the New Testament and the traditions and writings of the Church running back to people who knew the apostles or their disciples.

The Jesus Seminar, desperate for "proof" of their new ideas cites the Gospel of Thomas, a writing that was rejected by the Church when it gave final approval to the 27 Books of the New Testament in the late fourth century.

The theology of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI are based totally on the dogmas, traditions and teachings of the Church that far predate them.

The "theology" of the Jesus Seminar is based on the thoughts of 200 20th century theologians who are too proud to admit that they have to submit to the teachings of the Popes. So they make up their own history.

But they have no sources that are credible and date back to the first century like the Epistles and the Gospels

If you don't submit to the Popes, you aren't a Catholic.