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)