Was Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday a form of street theatre? Some biblical scholars think so. After his phenomenally successful campaign in Galilee, Jesus made the fateful but calculated decision to travel to Jerusalem to confront the religious and political elites in that ancient temple city. Luke’s Gospel reports that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). The crowds kept growing as he got closer and closer. And the governing elites hatched draconian plots to stop him, even if it meant killing him. The tension was palpable.
Jerusalem was an occupied city with a long history of revolt. A priestly Jewish family, known as the Maccabees, had successfully rebelled against the Persians and ruled for a hundred years before losing power to the Romans about thirty years before Jesus’ birth. There had been several unsuccessful attempts to throw off the Roman yoke in the following decades. A garrison of Roman soldiers now overlooked the temple area. Bible scholar Marcus Borg says that, in order to make a show of force during Passover, the Roman governor Pilate led a procession of troops into the city from the West, accompanied by all the trappings of imperial power (Jesus a New Vision, 174).
The staging area for Jesus’ procession, according to the Gospel of Mark, was to the East of the city near the Mount of Olives. The symbolism of this location is striking. Listen to Zechariah 14: 2-4. “I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered. . . . Then will Yahweh go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives.”
Furthermore, palm branches where a nationalist Maccabean symbol. New Testament scholar Ched Myers notes that Jesus’ procession recalls the earlier military entry of the triumphant rebel leader Simon Maccabaeus into Jerusalem with people waving palm branches and singing victory songs (Binding the Strong Man, 294). What’s going on here? Was Jesus a violent revolutionary? Remember, Pilate had him crucified between two criminals on the charge of sedition. Roman authorities used the word “criminal” as a demeaning caricature of a “freedom fighter.”
Jesus was a revolutionary but not a violent one. He was a peace revolutionary. Ched Myers notes that over half of the episode in Mark’s Gospel is devoted to instructions to securing a donkey and preparing for the procession. This indicates that it was deliberately planned and choreographed as “street theatre” (Binding the Strong Man, 295). Jesus and his followers were making a bold statement about an alternative world coming. They were also celebrating and having fun with a purpose.
Ched thinks the procession may have been intended as a satire on Jewish military liberators. And if we consider Marcus Borg’s historical observation that Pilate was leading Roman soldiers from the other side of the city with their imperial insignia flying, it may also have been a satire on such an imperial show of force. While Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem certainly included elements of satire, it also conveyed a positive peace message. Luke’s Gospel says that Jesus wept as he came near the city and proclaimed, “If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace!” (19: 42). An opportunity had been missed and Jesus saw war clouds hanging over the city.
The national symbolism of the procession is especially evident in John’s Gospel, which is the only Gospel that mentions the palm branches. The crowds shout “Hosanna” meaning “God save us” and proclaim Jesus to be the “King of Israel!” But what kind of king is being portrayed? Jesus is riding on a lowly donkey rather than on a war-horse. This is specifically emphasized by the reference to the book of Zechariah, “Look your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.”
Marcus Borg says that Jesus’ entry was a “planned political demonstration, an appeal to Jerusalem to follow the path of peace, even as it proclaimed that his movement was the peace party in a generation headed for war. It also implied that the alternative of peace was still open” (Jesus a New Vision, 174). Jesus “street theatre” portrayed a radical upside-down kingdom that was immensely appealing to common people but alarming to the custodians of the social and religious status-quo.