Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
Entry into Jerusalem

Much of the material in the four Gospels presents us with a dilemma when we're trying to boil it down into "what really happened" - that is, into good history. But even though incidents in the gospels may be heavily contaminated with non-historical material, we can quite often be reasonably sure about the bare bones of the history behind the accretions.

One such incident is the account of Jesus entering Jerusalem. The traditional view of this account turns out to be an interpretation of the meaning of Jesus in history, rather than an account of what really happened. The gospel authors were not much interested in the history part. Their main concern was with the meaning of Jesus within the traditional Jewish scheme of things. Only when the first Christians came into contact with Greek tradition, which placed greater emphasis on reason, was a greater emphasis placed on historical accuracy.

A clue to the interpretive nature of the narrative is given by the traditional title for Mark 11.1-11 - "The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem". The Markan account is paralleled by Matthew 21.1-11 and Luke 19.28-40. Scholarly analysis of these three passages leads to the certain conclusion that the versions of Matthew and Luke have been based on the Markan original. All are stressing that Jesus was more than he appeared to the ordinary gaze. Far from being a peasant, he had been chosen by God to rule over the whole world. Hence the wonderful welcome he got when he entered God's holy city.

One of the signs that the gospel authors were writing theology and not history is the use they make of the Hebrew Scriptures (the "Old Testament" to us). In Psalm 118.26-27 is to be found a text of which Mark 11.9 is a clear echo:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
Up to the horns of the altar.

An even more direct theological allusion is derived from Zechariah 9.9 in the versions of Matthew and Luke:

Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king comes to you in all modesty
and mounted on a donkey and a colt,
the foal of a pack animal.

Whenever the gospel authors hark back to scriptural authority in this way, modern readers who are interested in "what really happened" should be alert. In this case it seems that the Hebrew Scripture is being called upon in relation to the early Jewish-Christian conclusion that Jesus was the Messiah. In Greek and Roman terms (as well as in our own) the equivalent to the title "messiah" would have been "king" or "emperor".

We can only guess how the gospel authors thought about such things. This is because they perceived events very differently from us. Their reasoning may have gone something like this:

  • This man Jesus was so special that his life must have been the result of God's action in the world and in the affairs of humanity. We know that the Scriptures record what God has done for his chosen people, the Hebrews. God has spoken to them through his chosen ones, especially the prophets.

  • When we examine the Scriptures carefully, we find that God has indeed forecast the life and events of Jesus. Certain parts of these Scriptures tell us the significance of his life and works.

  • They tell us that the Messiah will rule over the world like a king or emperor. This will be God's new kingdom or empire.

  • We know that Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time at a Feast of the Passover. The Scriptures can't be wrong, so the crowds in the city at the time without doubt welcomed him just as was predicted they would.

Unlike the gospel writers, our modern minds are concerned with deriving meaning from objective "facts". My teenage son is behaving badly. What should I know about his problems? This poem's rhythm and verbal pattern are staccato and terse. What is the best interpretation I can put on it? What emotional impact does it have on me?

The Gospel writers, in common with almost everyone else of the time tended to refer to authorities from the past for their understanding of the present. I need to milk the cow on the Sabbath, one would ask. What do the Scriptures say about this necessary task? The Roman Emperor's image is on many of the coins I must use to buy and sell the fish I've caught. The Scriptures and the Rabbis say that any representation of a human being is an idol. Will I annoy God if I use these coins? In other words, observation of their environment and analysis of data was not how they approached problems.

We have to note that this event is included in all four Gospels. But analysis of the details make it nearly impossible to accept the whole thing as good history.

  • Mark's Gospel contains an ongoing theme of Jesus as the "secret Messiah". That theme is continued here, indicating that he has a doctrinal interest in the account of the entry into Jerusalem.

  • We don't know which particular Jewish feast was the occasion of the entry into Jerusalem because Mark's chronology is artificial throughout. If the event happened, it was a Passover feast - but we don't know which one in which year. Not that this would have bothered the gospel writers, mind you.

  • Jesus is supposed to have traveled from Jericho to Jerusalem. We don't know why Mark reverses the order in which Jesus would have passed through the towns of Bethphage and Bethany (11.1) on the way. He would have come to Bethany first, and then gone on to Bethphage nearer the city, probably close to  the Mount of Olives.

  • It's highly probable that Mark intended to use the story about the "colt" as miraculous confirmation of Jesus' powers and the claims about him. This sort of story was common folklore of the time.

  • Verse three is the only place in Mark where the Greek title "Lord" (kurios) is used in reference to Jesus. This is usually a good indication of text written or altered at a late date.

  • The word Hosanna is of uncertain meaning. We can be pretty sure it was not a ceremonial greeting for the Jewish Messiah. But this is precisely what Mark intends it to mean - another indication that he's doctored the story.

  • Mark 11.11 is pointless detail which Mark probably put in to serve his artificial sequence of events.

Another feature is worthy of comment. The Mount of Olives lies roughly to the east of Jerusalem. Zechariah was thought to have prophesied that the Messiah would embark upon his final conquest of Israel's enemies from this point:

On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east ... And the Lord will become king over all the earth ... (14.4 & 14.9)

Given the way the gospel authors thought about the meaning of Jesus, we can't be certain of the reference to the Mount of Olives because it seems so heavily laden with theology. It would not have occurred to them the gospel writers that anyone would worry about this in terms of history. The latter was, after all, a discipline developed from early beginnings only many centuries later.

The interpretations and theology of the gospel authors have to be stripped away to satisfy our need to work out what's good history and what isn't. What is left is as near as we can get to "what really happened". Having examined all the details one important fact indicates that, even though we can't be certain about the details, and even though what really happened is overlaid with theology, the entry into Jerusalem probably happened.

It is that the narrative also appears in John's Gospel (12.12-19). It includes references to Psalm 118 and to Zechariah. But apart from that, John's account of the entry into Jerusalem bears little resemblance to the other gospels. This is in keeping with the whole gospel, which has very little material in harmony with the other three gospels. So when an account in John does back the others up, we can put a good deal of extra weight on it in terms of good history.

So we can conclude that in terms of "bare bones history" [a] that Jesus did enter Jerusalem on at least one special occasion when [b] the band of people with him celebrated his entry in a particular way, indicating they thought he had been sent by God as the messiah or king of the heavenly kingdom. But we can go little or no further because the details of all the accounts are not convincing.

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