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March 14, 2015 by William H. Scarle, Jr. 813-835-0129

Palm Sunday will be celebrated in Christian Churches around the world on the last Sunday in March.  Some background in the cultural setting of first century Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, might be helpful in our appreciation of this event.

Passover was the largest attended of the pilgrimage feasts of Israel, when Jewish worshippers from all over the territory, as well as the Mediterranean world, would gather in Jerusalem to celebrate Israel’s freedom from Egypt.  Alfred Edersheim (1825 – 1889), based on data from Josephus, estimates the attendance at the feast to be between two and three million.  This may be high, but it is close enough to give us a sense of the enormous influx of pilgrims to the city for the feast.

It was necessary to arrive in Jerusalem early, so as to have time to make preparations needed for the celebration.  This is the scene we are confronted with in the Gospel accounts of the Sunday before Passover on the following Friday.  Some pilgrims had already arrived.  Others were just entering Jerusalem from Jericho toward the east.  Jesus had spent Sabbath at Lazarus’ home at Bethany on the east side of the Mount of Olives.  Pilgrims who had already arrived in Jerusalem heard of his presence and on Sunday morning went out to meet him and escort him to the city (Jn. 12:12f).  Others were coming into the city from Jericho.  The two groups met at Bethany.  The entrance to the city was spectacular.

Obviously this crowd saw Jesus as Messiah (the Anointed of God).  They understood nothing of what was soon to take place, but they were for Jesus, not against him.

This crowd must not be identified with the group gathered at Jesus’ appearance before Pilate on Friday morning.  The Passover meal is a long event.  Most Jewish families would have been up very late on Thursday night.  John tells us that when Jesus was led to Pilate’s headquarters it was “very early morning (Jn. 18:28).”  The phrase probably indicates just after sunrise.  Jerusalem was not yet awake.

The group that presented Jesus to Pilate on Friday morning is identified by John as “the chief priests and officers (19:6).”  They are the ones who cried “Crucify him.”  They wanted no challenge to their religious authority or political power.  They feared that any messianic movement would topple their privileged position with Rome.  They may have pulled some of their supports out of bed to pack the house, but the group was much smaller than it was the preceding Sunday.

Jesus was on the cross by nine o’clock in the morning.  Jerusalem woke up to a fait accompli’.  It was done before those who had welcomed him to the city were awake.

It occurred to me on rereading the texts that the chief priests and leaders of the Temple would probably not have had time to celebrate Passover with their families. It is no wonder Jesus spoke from the cross those almost incomprehensible words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at  END-whs