King of the Jews When?

by Hyam Maccoby

The Gospels show Jesus...repeatedly prophesying his own death in Jerusalem and subsequent resurrection. The disciples are shown as failing to understand these prophesies, and at one point there is even a serious quarrel between Jesus and Peter on this very issue. While we may reject the idea that Jesus expected his own death in Jerusalem, it is quite possible that there was at this time some dissension between Jesus and his chief followers, the Twelve.

The subject of dissension, most probably, was the plan of resistance to be followed against the Romans. Jesus's disciples, with their Zealot background, may have wished to organize a full-scale resistance. The country-wide enthusiasm for the advent of Jesus as Prophet-King must have seemed an ideal opportunity for mobilizing a large army to engage the Romans in battle.

Jesus, on the other hand, was a convinced apocalyptist, who considered that the fight against Rome would be won largely by miraculous means, and therefore made no serious military preparations.... Jesus was no political or military opportunist. He was prepared to stake his life on his belief that his mission was of cosmic proportions.

To drive out the Romans by force of arms, as Judas Maccabaeus had driven out the Greeks, was not his purpose; such success would only lead to the founding of one more dynasty like the Hasmoneans. Jesus would inaugurate the kingdom of God, a new era in world history, or nothing...

The Triumphal Entry was the high point of Jesus's political career. The apocalyptic hopes which had centered around him, first as a Prophet and then as a Prophet-King, burst into an ecstatic welcome as the teeming crowds of Jerusalem...hailed him with the cry, "Hosanna! Save us!"

What was the date of Jesus's Triumphal Entry? According to the Gospels, it was at the time of the Feast of Passover, i.e., in the spring. However, there are many indications that this was not so, and that the Triumphal Entry in fact occurred in the autumn, the time of the Jewish festival known as the Feast of Tabernacles.

The whole series of events from the Triumphal Entry to Jesus's crucifixion (including the enquiry by the High Priest, a trial before the Sanhedrin, a trial before Herod Antipas, and a trial before Pilate, not to mention various previous activities such as the Cleansing of the Temple, the preaching in the Temple, and the Last Supper) is supposed to have taken six days ...

This is an impossible speeding-up of human political and judicial proceedings ... The history to be argued here is that Jesus's Triumphal Entry took place just before the Feast of Tabernacles, and his execution took place on the Feast of Passover, about six months later.

The most obvious feature that points to autumn as the date of the Triumphal Entry is the palms which were in evidence on Palm Sunday. At Passover time, there are no palm branches in the region, and it is unlikely that Jesus's admirers would have greeted him with withered palm branches left over from the previous autumn.

Furthermore, palm branches played (and still play today) an essential part in the rites of the Festival of Tabernacles. The "branches of trees" mentioned in the Triumphal Entry accounts are also important in these rites, being used in profusion to roof over the "tabernacles" or booths which give the festival its name, and to accompany the use of the palms (see Leviticus xxii. 40).

A curious confirmation of autumn being the time of the Triumphal Entry can be found in the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, which happened immediately after his Entry. Jesus, apparently, came across a fig tree without fruit, and said, "Let no fruit grow on thee henceforth for ever"...

Now this must have occurred in the autumn, as no one would expect to find a fig tree bearing fruit in the spring. The reason for Jesus's angry reaction is probably this: the Hebrew Prophets had foretold that the time of the Messiah would be one of unprecedented fertility of plants and animals (Joel ii. 22: "...the fig tree and the vine do yield their strength"). Jesus, with his Galilean belief in evil spirits, may have thought that the fig tree contained an evil spirit that was fighting against the kingdom of God.

Use of the cry "Hosanna" by the crowd (Hebrew, "hosha-na," meaning "save, please") also confirms an autumn date for Jesus's Entry. This cry has a special liturgical use in the rites of Tabernacles, and in no other festival. The cry was addressed to God, not to Jesus, and meant something like "Save us, God, through your Messiah."

The word "save" is especially associated, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, with God's mercies through rulers and fighters who protected Israel against their enemies. A prayer for such salvation was offered up in the Feast of Tabernacles and would have been especially fitting as an accompaniment to Jesus's Entry on a mission of salvation.

This leads us to an even more important point: that the Feast of Tabernacles was in a special sense a Royal festival. In general, the Jewish royal family had little part to play in the ceremonials of the Jewish religion; but the exception was the Feast of Tabernacles. In this festival, the King actually entered the Temple Court and read aloud "the paragraph of the King," i.e., the portion of the Mosaic Law relating to his duties (Deut. xvii. 14-20)...

The Reading of the Law by the King was performed every seven years. No doubt Jesus timed his Entry to coincide with the end of the Year of Release, on the expiry of which the King's Reading of the Law took place. He would have carefully planned the timing of his Coronation and his Royal Progress so that he arrived in Jerusalem just in time for the Festival.

He would then enter the Temple Court as King and renew the rite performed by his great predecessors on the Jewish throne. This act more than any other would signalize his accession to the throne and his intention to carry out the duties of king and savior.

One particular figure must have been in Jesus's mind, namely his great ancestor, King Solomon.... It was on the Feast of Tabernacles that Solomon performed the Dedication of the First Temple, offering a long, moving prayer to God, standing on a platform specially built in the Temple Court.

We can see now why Jesus's first action on entering Jerusalem was the Cleansing of the Temple. This action has been much trivialized by the Gospel writers, who have presented it as an individual demonstration in which Jesus chased out the money changers with a whip. The action was far more important than this: Jesus, as rightful King, carried out a thorough-going reform of the Temple, cleansing it from the corruptions of its venal Sadducean High-Priesthood.

Jesus was at the height of power. Though he had no organized army, the Jewish masses applauded his every move. The Temple police, who would have acted sharply against mere individual violence, were powerless to hinder Jesus's reforms. He may have even appointed a new High Priest, which as King he was entitled to do. (This is the first thing that the insurgents did in the Jewish War of 66 A.D.).

Having cleansed the temple administration, Jesus must have carried through his plan of re-dedicating the Temple for the Messianic age by appearing in the Temple Court, like Solomon at the Dedication of the First Temple, to read "the paragraph of the King." No doubt, like Solomon too, he took the occasion to address a prayer to God for his new regime, and perhaps to give a prophetic message to the people.

So much we can gather from a confused and garbled account, found only in the Gospel according to John, of a visit by Jesus to the Temple on the Feast of Tabernacles -- though John represents this visit as being a distinct occasion from the Triumphal Entry.

The parallel between Jesus and Solomon throws light on a charge that was later made against Jesus: that he threatened to destroy the Temple and rebuild it...It is quite possible that Jesus did declare an intention to destroy and rebuild the Temple, once his Kingdom was fully established. The Temple which Jesus now ruled had been built by Herod the Great, known to the Pharisees as Herod the Wicked.

The Pharisees had given their reluctant consent to Herod's rebuilding of the Temple, but despite its superb beauty, they never expected his Temple to last into the reign of the Messiah. If Jesus had indeed proved himself to be the King-Messiah by expelling the Romans, the Pharisees would not have objected to his destroying Herod's Temple and building another; they would have expected him to do so...

Why should the purified and re-dedicated Jewish people, restored to freedom, worship God in a temple built by the corrupt Herod? There is nothing here that the Pharisees would have regarded as blasphemous, or that would have frightened anyone except the High Priest, Caiaphas, and his clique...The charge of planning to destroy and rebuild the Temple was part of the indictment against Jesus, not as a blasphemer or rebel against Judaism, but as a rebel against the quisling regime of the High Priest.

Thus the dating of the Triumphal Entry in the autumn, rather than the spring, makes much more sense of the whole series of events; this is just the time that someone putting himself forward as the Messiah would have chosen to enter Jerusalem. One more important argument has not yet been mentioned.

The prophesy of Zechariah says that the great battle of the Last Days would take place in the autumn, at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. On the anniversary of this great event, all the nations of the earth would be required to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles in Messianic times (Zech. xiv. 16).

When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on the colt of an ass, he was committing himself to Zechariah's concept of the Last Days. Those who knew their Scripture (and many did) would know from Jesus's manner of entry what his intentions were -- to engage the Romans in battle before the Feast of Tabernacles came to an end.

Why then did the Gospel writers (probably following an already established Gentile-Church tradition) place the Triumphal Entry in the spring? The most likely reason is that to the Gentile-Christians the important event in Jesus's life was his death by crucifixion, which they came to regard as the real point of the story. It seemed more dramatic therefore to telescope events, subordinating them all to the Crucifixion and crowding them all into the last scene of the play. The Crucifixion took place in the spring; this, therefore, became the time of all the culminating events of Jesus's life.

In the resurrection cults of Adonis, Attis, and Osiris, the death and resurrection of the Young God took place in the spring. The Triumphal Entry, therefore, would accord with the feting of the Young God before his sacrifice in these cults; and it would therefore be felt right to move the Triumphal Entry much closer to the Sacrifice to which it was now merely the preliminary. The appeal of Christianity to the ancient world depended a good deal on such affinities.

To Jesus, however, who expected success, not failure, and who would not have understood the romantic apotheosis of failure, the natural time for his arrival in Jerusalem was the autumn, the time of the harvest-rejoicing. Many of Jesus's parables compare the coming of the kingdom of God to the harvest time.

This was the most joyous time of the Jewish year, when the New Year period of purification was over, the harvest was secure, and the time for thanksgiving had arrived. The Feast of Tabernacles is the only one of which Scripture says "And you shall be wholly joyful." Passover, the spring festival, was the time of beginning salvation, the anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt, the beginning of the Jewish story. But the triumphant end of the story could be expected to occur in the autumn; just as King Solomon celebrated in the autumn the end of a long period of tribulation and the inauguration of a Messianic Reign...