Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem
Title of work:
The Gospel According to Mark
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
This famous passage narrates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, where he will face trial and ultimate execution at the hands of the Jewish leaders and the Roman government. In the immediately preceding co-text, Jesus has instructed his disciples to go and commandeer a colt (the foal of a donkey) for him, telling them exactly where to locate it, and what to say to its owner in order to acquire it. When his followers find the animal just as they have been told (thereby emphasising Jesus’s prophetic foresight), they bring it to their master. This event serves to fulfil the prophecy that God’s people will see their Messianic king riding on a colt (Zecheriah 9:9, which Matthew 21:4-5, but not Mark states explicitly). As Jesus rides through the streets into Jerusalem, the crowds are described as laying their cloaks and tree branches on the ground for him, as well as waving branches accompanied by cries of “Hosanna,” (Hoshanna in Hebrew, and a plea for salvation or aid, which is used in Psalms 118:25). Here, however, the people use it as a shout of praise for Jesus, thereby recognising him as the Davidic king promised as their Messianic saviour (on this issue, see Rudolf Pesch, Das Evangelium nach Markus, p. 185, who discusses the crowd’s acclamations as a Christian creation). Hans Leander suggests that the cries of “Hosanna” may evoke a “national memory” for the earliest audience of Mark, whereby they understood it in reference to the Hallel psalms sung at Passover in remembrance of the exodus tradition (utilised as moral support for the Jewish people during the uprising against Rome, around the time that Mark was writing). Rather than pleading for salvation from the Romans, however, Mark, by turning this acclamation into a shout of praise for Jesus, and mimicking the Roman triumph, places Jesus in an ambivalent and non-confrontational position, whereby he is partly modelled on Rome’s heroes, and partly God’s people’s saviour from the Romans (Hans Leander, Discourses of Empire, p. 263-264). Robert Stein sensibly suggests that the fact that the Romans did not intervene implies the ‘crowds’ lining the streets were probably not particularly big, as otherwise the fuss and preventative measures would likely have been greater (for his treatment of the passage, see Robert Stein, Mark, p. 501-529)
While many see this scene as politically neutral (for example Robert Gundry, Mark, p. 692-700), several scholars have noted parallels in this scene (and also Jesus’s parading through Jerusalem to the site of his crucifixion in chapter 15) with the Roman triumphal procession. In this triumphal parade the victorious Roman general would ride through the city, with conquered peoples dragged along in chains, and various spoils of war, towards the Capitoline Hill, where the celebrations would culminate in sacrifices of victims, including the captured kings and generals, as an expression of Roman hegemony (see Cicero, Against Verres II.5.77, who tells us that the sacrifice of these victims marked the end of the triumph). However, as Alan Georgia argues, direct parallels of specific features and narrative sequence are perhaps not the best way of understanding the way in which the author of Mark utilised the Roman triumphal tradition here. Rather, he suggests that influence can be seen in the “ritual movements, symbolic categories, and performative logic employed in the Roman triumph,” which Mark naturalises to both subvert Roman power and emphasise Jesus’s kingly identity (Alan Georgia, “Translating the Triumph,” p. 18). There are certainly grounds for arguing that Roman triumphal celebrations were not only physically prominent, but also utilised within the social and literary milieu in which Mark was writing. For instance, Josephus’s Jewish War VII.5.4-6, which reflects Mark’s immediate context, records the triumph of Titus and Vespasian in 71 CE. Moreover, the Greek narrative tradition to which Mark’s Gospel belongs reconceptualised Greek heritage during the early-Roman Empire in response to imperial domination, seen particularly through the novel of Chariton, Callirhoe, which includes an elaborate parousia (coming/arrival) narrative utilising several Roman triumphal themes (for a relatively unique interpretation, see Dennis R. MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, p. 102-110, who sees parallels in Odysseus’s “un-triumphal” entry to the city of Phaeacia in Homer’s Odyssey 6 and 7). The symbolic importance of the triumph for the literature of this period, then, should not be overlooked.
Scholars wishing to trace the stages of Jesus’s journey into Jerusalem, and ultimately to the cross, in such a way as to map them onto the Roman triumphal procession have done so in various ways. For example, W. Barnes Tatum has gone so far as to suggest that the colt on which Jesus rides into Jerusalem serves as a symbolic form of mockery of the Roman triumph, belittling the victorious arrival of the conquering general by replacing the traditional chariot with an ass (W. Barnes Tatum, “Jesus’s So-Called Triumphal Entry,” p. 133). By this argument, the Markan author exploits the fact that Jesus himself requires no such pomp, as his authority and glory come not from worldly displays of grandeur, but from God’s divine sanction. In a similar vein, Paul Duff argues that Jesus’s arrival and very swift exiting of the Jerusalem temple once he has quickly looked around is another subversive piece of mockery on the part of the Gospel writer, with the culmination of the triumph (i.e. the arrival at the temple on the Capitoline Hill) parodied in an anti-climactic entry of the Jerusalem Temple by Jesus (seen by Rudolf Pesch as an initial scoping out of the temple, Das Evangelium nach Markus, p. 186; see Paul Duff, “The March of the Divine Warrior,” p. 67-68). These suggestions could be accused of indulging in parallelomania, exaggerating the degree to which the Markan author sought to map the journey of Jesus directly onto the various parts of the Roman triumph.
As Alan Georgia states, it is perhaps better to simply understand this episode as an example of the Markan author’s conceptual borrowing and blending of themes and roles found in the Roman triumph. He does suggest, however, that the abruptness of Jesus’s hesitant entry into the Jerusalem Temple indicates possible revision of the text at the last minute, in order to make the cultic destination of Jesus’s journey more explicit (see Alan Georgia, “Translating the Triumph,” p. 30-31). For scholars such as Adela Yarbro Collins and Hans Leander, however, this episode fits perfectly within a much broader culture of Greek, Jewish, and Roman triumphal procession and/or victorious entry account in antiquity, so much so that it was effectively a literary genre by the time Mark was writing (see Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, p. 514-516, and Hans Leander, Discourses of Empire, p. 256-257). For example, 1 Maccabees 13:43-48 recalls Simon Maccabeus’s victory and entry in Gaza, Diodorus Siculus describes Mithradates’s triumph over the Romans in the 1st century BCE (Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library 37.26), Suetonius, Nero, describes the emperor Nero’s arrivals at various places, and Josephus tells of both Alexander the Great and Marcus Agrippa’s entries into Jerusalem (Jewish Antiquities XI.332-336; XVI.12-15). Perhaps, then, the Markan author was not being specifically subversive to Roman rule, but simply drawing on a well-known framework, and placing Jesus in the same, and well-established tradition of rulers and victors as those in the (by no means exhaustive) examples above. This said, Jesus remains a paradoxical victor, and the Gospel more broadly seeks to challenge the notion of earthly kingship and rulership. When Jesus is asked by Pilate at his trial if he is the “king of the Jews,” (Mark 15:1-15) Mark makes it clear that such a title is a human acknowledgement of authority – Jesus’s authority is different, and inverts the notion of kingship and rulership that the world understands.