Gary Greenberg's blog on biblical studies and related matters

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem: Chronological and Narrative Problems

The Triumphal Entry scene in the Gospels depicts a large crowd hailing Jesus as King of the Jews. From a political-historical standpoint, this is problematic. The Romans would not tolerate an unauthorized individual being hailed as the king of the Jews and would likely crack down on such a demonstration and take such a person into custody as soon as possible. The Romans simply didn’t tolerate such actions. However, Mark shows Jesus coming back to Jerusalem day after day with no Roman interaction, although the Romans would have had large numbers of troops stationed in and around Jerusalem during the Passover holiday period. From a literary standpoint, I also note that after Mark depicts Jesus being hailed by the large crowds as the Davidic Messiah that adulation disappears from Mark throughout Jesus’ return visits to Jerusalem. No one during the subsequent visits declares him to be the Davidic heir. Why not?

Here I need to point out some chronological problems in the gospel accounts of this event and propose a possible reconstruction of the Triumphal Entry episode. The synoptic gospels (Mark, Luke and Matthew) and John both place the Triumphal Entry about five days before Passover. In the synoptic gospels, after the Triumphal Entry Jesus goes in and out of Jerusalem, confronting the authorities for at least three days. In John, after the Triumphal Entry, Jesus goes into hiding until he is arrested, never setting foot back into Jerusalem until he is taken into custody. John’s version seems more in tune with the historical reality of how the Triumphal Entry incident should have played out.

One more event needs to be discussed, the anointing in Bethany. During this event, Jesus is anointed with oil, the only time in any of the gospels in which that happens. The name Christ is the Greek word for the Jewish term “messiah” and “messiah” simply means the “anointed one,” or, more specifically, the “wetted one.” Anointment in this context is a ceremonial pouring of oil over the head of each king of Israel, signifying that king’s ascension to the throne. Virtually every New Testament scholar will tell you that the anointing in Bethany is simply a social function designed to be comforting, and Luke implies that this is the case in his very different version of this event (Luke 7:44 –7).

John places this anointing scene the day before the Triumphal Entry scene, the synoptic gospels place it three days after the Triumphal Entry, ( which is two days before Passover.). After the synoptic anointing, Jesus does not return to Jerusalem until he is placed in custody.

Let me now suggest a thought experiment.

What if John has the correct sequential order but the synoptics have the better chronological order? That is, suppose the correct sequential and chronological order is that the Anointing in Bethany (per John) came before the Triumphal Entry but the anointing took place two days before the Passover (per the synoptic gospels.) This would leave us with the following scenario.

  • Jesus went to Jerusalem for the last time before the Triumphal entry (as depicted in John).
  • Two days before Passover, Jesus was anointed in Bethany (per the Synoptics) but the anointment was not a social event; it was a ceremonial declaration by Jesus’ followers that he was the king of Israel.
  • Jesus then proceeded on the Triumphal March to Jerusalem, re-enacting Solomon’s ceremonial donkey ride to seize the throne from Adonijah, the legal successor to David. (See I Kings 1 for the full story.) As in the Solomon story, Jesus’ followers made a huge noise and commotion in support of their hero, causing great fear among the designated leaders. Symbolically, Solomon, like Jesus, was the son of David.
  • The Romans sent out a military brigade to break up the rally and Jesus and his followers (per John) went into hiding.
  • A day or two later, Jesus was arrested and charged with claiming to be the king of the Jews.

This scenario has the virtue of being much more consistent with historical circumstances than the ones present in the Gospels, the authors of which were all anxious to avoid any indication that Jesus publicly claimed to be the earthly ruler of Israel.


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