Palm Sunday 'crowd' explained

Friday, April 12, 2019 - Updated: 1:32 pm

QUESTION: In the Passion narratives, we are told that the whole city of Jerusalem came out to greet Jesus. Then how is it that five days later they were all shouting to crucify him?


ANSWER: From hearing and reading the Gospels, it is understandable that we might think the entire city of Jerusalem turned out to acclaim Jesus as Messiah. However, the Gospel accounts never say that specifically. They use less precise expressions such as “... a great crowd who had come to the feast” (John 12:12), “... many spread their garments ...” or “others spread leafy branches ...” (Mark 11:8), and “Most of the crowd ...” (Matthew 21:8).

Just how many were there? When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans (in 70 A.D.), the dead are said to have numbered between 600,000 (from Tacitus, a Roman historian) and 1 million (from Josephus, a Jewish historian). The size of the city at the time of Jesus must have been equal to those numbers (or even more because of Passover). It is unlikely that such a crowd could even gather in one place.

In describing things in our own lives, we often speak of a crowd as “everyone was there!” We usually don’t mean that literally, but that everyone we know or everyone who mattered was there. The Gospel authors must be reflecting that same human dynamic.

The Gospel authors are really speaking of the disciples, as well as members of the Pharisee and Sadducee parties and their supporters, as well as bystanders, the curious and Roman authorities. Even that group could be considered as a “great crowd.”

Addressing the size of the crowd, however, does not respond to the question of how or why, five days later, Jesus was sentenced to death at the request of a “crowd” standing before Pilate.

Here, we may well accept the church’s direction regarding “blame” for the death of Jesus. No longer do we speak of “the Jews” as prompting the death of Jesus, but (and accurately) the leaders or factions of Jews (Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, etc.). It seems clear that Jesus was a threat to the established order (religious and even civil). There were many who would stand to benefit if Jesus were no longer preaching and gathering disciples.

Jesus stood for a genuine reordering of religious life by preaching about his Father’s kingdom. Many of those who opposed the kingdom preached by Jesus prompted an impressionable crowd to demand the death of Jesus. There is ample reason to suspect that the calls to “crucify him” were prompted by those planted amid the crowd. It is also quite likely that they did not emanate from the same “crowd” that proclaimed Jesus as Messiah on Palm Sunday.

The question also must be asked of ourselves. How different are we from the people of Jerusalem? How often do we acclaim Christ as Messiah at Mass, but our allegiance (by word and deed) doesn’t make it beyond the church parking lot! Too often we disciples of Jesus have difficulty making our commitment to the Lord last from a Sunday to a Friday.


Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.

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