On Palm Sunday (Commentary)

A Different View: On Palm Sunday

Commentary by Steven Whitehead

The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on what is popularly known as Palm Sunday is one of those comparatively rare events in the Gospels where all four Evangelists tell the same story. Thus we need to look at Matthew 21:1-9, Mark 11:1-10. Luke 19:28-38, and John 12:12-19 to get the full picture. Having read the passages we see Jesus riding into the city on a donkey (or an ass or a colt) to great popular acclaim and, as Matthew and John point out, in fulfilment of a prophecy from Zechariah. This is yet another Gospel passage which points towards an early date of composition: the writers assume that their readers can picture the scene, locate Bethany and Bethphage, get the symbolism of the branches being waved, and understand what “Hosanna” means. Much of which was information that was forgotten after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70.

What I was attempting to do in my monologue in what was to become the first in a series of stories under the title (suggested by Norman Hill) “A Different View” was to get some of this information across in a more readily accessible and – dare I say it? – more entertaining way than is possible in a traditional sermon. Using an imaginary eyewitness as narrator allowed me to tell the story in the first person which is, I think, more direct and placing this narrator in the watchtower above the gate into Jerusalem with a detachment of Roman soldiers allowed him to explain what was going on in what I hoped was a natural, conversational way while remaining true to the basic Gospel facts. If I slipped up I thought that either listeners would not notice or any that did would understand that in retelling a story sometimes liberties have to be taken. A film director, for example, has to make decisions on matters where the source is silent. Is “your” Jesus going to have a beard or be clean-shaven? Is He a tenor or a bass? The Gospels do not answer these questions which means either they are not important or we should not be attempting to portray Jesus on stage or screen – which is a discussion for another time. (If you wish to engage in it I suggest you start by reading The Introduction to the series of radio plays The Man Born to be King by Dorothy L. Sayers [1943].) By the way, although Jesus appears in ‘A Different View’ He is spoken about without ever speaking Himself so, unlike Sayers, I did not have to decide what accent to give “my” Jesus.

The master of the Bible monologue is, in my opinion, David Kossoff. Some of the stories from one of his many series of talks for BBC radio were published as The Book of Witnesses in 1971. They bring the Gospels vividly to life through his imaginative “interviews” with the faces in the crowd who were surely there even if we do not know their names. After all, we know that Jesus fed five thousand and surely one of them had something to say on the matter! Kossoff uses this device to uncover the character of “the Carpenter”, his preferred designation for Jesus (as Kossoff, a Jew, was uncomfortable in calling Jesus Messiah). A similar approach was taken by Gerd Thiessen in his The Shadow of the Galilean (first published in German in 1986; English translation 1987). Thiessen has an imaginary Jew named Andreas forced to work undercover for the Romans in compiling a dossier on the various sects and parties operating in Judaea at the time of Jesus. As well as having an interesting plot the book is filled with useful New Testament background with Andreas hearing much about Jesus but never quite meeting Him – although His shadow touches everyone. The Shadow is fully documented and has been used as a university text-book. The fact that it remains in print almost thirty years later suggests that it remains useful.

In his Prologue to The Go-between (1951), L. P. Hartley famously stated: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. If a modern story-teller is to write something that a contemporary audience can follow he cannot help becoming anachronistic. Anachronism has been described as being when the waters of time are made to flow up hill. So placing my character in the Temple Security Service is certainly not how his job would have been described back then but the job would have been done. We know that the Romans employed informers (delators) and it does not require a great stretch of the imagination to picture Judas Iscariot doing something similar on behalf of the High Priest. It would be highly unlikely that the senior priests would bother themselves with gathering information so it seems reasonable to imagine some of the Levites who were attached to the Temple without being qualified to be priests doing the job for them. It seems a reasonable supposition that the Romans – like any occupying army – would need local translators. Since the time of Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC) Koine Greek had been widely spoken around the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea with Latin being spoken much more at the western end of the Empire. We know from John 19: 20 that the titulus or charge-sheet that was displayed on the cross was in three languages, the official Latin of Rome, Greek which was the most widely used language in the region, as well as Aramaic, the local language. We do not know whether one scribe wrote all three sentences but we do know from multi-lingual parts of the world today that some can be proficient in several languages. It is difficult for us to know just how many in first century Judaea were literate it becomes impossible to know whether many were fluent in speaking several languages while being illiterate in all of them and when we add the fact that to write Latin, Greek, and Hebrew requires learning three different alphabets we confidently predict that many more spoke the languages that wrote them. Alan Millard in Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (2000) is very good on this.

Our picture of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus can be deduced from two broad sources: texts and “dirt archaeology”. It seems perverse to say but Jerusalem has too much archaeology. We can go back before David to look for Canaanite Jebus and work our way through both Testaments and on into the Middle Ages via Crusader Jerusalem. Each era has left its mark and often at the expense of preceding one. Of all periods New Testament Jerusalem has come off worse due to the Romans’ deliberate destruction of the city at the end of the Jewish War in AD 70. One noteworthy reconstruction is the model of Jerusalem originally built for the Holyland Hotel but later moved to the Israel Museum. Images are easy to find on-line and while the reconstruction is speculative it gives an idea of what the city may have looked like based partly on on-site archaeology and also on contemporary knowledge of Roman building techniques. You may find it possible to see some Roman remains much closer to home – depending, of course, on where you live but there are many sites of interest across Great Britain and with a little imagination we can take what we see at, for example, Hadrian’s Wall and use it to illustrate our picture of Roman Jerusalem. I confess that my mental picture of my narrator looking down on Jesus from above one of the city gates was taken from a model of one of the Watling Street gates at the Verulanium Museum in St Albans.

However our prime source for the political and religious background (and in First Century Jerusalem politics and religion were much the same) is Flavius Josephus. Josephus was a great scholar, an ardent freedom fighter, and a loyal subject of Rome – all of which we know because Josephus tells us so. He was born around AD 37 and lived to the end of the century, dying in retirement in Rome in 100. According to the man himself he was born into an aristocratic priestly family in Jerusalem where he grew to be a precocious youth who by the age of fourteen was consulted by Jewish priests in matters of the Law. Aged sixteen he undertook a three-year sojourn in the wilderness with the hermit Bannus, a member of one of the ascetic Jewish sects that flourished in Judaea at the time. Returning to Jerusalem he joined the Pharisees, a fact of importance in understanding his later collaboration with the Romans. The Pharisees were deeply religious Jews who adhered to a strict observance of the Law of Moses. Politically, though, the Pharisees had no sympathy with Jewish nationalism and were willing to submit to Roman rule if it meant they could maintain their religious independence. In AD 64 Josephus was sent on an embassy to Rome to secure the release of a number of Jewish priests who were held prisoner in the capital. There he was introduced to Poppea, the Emperor Nero’s second wife, whose favour enabled him to complete his mission. During his visit Josephus was impressed with Roman culture and also the Empire’s military power. Thus when the Jewish rebellion broke out in 66 Josephus was beaten before he started. He was given command of the Galilean town of Jotapata and was able to hold out against General Vespasian’s army for several weeks. Eventually, though, the overwhelming might of Rome brought the siege to an end and Josephus was taken prisoner. Josephus claimed to be a prophet and predicted that Vespasian would become emperor. When Nero took his own life in AD 68 the prediction seemed a little less incredible  and for the next two years Josephus remained a prisoner in the Roman camp. Late in AD 69 Vespasian was proclaimed emperor by his troops so the prophecy had indeed come true and the Jewish prisoner was rewarded with his freedom. From that time on Josephus attached himself to the Roman cause. He adopted the name Flavius (Vespasian’s family name) and accompanied his patron to Alexandria. Josephus later joined the Roman forces under the command of Vespasian’s son and eventual successor, Titus, at the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70. He attempted to act as mediator between Rome and the rebels, but, hated by the Jews for his apostasy and distrusted by the Romans as a Jew, he accomplished little. After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, Josephus moved to Rome and took up writing.

The most important of the works of Josephus are his History of the Jewish War (AD 75 – 79) and the much longer Antiquities of the Jews / Jewish Antiquities (AD 93). At the end of Antiquities is a brief Vita or autobiography although it is more an explanation of his behaviour in the Jewish rebellion than a full life story. Much of the Antiquities is a retelling of what we call the Old Testament for a Roman audience but the closer he gets to his own time the more useful Josephus becomes as he fills in some of the gap between the Old and New Testaments. He is, to borrow Jane Austen’s description of herself, “a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian” but if used with due caution he can be a useful guide. In his well researched novel based on the Jewish War, The Voices of Masada, David Kossoff is suitably dismissive of Josephus, calling him “a turncoat, a traitor and a Roman” (Kossoff, 1973, viii). He is not wrong, and yet without Josephus we would know considerably less of the times in which he lived and thus of the Judaea of Jesus and the first Christians.


Annotated Bibliography

All of Josephus was translated by William Whiston (1667 – 1752) and “Whiston’s Josephus” became one of the books that all Victorian readers had in their library (along with Cruden’s concordance and The Pilgrim’s Progress). Thus it seems that every second-hand bookshop has a Whiston but caveat emptor, his English prose is now almost unreadable unless you are fluent in King James’ English. Whiston can be useful for checking references but it is just as easy to find him on-line at, for example, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/josephus/works/files/works.html (accessed 25 / 1 / 15). If you want to read Josephus for yourself the Penguin Classics translation of The Jewish War by G. Williamson is good value. A useful edition of Josephus has been prepared by Paul L. Maier. He makes the reasonable assumption that anyone sufficiently interested in reading Josephus today will already have a copy of the Old Testament and so will not require Josephus’s re-telling. Maier also edits out most of the unnecessary repetitions in the original and smoothes out some of the more cumbersome passages. Thus Maier is both editor and translator of Josephus. The end result is the most reader-friendly version available although not close enough to the original to be a first choice for scholars. Confusingly Maier’s Josephus is published under two titles: The Essential Writings has black and white illustrations and  The Essential Works colour but the text is shared by both (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1988).

Kossoff, David: The Book of Witnesses (London: 1971, Collins).
A series of short monologues telling the story of Jesus from a variety of standpoints. Now out of print but very easy to find second-hand.

Kossoff , David: The Voices of Masada (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1973).
A perceptive illustrated  retelling of the Jewish rebellion against Rome. Long out of print but quite easy to find second-hand.

Millard, Alan: Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (Sheffield: Continuum, 2000).
Not as technical as it sounds but perhaps one to borrow from a library before trying to buy (it is now out of print).

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Man Born to be King (London: Gollancz, 1943).
Controversial when first broadcast by the BBC in 1941 and still worth reading, if you can find a copy.

Thiessen, Gerd: The Shadow of the Galilean (first published in German in 1986; English translation: London: SCM, 1987).
Subtitled “The quest of the historical Jesus in narrative form”. An exciting story underpinned by some thorough scholarship. Still in print after almost thirty years.

Wilson, Roger J. A.: A Guide to the Roman Remains In Britain (London: Constable. First published 1974, most recent edition is the fourth, 2002).
They don’t write ’em like this anymore, simply because it is now so much easier to keep this information current on-line but if your local library has a copy it is worth a look.


Basic Bibliography

Kossoff, David: The Book of Witnesses (London: 1971, Collins).

Kossoff , David: The Voices of Masada (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1973).

Maier, Paul L. (translator / editor): Josephus: the essential writings (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, 1988).

Millard, Alan: Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (Sheffield: Continuum, 2000).

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Man Born to be King (London: Gollancz, 1943).

Thiessen, Gerd: The Shadow of the Galilean (first published in German in 1986; English translation: London: SCM, 1987).

Williamson, G. A. (translator): Josephus: the Jewish War (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1959).

Wilson, Roger J. A.: A Guide to the Roman Remains In Britain (London: Constable. First published 1974, most recent edition is the fourth, 2002).