Gospel of John: Why Palm Branches?


Before entering into the events of Passion Week, it seemed good to gather the backstories that were in play during those fateful seven days. I promised to give four stories that would provide foundational understanding for what happened.

Today is the fourth foundational back story to really understand the emotion of the throng singing “Allelu Yah!” To Jesus, as he rode into Jerusalem.

Story #1, A Lamb

The beautiful and pure Passover Lamb, without mark or imperfection, beloved for three days, then slaughtered, roasted, and eaten.

Story #2, A Song

On the day of Passover, crowds of worshipers always climbed Mt.  Zion, up to the temple, to offer their lambs, and they would sing the Hallel Psalms, The Songs of Praise, Psalms 113 through 118. 

Story #3, A Donkey

The donkey or mule was known as the king’s steed, and was associated with peaceful rule.

Story #4, A Palm Branch

Two hundred years before Jesus’ Triumphal Entry took place, Jerusalem had been captured by a Greek ruler named Antiochus. He did terrible things to the Jewish people, killing many of them, and made it a capital crime to celebrate the Sabbath, to be circumcised, to make sacrifices at the temple, or for those of Jewish faith to hold any of their festivals. As part of his campaign to stamp out Judaism, Antiochus sacrificed a pig in the temple and turned the temple courts into a brothel. 

The stories in the Books of the Maccabees make for some difficult reading. The cruelties visited upon the people of Judea by the Seleucid regime under Antiochus were unspeakably grim. Of particular note is the account of a mother who was made to watch the torture and murder of each of her sons, as they refused to forswear God, nor break Judaism’s kosher laws. Then, finally, the mother was herself tortured and finally slaughtered for her unbreaking faith in God.

The Maccabees, a group of Jewish rebel warriors centered around Judah Matthias and his four brothers, called The Maccabees, up against this Greek ruler—Maccabee means “Hammer,” which gives you an idea of their strength and determination—and they succeeded in overthrowing the Greeks in 164 BC, cleansing the temple and rededicating the temple to God. 

The people celebrated their great victory by singing psalms and waving palm branches. An ancient description of that moment said, “Children and grandparents, soldiers and girlfriends, vinedressers and stonemasons rushed into Jerusalem waving palm branches,” it was one of those vivid, unforgettable hours in the history of Israel.  

▪Bar Kokhba Revolt coinage | Wikipedia | Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

In fact, it was so memorable that Judas “The Hammer” stamped an image of a palm branch onto their coins, symbolizing victory for the Jews, and the palm branch from that point forward was minted onto the temple coins; a reminder of what really mattered. 

This began a brief period of time when Judea ruled itself, for about 130 years. In fact, when Jesus was born, it was only about thirty years after the Romans had taken over Israel once again. So, there were plenty of people left who remembered what it had been like to have their own king, their own government, and freedom to live as their own people.

Temple Cleansing

A part of this story focuses on the spiritual and political significance of cleansing the temple. The Bible records a number of temple cleansing that marked either the beginning or the ending of an era:

  • King Hezekiah ended an era of wicked kings when, at twenty-five years old and in the first year of his reign, he opened the doors of the long-shuttered temple, and began extensive repairs. Unclean things the Levites found, they discarded in the Kidron Valley, next to Mt. Zion.
  • King Josiah, the great grandson of Hezekiah, also cleansed the temple, ending an era of idolatry and evil perpetrated by his grandfather and father. Sadly, Josiah’s reign marked the last good years, spiritually speaking, Judah would know before their exile.
  • Judas Matthias and his brothers, The Maccabees, cleansed the temple and dedicated it after their victory over the Seleucids. This marked the first Hannukah, when God miraculously provided oil for the lamp in the Holy Place to remain lit for seven days, until new oil could be procured.

So, to cleanse the temple was embedded deeply in Judah’s history, and the Jewish faith, and held great significance. This makes Jesus’ cleansing of the temple heavy with meaning.

When Did Jesus Cleanse the Temple?

Option 1

A high view of the scriptures avers infallibility, there are no errors, and there are no contradictions, because the scriptures—as the revelation of God—take on the character of God. Whenever theologians with this view approach a dilemma such as this, two seemingly very different accounts of the same event, they accept both views as true and adjust the overall understanding of the event / person / words of God, and so forth.

Option 1—Jesus cleansed the temple twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of his ministry.

Option 2

This view allows for a high view of scripture, yet also allows for the differing levels of importance to chronology in ancient writing. These scholars note, for example, there are many chronological anomalies in the historical records of the Hebrew scriptures, and this was for a reason—ancient near east writers organized their material according to topic more often than according to a linear timeline.

This organization by topic is also evident in the Christian Testament, for example in Matthew’s gospel, often called the teaching gospel.

  • Because the Gospel of Luke makes a special effort to identify itself as a carefully researched account, and it places the temple cleansing at the end of Jesus’ ministry,
  • and because all three synoptic gospels place it here,

it is thought John moved this event to the front of Jesus’ ministry for theological reasons.

Option 2—Jesus cleansed the temple once, at the end of his ministry.

Option 3

Takes a similar view of scripture with one pertinent modification, a special cognizance of the commentary provided by the earliest church scholars, often referred to as “the early church fathers.” This thinking posits the early church fathers were the closest to the actual events, and were students of the apostles and that first and second generations of Jesus followers, so what they had to say should be taken into particular account.

This is where Eusebius’ quote, offered in Monday’s post, becomes especially helpful:

“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things done or said by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.”

(Eccles. Hist. 3.39) as quoted from John Anderson’s book, The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel, page 146.

Eusebius (265- 339 AD) was quoting an even earlier Bible commentator named Papias (60-135 AD). Papias had learned from John the Elder, who was a disciple of the apostle John and most likely was the editor and publisher of John’s gospel, that Mark’s Gospel faithfully recorded everything Mark could recall of Peter’s preaching, but did not have everything in the right chronological order.

In this, Papias was careful to relay, Markcommitted no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.”

The intent of John’s Gospel, then, was to set the record straight on a few matters, including the cleansing of the temple, placed prominently at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, fulfilling a quite different prophecy, found in the Book of Malachi:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

Malachi 3:1 (NRSV)

Option 3—Jesus cleansed the temple once, at the beginning his ministry.

And now we are ready to dive into Passion Week!


[Palm Sunday | J. F. Guterres, Presidency of East Timor, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

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