Q: #531. Why did the Jews wave palm branches when Jesus entered Jerusalem?
A: In the Bible, as well as from sources outside of the Bible, we see that the use of “palm branches” was often tied to “victory.” The Bible first shows us this in conjunction with the “Feast of Tabernacles.” As a part of this celebration, the Israelites were commanded by God to construct and live in “booths” (for 7 days), which were made from “the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook” (Lev 23:40)(also see: Neh 8:14-18). This was done to commemorate the way the Israelites lived after God gave them “victory,” and brought them out of Egypt.
While not recorded in the Bible, history tells us that waving palm branches was done to celebrate kings and conquerors. We also know that in Greek athletic competitions, victors were often given a palm branch, which they would wave to celebrate their “victory.”
However, what I found most interesting in studying this is a parallel to the Maccabean Revolt which occurred in 167 – 160 B.C., and in particular to Judas Maccabeus (a Jewish priest), who led that revolt. This was, and is, one of the key events in Jewish history. Fighting a war to regain Jerusalem from the Seleucid Empire, who had conquered it, and had desecrated God’s Temple, the forces of Judas Maccabeus prevailed in 164 B.C. (The war to regain more Jewish territory continued for a few more years, with Judas Maccabeus being killed near the end.) In the apocryphal book of Maccabees (still contained in the Catholic Bible), we see Judas Maccabeus being celebrated “with praise and palm branches” by the Jews as he entered Jerusalem (1 Macc 13:51). He was a conquering hero! He had set the Jews free from their conquerors and oppressors! He cleansed and rededicated the Temple! (Jews celebrate this event with Hanukkah, also known as the “Feast of Dedication” [see: Jn 10:22].)
Do you see the parallel to Jesus? I feel confident that the Jews had this event (and Hanukkah) in mind when they did exactly the same thing when Jesus came into Jerusalem. They were waving palm branches, and throwing them in front of Him to celebrate their “conquering hero,” who was going to set them free from Roman oppression.
Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, often called “The Triumphal Entry,” is recorded in each of the Gospels (Mt 21:1-11)(Mk 11:1-10)(Lk 19:28-44)(Jn 12:12-19). However, only John records “palm branches” being used in this celebration. Today, many Christians celebrate this day as “Palm Sunday,” the last Sunday before Jesus death on the cross the following Friday (celebrated by some as “Good Friday”). (Jesus arose from the dead the following Sunday.)
As we see though, this celebration was short-lived. The same Jews who had waved palm branches to celebrate their king who would set them free, shouted out to “crucify Him” just a few days later (Mk 15:13-14)(Lk 23:21)(Jn 19:6). Jesus had indeed come to give the Jews “victory,” however, it was not “victory” over the Romans, but it was “victory” over sin. When the crowd cried out “Hosanna!” (Jn 12:13)(Mt 21:9), which means “God saves,” they did not realize that Jesus came to “save” them from “sin.” The Romans were not the problem, sin was the problem! Jesus was not the king, or Messiah, or liberator (like Judas Maccabeus) that the Jews expected, therefore they turned on Him.
Keeping all of the above in mind, it has gotten me to thinking about the Christian tradition of “Palm Sunday.” Since (most of) the Jews were waving palm branches, and throwing them in front of Jesus for the wrong reasons, and they likely would not have done this at all if they had known the real reason that Jesus had come to Jerusalem (to die), why do some Christians emulate this practice of the Jews on “Palm Sunday?” I am not necessarily condemning this practice, but studying the roots of it sure makes me think twice about using “palm branches” to celebrate it.
***Note: It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for “palm” is “tamar.” This was the name of 4 women in the Old Testament, including the “widow of Er and Onan” (Gen ch. 38), and a “daughter of David” (2 Sam ch. 13).
Trivia: Jericho was also known as the “city of palm trees” (Deut 34:3)(2 Chr 28:15).