Two Crowds: Palm Sunday and Good Friday

More than once during Holy Week, I ran across the idea that the crowd which acclaimed Jesus on Palm Sunday cried out for his crucifixion on Good Friday. No, it didn’t.

The notion that the triumphal entry took place on a Sunday is itself only an inference, but for the moment let’s accept the phrase “Palm Sunday” and stick with the matter of the crowds. None of the gospels imply that the Palm Sunday crowd turned against Jesus.

  • Luke: It was Jesus’ disciples who shouted praises as he entered Jerusalem. Judas led a “crowd” to arrest Jesus, but those asking Pilate for Jesus’ death were the chief priests and the rulers of the people.
  • John: “The great crowd” went to Bethany to see the one who raised Lazarus, and a few verses later “the great crowd” welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem. It was the chief priests and their officers who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion.
  • Mark: “Many” shouted “hosanna” as Jesus entered Jerusalem. Judas led an armed “crowd” from the chief priests, scribes and elders to arrest Jesus. The chief priests stirred up the “crowd” to demand Barabbas’ release and Jesus’ crucifixion.
  • Matthew: A “large crowd” welcomed Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. Judas led an armed “crowd” from the chief priests and elders to arrest Jesus. The chief priests stirred up the “crowd” to ask for Barabbas’ release and Jesus’ crucifixion.

Only Matthew do we find uses find the same word “crowd” being used to describe the scene on both Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Matthew and Mark both use the word “crowd” to describe those demanding Jesus’ death, but that’s the same word that they use to describe the group that arrested Jesus.

When we read in Matthew and Mark about the crowds shouting to Pilate, are we to think about a partisan mob in cahoots with the chief priests, or about a more general mass of Jerusalem residents or Passover pilgrims? Since both Mark and Mathew describe the Good Friday “crowd” as subject to the chief priests’ influence, and both authors use the same word “crowd” to describe the group that took Jesus into custody, I think the former is more likely consistent with the authors’ intent.

And as far as Luke and John are concerned, both authors are very clear: it is the chief priests who demanded Jesus’ death. Neither author identifies a “crowd” as a factor in Pilate’s decision.

In any case, none of the gospels say anything suggesting that the bulk of the crowd who joined in Palm Sunday’s celebration were crying out for his crucifixion on Good Friday.

The canonical passion narratives are filled with examples of Christ’s friends betraying him, denying him and abandoning him. We don’t need to fill the Palm Sunday story with wishy-washy hypocrites to make that point. Let the Palm Sunday crowd praise Jesus, for he and his saving works are worthy of praise. I think that’s the point the authors were trying to make.

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