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The Serious Comedy of Palm Sunday

Posted on: April 17, 2022

Category: Theology


I have always been skeptical about whether what we call “Palm Sunday” (the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey) was a historical event. The problem is that the story is recorded in the Gospel of Mark and copied in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The story is also recorded in John, but John probably knew Mark or, at least, knew the story from Mark. This means that there is no other evidence for the story except the record in Mark. There is no second version somewhere else that would indicate the story circulated independently in oral tradition before being written down. Palm Sunday is quite possibly Mark’s literary creation.

There are reasons for and against the reliability of Mark’s Palm Sunday story. The arguments against its authenticity are usually three.

The first main argument against is the way Mark relates Jesus to King David. Jesus understood as “King” or as a second David is a confession of belief but not history. It seems like Mark is deliberately creating a scene of entry to associate Jesus with David.

The second argument against is the way that Mark has the crowd confess an apocalyptic expectation. They cry out, “Blessed is the empire (basileia) of our father David that is coming.” The parables and aphorisms of Jesus suggest that to Jesus the empire of God is already here among us. The idea that it is “to come” and that Jesus will bring it about sounds too much like additional beliefs from a later generation.

Finally, Mark seems to have no reason for this story. There is a dramatic entry into Jerusalem, but once in Jerusalem, Jesus looks around for a few minutes and then leaves. Mark needs to get the Jesus story to Jerusalem in order to tell the passion narrative, and the entry does the job of arriving in Jerusalem, but the story does not seem to have any other purpose. Mark made up a tale to shift the scene to Jerusalem where the bigger concern of the passion takes place.

Despite these arguments against the authenticity of Palm Sunday, there are some interesting reasons that suggest it is a historical event, at least to some degree. Here, too, there are three main arguments that not only suggest the entry happened but also that it was the reason Jesus was crucified.

The arguments in favour of the entry being historical rely upon understanding the Roman practice of entry into Jerusalem during Passover. Since thousands of Jewish people gathered from across the empire in Jerusalem for Passover, Rome ensured that extra troops were present. Pilate was the Roman Prefect in the area (a Prefect being a second-ranked governor; the first-ranked governor was in Syria). In the lifetime of Jesus, Pilate arrived in Jerusalem seated on a stallion and escorted by troops. Jesus entered from the east, and Pilate from the west. That’s the picture we need to have in mind.

The three interesting things about the Jesus entry then are: 1) the story of David’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey is an entry from the east, and Jesus enters from the east on a donkey. Is Jesus challenging the status of Rome as empire? 2) A donkey is a humble beast, and a stallion is a grand beast. Is Jesus is making fun of Pilate and Rome’s narcissistic grandeur? 3) The use of comedy to signify an alternative to the Roman empire (basileia) is consistent with what we know about Jesus and his parables. Is Jesus acting out a parable, a piece of street theatre, to mock the pretensions of imperial power?

We can see that if the answer to these three questions is yes, Jesus most certainly overestimated the Roman tolerance of comedy and got himself crucified.

The Jesus entry re-enacted the story of David moving down from the Mount of Olives with fanfare into the city of Jerusalem. Rome knew this story of David, who was the once and future King, and knew to be on the lookout on this side of the city for subversive activity. Rome also knew that Passover itself marked the memory of liberation from an oppressor. It was easy to shift the symbol of oppression and the cry for liberation from Egypt to Rome. If the entry to Jerusalem was a historical event, Jesus must have known that he was playing with fire. Still, he took the risk.

Whether or not the story of Palm Sunday relays a historical event, the story involves political satire and risk in the name of an alternative empire. If Mark made the story up, then Mark had a decent understanding of what the “empire of God” was all about. If the story is historical, or at least partially so, then it exemplifies the daring if not even naïve comedy Jesus used to challenge power. In either case, what does this story tell us today?

One shocking element is the theme of the “return to power.” The entry to Jerusalem acts out the return to power of a Davidic figure, an individual of humility surrounded by common people as opposed to the pretense of a governor surrounded by military personnel. The story of the entry of Jesus underlines that if a political power needs a military to sustain it, then it is a politics of oppression, not freedom. Not only can this critique be made of empires past, but it can be made of empires present. The need of a military to sustain an empire is ironically imperial weakness.

Another insight the story offers is that memory is more powerful than might. Memory is problematic for human beings because we do have a way of turning memories into mythologies, that is, into remembering “when it was great” and when “a golden age” was among us. Yet, even mythic forms of memory are very important to identity. We find our integrity as individuals in the shared stories of identity, of who we are deep inside, of our value, and of our worth. The story of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem pulls at the memory and identity of the people of Israel. The comic scene brings to the fore the integrity of the people, their place apart from Rome, and their determination to be who they are despite Rome. In the end, Rome could not conquer Israel due not to a lack of might but to a lack of respect for memory. Rome could take the land but never the integrity. Empires present, like empires past, can thrive for a while but can never take the heart of memory from a people.

A third insight centres on comedy. Jesus as a comedian is very different from the holy Jesus we are accustomed to, but it is interesting to remember that comedy is a form of grace. It is the lightness of being. It is relief from the burden of the everyday. Comedy can be so profound because it has a way of taking us out of circumstances that seem hopeless. Yet, amazingly, comedy is nonviolent. It can change our perspective on life without raising a finger against us. Empires present, like empires past, are afraid of comedy because it can expose their sham without firing a single shot. On this note, it is interesting that a comedian is the leader of Ukrain

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