Palm Sunday and the Enemies of Jesus

Have you ever heard a sermon that proclaimed, “The crowds that cried, ‘Hosanna’ on Palm Sunday cried, ‘Crucify’ on Good Friday?” Usually the point of these sermons is to demonstrate the fickleness of the Jewish people and to support the mistaken idea that the Jewish people rejected Jesus. Even though this common characterization does not agree with the testimony of the New Testament, it continues to be a prominent component of Christian preaching during Holy Week. Who, then, were the opponents of Jesus in Jerusalem, and, more importantly, what motivated them to hand him over to the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate?

The Gospels clearly depict Jesus’ actions during his last week in Jerusalem as deliberately directed against the chief priests, their scribes, and the Sadducean leaders (Luke 19:45-46; 20:1-40). His popularity with the masses protected him against the chief priests, led by Caiaphas, who sought to destroy him (Luke 19:47-48; 20:19; 22:2). The book of Acts likewise portrays this same group as the opponents of the disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 4:1-7), who, like their master, enjoyed the favor of the Jewish masses. When the chief priests conscripted Judas to betray Jesus, they had to seek an opportunity “when no crowd was present” (Luke 22:6). The Gospels provide unanimous testimony that the chief priests and the officers of the Temple had to arrest Jesus under the cloak of darkness in order to conceal their actions from the Jewish people (Luke 22:52). Jesus pointed out their need of darkness to conceal their actions, “When I was with you day after day in the Temple, you did not lay hands on me” (Luke 22:53). The implication: they could not arrest Jesus because of his popularity with the people. The crowds of Jerusalem never turned their backs on Jesus; according to Luke, upon seeing the Romans brutalize Jesus, the crowds mourned what happened to him (23:27, 48).

At the beginning of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, he arrived with the crowds of Jewish pilgrims for Passover riding a wave of popularity and redemptive anticipation (Matt. 21:1-9; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-40; and John 12:12-19). According to the Synoptic Gospels, in the wake of his popularity, he entered the Jerusalem Temple challenging the corruption of the chief priests, who oversaw the sale of sacrifices and financial activities of the Temple (Luke 19:45). Jesus’ actions were not directed against the Temple itself; in fact, he never rejected the Temple, as evidenced by the actions of his followers after his death and resurrection, who continued to frequent the Jerusalem Temple and participate in its sacrificial cult (Luke 24:53; Acts 3:1, 21:26). His actions were specifically against the sellers (Luke 19:45). He quoted a passage from Isaiah and one from Jeremiah, “My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it ‘a den of robbers’” (Luke 19:46).

Quite often Jewish sages preached sermons simply by the creative manner in which they combined biblical quotations. Because they knew the Bible by heart (as did their audience), they used common language between passages to connect them together. Also, they could assume that even though they did not quote the entirety of the passage their audience would fill in the unquoted part. Jesus’ combination of Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11 joined together because of the shared appearance of the phrase “my house”[ביתי),[1) and he assumed that his audience (the chief priests) would fill in the fuller context of Jeremiah 7.

Jeremiah 7 contains Jeremiah’s prophecy against the First Temple in which he highlighted the corruption of the people and their arrogance in believing that because of the Temple God would not allow Jerusalem and its Temple to be destroyed. In other words, the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem provided them with the “god in a box,” the ultimate trump card. Jeremiah reminded the people about what God did to his former place in Shiloh where the Tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant resided after the Israelites came into the land: “Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first…therefore I will do to the house that is called by My name, in which you trust…just what I did to Shiloh” (Jer. 7:12-14). Although it is never mentioned in the Bible, apparently Shiloh was destroyed earlier in Israel’s history, which excavations at Shiloh have confirmed. Perhaps Shiloh’s destruction took place in connection with the loss of the Ark when the Israelites fought the Philistines at Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4). Here also the Israelites thought that they had “God in a box” with the Ark (1 Sam. 4:4-5). Yet, because of their disobedience and the corruption of the priesthood of Eli and his sons, the Ark was lost and more importantly the priesthood of Eli and his sons was cut off.

Jesus’ fragmentary citation of Jeremiah 7:11 would have caused his audience to make that jump in a moment, and they clearly understood his message: because of your (the chief priests’) corruption, God is going to judge this place (the Temple) and your priesthood will be cut off! From their response in the Gospels, they understood his message very clearly, and due to his popularity with the people, he was a threat that needed to be removed.

An interesting parallel to Jesus’ message appears in an anonymous saying after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE: “On what account was Shiloh destroyed? Because of the disgraceful disposition of the holy things that were there. As to Jerusalem’s first building (i.e., the First Temple), on what account was it destroyed? Because of the idolatry and licentiousness and bloodshed which was in it. But [as to] the latter (i.e., the Second Temple) we know that they devoted themselves to Torah and were meticulous about tithes. On what account did they go into exile? Because they loved money and hated one another” (t. Menahot 13:22; see y. Yoma 1:1; and Leviticus Rabbah 21:9). As in Jesus’ message, the three sanctuaries, Shiloh, the First and Second Temples, and their destructions are connected, and the cause for the destruction of the Second Temple is connected with the financial corruption of the chief priests in Jerusalem.

The chief priests of Jerusalem in the first century CE controlled a monopoly. They set the prices for the sacrifices, which most pilgrims had to pay since they could not easily bring their sacrifices from a distance. In fact, we hear of episodes where the prices of the sacrifices were so high that the people could not participate in the Temple festivals, and Pharisaic leaders rebuked the chief priests for their greed (b. Baba Batra 3b-4a; m. Kerithoth 1:7).

Archaeological excavations in Jerusalem have uncovered high priestly homes and attest to the opulent and lavish lifestyle in which these priests lived. One home has been identified by an inscription as belonging to the high priestly family of Kathros (see b. Pesahim 57a; see below). The largest of these homes, which contains opulent fresco work, imported Roman pottery, and a hand-blown glass piece signed by the artist, Enion of Sidon, is over 6,000 square feet!

Ancient first century sources also describe their wealth and the corruption their greed fostered within them: “Now the high priest Ananias was advancing day by day in prestige and was being ever more lauded and honored by the citizens. For he was a “supplier” of money. Indeed, every day he was treating the high priest and Procurator Albinus to gifts. In addition, he had slaves, utterly depraved, who joined forces with the most insolent men. They would go to the threshing floors and take the tithes meant for the priests by force and beat any who resisted. The high priests were practicing the same things as their slaves and no one could restrain them. As a result of this, it happened that some of the priests who had formerly been fed from the tithes died for lack of food” (Josephus, Antiquities 20:205-207).

Later rabbinic tradition corroborates Josephus’ description of the cruelty and greed of the chief priests remembering the wealth, cruelty and corruption of the high priestly families of the first century:

Woe to me because of the house of Boethus, woe to me because of their staves (i.e., beatings)! Woe to me because of the house of Hanin (Annas, Caiaphas’ father-in-law; see Luke 3:2; John 18:13, 24), woe to me because of their whisperings (i.e., clandestine meetings to devise oppressive measures)! Woe to me because of the house of Kathros, woe to me because of their pens (i.e., writing evil decrees)! Woe to me because of the house of Ishmail the son of Phabi, woe to me because of their fists! For they are high priests and their sons are (Temple) treasurers and their sons-in-law are trustees and their servants beat the people with staves (b. Pesahim 57a).

The wealth of these priestly clans was legendary (see b. Gittin 56a; b. Yebamot 61a; b. Yoma 35b) as was their brutality and desire to protect their wealth.

The picture of the chief priests in Josephus and rabbinic literature, including the action of their slaves, as those who resorted to brutal violence to protect their wealth and power parallels the actions of these figures against Jesus (see Mark 14:43). During his last week, Jesus publically condemned the corruption of the chief priests (Luke 19:46, 20:9-19) and linked their corruption to the coming destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. Jesus was not alone in his critique of the chief priests. Other prophetic figures in the first century condemned their corruption and predicted the destruction of the Temple because of it.

Josephus relates a story of an individual, Jesus the son of Ananias, who four years before the war (c. 62 CE) stood in the Temple and cried out, “A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds; a voice against Jerusalem and the sanctuary, a voice against the bridegroom and the bride (see Jer. 7:34)...” (War 6:300-309). The chief priests and the elders of the people arrested this Jesus and brought him before the Roman governor, who had this troublemaker flayed to the bone with scourges. Clearly, Jesus, the son of Ananias, was not perceived as the threat Jesus of Nazareth was. Many among the Jews were hopeful that maybe he was the promised redeemer (see Luke 24:21), and his popularity among the masses gave gravity to his condemnation of the chief priests. He had to be killed lest Caiaphas and the other chief priests lose their position and wealth (John 11:49-50).

It is a cruel tragedy of Christian history that the blame for the death of Jesus has been laid at the feet of the Jewish people, many of whom “hung upon his words” (Luke 19:48). What happened to Jesus was motivated by the greed of a small group who needed the cloak of darkness to cover up their clandestine activities from the sight of the people (see Luke 22:52-53; Acts 5:27-28) and used their power to ensure his death (see Luke 22:66; 23:10, 13, and 21; and John 19:6). Their desire to retain their power and wealth motivated the chief priests to hand Jesus over to Pilate; unfortunately, they are not alone in human history in perpetrating heinous actions motivated by a lust for money and power.

[1] The Septuagint of Jeremiah 7:11 reads, “Has my house (ὁ οἶκός μου)…” reflecting the Hebrew ביתי as opposed to the reading of the Masoretic text: הבית הזה.

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I'm an author, traveler, biblical scholar, instructor, guide, lecturer, and foodie. I've been leading people through the lands of the Bible for over twenty years encouraging them "to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it" (Ezra 7:10).

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