Sunday, April 10, 2022

A Palm Sunday reflection

Today is Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week in the Christian year, which runs from Palm Sunday to Easter Day. 

On the original Palm Sunday, Jesus made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The people of the city threw palm branches and garments before him, crying "Hosannah to the Son of David."

Yet only a few days later, after he had been arrested by the Jewish religious authorities and handed over to Pilate, the Roman governor, who had no wish to take action against Jesus, those same religious authorities incited a mob to demand that Pilate execute him, demanding that the governor release a criminal named Barabbas rather than Jesus and demanding "Crucify him, crucify him!"

On the face of it, it seems extraordinary that in a week Jesus could go from being welcomed with adulation by cheering crowds to having a mob baying for his execution - and even given that the latter mob was whipped up by the religious authorities of the day, this seems more than a little surprising.

In our own age, mobs can turn on people astonishing quickly, as anyone who has been on the wrong end of a twitterstorm can tell you, yet such a dramatic turnaround seems quite extreme.

Extreme - but not impossible. Looking at what happened to Jesus through the lens of political analysis, I suggest he was the victim of a pincer movement between two diametrically opposed movements in a city riven by factions and simmering explosive tensions which were, indeed, to lead to its destruction some forty years later.

Jerusalem was under Roman military occupation. The Romans usually allowed local authorities to retain a good deal of power and, up to a point, respected local cultures, But to the Zealot extremists within the Jewish community, already plotting the rebellion which was to explode in full force in 66CE, any Roman presence was anathema, 

To anyone who was watching Jesus carefully, it should have been crystal clear that starting a war was the last thing he wanted. The symbolism of his entry into the city on a donkey rather than, say, a war-horse sent a message that this was a man of peace. I am quite certain that Pilate understood this, and that it was one of the reasons he was so reluctant to execute Jesus.

That may have been the very reason some of the population turned against him. They wanted a Jewish nationalist rebel hero like those of previous generations, not a peacemaker.

The Jewish establishment had exactly the opposite fear. Whether they really thought Jesus wanted to start a war or not, they sought to persuade Pilate that Jesus did indeed represent the threat of a nationalist rebellion which he might stir up with his talk of a new heavenly kingdom. To what extent they really believed this, and to what extent they used lies about him to rid themselves of a rival, we will probably never know.

However, it is very clear that from the death of Herod the Great, and as the Romans gradually took control of more of the country, to the point when the real rebellion finally erupted in AD66, a large part of the Jewish elite was scared, and entirely justifiably so, that a revolt against Rome by the hardliners of their faith might lead to a war which would tear down their entire society around them and devastate everything they had built.

Which is, of course, exactly what did eventually happen between AD66 and AD 70.

So what you see in the original Holy Week is likely to be the result of a conspiracy by the "moderate" religious establishment, which may well have been co-ordinated with elements of the "Zealots," both of whom had their own very different reasons to fear Jesus as a rival and want him out of the way, and combined to convince the Romans that he was a threat.

The mob which chanted "crucify him" was probably no larger a part of the population of Jerusalem than the people who form "Twitterstorm" online lynch mobs are of the population of our own day.

One question we should ask ourselves: was there a scintilla of justification for those who chanted "crucify him" back in Jerusalem in 29 AD? Some of them may have believed that Jesus posed a threat to them, but there isn't a shred of evidence that he was plotting rebellion, very much the reverse.

Are we in our own age sometimes also too quick to join a chorus of condemnation against someone before we know the full facts? A fair-minded man or woman would, |I think, have little difficulty reaching the conclusion that yes, on too many occasions we are.

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