Old Testament Laws: Imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Gospels, chapter 3

Imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Triumphal Entry


In this chapter we will examine an incident which has been termed popularly as the “Triumphal Entry” (Mk. 11:1-10; Mt. 21:1-9; Lk. 19:28-40; Jn. 12:12-19). This term is used to describe the events which, according to the Gospels, surround Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem prior to his passion. The Entry is described in various ways in the four canonical gospels but each of the four accounts contains a cluster of images which we have found to be associated with the Feast of Tabernacles.

The Triumphal Entry has been variously identified as the fulfillment of the eschatological hope of the coming of the Messiah to Zion, Jesus’ disclosing of his identity and status by fulfilling messianic prophecies through symbolic actions, an event that was originally an enthusiastic greeting by Jesus’ disciples that was later filled with messianic meanings, an event that took place at the Feast of Dedication or Tabernacles, or an event that took place during the week prior to the last Passover of Jesus’ life. While the primary concern of our investigation is to discover whether imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles can be said to serve as an underlying theme for the Entry accounts, we will also consider whether the presence of festival imagery provides clarification or support for any of these identifications. Though it is beyond the scope of this work to deal with all the questions which arise from the differences among the Entry accounts in each of the Gospels, and though we are not offering a comprehensive study or exegesis of each pericope, a determination of how imagery associated with the feast functions in the Entry accounts should be helpful for such studies.

We will begin our examination of imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles in the accounts of the “Triumphal Entry” with a discussion of the historical issues raised by the presence of that imagery in the accounts. These historical issues have influenced some scholars’ interpretations of the festival imagery in the Entry accounts. We will next look at the account of the Entry in the Fourth Gospel since it appears to be more explicit than the Synoptics in openly stating when the Entry occurred and how it should be understood. We will then examine the Synoptic accounts of the Entry. As a part of this examination, we will also discuss the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels of the “cleansing of the Temple” and the accounts of the “cursing of the fig tree” in Mark and Matthew, since these stories appear to form a part of the events said to follow directly upon Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and seem to have a bearing on the various interpretations of the Entry. Finally, we will see what can be said about how imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles functions in the Entry accounts.

The Historical Problem

Numerous scholars hold to the view that the Triumphal Entry, the Cleansing of the Temple, and the Cursing of the Fig Tree are historic events.1 Those who accept the historicity of these events are faced with what appear to be inaccuracies and inherent contradictions in the Gospel accounts. Most of these scholars have noticed the presence of imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles in these accounts and yet the texts seem to place the events at the time of the final Passover of Jesus’ ministry. Various suggestions have been proposed to address this difficulty.

The Problem of the Palm Branches in Jn. 12:13

John gives a precise description of what the crowd took with them to greet Jesus at his entry. His description, τV ßαÅα τäv φoιv\κωv (“palm branches”), involves two words for palm.2 In relation to John’s reference some have questioned the availability of palm branches in Jerusalem. Lagrange suggests that they grew in the warmer eastern valley through which Jesus passed (325). I Macc. 13:51 suggests that palm was available in Jerusalem in the second month of the year, thus near the time of Passover. However, according to Brown, a letter of Simon Bar-Kochba (Ben Kosiba), written from near Jerusalem, ordered his followers to bring palm from En Gedi to Jerusalem, probably for the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (457). This evidence has added weight to the suggestion that the entrance into Jerusalem really took place before the Feast of Tabernacles when a great amount of palm was brought from the Jordan Valley to build huts and to be carried in procession (Brown:457). Rubenstein states that since palm trees were never found in abundance at Jerusalem, the festival crowd could not have spontaneously cut down branches from nearby palms nor on Passover was there any reason for having prepared palm branches as was done at the Feast of Tabernacles (138). Mastins argues that there appears to have been some palm available around Jerusalem and it is difficult to know just how large the crowd was and how much palm would have been needed. He therefore concludes it is possible that the Fourth Gospel may be describing a planned ovation in contrast to the spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm which is found in the Synoptics and that the event could have happened just prior to Passover as the text of the Fourth Gospel states (Mastin:78). None of this discussion deals with the critical issue of why John mentions the use of palm branches nor why he gives this reference a prominent position in his Entry account. In our discussion of the Triumphal Entry, we will look at how John may be using the imagery of the palm branch as a part of a backdrop against which to present his view of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

The Problem of the Cursing of the Fig Tree

Many hypotheses have been suggested by NT scholars to deal with the story of the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14. Most focus on Mark’s account as Matthew (21:18-19) appears to follow and abbreviate it. Overall, there seem to be three main lines of interpretation used in dealing with Mark’s account of the fig tree. According to the non-historical or legendary interpretation, the whole incident is an etiological story. This view would imply that, for Mark, the story was simply another proof of the miraculous power of Jesus. A second approach would be that of the transformed parable interpretation. This interpretation would view the story as having originated in a parable such as the one found in Lk. 13:6-9, which became transformed into an event by transmission in the primitive oral tradition. A third view is that of the historical interpretation (Robin:278-279).3 Those who accept the historicity of the incident of the cursing of the fig tree are faced with what appear to be some difficulties in the accounts such as, at what season of the year did this event take place?

Two different seasons of the year are generally suggested for the occurrence of the fig tree story. Spring, just prior to Passover, is suggested as this is when the event appears to occur according to the context of Mark (11:13 cf. 14:1) and Matthew (21:19 cf. 26:2). The season of the Feast of Tabernacles (late summer to fall) is also suggested because of the presence in the Entry-Cleansing-Fig Tree accounts of imagery and themes associated with the feast and also because that time of the year is the season for figs. Since the Triumphal Entry and Cleansing of the Temple accounts in Mark and Matthew are linked with the story of the fig tree, the dating of the fig tree incident would appear to date the entire complex.

Some of those who believe that the fig tree event occurred at the time of Tabernacles, reason in the following manner: If Jesus were hungry and seeking ripe figs, as Mark’s account suggests, at what season would this logically occur? By June, early figs were on sale in Jerusalem but the main crop was harvested between September and October (Manson:277-278). It was at this time of the year that the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated. The festival had originally been a celebration of the ingathering of the fruit harvest (Kraus:62; Pedersen:418). Because the Feast of Tabernacles was the season for figs and because of the prevalence of imagery from the festival in the Entry and Cleansing accounts of both Mark and Matthew, this complex of events probably took place originally at the time of Tabernacles and only later became associated with Passover.4 While this explanation has the advantage of accounting for the apparent contradiction of Jesus’ trying to find figs out of season, it ignores the Markan chronology in locating the incident immediately before the Passover. It is true that Mark does not explicitly date the “three days” of the Entry and the Cleansing of the Temple, and that the first mention of Passover after Jesus’ entry is Mk. 14:1. However, the text of Mark does say, “it was not the season for figs.” In order to accept the idea that the story takes place at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, one must regard the final clause of Mk. 11:13 as a gloss inserted by someone at a late time who thought the complex was related to Passover. This suggestion cannot be proven and is counter to accepted principles of textual criticism. A principle of textual criticism is to prefer the more difficult reading. The very objectionable character of the verse would speak for its antiquity. In order to argue that the Entry-Cleansing-Fig Tree complex of events takes place at the Feast of Tabernacles, one must argue against the text.

Since we will be examining the Entry complex of material for imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles, it is not critical for our purposes to determine whether the Entry, Cleansing, and Cursing of the Fig Tree actually occurred at the time of the festival. We will be examining the material for its testimony as to the imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles rather than for when or whether the events occurred historically. However, our examination may offer some help in this discussion.

The Entry in the Fourth Gospel

The Fourth Gospel describes the Entry into Jerusalem as occurring five days before the third and final Passover of Jesus’ ministry (Jn. 12:1, 12). Though this Gospel places Jesus’ entry at the Passover season, there is a cluster of images in the account which we have found to be associated with the Feast of Tabernacles. This cluster would include the mention of the branches of palm trees, the crowd’s cry of “Hosanna,” and the reference to Zech. 9:9.

The Imagery of the Palm Branch

Perhaps the main focus of any discussion about the reference to palm in this pericope should be on the fact that John does mention the use of palm branches and gives this reference a prominent position in his Entry account. Understanding how John may be using the imagery of the palm branch should help provide a backdrop against which to interpret his view of Jesus’ entry.

The use of palm branches played a major role in the liturgy of the Feast of Tabernacles (M. Suk. 3:1-8, 11b-15; 4:1-2, 4). However, it has been suggested that the background to the mention of palm branches in Jn. 12:13 is not the liturgy of the Feast of Tabernacles but rather Jewish nationalistic aspirations (Farmer: 62-66). Brown agrees with Farmer that the carrying of palms was evocative of Maccabean nationalism and that it was as a symbol of nationalism that the palm appeared on the coins of the Second Revolt (C.E. 132-135). Brown further connects the symbol of the palm to nationalism by stating that after Judas Maccabeus rededicated the temple altar in B.C.E. 164, the Jews brought palms to the Temple (2 Macc. 10:7). Also, when Judas’ brother, Simon, conquered the Jerusalem citadel in B.C.E. 142, the Jews took possession of it while carrying palm fronds (1 Macc. 13:51). Brown further advances the case for a nationalistic interpretation of the use of palm branches by interpreting the Testament of Naphthali 5:4 (where there occurs the same Greek expression for palm as found in the Fourth Gospel) as saying that palm branches are to be given to Levi as a symbol of power over all Israel (461). On the basis of this background, Brown sees political overtones in the action of the crowd at the Entry. He believes that the action of the crowd could be viewed as a welcoming of Jesus as a national liberator (Brown:461). Since palm branches were used each year in the ritual of the Feast of Dedication (cf. 2 Macc. 10:5-8), it follows that this could have reminded the Jews of the exploits of Judas and the branches could have taken on nationalistic overtones. When Israel had again fallen under foreign oppression, it is possible that the palm branches could have become associated once more with nationalistic aspirations (Mastin:80). In John’s entry account, the crowd hails Jesus as “King of Israel” (Jn. 12:13), apparently acclaiming him as a nationalistic leader. It is possible that the background for the description of the crowd’s reaction could have been the nationalistic Feast of Dedication. However, the background for their reaction seems to have been derived from a liturgical, rather than political, context as the use of the “Hosanna” cry of the crowd and the citation from Ps. 118 in John’s “Entry” account would suggest. Thus, the background of these details could also be the Feast of Tabernacles, as we saw in the first chapter of this work that the Feast of Dedication had borrowed that festival’s liturgy (cf. 2 Macc. 1:9). We also saw that the Feast of Tabernacles, itself, had been ascribed much nationalistic symbolism in the NT period.5 It is possible that John had both festivals in mind as background for the crowd’s nationalistic reaction as John does sometimes combine symbols and themes in the Fourth Gospel.6

According to Goodenough, the palm branch symbol became the proverbial sign of Jewish Triumph, ordinarily carried at the Feast of Tabernacles, but used on any occasion of great victory (X, 146). 2 Macc. 10:7 tells us that at the success of Judas Maccabeus, his followers paraded, “as at a Feast of Tabernacles” with palm branches. Goodenough states that the lulav(the palm branch) became more than merely the symbol of the Feast of Tabernacles, the lulavhad also become the symbol of hope and triumph in general (I, 278). In and around the NT period, pagans, Jews, and Christians used the palm branch as a symbol of victory and as a symbol of the hope of immortality, of victory over death (Goodenough:IV, 165; Ulfgard:90; Mastin:79). Jewish views of the symbol in the first century C.E. possibly arose out of the liturgical use of palms in the rites of the Feast of Tabernacles. As the use of the palm branch at this festival was connected to the bringing of rain, which meant for the Jews of Palestine success and life, it was a logical symbol of success, victory, and even resurrection and immortality (Patai:277-278; Daniélou, 1958:28-29, 33-34; Goodenough:IV, 162-163). The palm branches in the Triumphal Entry appear to be used in this same way and may be a demonstration of the bringing of the symbol over into Christian usage (cf. Rev. 7:9). John’s use may also mark the beginning of a transition in the interpretation and usage of the palm branch, especially for some Christians. We saw in the first chapter of this work that the depictions of the palm branch were prominent in the Roman catacomb decorations from the first century C.E. The branch was usually accompanied by simple statements of facts or wishes directed toward the deceased. This was seen as evidence of a movement from a nationalistic interpretation of the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles to an interpretation according to universal and individual eschatology (Goodenough:II, 3-44; IV, 147, 165-166; XXII, 86-88; Ulfgard:141).

What we may have here in this Triumphal Entry account is an early transition for some communities in an interpretation of the palm branches, from a nationalistic symbol to a universal eschatological symbol. The imagery of the palm branches may be intended to represent the crowd’s contemporary view of Jesus as a nationalistic figure, possibly a king, who will bring his nation success and victory. It appears that John’s own view, and perhaps what he wants his readers to understand, is that the imagery of the palm branches associated with the Feast of Tabernacles can also symbolize an eschatological king on his way to his victorious enthronement (the crucifixion). His “enthronement” is to be followed by his resurrection. Thus, Jesus’ enthronement will bring success, victory, and hope for life after death to all who are drawn to him.

In the Fourth Gospel the reaction of the crowd at the Entry seems to be a recognition of Jesus’ act of raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn. 12:18). As a result of this great miracle, a crowd is “drawn” to see Jesus, the one who can bring them victory, the Messiah who can raise up his people just as he raised up their fellow countryman, Lazarus. John, by connecting the Entry to the “sign” of Lazarus’ death and resurrection and to the Feast of the Passover, appears to make the Entry a part of the anticipation of Jesus’ death and resurrection (Jn. 12:16-18). For John, the Entry can be viewed as the opening scene of the Messiah’s “enthronement ceremony.”

How does the joyous reception of Jesus, as the Messiah who will bring victory, fit in with his impending rendezvous with the cross? For John, there is no sadness or defeat connected to the crucifixion, for the cross which signifies Jesus’ death becomes the throne of the king of life (Martin:84). The crucifixion scene in the Fourth Gospel can be seen as the conclusion to the ceremonies begun at the Entry, for the scene is described as an enthronement of Jesus, the triumphant Messiah who will bring the victory of salvation to all who are drawn to him (Brown:912).

The Cry of Hosanna and the Use of Ps. 118:24-26

Ps. 118:24-26 is a portion of the “Hallel,” which formed a part of the liturgy at all three of the Jewish pilgrimage festivals. It was especially prominent at the Feast of Tabernacles where, at the cry of “save us (now) we beseech you” taken from Ps. 118:25, the festival participants would shake the palm branches they carried (M. Suk. 3:9; 4:8). The term “Hosanna,” found in Jn. 12:13 (also in Mt. 21:9 and Mk. 11:9) is derived from what is thought to be a Greek transliteration (éσαvvV) of the Hebrew expression, À n h e y sw h (“save now”) found in Ps. 118:25 (Werner:102).

Some have suggested that the term “Hosanna” had become conventionalized by the time of Jesus and meant something like “Hail” or “Praise” (Morris:584). This understanding is possible, but not provable. Werner states that it can be established beyond reasonable doubt that “Hosanna” had changed from its original usage as a supplication for salvation by the time of Clement of Alexandria (ca. C.E. 150-ca. 215) and the Didache (perhaps as early as C.E. 100?), but finds no evidence of change at any earlier time, certainly not at the time of Jesus. Werner, evidently believing in an early date for the Synoptics (and possibly John as well) wonders if “Hosanna” in the Gospels can be understood in any way except as a cry of supplication (110-112). He argues that, prior to the second century C.E., Christian and Jewish use of the term was as a messianic supplication and notes that, in apostolic times, Ps. 118was considered a direct prophecy of the coming of the Messiah (Werner:112,114).7 It has been difficult for some to reason how “Hosanna,” as a term of supplication, could have come to be used as a joyful acclamation (Werner:98-99). It should be remembered that Ps. 118, itself, contains the supplication amidst an expression of triumph, joy, and thanksgiving. According to Burrows, when the cry based on Ps. 118:25 was made at the Feast of Tabernacles, it was a supplication made amidst the joy of the festival. He explains that, though the festival was a time of great joy, according to a Jewish tradition of the period it was also a time when the world was judged as to whether it was worthy to receive rain in the coming year (Rosh Hashanah 1:2). God’s decision regarding the coming year’s water supply was a matter of life and death for Palestinian society. Thus, this cry from the psalm was a supplication for rain, and in reality, a supplication for life (Burrows:382, 396). In John’s account, it is possible to take the expression “Hosanna” as being addressed to Jesus (Morris:584). If this is so, then Jesus, as Messiah, can be seen as being implored to bring salvation. At one level, the crowd can be understood as looking to Jesus for salvation from Roman rule. At a deeper level, John appears to imply even more. He has previously identified Jesus, in connection with the rites of the Feast of Tabernacles, as a source of “living water” (Jn. 7:37-38), the true means of salvation for all people. Jn. 7:39 states that Jesus, in speaking of living water, spoke of the Spirit who was not yet (given) because Jesus was not yet glorified. Is it possible that John wishes for his readers to understand, in the cry of the crowd, a supplication to Jesus to proceed to his “enthronement” and glorification which will result in the coming of the Spirit (the living water from heaven) for the salvation of all people?

The Reference to Zech. 9:9

In John’s Entry account, it is Jesus who finds a young donkey and sits on it. John may intend for this action to be seen as a correction to the crowd’s nationalistic acclamation of Jesus as “King of Israel” (Jn. 12:13-14). It appears that John has Jesus seek to dispel the crowds’ nationalistic misunderstanding with a prophetic action (cf. Zech. 9:9) which Jesus’ followers eventually came to understand after Jesus’ death and resurrection (Jn. 12:16). But, just what is it that John wishes his readers to understand from the prophetic reference?

Brown sees the possibility that the expression “do not be afraid” in Jn. 12:15 is a citation fromZeph. 3:16 that John uses to replace the remark, “rejoice greatly,” in his citation of Zech. 9:9.8 It appears that the focus of this passage in Zephaniah is to assure Jerusalem that “the King of Israel, the Lord” (Zeph. 3:15) is in her midst. This may be the source of the reference to “the King of Israel” which John adds to his citation of the psalm in Jn. 12:13 (Brown:458). The Zephaniah passage would fit well into what seems to be the understanding John wishes his readers to have. The portrait of the king in that passage is not a nationalistic one. When this king rules, all the nations will be converted, people from all over the earth will stream to Jerusalem to seek refuge, and Yahweh will save the lame and gather the outcast (Zeph. 3:9-10, 19). Perhaps John desires that his readers understand that the crowd should not be acclaiming Jesus as a “nationalistic king” as a result of the Lazarus miracle, but rather as an eschatological king who is the manifestation of the Lord their God and who has come into their midst (Zeph. 3:17) to gather the outcast (Brown:462).

The “universalistic” interpretation of Jesus’ action in Jn. 12:14 fits well with the context in John 11 – 12. In Jn. 11:12 John interprets Caiaphas’ unconscious prophecy to mean that Jesus would save Israel and the Gentiles as well. In 12:19 John has the Pharisees uttering the ironic statement that, “The world has run off after him.” This scene is followed in 12:20 by the Gentile Greeks coming to Jesus (Brown:463).

Perhaps the key to John’s interpretation of Jesus’ entry is found in his citation from Zechariah. In Zech. 9:9 an era of universal peace is inaugurated by the arrival of the king in a procession. The king is riding on a donkey and is greeted by shouts of joy. Chapters 9 – 14 of Zechariah form a separate book of which the last chapter is connected to the Feast of Tabernacles (Van Goudoever:263). Zech. 14 speaks of the eschatological Day of the Lord when the Lord will be king over all the earth (vs. 9). Zech. 14:16 describes this as a time when all nations will come to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. John seems to be pointing out that any nationalistic view of Jesus was mistaken. Rather, Jesus’ entry should be seen as a part of the enthronement of the eschatological king to whom all nations will be drawn (Jn. 12:32).

The Entry in the Synoptic Gospels

The accounts of the Triumphal Entry found in Luke and Matthew appear to follow closely that of Mark, with only slight differences.9 The Entry account in the Fourth Gospel differs at several points from the accounts in the Synoptics and may be following an independent tradition. Even if it is accepted that John was working with an independent non-Markan tradition, when the typical Johannine features of resurrection-inspired recall and reflection and the link with the Lazarus story are removed, John’s account is very much like the accounts found in the Synoptics (Catchpole:321). John has drawn his own implications from the Entry story and has made certain details explicit, which in the Synoptics, are only implicit. In the Synoptic accounts, the palm branches are only branches, the acclaiming crowd accompanies Jesus into the city (with no mention that they came from Jerusalem), and there is only an implicit reference to Zech. 9:9 (except in Mt. 21:5).

Though some details are only implicit in the Synoptics, we still find images in the Entry accounts which we have found to be associated with the Feast of Tabernacles. These details would include a reference to the Mount of Olives and the cry of “Hosanna” and reference to Psa. 118. Since aspects of this imagery parallel that found in John, in this section we will discuss it only as it seems to have a bearing on each of the Synoptic’s interpretations of the Entry account. We will also discuss the story of Jesus’ “cleansing the Temple” (present in all three Synoptic Gospels) and the story of the fig tree (present in Mark and Matthew only), since in the Synoptic accounts these stories immediately follow the Entry and appear to bear upon its interpretation. These two stories also contain imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles.

The Mount of Olives

The Synoptics begin their accounts of the Triumphal Entry with a reference to the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives is closely associated with the Feast of Tabernacles. It was probably here that the returned exiles gathered the olive branches for their first celebration of the feast (Neh. 8:15). According to Zech. 14 the Messiah on the Day of the Lord will come to the Mount of Olives, from which he will proceed to his enthronement. On that day the mountain will be split in two and “living waters” will begin to flow from Jerusalem outward to the east and west (through the Temple) to both cleanse and to provide year-round fertility (Zech. 13:1; 14:6-8, 10).10 Also on that day, all nations will come up to Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Tabernacles and to worship the Lord who has been enthroned as king of all the earth. This imagery became even more closely associated with the feast as Zech. 14 became the haphtarah (the customary public reading) that was to be read on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles in both Babylon and Palestine (Jenny:34, 153). According to an analysis done by R.M. Grant, when Zech. 14 is examined in detail, it reveals a remarkable series of relationships to the Markan Entry account (297-303). In Mark’s account (also in Matthew and Luke), Jesus comes to the Mount of Olives at a festival and from there makes his entry into Jerusalem. On the Mount of Olives Jesus secures a donkey on which he descends from the mount to Jerusalem (reminiscent of the king in Zech. 9:9). He is accompanied by shouts making reference to the Messianic Kingdom (Mk. 11:10). His procession takes him to the Temple (Mk. 11:11). In the Temple he casts out the traders (Mk. 11:15-17). According to Zech. 14 when the Messiah comes it will be to inaugurate similar events and he too will come from the Mount of Olives. “Hosanna” and the Reference to Ps. 118

The Synoptic accounts vary as to the precise wording of the cry of the crowd at Jesus’ entry, but they all agree that he was greeted with chants drawn from Ps. 118. While Ps. 118 is a part of the Hallel and was used at each of the pilgrimage feasts, the recital of verse 25 was intimately associated with the waving and shaking of leafy branches (lulavim) at the Feast of Tabernacles (M. Suk. 3:9). From the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew expression “save us” in Ps. 118:25 we get the term “Hosanna” used by the crowds in the Entry accounts found in Mark, Matthew, and John. The words from Ps. 118:25 were associated so closely with the carrying of the green, leafy branches at the Feast of Tabernacles that the sprays themselves were called “hosannas” (Strack:I, 850). In the Synoptic Entry accounts, the combination of the chants from Ps. 118:25-26 and the crowd’s use of “leafy branches” presents an image strongly suggestive of the Feast of Tabernacles. It was at that feast when the chants and branches were used together in a rite believed to symbolize a supplication to God for rain, and thus, for salvation (Patai:277-278).

The term, “Hosanna,” can be viewed as a “messianic acclamation,” though perhaps it should be understood more accurately as a “messianic supplication” (Werner:103).11 However it may be viewed, it was by this term that Mark, Matthew (and John) say that the crowd greeted Jesus as a Messianic figure. According to Werner, the Markan version of the Entry does not necessarily evince that the crowd regarded Jesus as the messianic king. He may have been welcomed as the forerunner of the approaching kingdom of David (108). The account in Matthew seems more clearly messianic, and in Luke (where interestingly, the term “Hosanna” is not used) the messianic-kingship claim is plain (Lk. 19:38). Werner states that Luke probably avoided the use of the Hebrew “Hosanna” because he was not particularly familiar with Hebrew-Aramaic and because his work was intended primarily for Gentile readers for whom “Hosanna” could not have the messianic significance which it had for the Jews (108). Luke’s approach is to transform the whole series of cries into an acclamation of the King.

In the Synoptic Gospels, the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem appears to begin with a dramatization of Zech. 9:9 and Isa. 62:11. This is followed by what can be viewed as a dramatization of Ps. 118:27, 25, 26 (e.g. Mt. 21:8). Werner sees in this dramatization the fulfillment of the prophetic-messianic predictions of the psalm. Werner concludes it is possible that when the final redaction of the Gospels took place, “Hosanna” had already become the Christian-messianic password (119).

The “Cleansing of the Temple”

David Catchpole has identified the presentation of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem (especially in Mark) as belonging to a family of stories detailing the celebratory entry to a city by a hero figure who has previously achieved his triumph.12 The ultimate precedent may be found in the ancient Israelite enthronement ritual which usually took place at the time of the autumn festival (Kraus:222). In 1 Kings 1:32-40 we have an example where acclamation (vs. 34) is followed by a ceremonial entry by the king-designate (vs. 35), who rides the royal animal (vs. 38), and who is followed by a celebrating crowd (vs. 40). Another precedent is found in Zech. 9:9 which is cited by Matthew and John in their Triumphal Entry accounts (Catchpole:319). Since it is possible to locate the Gospel tradition of the Triumphal Entry within this family of stories, there are certain other aspects of these stories we should note. The entry into the city is usually climaxed by an entry into the Temple (when the city is Jerusalem) and cultic activity such as the expulsion of objectionable persons and the cleansing away of uncleanness (Catchpole:321). This would indicate that the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple should be a part of our discussion of the Entry accounts and our examination of imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles.13

The idea of Temple-cleansing fits the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast, as we saw in the first chapter of this work, is the Feast of the Temple and Altar Dedication par excellence. Jesus’ actions in “cleansing” the Temple could be considered “Rededication.” On this basis Burkitt suggested that the Entry and Cleansing contained imagery of the Feast of Dedication (1916:139-149). We have already discussed how the Feast of Dedication “borrowed” its liturgy from the Feast of Tabernacles and how Solomon dedicated the original Temple at the autumn feast (1 Kings 8). Another reason favoring the presence of imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles is the possible reference to Zech. 14:21 in the “Cleansing” account. As we have seen, Zech. 14 is intimately connected to the Feast of Tabernacles.

The consequence of Jesus’ “cleansing” of an area in the Temple courts is clear, there is no longer trade there (at least for an unmentioned period of time following his actions). Thus, the statement in Zech. 14:21b “And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day,” has in a temporary and preliminary way been achieved.14 Zech. 14:21 can be understood as describing the eschatological order within which God’s kingship has been activated and established (Zech. 14:5, 9, 16). In relation to that eschatological rule of God, the action of Jesus in the Temple can be viewed as an anticipatory sign carried out in prophetic fashion. Thus, Jesus can be seen as the prophet of the kingdom of God acting out the scripture but pointing forward to that which will be both more comprehensive in scope and more permanent in achievement (Catchpole:334). Zech. 14:16-20 speaks of the Day of the Lord when all nations will worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and come up to the Temple in Jerusalem to observe the Feast of Tabernacles. As we saw in this first chapter of this work, Jewish interpretations of this text by the time of the NT period had given the Feast of Tabernacles a theme of universalism. The universal theme of the Feast of Tabernacles is a more appropriate background for the account of the “cleansing” than is the exclusively nationalistic Feast of Dedication. The court that Jesus “cleansed” was the outer court, commonly known as the Court of the Gentiles because it was there that non-Jews might pray and worship. Mark’s note that Jesus forbade the carrying of items through the Temple Court of the Gentiles (Mk. 11:16) suggests that Jesus’ actions are meant to be seen as directed against abuses that had become tolerated. Mark may be implying that, due to the merchandizing and business traffic, the Temple was becoming a place where Gentiles could no longer worship God. By implication, Mark is illustrating that providing a place for Gentiles to worship God was of no real consequence to the Jewish religious leadership. Commerce had taken precedence. Thus, the eschatological destiny of Israel was being surrendered to materialism (McKelvey:65). In the Synoptic accounts of the “cleansing” we are told that Jesus justified his actions by citing Isa. 56:7 which reads, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” Matthew and Luke do not include the reference “for all nations.” Perhaps each for his own reasons does not include any eschatological or universal role for the Temple. Even so, there appears to be an implicit universal theme in the accounts of the cleansing of the Temple in Matthew and Luke. In Mark’s account, the theme of universalism is explicit.

The Story of the Fig Tree in Mark and Matthew

The story of the fig tree appears to be strategically placed in the Entry and Cleansing accounts in Mark (11:12-14, 20-22) and Matthew (21:18-19) but does not appear in Luke’s account. Luke appears to prefer to pass over Mark’s complex intertwining of the Entry, Cleansing, and fig tree. The story of the fig tree appears to play a significant part in the interpretation of the Entry and Cleansing for Mark and for Matthew who follows his account. Mark places the story just before the Cleansing of the Temple and then, on the day following, he gives a follow-up on the fate of the fig tree. Mark thus imbeds the Cleansing within his account of the incident of the fig tree. Matthew positions the story on the day following the Cleansing of the Temple. In Mark, it appears that the withering of the fig tree is gradual since the disciples did not notice this condition until the day following Jesus’ remarks about the tree. Matthew appears to heighten the miraculous implication by stating that the tree withered immediately after Jesus’ remarks. Matthew uses a different verb tense from Mark in Jesus’ statement about the fig tree. The effect is to soften Jesus’ words from an imprecation to a solemn prophecy.15Matthew abbreviates Mark’s account somewhat and eliminates Mark’s difficult reference to Jesus’ seeking figs out of season. Perhaps because of the date of Matthew’s Gospel or other factors, the chronological setting of the story of the fig tree stood on its own and did not need clarification, or perhaps these words did not appear in Matthew’s copy of Mark (Smith, 1960:317).

Symbolism and Imagery in the Story of the Fig Tree

Throughout the accounts of the Triumphal Entry and the accounts of the Cleansing of the Temple, Jesus can be seen as a prophet acting out Scripture which reveals the will of God. In the Entry we observed the apparent dramatization of Zech. 9:9 and Isa. 62:11-12. We also saw that the actions of the crowd could be viewed as a dramatization of Ps. 118:25-27. The cleansing of the Temple appears to be an acting out of Zech. 14:21 and Isa. 56:7. It would follow that the descriptions of Jesus’ actions in relation to the fig tree could be seen to fit the pattern of illustrating the will of God through prophetic acts that have a background in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles.

It is possible that, by embedding the account of the Cleansing in the midst of the story of the cursing and withering of the fig tree, Mark wants his readers to discern that Jesus’ prophetic action is to be viewed as the abrogation of the Temple and cult. The unprofitable fig tree and the secularized Temple could be intended as symbols of Israel’s unfaithfulness and wretchedness before God (McKelvey:65). Perhaps Mark is trying to convey to his readers that, like the fig tree, the chosen people of God were making an outward show in the worship of the Temple but were in fact not producing “fruit.” For this reason, they were doomed. As the symbolic actions of the prophets were often intended to bring to pass the event they portrayed, it is possible that the cursing of the fig tree is meant to be understood as the declaration of God’s curse upon the nation and its religious leaders. This would be in accordance with the premise of Deut. 28:15-68 that blessings are given to those who accept God’s will and curses are placed upon those who reject it.

The majority of the references to the fig tree in the Hebrew Scriptures are metaphorical.16 On occasion the fig represents the nation of Israel or its leaders (Hos. 9:10; Jer. 24:1-8; 29:17). The destruction of the fig tree is often pictured by the prophets in their descriptions of coming judgments (Jer. 5:17; 8:13; Hos. 2:12; Joel 1:7, 12; Amos 4:9; Isa. 34:4). The Synoptic accounts of the Cleansing of the Temple include what appears to be a citation from Jer. 7:11. The context of this verse is God’s judgment on Israel which includes the threat of the destruction of the Temple. The following section of Jeremiah (chapters 8-10) is dominated by two major themes: the stubborn and incurable sinfulness of the people and the tragic fate that is about to overtake them (Bright:64). In Jer. 8:13 the Lord is quoted as saying, “When I wanted to gather them, there are no . . . figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered.” Is it possible that this verse offers some background for the actions related in Mark’s account of the fig tree?

The image of the fig tree is also seen in the Hebrew Scriptures in terms of blessings. Every person sitting under his or her fig tree is a symbol of the peace and prosperity of the Messianic Age (Mic. 4:4; Zech. 3:10). The Messianic Age, especially in the Hebrew Prophets, came to be associated with an abundance of fruit, including figs.17 It is interesting to note that in Ezekiel’s vision of the “New Temple,” fruit trees are described as producing fresh fruit year around and their leaves will not wither, neither will their fruit fall (Ezek. 47:12). As we saw in the first chapter of this work, the Feast of Tabernacles was anciently a harvest festival which celebrated the ingathering of the fruit harvest. As the Feast of Tabernacles came to be linked with the Messiah and the Messianic Age, so too was the abundant harvest of fruit. We have seen evidence in the Triumphal Entry accounts of Jesus’ entry into the city being filled with messianic imagery that can also be associated with the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles. Jesus’ approach is from the Mount of Olives where the Messiah was expected first to appear (Zech. 14:4a). The mode of Jesus’ entrance was fashioned after the Messiah-King in Zech. 9:21. The cry of “Hosanna,” the title of “Coming One,” and the exclamation about the coming Davidic kingdom can all be understood as messianic, especially by the time of the Gospel writers. It is obvious from the Gospel accounts that the rulers of the Temple and the religious leadership of the nation did not accept Jesus as Messiah. Mark’s account of the symbolic action involving the fig tree could thus be seen as picturing their failure to respond to the presence of the Messiah and forecasting their doom. Perhaps Mark wants his readers to understand that if the fig tree (representing the Jewish nation and its religious leadership in Jerusalem in particular?) had recognized the coming of the Messiah and the dawn of the Messianic age, it would have borne fruit and its leaves would never wither regardless of the season of the year. It could be that Mark is telling his readers that the leadership of Judea had sealed its doom by rejecting Jesus as Messiah and as prophet. If the leadership of the nation would have accepted God’s will as revealed through his prophet and Messiah, Jesus, their nation could have been experiencing the blessings of the Messianic Age. Their rejection of the Messiah would bring them barrenness and national disaster. Mark may be dramatizing the point that, for the Jewish nation, Jerusalem, the Temple, and the religious leadership, the time that lay before them would not be “the season for figs.”

Conclusions Regarding Imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles In the Triumphal Entry

We have seen that there is a cluster of themes and images associated with the Feast of Tabernacles that is present in the Triumphal Entry accounts of all four canonical Gospels. We have noted that, based on the amount of imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles that is present in these accounts, some commentators have concluded that the story of the Triumphal Entry was connected originally to that festival and only later became associated with Passover (e.g. Daniélou, 1956:114-136; Mastin: 271-282; Smith, 1960:325-326; Van Goudoever: 265-266). We also noted that the events associated with the Triumphal Entry can be seen as dramatizations of themes from Zech. 9 – 14 and other haphtaroth of the Feast of Tabernacles. The actions of the people and their shouted words of greeting to Jesus at his entry to Jerusalem are reminiscent of that festival. In Mk. 11:1-11 and Mt. 21:1-11 we are told that people cut branches and laid them in Jesus’ path. They then shouted phrases from Ps. 118:25-26, part of the Hallel for Tabernacles (Lk. 19:28-38 mentions the crowd and their acclamation but does not mention the branches). Jn. 12:12-16 mentions the crowd and their acclamation and specifies the use of palm branches, a symbol that was intimately associated with the Feast of Tabernacles. The Synoptic Gospels link the Triumphal Entry to the cleansing of the Temple which also appears to have a background in the eschatological festival material of Zech. 9 – 14 (14:21). Mark and Matthew link the story of the cursing of the fig tree to their Entry accounts (Mk. 11:12-14; Mt. 21:18-19). The Feast of Tabernacles was the season for figs. However, even though this imagery has all the earmarks of a celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles that is very reminiscent of the eschatological feast depicted in Zech. 14, the Synoptic Gospels implicitly locate the Triumphal Entry in the context of the Passover season. In John, the context of Passover is explicit (Jn. 12:1, 12).

We have seen how some have tried to explain this seeming paradox and have done so with difficulty. Could this event have happened at Passover? Could this event have happened in the way that it is described? Could the Entry stories be the result of traditions handed down that each of the evangelists has adapted to his own purposes? These questions are not critical for our examination as we are treating the accounts for their evidence of themes associated with the Feast of Tabernacles rather than strict historic data, but our examination may help provide some possible answers.

As we noted in the first chapter of this work and have seen again here in the Entry accounts in the Gospels, the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles had become pervasive and powerful by the NT period. It had developed eschatological, messianic, nationalistic, and “universalistic” interpretations by the time of the final redactions of the Gospels. We also noted that the nationalistic imagery of the feast had become so powerful that it was copied by the nationalistic feast of Dedication. This is an indication of how imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles had become independent of the celebration of the feast and had become “portable” (Jenney:113). By “portable,” it is meant that the imagery of the festival appears to have come to be used at times and places other than at Tabernacles and in places other than the Temple. The imagery appears to have retained the meanings that it had developed in connection with the feast. This “portability” appears to be at least part of the explanation for the presence of the imagery of Tabernacles in the Gospel accounts of the Triumphal Entry.

We also noted in the first chapter, that the Passover-Exodus-Wilderness experience and the Feast of Tabernacles shared certain themes and imagery. Common imagery would include living in sukkoth (booths), the cloud, salvation by water, judgment on evil, and God’s dwelling with and protection of his chosen people. We also saw that while the Passover and the Exodus served as figures of eschatological deliverance, it was the Feast of Tabernacles and its imagery which came to have the greatest eschatological and messianic significance for the Jews (Daniélou, 1958:20; MacRae:268). However, it appears that there was a primitive Christian emphasis on Passover due to its being the season of the death and resurrection of Jesus, as well as its association with the Lord’s Supper. At the Passover season, most Christians focused on Jesus, the one who many of them saw as fulfilling the imagery of all the festivals. Could it be as Farrer has stated, that many in the primitive Christian communities came to see Christ’s great Passover at Jerusalem as a virtual realization of all feasts, so that they came to understand that in celebrating Passover (or the Lord’s Supper), they were keeping every feast (217)? If this was indeed the case, it might have seemed logical to some Christians of the time that when the desire was to express eschatological and messianic images, they could utilize the very forceful imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles and apply it in a Passover setting. After all, there was already a sharing of some themes between the two festivals. The imported imagery would probably be shown to be acted out by, or fulfilled by, Jesus. This may be the case of the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the accounts of the Triumphal Entry. This also may be at least a part of the reason that there is not more explicit mention of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Gospels.


1 Some of the scholars who comment positively on the historicity of the events of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem are Morris, Brown, LaGrange, Rubenstein, Mastin, Robin, and Birdsall. Each of these authors is cited in this chapter and his or her pertinent works are listed in the bibliography.

2 These same two words for palm can also be found together in the Testament of Naphthali 5:4. A similar expression can be found in PLeid. 13,6,7 (Arndt-Gingrich:130).

3 For a detailed analysis of each of these three interpretations along with a list of scholars who support each view and a bibliography of their works, see Robin:276-279.

4 For examples of this approach, see Manson:271-282; Smith, 1960:325-326; Van Goudoever:265-266, Daniélou 1956:114-136.

5 Some examples of the nationalistic symbolism of the Feast of Tabernacles can be found in: Abramovitz:38-43; Goodenough:IV, 162-163; Kadman:94; Roth, 1955:154; 1962:43.

6 For examples of the combinations of themes and symbols in the Fourth Gospel, see Brown:323.

7 Werner bases this opinion on his interpretation of: 1 Pe. 2:4-7 (which combines Ps. 118:22, 23 with Is. 8:14 and 28:16); Mt. 21:42; Mk. 12:11; Lk. 20:17; Acts 4:11; Eph. 2:21.

8 Brown sees the reference in Jn. 12:15 as an example of John’s use of compound citations. He believes that it is not unusual for John to use citations from two or more passages in combination, nor is it unusual for John to combine two or more themes. As an example of John’s use of compound citations, Brown cites Jn. 19:36. He also states that the Fourth Gospel draws freely upon Zechariah, both implicitly (e.g. Jn. 2:16) and explicitly (e.g. Jn. 19:37) (Brown:323).

9 For an analysis of the Entry accounts in the Synoptic Gospels which concludes that there is a Markan priority and only slight variations from Mark’s account in Luke and Matthew, see David R. Catchpole’s article, “The Triumphal Entry,” in Jesus and the Politics of His Day, edited by Bammel and Moule, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 319-334.

10 It is tempting to see in the imagery of Zech. 14 an interesting analogy to the stories of the cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of the fig tree, especially in Mark’s account. In Zech. 14:4 the Messiah comes to, and then from the Mount of Olives. He evidently cannot come directly to Mt. Zion because the forces of the enemy control that location. These enemies must be forcefully driven out by the Messiah. As a result of the entrance of the Messiah, year-round water and temperate climate are offered for abundant agricultural produce. Those who will not recognize the coming of the Messiah and who resist him, will suffer rot and will wither from lack of water (Zech. 14:8, 12, 17).

11 For a detailed history of the interpretation of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek backgrounds of “Hosanna,” see Eric Werner’s article “Hosanna in the Gospels,” JBL, 65, 1946, pp. 97-122.

12 For a detailed listing of these stories from Jewish history see Catchpole:319-321.

13 Though Catchpole does not mention it, the coming of the Messiah as described in Zech. 14 and in Malachi 3:1-5 would appear to fit also within this family of stories.

14 For an explanation of why the literal term “Canaanites” should be understood here as the designation of a social group (i.e. “traders”), see the article by A. Haldar in IDB, vol. 1, p. 494. The translation “traders” is clearly appropriate here in Zech. 14:21 because the context refers to all nations being able to come to the Temple (vs. 16).

15 For an analysis of the Greek verb tenses used by Matthew and Mark in this pericope and their possible Aramaic antecedents see Hatch:7.

16 This can be said of the NT as well. For example see Lk. 13:6-9; Mk. 13:28; Rev. 6:13.

17 For example, see Zech. 8:12; Ezek. 34:27; 36:8-11, 29-30, 35; Jer. 31:12; Ezek. 47:12. Similar associations also appear in En. 10:18-19; 24:1-25:5; 2 Bar. 29:5. See also Strack:IV, 886-887; 948-954.


Help us provide more content like this by giving today