Today is Palm Sunday. This is the day that marks Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as its King. The name comes from the branches that people cut down and laid down or waved as Jesus came into the city, which is noted in Matthew and Mark, and from the fact that “Coat/Cloak Sunday” just didn’t have the same ring to it. This caused me to wonder, when I was younger, why did they cut down branches? Was that just what they did? For a long time afterward, I just accepted that this was clearly some sign of honor, but it was only a few years ago when someone pointed out to me the connection with the Maccabean Revolt.
If you are unaware of the Maccabean Revolt, or even if you are, let me give a brief overview (hey it’s always good to review). This historical event is important for understanding the culture of the New Testament because many of the things that happen in the gospel were results from this period. This occurred in the “inter-testamental period.” Although this is sometimes called the years of silence, God was no more silent then than he is now. Following the exile of Judah to Babylon, Babylon was overtaken by the Persia. The Persians, through Cyrus and then Darius, allowed the Judean Israelites to return home. This period was recorded in the biblical books Ezra and Nehemiah (as well as some of the last prophets, like Malachi), and in “extra-biblical” witnesses such as the Cylinder of Cyrus:
The Persians were eventually defeated by the Macedonian-Greek Armies and the area of Israel conquered by Alexander the Great (maybe you’ve heard of him?). Alexander did not live too terribly long after all of this conquering and his kingdom was left to be divided amongst his four chief generals. While the other two lands named after the respective generals have their own interesting stories up until their fall to Rome, the two that primarily concern Jewish and Christian religious history are the Ptolemies, who controlled Egypt, and the Seleucids, who controlled the former territory of the Persians. The area of Israel was initially under the control of the Ptolemies who, while not necessarily as tolerant as the Persians, nevertheless did allow a surprising amount of religious freedom to the Jewish people. It was during this period that the translation of the Jewish Torah into Greek, what is called the Septuagint (or LXX), likely began in earnest. However, as was all too common in Israel’s history, the land of Israel was disputed over between two groups: the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. It’s not that they necessarily viewed it as a land valuable in its own right, rather that it was important for its potential as a trade route and its strategic military placement.
Eventually the land switched control to the much less tolerant Seleucids. The Seleucids did not think the Jewish region was “Greek” enough and began to ban non-Greek religious texts as well as set up worship to the Greek gods around the area of Israel (and in particular Jerusalem). Through a series of events this led to a rebellion by the Hasmonean clan, led first by Mattathias and eventually by Judah (Greek Judas), who take on the name Maccabee. The Maccabean revolt is surprisingly effective and succeeds in repelling the Seleucids out of Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Following this success,one of the generals, Simon Maccabeus, enters into Jerusalem and heads directly to the temple. Upon entry he is greeted by the Israelites cutting down branches and either waving them in his direction as a sign of respect. Upon entering the temple he begins to purify it of its previous pagan use (including idolatry and the sacrifice of unclean animals). He then sets up the sacred lamps, used to signify YHWH’s (the LORD’s) presence and lights them. There was only enough lamp oil for one day, but it miraculously lasted eight days until more lamp oil arrived. Thus the miracle of Hanukkah or “The Festival of Lights” was established, which, incidentally, Jesus seems to have celebrated. The Maccabean revolt gave way to the reign of the Hasmonean Jewish empire up until the conquering general Pompey of the Romans took control of the area setting up a Roman prefect and a line of (illegitimate) kings in the Herods.
What does all of this have to do with Palm Sunday? Recall that when Simon came into the city, people cut down branches and laid them down. Well, the branch, along with the lamp stands, became symbols of the Maccabean revolt and resulting
Hasmonean reign that it was printed on their coins (right), signifying peace and prosperity through zealous devotion to YHWH. So when the people cut down branches as Jesus enters Jerusalem it is them hoping another type of revolt was about to happen; this time against Roman oppressors instead of Greek ones. Interestingly, directly following his entry, as recorded in Luke and Matthew, Jesus enters the temple to cleanse it. It seems that Jesus may have been accepting the people’s call for a revolutionary leader. This also may have been the reason why the Pharisees were particularly concerned that Jesus quiet down the crowds. The Romans were particularly vigilant against potential uprisings in their empire, and in Jerusalem the time around Passover, which marked the overthrow of Egyptians by the Israelite slaves, was the most likely time that a rebellion would have happened. (This would later be proven to be a good instinct since the Bar Kokba rebellion began on passover).
However, Something happens between Jesus’ entry and his clearing of the temple, as recorded by Luke. Jesus weeps over the city. The people did not understand the character of God’s presence with them, they did not understand the source of genuine peace. Peace is not freedom from external aggressors, which a military revolution might have temporarily granted. Peace is true freedom, freedom from worry and death. Peace is life that is truly life, lived in a loving community. Peace is right and genuine relationship with God. God had come to them in the person of Jesus, and he did come to start a revolution. Jesus’ revolution, though, was a different kind. It was the Kingdom of God invading into hostile territory. But rather than focusing on the Roman government or some other human political structure, it focused on the root and source of the problem. This present evil age, dominated by sin and death, needed to end. So Jesus invaded and began a revolution. His entry into Jerusalem marked the countdown to the final decisive battle, and like the presence of God, its victory would be won in an unexpected manner. It was to be a decisive battle, though. So this week, which marks the beginning of Holy Week, prepare yourself for battle. Prepare yourself for a revolution. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem marks another movement toward God’s end, and everything was about to change. Everything you know can change. Get ready for a transforming revolution. [This post will be part of a holy week series that will pick up again on Thursday, Friday and Resurrection Sunday] [Monday will continue the series on Galatians which concludes on Wednesday].