Which Crowd?

There has been an online discussion recently about the crowds on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.  Fr. Eckardt has a very good post about the exegetical and theological reasons for the position that they were different groups. His comments are, I believe right on target: Not the same crowd.  Preachers who claim that “The praises turned to shouts of ‘Crucify'” are being exegetically and theologically lazy. They are also ignoring the very real historical circumstances in which the scriptural events occur.

If we believe that the scriptures are a correct record of not only God’s message (the truth of the Gospel) but of the events in and through which that message was given to us (the facts of history), that is to say, if God is a God who works through history, through the people, places, events, etc., we must consider the very real historical circumstances of the events in scripture.

Jerusalem in Jesus day was a town of about 50,000. It was not the capital. It was not a major trade center. It was, however, the home of the temple. It was, in a sense, a tourist destination. Every year at Passover, the city of Jerusalem went from about 50,000 to about 250,000. The extra people would sleep in tents outside the city, in neighboring towns, or wherever they could find space nearby. Jesus and His disciples preferred to stay with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, about two miles away. So it is most likely that Jesus commuted each day from Bethany to Jerusalem (About a 20 minute walk). Many others would have done the same. The city itself would have been filled with dignitaries (Pilate, Herod, etc.) soldiers to keep order, subcontractors for the temple, etc.

On Sunday, as Jesus enters Jerusalem, we are told that it was the crowds from Galilee that sang praises. But that Galilee crowd would not have been the crowd early Friday morning.

On Thursday night, Jesus is arrested.  Being after dark, most of the Galilee contingent would have been outside the city, and would not even have known anything was amiss.  The trial before Pilate takes place at about 6 o’clock on Friday morning. For the crowds coming for the feast, many of whom were in tents outside the city, or staying with relatives in the surrounding towns they would have been just waking up, getting breakfast together, and so on when Jesus was on trial before Pilate. The Jerusalem natives, who made their living selling food, lambs for sacrifice, etc., would have been up quite a bit earlier getting ready for another day of commerce. The chief priests stirred up the crowds at Pilate’s house. How could they do this? They hand picked the crowd. Why would a huge crowd have magically appeared outside of Pilates house that particular morning screaming for Jesus to die? How did anyone know that anything was happening? The disciples had all run away. No one from among Jesus supporters was around to Tweet “Messiah Arrested. Flash Mob at Pilates House, 6am.”

The chief priests made it happen. Had they not invited select people to show up and whoop and holler, there likely would have been no crowd. But after having an illegal trial with false witnesses and trumped up charges, would they really have left this phase of the plan to chance? Pilate would have pushed back against the unjust sentence (which we do see in scripture). He only gave in when he thought that if he didn’t condemn Jesus, he would have a riot on his hands. (As Paul Maier has convincingly shown, Pilate was on the outs with the Roman emperor. The “You are no friend of Caesar” was code for “We will have you recalled to Rome, and you know we can do it because the emperor likes us more than you. Your career/life is hanging by a thread).

How did the chief priests make sure the crowd was going to shout for Jesus to be crucified? At this point it is only pious speculation, but I suspect that they sent messages to the vendors who work in the temple, for starters. “Hey, remember that guy who ruined business on ‘Black Monday’? He’s on trial at Pilate’s house. Go over and make sure Pilate does the right thing.” The scribes and Pharisees from the Sanhedrin would have been there already, but lower ranking members from among the parties would have been notified as well, if they were not already hanging around the High Priest’s house.

By 9 AM, it was all over. The sentence has been handed down, just as the pilgrims are making there way from the outskirts into Jerusalem proper. The women line the path to Calvary, but it is too late. The sentence, once given, will not be rescinded simply because a different part of the crowd is calling for his release. This would have been just what the chief priests predicted to Pilate, and what the soldiers would have been ready for.

Too late to save Jesus, his followers can only weep as he is taken out of the city.

Different crowds.

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