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    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Saturday, April 06, 2019

    Why "the Crowd who welcomed Jesus on Sunday" weren't "the same as those who rejected him on Friday"

    There's a sermon that you often hear at this time of year on Palm Sunday that goes something like this: "The people who cheered and welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday were the same ones who jeered and called for his death on Good Friday". It's hugely popular and also hugely problematic. Why? Well there are three main reasons...

    Firstly, because it's inaccurate. Jerusalem in the week leading up to Passover was a very busy place. Josephus, prone to wildly exaggerate, suggests the figure is around three 3 million.1 Writing more recently, Sanders offers his calculation that "the Temple area could accommodate about 300,000 to 400,000 pilgrims, which is a more reasonable figure".2 With such huge figures in play the chances of even a good proportion of the Good Friday crowd being part of those welcoming Jesus on the Sunday is fairly small. The Golden Gate through which Jesus entered was relatively small, and it was located close to his destination, the Temple. Factor in the narrow streets and the packed-ness of the city and the numbers couldn't have been that large. The Bible doesn't tell us how many turned up for Jesus' Triumphal entry, but the biggest recorded attendance at one of his events was 5,000. He'd grown in popularity since then, but even if he drew five times the size of that crowd, he would still be well below a tenth of the numbers that would be in Jerusalem by the time the festival hit its peak.

    Now factor in the logistics of Good Friday. The Bible doesn't tell us much about the space at Pilate's palace in which the crowd gathered. Jesus films love to portray a huge courtyard, packed out with an angry mob, but even in one of the most extreme examples of this - Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), there are only around 300 (yes, I counted them once). But the space could have been significantly smaller, and quite a bit less full and still qualify as a crowd. A crowded room at a party can almost be single figures. I'm not suggesting the figure is as low as that, but let's bear in mind that any idea of size we have is at best a guess, and at worst just adopting the casual assumptions of Christian art, which has a historical link to ant-Semitism.

    So let's do the maths.

    Let's say Sanders' lowest number is correct, and that six times the numbers of those that fed on Jesus' loaves and fish turned up for his triumphal entry. That would be around a tenth (10%) of the population of Jerusalem who turned up. And let's say that Gibson's vast, cinematically impressive, crowd is coincidentally close to the actual numbers, then, at a very generous estimate, that tenth equates to only around 30 people would have been at both events.

    Now lets look at the other extreme. Let's say Josephus is correct about the numbers in Jerusalem, and also assume that the number turning up om the Sunday was only 3,000, now we're only talking about a thousandth (0.1% i.e. a tenth of 1%) of those present on Good Friday. And if the number in the crowd was only 50, then it's hugely unlikely that even one person was at both events.

    Of course, we know some people were at both events (Jesus for one) and presumably some of his enemies and followers, but the reality is that in terms of the neutral (and this is who the sermon is talking about) perhaps fewer than 10 would have been at both events.

    But were they neutral? well this leads me onto my second point....

    The Crowd were not neutral
    The sermon assumes that the second crown was neutral, or perhaps only nominally in favour. After all, this is what the sermon addresses. That the same fickle observers who joined in the hype of Sunday, changed their minds over the course of the week.

    Those lobbying against Jesus didn't like what they saw on Sunday. Conversely, we're told Jesus' most dedicated supporters either slunk off (in the case of the men) or (in the case of some of the women) were still committed enough to turn up for his death. The only real defector was Judas.

    But it turns out that "the crowd" were not at all neutral. The account is covered at length in all four gospels, and with a great deal of repetition. The problem with this volume of material is that we tend to take in the big picture and skim over the minor details. But they matter, not least because they tell us a great deal about the crowd.

    Mark's gospel is generally considered the oldest and therefore the most reliable when it comes to small details and there's a vital detail in Mark 15:6-8. These are the verses that tells us about Pilate's custom of releasing a prisoner, and they tell us that one of those prisoner's was Barabbas. And then the passage says "So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom" (NRSV). In other words the crown weren't just picked randomly from the street. They certainly weren't there because the wanted Jesus to be killed. (Many have made the point that whilst there was, at times, heated disagreement between the various Jewish factions, the last thing most people wanted was to see another of their own strung up the hated Romans).

    No, Mark is clear that the crowd come because they wanted to persuade Pilate to free Barabbas. This suggests they were probably amongst Barabbas' followers. Jesus was just collateral for them. Better Jesus die than their leader.

    Anti-Semitism and "the crowd"
    There has been a lot of discussion about anti-Semitism is the last year or two. In my experience, Christians, at least in the UK and other westerns English-speaking countries, tend to be horrified by it, but simultaneously somewhat naive about its role in their history. The reality is, though, that anti-Semitism is so wrapped up in Christian history - Passion Plays leading to pogroms; slandering Jewish people as Christ killers; and the reinforcement of these ideas in more creative approaches to telling the story (e.g. Christian art) - that most people don't realise the anti-Semitic traditions that they accept unquestioned at face value.

    Perhaps the most dominant element of anti-Semitism has been the blaming of Jews for Jesus' death. Whilst the majority would probably view it as ridiculous to blame Jewish people today for the acts of the Jews from the first century, they fail to see that this is precisely what has happened again and again throughout Christian history. If each generation is to avoid failing as horrifically as those in Nazi Germany, then each nation and generation need to take a stand against any elements of those myths that have a history of turning into anti-Semitic violence.

    So let me put it plainly. The Jews of Jesus' day did not think as one. They did not act as one. It's not implausible that the majority of them never heard his name during his lifetime. Crucifixion was a Roman act. The New Testament suggest a very small proportion of Jewish people (150 out of 300,000?) had some role in Jesus' death. It's is neither biblically or historically accurate to say that the majority of Jewish people in that era wanted Jesus to die, or that those who may have had some role in it were in anyway representative of their nation for their own generation, let alone their descendants 2000 years later.

    Perpetuating this sermon, that somehow a huge crowd welcomed Jesus on the Sunday and then condemned him on the Friday, does precisely this. Rather than being individuals, or a series of movements or sects, the sermon lumps all the Jewish people of Jesus' day all together and then blames them for Jesus' death. Accept that premise and you are already several steps along the path that can lead to blaming today's Jews and a repeat of the horrific violence of the not too distant past.


    I know this sermon is usually well intended. I know it's meant to cause us to look at ourselves and address our own weaknesses; to encourage Christians to be loyal to their Lord, to stick with him through difficult times; to reflect on the frailties of humanity. But there are other ways to do that. Sadly this sermon rests on a whole range of assumptions that have their origins in anti-Semitism (and bad maths), and have been allowed to grow up unchallenged. It's time for it to stop.

    1 - Sanders, E.P. (1991) The Historical Figure of Jesus, London: Penguin Allen. p.249, (though see Sanders' Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE, London and Philadelphia, 1992 pp.125-8 for a more detailed explanation.)
    2 - Josephus The Jewish War 6.9.3, cross reference with the numbers he cites at an arguably less popular festival in The Jewish War 2.14.3


    • At 7:08 pm, April 10, 2019, Blogger Jim said…

      How do you explain Peter’s speech in Acts 2? It’s clear that he was being pretty liberal with the blame.

    • At 9:50 am, April 11, 2019, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Hi Jim,

      I think "liberal with the blame" is an interesting way of putting it, because he was talking to a Jewish crowd, as a Jew to make a rhetorical point. That's quite a different thing from non-Jews blaming Jews to audiences of other non-Jews. In any case I think there are layers of reliability here.

      1. Does Acts accurately record what he said. I guess many would say yes, others would say it was reliably the jist, but not word for word. Others would say it was a speech put on Peter's lips, but let's ignore that last option for now.

      2. If it was what he said, was it consistently how he described it? I'm thinking here of the three accounts of Paul's conversion, the details of which differ between the author's account (Acts 9), and the author's recalling Paul accounts of it (Acts 22, & 26).

      3. Is it an accurate representation of what Peter thought? He was preaching to a very specific audience, but this may not have been his neutral account of how he saw things. In other contexts he may have had more disdain for the Romans - who were clearly the superpower here.

      4. If it was what Peter thought, was he correct to think so? Was what Peter thought happened, what actually happened?

      I guess the point is that underneath the author's account of Peter's account, in a very specific context is a historical reality. But even if you believe that the Bible in infallible it still leaves open the option that what Peter said wasn't strictly historical truth.


    • At 4:42 am, April 14, 2019, Blogger Jim said…

      Well, Peter’s speech in Acts 3 seems to give credence to the theory that the Jerusalem crowds turned on Jesus.

      “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go.”

    • At 9:19 am, April 14, 2019, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Hi Jim,

      I guess the above still more or less applies. We have to remember that Peter wasn't really about when Jesus went before Pilate, so, at best, he is passing on what he has picked up second hand from others.


    • At 6:14 pm, April 14, 2019, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      It's notable that "more disdain for the Romans" than the "Ioudaioi" (the Judean religious-political establishment and those loyal to it) is never expressed by the authors of the New Testament texts or by the Messiants depicted in those texts. Even in the earliest NT texts, the Ioudaioi and the "archontōn tou aiōnos toutou" ("the rulers of this age"), the demonic powers, are the parties responsible for Christ's execution. Properly understood neither Paul or the other NT authors are attacking "Judaism" or "Semitism", but what they are doing without question is clearly and consistently indicting the Ioudaioi for the execution of Jesus. The role of the Romans is theologically irrelevant in the New Testament, and by extension in first and second century Messianism/Christianity.

    • At 9:44 am, April 15, 2019, Blogger Matt Page said…

      I don't think there is anything "clear and consistent" about it. Of all the uses of "loudaioi" nearly all are in Luke/Acts & John. Of the 20+ uses in the epistles including Paul's), not one is referring to the "loudaioi" being responsible for Jesus' death.

      I wouldn't really expect the NT writings to show "more disdain for the Romans" than the "Ioudaioi". After all the Romans were both the superpower with no doubt spies all around, and the nationality of some of the key people the church was trying to convert.What we see as you progress through the gospels in the order they were written was them gradually placing more blame on the Jewish authorities.

    • At 4:25 am, April 16, 2019, Blogger Jim said…

      Sorry, Mr, Page, but 1 Thessalonians seems to contradict your statement:

      For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last! (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16)

    • At 4:31 am, April 16, 2019, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Mark is the earliest gospel, and Mark 15 clearly depicts the Sanhedrin handing over Jesus to Pilate, then stirring up the crowd in verse 11, resulting in Pilate's decision to crucify Jesus "to satisfy the crowd" in verse 15. They are John's "Ioudaioi": the Judean religious-political establishment and those loyal to it.

      Going back further than Mark to 1st Thessalonians, the earliest book of the New Testament, Paul mentions "the Ioudaioi, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and persecuted us." The blame is there from the beginning, is consistent in the NT, and is never contradicted.

      We can theorize that the NT authors misrepresented the actual events of the passion out of fear of the Romans and due to missionary zeal, but there's no available evidence that either proves or disproves such a theory. What we do have shows the Sanhedrin and those who were loyal to them accomplishing the execution of Jesus by calling on Pilate. All Israel is not blamed, just a specific subset. The extant text depict the Romans as participants, there is absolutely no evidence that the Romans were the primary guilty party.

    • At 2:43 pm, April 16, 2019, Blogger Jim said…

      Pilate had the final authority to crucify, but the Jewish authorities and their cronies handed Him over to him.

    • At 9:10 am, January 24, 2020, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Ok, but that's kind of my point. Yes, some Jewish people appear to have had a role in Jesus' death, but there's nothing to support the popular point that "the Crowd who welcomed Jesus on Sunday" were "the same as those who rejected him on Friday".

      Certainly no reason for the behaviour of those few to be representative of all Jewish people either then or for all time.


    • At 3:10 am, February 01, 2021, Blogger Jim said…

      Revisiting my comments:

      The fact is there's a whole lot more reason than not to equate the tragedy of anti-Semitism with a face value account of the Gospels. We see it in the Gospels when we analyze how Jesus's activities were perceived. On Sunday He enters on a donkey, then He cries and walks in the Temple. To many, this is the moment they've been waiting for. Instead of starting the revolution, He leaves. Monday, He cleanses the Temple, and Tuesday he gets into a verbal sparring match with the Temple leaders.Things go well until Jesus speaks of His death and the Temple's destruction again. John tells us by that point He has to hide. Jesus by then has disappointed a lot of people, so couple that with the fact that the nest time He is seen He is humiliated and brutalized. Human nature is on full display here when this is said. And back to Acts 3, there's a huge reason why we don't hear anyone correcting Peter's assertions, (John doesn't and we know he was at some of the proceedings.)


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