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Doctrines that creep in: Palm Sunday was on a Sunday

Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem
Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem
Photo by Andrew Verrett

According to John’s Gospel, the Triumphant Entry took place 5 days before Passover:

“Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. … On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.” (John 12:1, 12-13) (Six days minus “on the next day” equals five days.)

Christians have celebrated Jesus' Triumphant Entry on Palm Sunday, but did it really occur on a Sunday? No where in the New Testament does it say that Jesus’ Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem was on the first day of the week. (See Was Jesus crucified in a Jewish leap year? for a description of Jewish days.) But since Christians have always assumed that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, we have back-calculated the day to Sunday based upon John’s passage above. (See Jesus crucified the day before a high Sabbath for a discussion of the Sabbath after Jesus was crucified.)

But a Sunday entry into Jerusalem gives a huge problem with other Bible passages and ancient Jewish practices. According to John 11:54, Jesus went to “a city called Ephraim, and there continued with his disciples.” Ephraim was located northwest of Jericho. It would be from there that He traveled to Bethany the day before His Triumphant Entry as recorded in John 12:1. That means He would have traveled from Ephraim, through Jericho, and then up to Bethany on Saturday – the Sabbath.

Jews were restricted from traveling more than what was defined as a Sabbath day’s Journey on Saturday. The Jews generally fixed this to two thousand cubits, which was about 4,854 feet, or less than a mile (1,480 meters). We know from Acts 1:12 that a Sabbath day’s journey was equivalent to the distance from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem. Bethany was about 2 miles (3 km) from Jerusalem, so the distance from Ephraim to Bethany is much farther than a Sabbath day’s journey. And even though God required attendance at the feast in Jerusalem, the people still could not travel more than a Sabbath day’s journey on a Sabbath day to get there. (My thanks to Rabbi Eliezer Gurkow for confirming this.) So Jesus would not have walked some 20 miles (32 km) six days before a Friday Passover, because that would have meant He and His disciples would have been traveling on the Sabbath.

However, if Christ was crucified on Thursday, He would have been traveling to Bethany on Friday and that’s legal under the Law. But then that means He made His Triumphant Entry on the Sabbath. Could that have happened? Isn’t Bethany more than a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem? Back to the Bible for details.

Even though He traveled to Bethany, notice:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. (Matthew 26:6,7)

Unless Simon had been cured of his leprosy before Jesus’ visit, he could not live in town. The Law required:

And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean. All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be (Leviticus 13:45,46).

That means Simon’s house could not have been inside the city of Bethany itself, but had to be away from the town. Luke gives another clue as he tells us that after Jesus left Jericho, “And when he had thus spoken, he went before, ascending up to Jerusalem. And it came to pass, when he was come nigh to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount called the mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples” (Luke 19:28,29). This suggests Simon lived somewhere closer to Jerusalem – possibly near the road that skirted the Mount of Olives and Acts 1:12 tells us that the Mount of Olives was a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem. If they made it there Friday, then Jesus and all of the guests that were at Simon’s house could have legally traveled to Jerusalem on the Sabbath.

Have you ever wondered why “some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, ‘Master, rebuke thy disciples’” as Jesus was riding into Jerusalem? (Luke 19:39) Maybe they were jealous. Maybe they feared the Romans would consider this an insurrection and send soldiers. Or maybe, it was because this was Saturday and they considered the celebration as inappropriate activity on a Sabbath.

There is more evidence that Jesus made His Triumphant Entry on the Sabbath. Look at Mark’s Gospel:

And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve. And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany … they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. (Mark 11:11,12a,15,16)

Why wouldn’t He cast out those that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrow the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of them that sold doves and not allow anyone to carry a vessel through the temple on His first day in Jerusalem? Well, if it were the Sabbath, the moneychangers and dove sellers would not be at work, and because no one was allowed to carry a burden on the Sabbath, there would be no burden carriers present either. So Jesus sees where they would be set up for business the next day and then He stays in Jerusalem until eventide. It’s interesting that Mark recorded this minor point. What’s so important about waiting until after sunset? Well, nothing – unless it really was the Sabbath. After sundown, it’s no longer the Sabbath by Jewish reckoning and He is no longer constrained by the Sabbath day’s travel restriction. Therefore, He and the disciples are now able to travel farther than Bethphage – all the way to Bethany.

So, what conclusions can be drawn from the Triumphant Entry?

If the crucifixion was according to tradition and was on a Friday, then Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a Sunday, but that also means that on the day before – a Saturday – He would have traveled more than a Sabbath day’s journey to get to Bethany. That was not allowed under the Law, so the traditional view must be rejected.

If the crucifixion was on a Wednesday, that means He entered Jerusalem on a Friday, but that also means He would have overthrown the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of them that sold doves and not allowed anyone to carry a vessel through the temple on Saturday. Since they would not have been working on a Sabbath, a Wednesday crucifixion must also be discarded.

Therefore, it should be concluded that Palm Sunday actually occurred on a Saturday. Since His Triumphant Entry was on Saturday and He entered Jerusalem 5 days before the feast, then that means the crucifixion day had to be Thursday.

There are many theories about which day of the week Jesus was crucified, but you can't just select a date without examining all of the evidence. In The fulfillment of the sign of Jonah, more clues about the day of the week Christ entered Jerusalem and was crucified will be examined.

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