The Enigma of the Palm Branch -- By: William H. Heinrich

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 14:2 (Spring 2001)
Article: The Enigma of the Palm Branch
Author: William H. Heinrich

The Enigma of the Palm Branch

William H. Heinrich

One of the best-known aspects of the Triumphal Entry is the peoples’ use of palm branches. Yet, while all four Gospels mention the story, only one mentions palm branches. Although not prominent in the text, their deployment that day had great significance.—Ed.

The Palm Sunday presentation of palm branches is an annual ritual in many churches, honoring Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passion Week. Interestingly, while the Triumphal Entry is recorded in all four gospels (Mt 21:7–9, Mk 11:7–10, Lk 19:35–40, Jn 12:12–15), palm branches are mentioned only once—in John 12:13.

The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet Him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!” (Jn 12:12–13).

The use of palm branches was not merely incidental that day. Plentiful in the Jerusalem region, they were not waved just because they were available. Their presentation at Jesus’ coming had special meaning to all present.

A popular symbol in the ancient world, the palm was associated with sacred things (Trever 1962:464). It also symbolized victory, whether in military conflict or athletic events (Moldenke and Moldenke 1952:170; Avi-Yonah and Kraeling 1962:366). This is probably behind the presentation of golden crowns and palms to Syrian kings after their victories (1 Mc 13:37, 2 Mc 14:4; cf. Goldstein 1976:477; 1983:485). When an ancient monarch traveled, heralds often went ahead to announce his coming. Upon the royal arrival, often with a military procession before and behind, people came to see the monarch and even lay palm branches on the road before him. Eventually, such a procession became known as a parade.

Because the palm was so plentiful in ancient Palestine, it became symbolic of the region. Some scholars believe the term “Phoenicia” for the northern Israel and Lebanon coast comes from the Greek word phoenix for date palm (Moldenke and Moldenke 1952:170). Consequently, the Roman Emperor Vespasian commemorated the conquest of the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by issuing a coin showing a weeping woman sitting beneath a palm tree with a Roman soldier standing over her (Trever 1962:66; Moldenke and Moldenke 1952:171). Palm branches were also prominent on c...

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