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Why Wasn’t Jesus Arrested When He Entered Jerusalem Triumphantly?

Posted September 02, 2015 by Sean McDowell

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The triumphal entry of Jesus is a unique story as it appears in all four Gospels (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-15). And yet I have always wondered: If Jesus entered Jerusalem as a triumphant king, why wasn’t he immediately arrested by Rome?

In his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus is clearly portraying himself as the Messianic king in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. And yet, Like David’s return to the city after the defeat of Absalom, Jesus is entering in peace and with humility (2 Sam 19-20). Jesus chose a donkey to subvert any popular militaristic understanding of kingship. He certainly wasn’t portraying himself as an immediate threat to Rome.

Nevertheless, if there were so many people cheering him in as king, and he stirred up “the whole city,” wouldn’t Rome have intervened nonetheless?

Recently I was reading Who Is Jesus? by Darrell Bock, which is an excellent book about the current state of historical Jesus studies. He makes three important historical qualifications that help clear up this objection: (1) The Romans were on the opposite end of the complex from Jesus, and so only a violent disturbance would likely get their attention; (2) This was festival time, and so there were thousands of people entering, cheering, and celebrating; and (3) The crowd was probably smaller than typically associated with the event. It is worth reading the quote in full:

Jesus is approaching Jerusalem from Bethany, coming down the Mount of Olives from the east. He is still quite a distance away from the location of the Roman troops at the fortress of Antonia, located just outside the northwest corner of the temple. The entire temple mount is a huge area of thirty-five acres and the Romans are on the opposite end of that complex from Jesus. Josephus tells us these Roman soldiers clustered around Antonia and the temple precincts during such celebrations (Jewish War 5.243-45). Meaning they are a few football fields away, and this is in an era before binoculars! There are no General Pattons in charge with long-distance access to a closer view. Unless there was some kind of violent chaos or disturbance, nothing would draw attention to Jesus so distant from the locale the Romans occupied.

More than that, this was festival time. People were pouring into Jerusalem from across the countryside to celebrate Passover, one of the three festivals annually where people traveled to Jerusalem from across the nation. The national celebration’s popularity meant that the number of people in Jerusalem was said to triple during these times. Estimates of the population of Jerusalem in the first century run from 25,000 to 50,000, so the city would swell to somewhere between 75,000 and 150,000. Entrances to the city, like the one Jesus was approaching, would have been crowded as a stadium entrance just before a sporting event. Streams of people were entering the city at once. These people were coming to celebrate. They would be singing and rejoicing as they approached. From a distance, nothing too unusual would appear to be going on as along as nothing violent was taking place. Amid the commotion of the crowds entering Jerusalem, there was no guarantee at all that anything could be heard by the bulk of the soldiers hundreds of yards away.

But what of the size of the event as it is popularly conceived? If whole crowds were responding, would that not gain attention? This is where it is important to carefully read the accounts. The initial action seems to have been much smaller and more confined than is normally associated with the event. In Mark 11:8-10 we are told that the disciples spread the garments on the animal and spread the branches. By itself, without a context, this would indicate only the arrival of an important person. Only those who heard what the disciples said would have more insight into what was intended. This group of disciples is likely not very large, since in Acts 1:15 we are told 120 disciples were gathered in the city after Jesus’ death. Matthew 21:8 refers to “most of the crowd.” Yet two verses earlier, this group is said to be mostly disciples (v. 6). There is no number here. The group may not be large compared with the thousands arriving.

There is no good reason to doubt the historical credibility of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, even if the term “triumphal” is a misnomer.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University. He is a best-selling author of over 15 books, and is an internationally recognized speaker. He also teaches part-time high school classes on theology and worldview. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell. He blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org.


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