By Philologos

Published November 04, 2005, issue of November 04, 2005.
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Although the holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, is now behind us, it’s not too late for a column related to it. This comes in response to an e-mail from George Jochnowitz, who writes:

“On Sukkot, we wave lulavim [palm branches] and pray to God, hosha na, ‘Save [us], we beseech Thee.’ The New Testament, on the other hand, tells us that when Jesus enters Jerusalem before his crucifixion in order to celebrate Passover there, he is greeted by people waving palm branches and shouting, ‘Hosanna,’ which in English has come to mean a paean of praise. How did the meaning of the word change? And how was it that Christianity moved this tradition to another time of the year?”

“Hosanna,” one of the small number of words or phrases that entered the New Testament in its original Hebrew, came to mean praise in English because that’s what Christian readers guessed it meant when they read descriptions of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, such as the one in the Gospel of Mark that goes:

“And many spread their garments in the way, and others cut down branches of the [palm] trees, and strewed them in the way, and they that went before, and they that followed, cried, saying ‘Hosanna, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.’”

To anyone not knowing Hebrew, what, if not some kind of accolade for the alleged Galilean messiah making the holiday pilgrimage to Jerusalem, could “hosanna” have been? It has had this sense in English since at least the 14th century.

Mr. Jochnowitz’s second question leads us to rockier territory. Ostensibly, one could answer it fairly easily, too. If Jews wave palm branches as part of their supplications to God on Sukkot, why should they not, by analogy, have been cut and waved for Jesus before Passover in order to supplicate him to hasten his messiahship? Such an explanation is indeed the one given by most New Testament scholars for this passage.

And yet there are a number of problems with this scenario, among them another description connected to Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem that is rather odd. In Mark’s version of it, we read:

“On the following day, when they came from Bethany [a village just to the east of Jerusalem], he [Jesus] was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. But when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’”

Further into the story, Marks tells us that the accursed fig tree “withered away to its roots.” But what, the reader asks, did Jesus want from the poor tree? Why curse it if it was “not the season for figs”? (Indeed, at Passover time in Israel, fig trees, which lose their leaves in winter, have just grown new ones and have only small, unripe fruit on their branches.) The story makes Jesus seem petulant and irrational, which is no doubt the reason that two of the four Gospels, Luke and John, omit it from their account entirely, while Matthew leaves out the embarrassing fact that it wasn’t fig time.

In Israel, the main season for figs is July and August. Yet in September, too, many fig trees still have fruit on them — and in years (unlike this one) in which the Jewish holidays come early, it would be reasonable to expect ripe figs at the time of Sukkot. Moreover, the Gospels also mention an earlier visit of Jesus’ to Jerusalem that did take place at Sukkot time. All this led Anglo-Jewish New Testament scholar Hyam Maccoby to propose that Jesus made not two separate pilgrimages to Jerusalem but a single one only, plus he spent an entire winter in the city. Maccoby writes:

“What was the date of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry [into Jerusalem]? According to the Gospels, it was at the time of the Feast of Passover, i.e., in the spring. However, there are many indications that this was not so, and that the Triumphal Entry in fact occurred in the autumn, the time of the Jewish festival known as the Feast of Tabernacles.

“The whole series of events from the Triumphal Entry to Jesus’ crucifixion (including the enquiry by the High Priest, a trial before the Sanhedrin, a trial before Herod Antipas and a trial before Pilate, not to mention various previous activities such as the Cleansing of the Temple and the Last Supper) is supposed to have taken six days…. This is an impossible speeding up of human political and judicial proceedings…. [In fact] Jesus’ Triumphal Entry took place just before the Feast of Tabernacles, and his execution took place on the Feast of Passover about six months later.”

Thus, Maccoby puts the palm branches and cries of hosha na at Sukkot time, where Mr. Jochnowitz, too, thinks they should be. It’s an interesting notion — and one that, short of finding the records of the travel agency that booked Jesus’ trip, can be neither proved nor refuted.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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