Jesus’ Big Arrival in Jerusalem: How Many People Were There?

Are you wondering how many people welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem?

How large was the crowd that welcomed Jesus?

It is most probable that only a couple hundred people welcomed Jesus in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

I should explain why I came to this conclusion about the crowd size.

We will need to explore what are sources say and what we know about ancient Jerusalem.

But answering this question will help us better in answer three

Accessing the size of the “crowd” that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem will take a little exploring.

Crowd counting is a relevant new science.

The size of the crowd is important for answering three questions.

Did the majority of Jerusalemites recognize Jesus as their Messiah when he arrived in Jerusalem?

Did the people of Jerusalem suddenly turn on Jesus, celebrating his arrival on Sunday and calling for his death by Thursday?

Furthermore, was the event significant enough to warrant a response from the Romans?

Let’s begin answering this question by looking at our main sources of information, the Gospels.

Hundreds of People

How Large Was Jesus Welcome According to the Gospels?

Matthew starts with “a very large crowd” (Matt.21:8) but then says, “the whole city was stirred.” (Matt.21:10). It is important to note who is asking, “Who is this?” But who is shouting?

A large crowd welcomed Jesus, but this excitement reverberated through the city. Not in celebration but in puzzlement of who was causing the distribution.

Matthew distinguishes between the “whole city” and those who were actively welcoming Jesus.

Mark and John attempt to give size to the group.

“Many people” in Mark 11:8.

John 12:12 with “great crowd.”

Luke is more ambivalent, “people” (19:36).

Could be 2 or 5,000, just that multiple people shouted Hossana and laid palm branches.

But what is the potential crowd size in Jerusalem during Passover?

Estimates of the number of People Celebrating Passover in Jerusalem

On the high end, the Roman historian Tacitus (56-120 CE), in his annual, estimated that Jerusalem’s population in Jesus’s time was about 600,000.

However, current scholarship estimates Jerusalem’s population was much lower at 40-80 000.

But what about on holidays like Passover? The week Jesus arrived in Jerusalem.

Passover the most celebrated Jewish religious event.

A key part of Passover was the sacrifice of a lamb at the temple.

Sheep for sacrifice

Drawing Jews from around the world to participate.

Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, provides two estimates of the number of people who celebrated Passover at Jerusalem.

The first is based on the number of lambs sacrificed, recording that at one Passover, 256,000 lambs were killed (The Jewish War 6.420-27).

Assuming a lamb could feed a minimum of 10 people, we have a crowd of over 2 and a half million people.

At another time, Josephus estimated 3 million visitors to Jerusalem for Passover.

Many scholars doubt Josephus’s numbers’ accuracy, saying they are too large.

Considering that it is estimated that ancient Rome’s population peaked at 1 million. It is hard to imagine Jerusalem’s swelling to a population of 3 million for two weeks every year.

On top of the challenge of considering a community of 80,000 or even 600,000 supporting over 3 million inhabited for two weeks.

Not that it’s impossible.

In modern history, Barack Obama’s 2009 Inauguration was estimated at 1.8 million, with Washington, D.C.’s population around 700,000.

On a funny side note, even Obama’s Inauguration numbers are disputed.

Focusing on the temple area, Sanders offers a smaller but more reasonable number.

“the Temple area could accommodate about 300,000 to 400,000 pilgrims,”

The Historical Figure of Jesus p.249

Only estimating the temple area capacity, not necessarily the number of people staying in and around Jerusalem.

This allows for a million or so attendance, with attendees cycling through the temple as they sacrifice their lamb before heading out to share the Passover meal outside the temple.

All this to say.

Jerusalem was bursting at the seams with festival attendees. It may not have been 3 million, but it is safe to say that the number was beyond counting.

A million is not impossible.

With the potential for a mass gathering of people welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem.

Who Would Have Welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem?

Since I was a young boy, I have envisioned the people of Jerusalem welcoming Jesus.

But now, considering how many people possibly would have been in Jerusalem when Jesus arrived, I am rethinking this picture.

Plus, Keener, in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, makes a good point about who may have welcomed Jesus.

“It is likely the rural Galilean pilgrims more than urban Jersulemites who hailed Jesus as a prophet.”

The Historical Jesus of the Gospels p.261

The synoptic gospels present Jesus as largely unknown in Jerusalem before his triumphant entrance.

Galilee Community

Matthew subtly makes the point that Jesus was not known in Jerusalem.

The residents of Jerusalem ask, “Who is this?” (Matt.21:10)

If they didn’t know who he was, they were not the ones singing his praises as he approached Jerusalem.

Keener is probably right. It was those who had come from the region where Jesus had ministered that would have celebrated his arrival.

How many?

Most likely his disciples.

Probably more than the 12 apostles, but there may not be many more.

We are told in Acts 1:15 that there were about 120 believers after Jesus’s execution in Jerusalem.

If they arrived together in Jerusalem.

They could easily been the “crowd” that welcomed Jesus.

No were close to the millions of pilgrims in Jerusalem celebrating the Passover.

It is not a mass event, but as Sander suggests,

“I can only suggest that Jesus’ demonstration was quite modest: he performed a symbolic gestures for insiders”

The Historical Figure of Jesus p.255

Significant enough for Jesus to perform his symbolic act without causing an immediate response from the Roman Legions.

Roman Response

Why Was There No Roman Response?

Those of us who live in relatively free democratic countries often overlook the fact that in Jesus’ time, large gatherings were forcefully put down by the authorities.

Josephus, in Antiquities of the Jews (20.169–172), tells of a prophet from Egypt who gathered a crowd. Promising that the walls of Jerusalem would collapse when they arrived at Jerusalem.

Felix responded with an army, killing 400 and arresting 200. If that was the entire group, 600 people warranted a response by the authorities.

If Jesus had rode into Jerusalem with a few thousand people waving Palm branches and singing the return of the king to Zion.

We can be pretty confident that Pilate would have sent his army in, also.

But if at most it was only a little over 100 people.

It could easily be dismissed as only pilgrims singing.

Jesus riding on a donkey would have been one of possibly hundreds arriving in Jerusalem that day. His arrival raised no more concern than the sheer size of Passover.

Pilate would not have gotten involved. Keeping his troops available for “real trouble.”

Did Jerusalem (the crowd) Turn on Jesus?

Within days after Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the “crowd” was crying for him to be evacuated.

What gives?

In a matter of days, did the crowd turn from crying Hossana blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” to “Crucify Him?”

Did the Crowd Flipped on Jesus

Was the people of Jerusalem that fickle?

Once they realized that Jesus was not the Warrior Messiah that they had desired, they wanted nothing to do with him.

That they wanted this weak imposter dead?

It is possible, but it is more likely that the crowds were two different groups of people.

Considering that Jesus’ “trial” before Pilate was held in Herod the Great’s palace we are limited to how big the crowd was (Matt.27:20, Mk.15:13, Lk.23:21ff, Jn18:40).

The entire palace is only 1,000 feet by 180 or 180,000 square feet. A capacity of roughly 30,000. Considering that half of the site was the palace building, we only have half that amount of space for the crowd to gather. l

Cutting our crowd down to 15,000. If that many.

Palace of Herod

Days before the most significant religious event of the year, it is unlikely that crowds of people would be milling around Herod’s Palace. No, if they were anywhere, it would be at the temple.

Even if the whole Sanhedrin came, it would only be 71 people. If they brought 10 of their friends each, there would still be less than 800 people.

More likely, the “crowd” at the praetorium is similar in size to the one that welcomed Jesus days earlier.

Going with Sanders’s proposal that Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem was a symbolic act, not an earth-shattering event. Maybe a few hundred, at most, but more likely less to avoid the authority’s intervention.

Leaving us to conclude.

Among the thousands, possibly millions at Jerusalem. It is unlikely that those who welcomed Jesus were not the same people who called for his crucifixion.

They did not turn on Jesus after seeing that Jesus was not the Messiah they envisioned.

Most probably, the “crowd” calling for his execution were men from the Sanhedrin, along with others who were disturbed by Jesus’ actions at the temple a few days earlier.

Those who had welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem were running or, at best, hiding in the shadows (Matt.26:58, Mk.14:54, Lk22:54). Not crying for blood.

Sanders, E.P. (1991) The Historical Figure of Jesus, London: Penguin Allen
Craig S. Keener, (2009) The Historical Jesus of the Gospels
Josephus; Antiquities of the Jews

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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