What Do Palm Branches Symbolise When Jesus Enters Jerusalem?

John adds a unique detail to the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem.

Where Mark and Matthew tell us that the people welcome Jesus with branches, John adds that they were “palm branches.”

An image that has inspired paintings, colouring pages, church celebrations, and the name of the religious holiday “Palm Sunday.”

This additional detail adds symbolism to the story but also attracts challenges of historicity.

Let’s discuss the added symbolism. The reason why John included this detail.

Ancient Palm Branches Culture Symbolism

Palm branches are used in various ancient cultures and religions as symbols of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life.

In ancient Rome, palm branches were given to victorious athletes and military conquerors.

Using “palma” as a metonym for “victory” was common in the Roman language.

In many Mesopotamian religions, palm branches were held to be sacred. The ancient Egyptians specifically used palm branches to represent eternal life.

But more related to Jesus’ life. In Judaism, palms are associated with Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacle), a harvest festival that celebrates the Israelites’ journey through the desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt (Lev. 23:40, Neh.8:14-16).

The Jews developed an infinity with the palm branches and often used it as a symbol of the Jewish state.

The Hasmonean kingdom even stamped coins with an image of a palm tree.

After Jesus’ time (38-39 C.E.), Herod Antipas did the same . Coins were stamped with palm trees to avoid breaking Jewish law against graven images. The palm tree an acceptable representation of Isreal.

Ancient Palm Tree Coins

Possible because Solomon earlier had included carving of Palm trees in the temple. And the same image is included in Ezekiel’s future temple. Hard to condemn what was done in your own sacred writings.

Other Related Historical Events of Celebration with Palm Branches

I owe this one to Steve at Jesus Alive for bringing this story to my attention. But its similarity to Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem needs to be included.

In 1 Maccabees 13:51, we are told that Simon, the liberating king and high priest, entered Jerusalem after lifting the siege during the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 B.C.E.) in 164 B.C.E. He and his men (army) entered singing and waving palm branches as they celebrated there victory and liberation.

Do Palm Trees Grow in Jerusalem?

A good question when hearing the story about Jesus’ triumphant entry.

In Matthew and Mark’s versions, it appears to be spontaneous.

The crowd, seeing Jesus riding a donkey, spread branches in front of him on the road.

“others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.”

Matt.21:9

“others spread branches they had cut in the fields.”

Mk.11:8

Local sourcing of the branches.

Jericho is known as the city of Palms, not Jerusalem.

green palm branch

It is only 22km/14 miles as the crow flies between the two cities. The elevation is significantly different.

Jerusalem is 754 m (2,472ft) above sea level.

Jericho -276 m (-846 ft) Yes, that is minus. Jericho is below the sea.

That’s an elevation difference of 1030m (3,318ft).

Also, the average temperature is different.

Jericho in July is 31 °C (88 °F) 11 °C (52 °F) in January

Jerusalem is 24.2 °C (75.6 °F), 9.1 °C (48.4 °F) in January

But both are well in the range for growing palm trees. Jericho may have been a better place for palm trees but it did not mean there were not palm trees in Jerusalem.

I only bring this up because some websites assert that palm trees do not grow in Jerusalem because it’s too cold.

But checking the average temperature of the two cities, current pictures of the cities, along with historical references like the Maccabees, all allow for palm trees to grow in Jerusalem.

There may not have been as many palm trees in Jerusalem as in the Jericho area, but it does not rule out the possibility of palm trees.

I think it’s safe to say that John 12:13 adds more details that enhance the story. The palm branches add symbolism to Jesus’ welcome. The waving of palm branches hails back to when Simon the High Priest liberated Jerusalem almost 200 years before.

But John wanted us to see that the people were celebrating victory. Victory that Jesus was bringing to Jerusalem riding a donkey.

Scriptures About Palm Trees and Branches?

Palm branches and trees in ancient Judea were significant. There are 21 references to palm trees or branches in the Old Testament. There are two in the Testament, but we will get to those later.

First, the Israelites are commanded in Leviticus 23:40 to build shelters of Palm branches while celebrating the Festival of Tabernacles. In Nehemiah 8:14-16 it is recorded that after the exile, the returning Jews did precisely that.

Later, when Israel built a temple, images of palm trees and branches were carved on the walls.

  • 1 Kings 6:32,35
  • 1 Kings 7:36
  • 2 Chron.3:5
  • 2 Chron. 28:15

A practice carried forward in Eziakal’s vision of the future temple of Isreal.

  • Ez.40:16,22, 26, 31, 34, 37
  • Ez.41:18-26

The imagery of a palm tree is twice used as a simile.

  • Ps.92:12 flourishes like a palm tree.
  • Songs of Songs 7:7,8 Compares a woman’s figure to a palm tree.

Other times, palm trees are simply a landmark reference.

  • Ex.15:27
  • Num.33:9

Or that Israel’s ancient judge, Deborah, sat under a Palm tree (Judges 4:5).

It is regularly used as a reference to the city of Jericho.

  • Deuteronomy 34:3
  • Judges 1:16, 3:13
  • 2 Chron.28:15

This reference may be the most important when analyzing the story of Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Palm tree references are always about Jericho, not Jerusalem, and there is a reason for this. But more on that later.

The Hebrew name for palm is also used as a name “Tamar.” Three women in the Old Testament have this name.

  • Daughter-in-law of Judah, with whom he had twins (Gen.38).
  • King David’s daughter (2 Sam.13).
  • Absalom’s daughter (2 Sam.14).

Finally, beyond John 12:13 in the New Testament, the writer of Revelation includes the waving of balm branches. In Revelation 7:9, drawing on the symbolism, the great multitude has palm branches as they stand in front of the throne of the lamb.

Resources

  • https://newhopefellowship.ca/blogs/downtown/sermon-notes-our-palm-branches-and-hosannas
  • https://www.learnreligions.com/palm-branches-bible-story-summary-701202
    • Zavada, Jack. “Why Are Palm Branches Used on Palm Sunday?” Learn Religions, Aug. 29, 2020, learnreligions.com/palm-branches-bible-story-summary-701202.
  • https://jesusalive.cc/palm-branches-waved-for-jesus/
  • https://lutherwasnotbornagaincom.wordpress.com/2018/10/04/palm-sunday-date-palms-do-not-grow-in-jerusalem/
  • https://shanerose.substack.com/p/did-palm-trees-grow-in-jerusalem
  • https://www.distancefromto.net/distance-from-jericho-ps-to-east-jerusalem-ps
  • https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/jesus-of-nazareth/the-triumphal-entry
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_branch
  • https://biblicalproductions.com/filming-in-israel/filming-in-israel-the-original-biblical-palm-trees/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerusalem
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jericho
  • https://blog.bibleodyssey.org/image-gallery/herod-antipas-coin/

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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