What is Palm Sunday and why do we celebrate it?

Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, by James Tissot.Wikipedia/Brooklyn Museum

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday. But there is another story behind the story ...

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter, and the sixth Sunday of Lent. In 2024, it falls on 24th March. Palm Sunday is usually considered the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter. For Orthodox Christians it is helpfully called the "Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem".

In some Christian traditions, there is the ancient practice of giving out palm fronds folded into crosses. Sometimes, the palm crosses from the previous year are kept and burnt to make the ashes for the Ash Wednesday service.

Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem

Palm Sunday is when most churches tell the story of Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem when he was greeted by people waving palm branches. This event happened in 29 AD, 30 AD or 33 AD, depending which commentary you read. The Palm Sunday story is found in all four of the Gospel accounts. Each of the narratives recounts how Jesus came to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Passover, and entered into the city riding a donkey. The event is described in Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44 and John 12:12-19. The passages are very similar.

Cleansing of the Temple

The triumphal entry into Jerusalem was a precursor to the cleansing of the Temple, as told in the Synoptic Gospels in Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-19 and Luke 19:45-46. In this account, Jesus entered the Temple and drove out those who were misusing the Temple for financial gain, and he overturned the tables of the money sellers. This may or may not have happened on the next day, but the story is traditionally recalled on the day after Palm Sunday, sometimes known as Holy Monday. The event has been depicted many times in art, and it may be the origin of the English phrase "turn the tables".

Echoing History

The idea of Jesus making a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and then cleansing the Temple actually echoed previous events from the fairly recent Jewish past. In 164 BC, there was a previous triumphal entry into Jerusalem by Simon Maccabee who came into Jerusalem "with a chorus of praise and the waving of palm branches" (1 Maccabees 13.51 NRSV). This was a precursor to the cleansing of the Temple from pagan worship by Judah Maccabee (Judas Maccabeus) and his brothers (1 Maccabees 4:41-51), which happened a few months later.


These events happened less than two centuries before Jesus made his triumphal entry and were well known then, if not now. The parallel with the story of Jesus would not have been lost on the people in Jerusalem, who saw Jesus coming as a saviour figure in the mould of a Maccabee. Jesus echoes the triumphant entry of Simon Maccabee. The people who were waving their palm branches for Jesus may have been hoping that he would be coming to expel the occupiers as the Maccabees had done. If you know the backstory, then it makes much more sense why the people reacted how they did.

The Historical Background

The background to the Maccabees is that the Greeks, under Alexander the Great, had defeated the Persians, and taken over the Holy Land. When this Greek Empire broke up, the Holy Land came under the Seleucid Empire. Antiochus IV Epiphanes angered the Jews by banning Judaism, and took over the Temple for pagan worship.

Specifically in 167 BC, he had an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple, banned circumcision, and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar in the Temple (1 Maccabees 1:41-48). This led to a full-scale revolt (1 Maccabees 1:62-64) by brothers of the priestly Hasmonean family (1 Maccabees 2). They became known as the Maccabees. The name Maccabee is generally considered to be derived from the Aramaic word for hammer.

The Maccabees defeated the Seleucids, and captured Jerusalem and cleansed and restored the Temple. The Maccabees then ruled over Judaea, first as High Priests and then also as kings (and one queen) of the Hasmonean dynasty.

The independent Jewish rule lasted until 63 BC. It was then that the Roman general Pompeius made Judaea a client kingdom of the Roman Empire. In 37 BC, the unpopular Herod was made king by the Romans, and the Roman Senate designated him "King of the Jews". This is the historical backdrop to the life of Jesus.

Books of Maccabees

The story of the Maccabees lies in the intertestamental period, and to read about it we have to go to the Septuagint (often abbreviated as LXX), which was the version of the Bible written in Greek, which is quoted in the New Testament. Scholars believe that the first Book of Maccabees was probably composed in Hebrew as a historical record, but it only survives in Greek. The second book of Maccabees was originally composed in Greek, and recaps the early part of the story for the Diaspora. The events are also recorded in the Talmud and by Josephus, and as often happens gaps in the narrative are added to by tradition.


The story of the Maccabees was very familiar to the Jews and Jesus. John 10:22-23 records Jesus attending the Temple during the Feast of Dedication, which recalled the cleansing of the Temple by the Maccabees. The King James Version has, "And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple..." Old editions of the KJV cross-reference this verse to 1 Maccabees 4:59, which says, "Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev."

The first and second books of 1 and 2 Maccabees may not be in the modern Jewish Bible (often called the Tanakh), but nonetheless the story of the Maccabees and the cleansing of the Temple is remembered each year. The Jewish Feast of Dedication, which Jesus attended, is today better known as the holiday of Hanukkah (also spelt Chanukah), or the Festival of Lights.

Handel's Oratorio

These days the story of the Maccabees is not so familiar to most evangelical Protestants. However, the story used to be better known in the days when editions of the Authorized (or King James) Version of the Bible were still printed and sold with the books of the Apocrypha.

So it was that in 1746, the composer George Handel (1685-1759) composed an oratorio called "Judas Maccabeus", based on text by Thomas Morell (1703-1784). The words are based on the story in 1 Maccabees chapters 2 to 8, with reference to Josephus. His work was written for the celebrations after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and Handel made an analogy with the Georgian victory over the Jacobite rising in 1745.

The first performance of the oratorio took place on 1 April 1747 at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, in London. The rousing tunes and patriotic sentiment made the oratorio "Judas Maccabaeus" one of Handel's most popular works.

Afterlife as a Hymn

In the oratorio's third act is a chorus "See, the Conqu'ring Hero Comes!" In the oratorio the conquering hero is a Maccabee coming in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. These words and rousing tune were adapted for the Christian hymn "Thine Be The Glory, Risen, Conquering Son", where the conquering hero becomes Christ instead. For those using hymn books, the tune is identified as "Maccabaeus", making the link.


At Palm Sunday we remember Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem followed by the cleansing of the Temple. The forgotten backstory is perhaps that for the people at the time, it would have reminded them of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple by the Maccabees, two centuries earlier.