Were the Palm Sunday and Good Friday crowds completely different?

One of the questions thrown up by the Easter week narrative is how could the crowds so quickly have turned on Jesus? How is it possible that those who on the previous Sunday were shouting “hosanna” were by Friday shouting “crucify”?

One possibly, strongly favoured by commentators is that there were two different crowds. Those who welcomed Jesus would have been Galilean pilgrims and a lot of Jesus’ supporters would have heard Jesus teaching in the Temple, they would have gathered there. An early morning crowd gathered by the Chief Priests would have been more local and more loyal to them. 

This theory seems to have much to commend it and is perhaps apologetically helpful in explaining the apparent turnaround.  It does though blunt traditional preaching rhetoric about how fickle we can be.  However, I think there are a few other problems with the theory.  The first and obvious one being that it is one thing to get your supporters together to cry crucify early in the morning but another to sustain that level of hatred and mockery against Jesus through the day as news gets out about the planned execution and as the streets begin to fill with pilgrims before Jesus is paraded through the streets again.  Remember that the Jewish authorities were nervous of the crowds reacting to Jesus being arrested.

There are other reasons why we might want to question the theory.  These primarily lie in the fact that it relies on an over polarisation of different sections within Jewish society.  We know that there was a greater intermixing than that. Clues include the way in which Jesus saw even some of his interlocutors as close to the kingdom.  Then you have the account of Jesus’ trial at the High Priest’s house. One of his close disciples, likely John was able to gain access to the house and take Peter in with him.  There at the house, Peter is recognised as one who was with Jesus. This all suggests a greater level of too and thro and intermixing than the theory demands.  Finally, you have the way that many of those from Jerusalem and Judea went out to see John the Baptist who had pointed Jesus out as the Messiah (Mark 1:5).  All of which suggests that this was more than just a Galilean sect.

However, I think the crucial point is that there doesn’t need to be two distinct crowds. The insistence that it must have been very different people suggests to me a lack of insight into human and crowd behaviour. I’ve seen crowds turn in the space of half hour from cheering their team at half time to booing them and calling for the manager to be sacked by the final whistle. I’ve seen opinion polls turn on their head in a matter of days as happened in 1992 with John Major’s surprise election victory. Similarly, think about how Gordon Brown used to be cheered to the rafters as he pitched his platform to take over from Tony Blair on the Monday of Labour Party Conferences only for the same crowds to wildly applaud Blair as he countered on Tuesday.

The truth is that we are fickle and even more so when we get into crowds. It isn’t that hard to control and manipulate a mob to say and do what you want.

So, whilst it is possible that there were two different crowds, I wouldn’t overplay this. Indeed, even if there were different crowds, there probably still were people among the second crowd who had cheered Jesus in the past who mocked him on that day.

And therefore the point remains. How easily swayed are we? Or are we faithful to Him?

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