The meaning of Palm Sunday and the mysterious origins of Hosanna

The phrase “Hosanna in excelsis” (in English, “Hosanna in the highest”) appears twice in the classic Catholic Mass. The untranslated word “hosanna” (also represented sometimes as “osanna”) is not Latin. It’s sort of a magical evocation that is generally understood to be a paean of praise for Jesus.

So where did “hosanna” come from? Like “hallelujah” and “amen,” other magical evocations used in Christian tradition, the word’s origin is Hebrew. But the word has made a long journey from its original meaning and context.

Hosanna in the Gospels

“Hosanna” appeared at a critical turning-point in the life of Jesus—the preacher’s much-heralded arrival in Jerusalem, the hub of Jewish religious and political life—but what actually happened there was opaque, perhaps even to the authors of the Gospels. It certainly wasn’t understood by the Christians who followed, lacking a connection to the Jewish tradition.

Tracing “hosanna” to its origins provides an intriguing case study in how traditions evolve. We don’t know what happened to Jesus that day (Palm Sunday) or what the Christians of each generation knew about it, but the evidence gives us strong grounds for speculation.

The setting is dramatic: Jesus is passing through the gate into a sacred metropolis and is met by crowds of worshippers. Two details are particularly relevant to this story: the palm leaves they place on the ground, and the shouting of “hosanna.”

Memories of this scene are important enough to appear in all four Gospels: Matthew chapter 21, Mark chapter 11, Luke chapter 19, and John chapter 12. Luke is the only gospel to attempt to translate “hosanna”; it appears in verse 19:38 as “glory.”

The incident is important enough to be commemorated each year as Palm Sunday. But the Christians who instituted that tradition didn’t understand what was going on. We have to look at the Jewish tradition to find out.

The Sukkot connection

Sukkot, a Fall harvest festival, is one of three annual celebrations (along with Passover and Shvuot) laid out in the Torah. Sukkot lasts seven days (with a wrap-up day known now as Shemini Atzeret or Simcha Torah), and each day Jews gather to say a prayer featuring the word “hoshana.” Clearly, this was the word that, in corrupted form, got incorporated into the Gospels.

Having participated in the Sukkot service, I can attest to how powerful the “hoshanah” prayer is. It clearly held great emotional meaning for the Jews of Second Temple times.

On Sukkot, people also create a ritual object known as a lulav by combining four species of plants. One is the date palm. Thus, the appearance of palm leaves, in conjunction with “hosannah,” indicates pretty strongly that the Jews visiting Jesus were using rituals associated with Sukkot.

“Hoshanah” is not a term of adulation. It means “save, please” or “save, we beg you” (and should be two words: “hosha na”); I am guessing that the Gospel writers who included the word without translating it (at least Mark and Matthew, which were fairly early books) assumed that their readers knew the Sukkot ritual and recognized the word.

But the connection with Sukkot clearly became forgotten at some point. First of all, the word’s pronunciation was corrupted—or perhaps the rendition as “hosannah” represented a dialect. Later readers, trying to guess the meaning of the word from its context in the Gospels, assumed that “hosannah” was a general term of praise. Perhaps Luke was the first to make that mistake, and other Christians picked it up from him.

I might not be giving Christian interpreters enough credit. The Hosanna Shout is a prominent example of how one religious tradition has incorporated the weighty word into modern practice, with the ritual being restored through a revelation that has continuity with the origins of the word.

By the way, I don’t think that Jesus entered Jerusalem on Sukkot. It’s a Fall holiday. After this incident, the next event in Jesus’s life is the Last Supper, which took place in the Spring near Passover. I doubt that Jesus spent five or six months just hanging around in the suburbs of Jerusalem, while making up parables and sparring with rabbis. But I still think that Sukkot is the inspiration for the rituals recorded by the Gospels during Jesus’s arrival.

What does the Sukkot connection tell us about Jesus’s followers?

The Gospel record of this odd ceremony combining palm leaves and “hoshana,” especially because some of the people preserving the record didn’t understand what it meant, tells me that something like that really happened. I assert that we are viewing a sliver of actual history in the life of Jesus.

The cry of “save us” shows that many Jews were looking for a saviour, and believed they had found one in Jesus. We don’t know whether this saviour was thought of as a military leader, a guide to the world to come, or some kind of deity. But we do know that the Jews welcoming Jesus were very attached to their Jewish rituals and traditions. Jesus’s mission was seen to sit within those traditions.

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Andy Oram
April 22, 2024

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