How many people were in Jerusalem, and therefore theoretically able to see the crucifixion?
Here’s what we know for sure: We’ve never envisioned a large enough crowd. No movie has successfully recreated the massive crowd that was on hand for Passover. No church drama, certainly, has come close to the wall-to-wall collection of humanity.
When Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem on Passover, tens of thousands of people were in the city. Hundreds of thousands more were all around the city, camped out in every possible location.
In the same way we’ve grossly underestimated the number of people in Jerusalem for the holiday, we’ve rarely understood the dangerous, politically charged atmosphere that would have been surging through Jerusalem the spring Jesus was executed.
Josephus, the Roman historian, has often been charged with exaggerating numbers in his writings. However, in recent years, a lot of the rather surprising information Josephus has provided has been confirmed by archeological findings. With that in mind, consider that Josephus said well over 1 million people – even twice that many – could show up in Jerusalem for a Passover holiday.
More than a million? Seriously?
So say it was half a million. Did you ever envision that many people as potential witnesses to the crucifixion?
Or what of their passion? It’s nearly impossible for us to understand the desperation of the times.
These were a Jewish people praying that their Messiah might show up during the Passover, and in Jerusalem.
As Jesus made his way down the Mount of Olives on “Palm Sunday,” it’s little wonder that he’d drawn the attention of so many authorities. He looked as if he were leading some sort of spiritual revolution, even intentionally riding a young donkey into the city gates. A prophet had once predicted that the Messiah would arrive on such a colt. (See Zechariah 9:9.)
Here’s the point: Had Jesus called for arms, he would have found plenty of volunteer soldiers. His followers knew this. His enemies knew this. Eventually, high-level meetings determined that it would be best for the nation if this high-profile rabbi was simply executed.
The story of Passover is charged with fervent, nationalistic zeal. As God once gave the people a leader in Moses, and a miraculous escape from Egypt, so they prayed that a second Moses would arrive and deliver them from Rome. On the night of Passover, every Jewish family re-told the story and prayed that “Elijah” might come to usher in a miraculous age of freedom.
And yet we’ve never envisioned so many people. Consider the movie Risen, released in 2016. Though the filmmakers provided an excellent portrayal of the crucifixion and many other scenes, the streets of Jerusalem were nearly empty for the Passover holiday!
In truth, Jerusalem would have been even more crowded then than it is today.
Did all those people see Jesus on a cross?
No doubt, thousands of them did. On the other hand, many parents heard of the executions and did all they could to keep themselves or their children from seeing the gruesome sight. But tens of thousands must have seen it. Maybe hundreds of thousands.
Some accidentally walked through the Damascus Gate and were surprised by three crosses displayed so near the major intersection of roads.
Some heard about the incidents and deliberately ran toward the scene.
Some hid in the shadows, peeking through window coverings.
A few went directly to the killing field. Some wanted to curse the convicted men to their faces. Others were driven there by the greatest grief they’d ever known.
In a matter of days, most of the visitors to Jerusalem returned to their homes. All along the way, they told their stories. In every village market, the story was told again. For years to come, people would remember the much-loved rabbi from Galilee who had been crucified on Passover.
Many of them had hoped he would be the modern-day Moses they had prayed for, the man who would deliver them from Roman bondage. Instead, he had been arrested, executed and buried.
And yes, news reports from a less-crowded Jerusalem that Sunday morning also told of one more detail.
Now there were eyewitnesses who said they’d seen this same Jesus … alive again.
Tomorrow: She knew the awful truth … Jesus died in her place.