At the outset of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, he rides into the city as its inhabitants wave branches and shout, “Hosanna” (ὡσαννά; Hebrew: הושע נא): “Save [us]!” (Mark 11:9; cf. Psalm 118:25). This petition includes a call for “the coming kingdom of our father David” (11:10). Many church sermons have asserted that these exclamations reflect the Jewish expectation of a military messiah who would throw off the oppression of Rome. According to this view, first-century Jews were interested only in a messianic warrior who would defeat their enemies in battle. When Jesus did not enact a military coup—so the sermon goes—those who had followed him on Palm Sunday abandoned him. The corollary of this message is that Judaism focuses on earthly (and violent) redemption, while Christians enjoy spiritual (and peaceful) salvation through Christ. But the Gospels and other ancient Jewish texts present a different picture.
When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, Matthew says that this fulfills the words of Zechariah: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey’” (Matt 21:5; cf. Zech 9:9; John 12:14-15). According to all the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus cleanses the temple after his triumphal entry (cf. Matt 21:12-17; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 19:45-48) and addresses the onlookers using verses from the Prophets: “And he was teaching (ἐδίδασκεν; edídasken) and saying to them, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” [Isaiah 56:7]? But you have made it “a den of robbers” [Jeremiah 7:11]’” (Mark 11:17). The Gospel adds that “the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were looking for a way to destroy him... [but] the whole crowd was astonished at his teaching (διδαχῇ; didache)” (11:18). While the urban elites don’t care for Jesus’ tutelage, all the common people of Jerusalem marvel at his words—which suggests that most of the Jews with Yeshua that day were expecting the Messiah to be a teacher.
This notion of a messianic educator also appears in rabbinic writings after the time of Jesus. In fact, the Jewish sages discuss their view of the Messiah by citing the same text from Zechariah that the Gospel writers associate with Yeshua. The midrash states, “When he comes about whom it is written, ‘lowly and riding upon a donkey’ [Zechariah 9:9] he will clarify (מחור; mehaver) for them the words of [God’s] Teaching (דברי תורה; divrei torah)… and clarify (מחור) for them their errors [in interpretation of Scripture]” (Genesis Rabbah 98:9). After this declaration that the Messiah will be a teacher, another rabbi argues that this messianic education will be only for non-Jews: “Rabbi Hanina said, ‘Israel will not have need for the teachings (לתלמודו; le’talmudo) of King Messiah in the future to come, for it is said, ‘Of him shall the nations inquire’ [Isaiah 11:10]—[the nations, but] not Israel.’” This single rabbinic opinion about Israel not needing the Messiah’s teachings is the exception that proves the rule; namely, that most of those involved in this midrashic discussion agreed that the Messiah would be a tutor for Israel. Still, it is notable that Rabbi Hanina uses Isaiah to highlight messianic teaching for the “nations” (גוים; goyim), and Jesus’ own teaching also cites Isaiah to clarify that God’s temple would be a place of prayer for all the “nations” (ἔθνεσιν; ethnesin; Mark 11:17; cf. Isa 56:7). Both Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Yeshua associate the messianic mission with introducing the Gentiles to the Holy One of Israel. Jesus begins preaching this global gospel among his fellow Jews—a people whose messianic hope was not limited to myopic militarism, but envisioned an anointed one who would instruct the world in the ways of God.