By Marvin H. Pope
On Palm Sunday, millions of Christians will again welcome Jesus' entry into Jerusalem with the familiar words of Matthew 21:9:[1
"Hosanna to the Son of David![*
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest!"
Almost all of the worshippers will suppose, if they think about it at all, that "hosanna" means "praise," or "glory," or something like that.
Almost all English translations of the Gospels (such as the Revised Standard Version quoted, above) simply transliterate the word "hosanna," without even attempting to translate it. An exception is the smooth paraphrase of Today's English Version, the Good News Bible, which renders the passage this way:
"Praise to David's Son!
God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord!
Praise be to God."
Translating "hosanna" as "praise" is wrong, as we shall see. It would have been better simply to transliterate it, rather than to translate it incorrectly.
Indeed, the Gospel writer himself transliterated "hosanna," rather than translating it. The Gospels are preserved for us in Greek. Yet "hosanna" is pure Hebrew. Here, amidst a Greek text, we find the Hebrew "hosanna." Why didn't the Gospel writer translate it?
"Hosanna" is composed of two Hebrew elements, hosha
. Their meanings are clear and indisputable.
means "save" or "help.' It is used frequently in the Hebrew Bible. For example, in Jeremiah 31:7 we read: "Save [hosha
], O Lord, your people…" Similarly in Psalm 86:2: "Save [hosha
] your servant, … you, my God …."
The word is also used in the so-called long form, hoshiah
. The long form is usually explained as an emphatic form. For example, the psalmist cries to the Lord:[2
] with thy right hand and answer me" (Psalm 108:7).
The second Hebrew word, na
, means "please." It adds a pleading emphasis, a sense of urgency, to the word to which it is attached. Technically, na
is a particle; that is, a small unit of speech that in Hebrew, as in many other languages, can be affixed to another word (or sometimes used as a separate word). Hebrew particles include "the" (h
-), prepositions such as "in" (b
-), "to" or "for" (l
-) and "from" (m
-), as well as the conjunction "and" (v
-). Each of these particles is used as a prefix, attached to other words. Na
is attached as a suffix. It is a precative particle, that is, a pleading or imploring particle that adds emphasis to the verb. It is an urgent "please."
Grammatically, the particle -na
could properly be added to hosha
(the short form) or to hoshiah
(the long form). As a matter of fact, in the Hebrew Bible, in one instance -na
is added to hoshiah
, to form hoshiah
. Moreover, the psalm in which hoshiah
appears is the very passage from which the Palm Sunday quotation from Matthew is derived. Note the similarity:
"Please, O Lord, help, please [hoshiah
Please, O Lord, prosper (us), please.
Blessed is he who comes, (blessed) in the Lord's name"
In this passage hoshiah
clearly signifies an urgent plea for help—"save please" or "help, please." The short form hosha
would mean the same thing, and it is mere chance that it does not occur as such in the Hebrew Bible.
The context of "hosanna" in the Gospels makes it clear, however, that the Gospel writer means something different from "help, please" or "save, please." It would make no sense to say "Save, please, to the Son of David." The fact is the Gospel writer himself did not understand the meaning of hosanna
. How did this occur?
The original Hebrew, from which Matthew is quoting the welcome given to Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem, read (or was spoken) like this: "Hosanna l
- the Son of David." The Gospel writer misunderstood the particle l
-, which is attached to the title "the Son of David" in the original Hebrew. L
- commonly means "to" or "for," The Gospel writer therefore rendered this: "Hosanna to the Son of David."
Obviously, if l
- were translated "to," "hosanna
" in this context could not mean "save, please" or "help, please." Not knowing what "hosanna
" meant, the Gospel writer simply transliterated "hosanna
" without translating it.
The error, however, is that in this case the particle l
- does not mean "to." Whoever translated the original Hebrew (or Aramaic) text into Greek was unaware that the particle l
- sometimes has another function. It can also be used as a vocative, to indicate a form of address. In this sense, we can translate it simply as "O," as in "Hosanna
, O Son of David." Once we realize that l
- can indicate the vocative, it makes perfectly good sense to translate the line "Help, please, O Son of David."[3
] This translation is wholly consistent with Psalm 118:25, from which the passage in Matthew is derived: "Please, O Lord, help, please."
Modern scholars were alerted to the use of l
- as a vocative from a cache of clay tablets, dating to the 14th century B.C., found at the ancient city of Ugarit on the coast of northern Syria. These tablets are written in a West Semitic language called Ugaritic and use a unique cuneiform alphabet. The tablets from Ugarit have clarified numerous lexical and grammatical problems in the Hebrew Bible and have even made some contributions to our understanding of the New Testament. In Ugaritic, the vocative is frequently introduced by the prefix l
-. Once alerted to the possible use of the particle l
- as a vocative to indicate a form of address, Mitchell Dahood, late professor of Ugaritic at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, identified more than a score of examples of this vocative l
- in the [TaNaK], mostly in the Psalms. Few scholars would accept all of Dahood's identifications. But at least some seem clearly correct. For example, Psalm 33:1 contains the particle l
- as a prefix to the noun for "upright" and should, according to Dahood, properly be translated as "O upright ones."[4
] That l
- was used here to indicate the vocative seems obvious, although there are still doubters.[5
Another example of a vocative l
- is found in Psalm 119:126: "It is time for thee, (l
-) Lord, to work" (King James Version). Although the King James translators did not insert "O" before "Lord,' they clearly recognized Lord as vocative, as the object of an address. So did St. Jerome in his fourth-century A.D. Latin Vulgate. He rendered: Tempus faciendi, Domine
—"It is time to act, Lord." The New English Bible correctly translates it as: "It is time to act, O Lord."[**
It will be difficult to prove vocative force for l
- anywhere in the Hebrew Bible if Psalm 119:126 does not avail.
For these reasons, I would translate—or understand—the first line of Matthew's Palm Sunday welcome of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem as: "Help, please [Hosanna
], O Son of David."
What do we do, however, with the second use of "hosanna
' in the Palm Sunday passage from Matthew: "Hosanna
, in the highest."
Here again we must reconstruct the original Hebrew from the Greek. The Greek is "Hosanna en hypsistois
. This line is usually translated "Hosanna
in the highest." ("Hosanna
" is simply transliterated.) What was the original Hebrew that has been rendered hypsistois? There are two likely possibilities:
(1) 'Elyôn, which is an epithet of God, usually translated "Most High" or "The Highest One' (Greek Hypsistos
); or (2) 'Elyônîn, the plural of 'Elyôn, which was in common use in Aramaic at the time of Jesus.
This royal plural was not really meant as a plural, but, like the royal "we," was intended to signify majesty or excellence. 'Elyônîn is found in four places in Aramaic in the Book of Daniel (Daniel 7:18, 22, 25, 27).[6
Preceding 'Elyôn or 'Elyônîn in the original Hebrew was doubtless the particle l
-. Here again the Gospel writer failed to understand it as a vocative, so he translated it "in the highest." If he had properly understood the vocative as indicating a form of address, he would have properly translated it as "O, Most High." He would then have been able to translate "hosanna" instead of transliterating it. The verse should have been translated: "Save, please, O Most High."
Let us now look at the second line of the Palm Sunday welcome from Matthew 21:9, for that too contains a misunderstanding. As it is usually translated, it reads, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." We know of no liturgical formula in any ancient writing that speaks of "coming in the name of the Lord." What is common is to be blessed in the name of the Lord, Moreover, in the context of our verse, it makes no sense to "come in the name of the Lord"; the misunderstanding resulted from a poetic variation in the normal or customary word order. Because of the poetic inversion of word order the translator rendered: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord," instead of correctly translating it, "Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes."
This variation in word order is already found in the Hebrew original of Psalm 118:26, from which the Palm Sunday passage from Matthew 21:9 was taken. The passage in Matthew should be understood as meaning that he who comes is to be "blessed in the name of the Lord."
It is interesting that while older English translations of Psalm 118 reflect a misunderstanding of the meaning of the Hebrew verse, newer translations incorporate the correct understanding of it. Thus, the New Jewish Publication Society translation renders the verse: "May he who enters [comes] be blessed in the name of the Lord." Similarly in the New English Bible: "Blessed in the name of the Lord are all who come."
In sum, a proper understanding of the Palm Sunday welcome of Jesus from Matthew 21:9 is as follows:
"Help [or save], please, O Son of David.
Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes.
Help [or save], please, O Most High."
I have spoken of the "Gospel writer's" failure to understand the vocative l
- after "hosanna
," which led to the mistranslation of the phrase following "hosanna
," thus resulting in the need to transliterate "hosanna
" instead of properly translating it as "help, please." By ascribing the error to the "Gospel writer," I of course imply that the speakers themselves, welcoming Jesus, correctly understood what they were saying. They were urgently pleading for Jesus' help to save them, and if not Jesus, [then] to the Most High Himself
But some scholars have suggested that by Jesus' time, "hosanna" was being used as an acclamation or greeting. Raymond E. Brown is perhaps the most prominent scholar who takes this position.[7
] Brown recognized that "hosanna
" means "Save (please)" and that it was used as a prayer for help. Brown suggests, however, that the fact that the Gospels do not translate the Hebrew term probably indicates that in this usage "hosanna
" is not a prayer of petition but a cry
] This argument is simply question-begging. The question is why it is transliterated, rather than translated. If the answer is that it means something other than what we know it to mean this must be shown by independent evidence, not by the fact that it is transliterated. Brown does cite 2 Samuel 14:4, which he—mistakenly—says reflects the use of hoshiah
as a greeting or acclamation. There a woman approaches King David and says "Hoshiah
] The context makes it clear she is seeking help. There is no acclamation whatever.[9
] It is correctly translated as "Help, O King" (King James Version, Revised Standard Version, Jerusalem Bible, New Jewish Publication translation) or as "Help, your majesty" (New English Bible).[10
Moreover, in post-biblical Jewish usage "hosanna" became a noun applied to the prayer for rain recited on the festival of Sukkot
or Booths. This prayer contained the cry "Hosanna," "Help, please," which was chanted during the circumambulation of the Temple altar (and later of the reading platform—bīma
—in the center of the synagogue). The congregants would wave palm fronds bound with sprigs of myrtle and willow held in the right hand and a citron (etrog
) in the left. These symbols of earth's fertility were apparently intended to complement the fervid prayers for rain, on which life itself then depended. The last day of Sukkot
was called the Great Hosanna, Hosanna Rabba, for on this day there was a sevenfold circumambulation of the altar (or, later, the bīma
) with cries of "hosanna," "help," that is, help by sending rain. The rains normally came shortly after Sukkot
, which occurs in the fall. If the rains failed to come, however, there was genuine cause for concern.
In Jewish prayer books, the plural noun hoshanot
came to be applied to prayers for help on various subjects and occasions. Hoshanot
was also the name applied to the willow branches wielded during the "hosanna" rain-prayers.
When worn these branches would be discarded and replaced by new ones. A man who had come down in the world was called "a beaten hosanna" (from the beating of the branches on the ground during the hosanna prayer).
It is obvious that any Jew who knew even a little of the holy tongue and the sacred rites would know the original meaning of "hosanna" and would not misconstrue it as meaning "praise."
In John 12:13 we are told that on entering Jerusalem Jesus was greeted not only with cries of "hosanna," but with the waving of palm fronds. There is an obvious similarity between the Sukkot
ritual, in which palm fronds are used accompanied by cries of "hosanna" (for help for rain), and Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, similarly greeted with the waving of palm fronds and cries of "hosanna." The similarity suggests that the cry of hosanna was indeed an urgent plea for help, to be saved.
The adaptation of this ritual to cries to Jesus for help would hardly be lost on the populace of the time.
Some have suggested that the waving of palm fronds on Jesus' entry into Jerusalem indicates it occurred at Sukkot
time, rather than before Passover in the spring, and that there has been confusion because of the lack of familiarity with Jewish ritual.
There is no need, however, to assume confusion of the rites of the two different festivals, Booths and Passover, to account for the unseasonal "hosannas" and palm branches at Jesus' pre-Passover entry into Jerusalem.
Almost two centuries before the "Palm Sunday" incident, the Jews, led by Judas Maccabeus, had successfully revolted against the Seleucid overlord Antiochus IV, thus re-establishing the independence of the Jewish state. This victory is still celebrated in the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.
Shortly after their victory (in 163 B.C.), the Jews cleaned their defiled Jerusalem Temple. This occurred on the anniversary of its profanation years earlier. After cleaning the Temple, the Jews properly celebrated, although at a different time, the festival of Sukkot
. In this way, the Sukkot
ritual—pan of an essentially agricultural festival to insure rain—was politicized to celebrate a military victory and the re-establishment of Jewish independence—to celebrate, in a way, the saving of the Jews. The first Hanukkah, the Jewish festival celebrating the Jews' newly won independence, was in fact a rerun of the Sukkot
observance, a necessary precaution to insure that year's rain, since Sukkot
was not previously observed properly when the Temple was under Seleucid control. The Jews—and Romans—of Jesus' time were surely aware of this "second" observance, as a kind of political observance, of the Sukkot
ritual. The story of this second observance of Sukkot
is told in 2 Maccabees 10:5–8:
"On the same day the sanctuary [of the Temple] had been profaned by foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which is Kislev. And they celebrated it for eight days as in the Feast of Booths, remembering how not long before, during the Feast of Booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. So, bearing wreathed wands and beautiful branches and palms, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year."
Thus, the use of the liturgical language of Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, was invested with political, as well as with religious, implications associated with the cleansing of the Temple by the Maccabees and their celebration of the first Hanukkah with the ritual of the Festival of Booths culminating in the sevenfold cry of "Hosanna," "Help, please."
The crowd's welcome of Jesus with cries of "hosanna," for help, and the waving of palm fronds, thereby invoked the liturgical formulas of Sukkot, which had already been politicized by its use in the festival of independence, the first Hanukkah. The use of this liturgical formula to welcome Jesus was clearly purposeful. It will be recalled that Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem was followed by his cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:14–16).
This was plainly a scenario in emulation of the Maccabean liberation, calculated to stir messianic hopes. A second Sukkot, as it were, had already given the Sukkot ritual a messianic meaning. There is thus no need to suppose that the Gospel writer confused Sukkot with Passover. When the crowd called "hosanna" and waved palm fronds, they knew full well what they were doing.
Perhaps some readers will resent this unsettling of their traditional understanding of the venerable and venerated religious formulas of the Palm Sunday ritual. But "hosanna" as an urgent plea to help and save is universally valid. It is perennially appropriate to the human situation. It is a one-word prayer with potential political impact to unsettle oppressors everywhere, now as in ancient days, and should thus be translated and understood.
Editor, Hershel Shanks: Bible Review April 1988 Volume 04 Number 02
. Biblical Archaeology Society, 2004.
 - Slight variants of the passage may be found in Mark 11:9–10 and John 12:13.
[*] - "Son of David" is a messianic title referring here to Jesus.
 - Other examples may be found in 2 Samuel 14:4; 2 Kings 6:26; Psalms 12:2, 20:10, 28:9, 60:7 and 108:7.
 - William F. Albright, in Matthew (Anchor Bible), recognized the vocative l- in this line (p. 252). He failed to recognize it, however, following the second hosanna in this passage. See endnote 4.
 - Because the noun "upright" in Psalm 33:1b is preceded by the vocative particle l
-, the parallel word "righteous" in the preceding line (Psalm 33:1a) can also be understood as vocative and may be translated "O righteous ones." The entire verse may be understood as follows: "Rejoice, O righteous ones, in the Lord (Yahweh); O upright ones, praise the Glorious One." The Revised Standard Version recognizes the vocative in verse 1la even though the l
- does not precede it. Dahood's Anchor Bible translation recognizes the vocative in line 1b.
 - See Patrick D. Miller, "Vocative Lamed in the Psalter: A Reconsideration," Ugarit Forschungen 11 (1980), pp. 617–637.
[**] - Some translations, such as the one by the New Jewish Publication Society, translate the l
- as "for": "It is time to act for the Lord." This seems wrong to me. Acting for the Lord is at least questionable theology, tantamount to chutzpah
 - 'Elyôn
was the oldest of the four generations of gods in the ancient Canaanite-Hurrian-Hittite theoganies. In the later Greek version of the theoganies, Hypsistos
, "Most High," replaced the Semitic 'Elyôn
 - Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (Anchor Bible), p. 457.
 - In this, he is echoing the suggestion of E. D. Freed, "The Entry into Jerusalem in the Gospel of John," Journal of Biblical Literature 80 (1961), pp. 329–338.
[***] - In the Hebrew, "king" (melech
) is preceded by the definite article (the, ha
), which is used here, as elsewhere, to indicate the vocative.
 - Brown is also mistaken in suggesting that "hosanna
" is a transliteration of Aramaic; it is the normal Hebrew short-form plus the precative particle
 - The Greek Septuagint from the third century B.C. also translates the phrase as "help [sōson de
The Gospel writer did not quite finish his job when he wrote, “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matthew 21:9), for he merely transliterated the Hebrew word “hosanna,” rather than translating it. Apparently he was uncertain about its meaning, and his uncertainty has misled millions of Bible readers ever since, suggests Marvin H. Pope in “Hosanna—What It Really Means.” Pope traces the meaning and history of the word and in the process reveals the significance of the greeting made to Jesus on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Author of the Anchor Bible's Job and the award-winning Song of Songs
, Pope is Louis M. Rabinowitz Emeritus Professor of Semitic Languages and Literature at Yale University. He has served on the Old Testament Committee of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible since 1960, preparing the new edition scheduled to be published by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in 1990.