As the story goes, the villagers of Oberammergau, a small town in Bavaria, first put on a Passion Play in 1634, possibly in hopes that God would save them from the bubonic plague.
The Passion Play has been performed every decade, more or less, since. Only villagers participate.
The play is famous, of course, for its longevity, the remarkable commitment and faith shown by generations of villagers and — for some — the play’s contributions to European anti-Semitism.
Many Jewish and Christian scholars have long criticized the play’s traditional depiction of “the Jews” as bloodthirsty Jesus-killers. Many of the same issues have long been debated about other Passion Plays, including Mel Gibson’s movie version.
The Oberammergau Passion Play is being performed this year, through October (the photos are from a dress rehearsal in May). Village leaders in Oberammergau have made changes to their play in an effort to appease international concerns.
And now a collection of Christian and Jewish scholars are weighing in on how they’ve done.
The Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations has released a report on the 2010 version of the Passion Play.
The Council is a collection of several dozen academic centers in the U.S. and Canada dedicated to improving relations between Christians and Jews. Its members are very knowledgeable of and sensitive to the history of anti-Semitism in Christian traditions.
The current chair of the Council is Elena G. Procario-Foley, the Driscoll Professor of Jewish-Catholic Studies and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Iona College.
An ad-hoc committee’s report, adopted by the full membership, credits the play’s scriptwriters for their “effort to attend to history more carefully.”
The report likes three broad aspects of the script: “(1) Jewish society in Jesus’ day is presented as variegated and vibrant; (2) Jesus is clearly shown to be a Jew; and (3) the relationship between Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate is nuanced. Other positive features of the script were also noted.”
The report notes: “Caiaphas, the script’s principal antagonist, as well as Annas, are unnecessarily and baselessly portrayed as fanatics driven to see Jesus crucified. As a result the depiction of Pilate is somewhat skewed as well.”
It suggests that the script be rewritten in very specific ways.
Here is one historically reasonable approach to their interaction: if Pilate and Caiaphas agreed to remove Jesus from the scene to prevent an anticipated Passover riot, why crucify him instead of quietly assassinating him? The answer: to make a public example of him to discourage any other potential troublemakers. This seems to be more a Roman calculation than a priestly one. Caiaphas could therefore be shown to resist Pilate’s preference for a public execution of another Jew.
Although it is logistically and dramatically tempting to have large numbers of actors cry out for Jesus’ crucifixion, in the interests of historical accuracy and the avoidance of antisemitic tropes it would be better not to make this the focal point of the play. A dozen or so lower-status priestly characters (in contrast to ordinary passersby who might come upon the semi-private scene early in the morning as they are going about their Passover errands) would be preferable.
These are not minor suggestions, but calls for major editing.
Philip A. Cunningham of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, who co-coordinated the study, says: “This report is important because it involved both Jewish and Christian scholars who are biblical experts, historians, and theologians. It is not merely an exercise in arm-chair criticism, but a collegial review that appreciates the significant improvements that have already been made and offers explicit proposals to take this reform even further.”
Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg, director of the department of interfaith affairs for ADL, says: “The scholars report is a monumental step forward in proving how Christians and Jews can work together to benefit both faiths.”
We’ll see how the report is received.
(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, File)