Every ten years, in a small town of no more than 5, 000 tens of thousands of individuals flock to this enclave of Catholocism in the Bavarian Alps to see the Passionspiele, or as it is better known – the Passion Play.
In 1633, following the doubly disastrous effects of both the religiously motivated Thirty Years War and a fresh strain of the Bubonic plague, the Catholic villagers of Oberammergau banded together and made a pledge to stage a Passion Play (a reproduction of the Passion of Jesus Christ) every ten years in order to honor their Lord.
377 years later, the play goes on. Just this last summer the Passionspiele had its 41st performance.
As celebrated as the play has become worldwide by both religious and secular theater goers alike, the 41st performance was not without its fanfare and scandal.
Over the years the Passion Play has garnered attention not only for its stunning depiction of the events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth but also for some of its notable attendees. Take for example 1930 when Henry Ford appeared or, for that matter, when Adolf Hitler infamously attended the play and praised it for its faithful rendering of the “the whole muck and mire of Jewry.”
It is along these lines of scandal that Oberammergau is brought back into the forefront of inter-religious discussion yet again.
In the spring, as the Passion Play began in earnest, a group of individuals from the ranks of the the Anti-Defamation League and the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations (CCJR) gathered to discuss the play and its portrayal of Jews. The scholars included accomplished religious studies faculty from secular and religious institutions of both Jewish and Christian background. In the end, the scholars made recommendations for changes in the script of the Oberammergau play about the trial and death of Jesus. While noting positive advancements in the script, including the enactment of a vibrant first century Jewish culture and a notably Jewish Jesus the council also came to denounce what they saw as “negative features of the script” that “risk impressing on the audience a negative image of the entire Jewish community.” (Read the entire report here)
This report has found its fair share of supporters, including the Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg of the ADL and writer for Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty center at the University of Chicago Divinity School (read that SightingsOberammergau article).
Before I proceed, two caveats.
First, I must clarify that I did not see the Passion Play this summer. However, I did have the honor and opportunity to sit down with a couple of people who attended the play (and another who knows quite a bit about it) to discuss the claims of anti-semitism made by the ADL and CCJR. It is from there Lutheran perspective that I speak from below. Furthermore, I spent a couple weeks researching the play, its past revisions and the present controversy.
In addition, as it was pointed out by one of my trusted friends, we are talking about Germany and Jews here. To say the least, there is a history between the two.
The Oberammergau play has, in the past, been very unfair to Jews. Jews were often depicted as the handymen of Satan, complete with horns. Jewish culture was featured as inept, backward and in serious need of Jesus’ revelation. Jesus was also never played as a Jew. Over the years, the script has undergone frequent revision, particularly following Vatican II. Included in the many changes are changing some of the high priests’ names from Old Testament names to newer New Testament-era names such as Demetrios, Alexander, or Bacchides; the role of the Temple traders has been reduced; Jesus has been addressed as Rabbi Yeshua; Jesus speaks fragments of Hebrew in the play; Jews have been shown disputing with others about Judaism, not just about Jesus; Pilate has been made to appear more tyrannical and some revision of lines was done to reflect that; Jesus’ supporters have been added to the screaming crowd outside Pilate’s palace; removing the line “His blood is upon us and also upon our children’s children” (from Matthew 27:25), and “Ecce homo” (Behold the man); Peter, when questioned by Nathaniel regarding abandoning Judaism replies, “No! We don’t want that! Far be it from us to abandon Moses and his law”; and at the Last Supper Jesus recites the blessing over the wine in Aramaic.
To say the least, the script writers of Oberammergau have taken great lengths to ensure a fairer depiction of Jews in the Passion Play. According to those I interviewed it seems more apparent that the Romans are the evil ones, rather than the Jews themselves (even with Pilate being dressed in what seems to be the black boots of Nazi fame).
It is one thing to be sensitive to the history of the Germany, Jews and the Holocaust and another thing entirely to re-write history as if the Jews were without sin, or implicated whatsoever, in the crucifixion of the historical Jesus. If that means that the entire Jewish community is painted in a negative light I am one to believe that it is another issue entirely; not a matter concerning the historical context of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Indeed, we are all implicated in the crucifixion of Jesus. A careful reading of the Gospel accounts (the most accurate historical record of Jesus’ Passion) and other histories (including Jewish sources such as Josephus’ histories and records from the Jewish Talmud written down between 70-200 C.E.) will quickly reveal that Jews, Romans and followers of Christ from the lowliest of humans to great leaders are all responsible for Jesus’ death. The ADL and the CCJR are upset that Annas and Caiaphas are implicated; well, so are Pilate, Judas and even Peter!
In the end, we are all responsible for Christ’s death, for on him the sins of the world were cast…not just the sins of the Jews (2 Corinthians 5:21).
And for the non-Christian, let us not forget the historical references to Pilate putting Christ to death, and Talmudic references to how Jesus breaking Jewish laws brought the death sentence upon his head.
There is much to be said about Jews and Christians dialoguing together for greater peace and harmony (I am part of that dialogue on a regular basis – see the post “ASU Fails Faithful Jews”). However, we cannot let that dialogue become propaganda that aims to re-write the history books for the sake of uber-political-correctness In the end, I believe that the writers of the Oberammergau Passion Play should take the recommendations of the ADL/CCJR ad-hoc committee into consideration, especially where historical accuracy is at stake and for the sake of sensitivity in regards to the history of Germany and Jews. However, I caution us all to remember that we cannot let super-sensitivity blind us from the stark reality of Jesus Christ’ death at the hands of all of us, Jew, Christian, Secular or anything in between.
When all is said and done, the truth must prevail – even as much as it may hurt. However, I and my fellow Christians must strive above all else to speak that truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
* I welcome discussion on this post, particularly from my Jewish friends. One thing that is absent from my research…that I now realize, is an honest discussion with someone who is Jewish. In the spirit of this site, and for all of our sakes, let’s start that conversation here. Or if you’d like, contact me personally. Shalom.
**Also, read this response to Rabbi Greenberg, from someone else who saw the play, on the Sightings site.