Sensitivity at Easter… the Passion Play

Are you a music director or minister, considering a passion play but perhaps concerned the contents may be anti-Semitic and may cause ill feelings among Jewish friends? Of course, we would not want to inflict harm unintentionally. We would want to tell our most holy story with care.

The recommendations below will be of use to you in moving to a potentially philo-Semitic production. They’re based on some 1984 recommendations for changes to the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany:

  • Convey, correctly, that Jesus was Jewish. Avoid conveying that he was other than Jewish. Address Jesus as “Rabbi” and perhaps even as Rabbi Yeshua. If you are feeling daring, then, as with the groundbreaking scene in the movie Godspell where Jesus performs the bread and wine blessing in Hebrew, your Jesus could do so as well.  A helpful MP3 for both Hebrew prayers is available on our JesusSangha website.
  • Jesus’ followers would not have used the word “Christ,” which is a Greek translation of Messiah, or Meshiach, so why not consider using that word instead?
  • Avoid stereotypes. Do not stereotype the others around Jesus who are Jewish, and where there is a discussion or discourse, include dissent. Especially important: avoid the “good guy” Romans and “bad guy” Jews. Changing some names can help break unconscious stereotypes; using “Old Testament” names already sets up negative connotations, but many Jews of the time had Greek names, such as Demetrios and Bacchides, which could be substituted.
  • Of critical importance: portray Pilate and his condemnation of Jesus historically accurately: as a self-serving and tyrannical ruler who was responsible for putting Jesus to death, not some good Roman who, wholly misled by “evil” Jews, was reluctant to perform the task. If for dramatic effect you are wedded to keeping the “washing my hands of it,” statement, perhaps Pilate can look back at his wife, whose counsel he ignored, as if he is washing his hands of the whole matter and wishing to be rid of it.
  • In light of the other gospel accounts, it is imperative to remove any references to “his blood is on you people.” As is summed up in the recommendations, “isolating Mt 27:25 from its New Testament context as a whole, would contradict the words of St. Peter in Acts 3:17 where it says that the Jews and their leaders acted in ignorance, hence without malice; such a splitting off would also totally contradict Lk 23:34 and I Cor 15:3.”1

As pointed out in the recommendations to Oberammergau, these changes are all biblically sound and historically well grounded. Jesus besides being Messiah, was also a rabbi. Pilate, besides putting Jesus to death, was a known tyrant, and also killed many people, including rabbis, before crucifying Jesus. During Jesus’ day, the high priests, in positions of appointed power, were not greatly loved by the people. And the gospels were written during a time when writing these truths about the Roman Empire would not be politically correct.

For years, especially after the holocaust, the anti-Semitic overtones of the original Oberammergao Passion Play were criticized. Finally, in 2000, director Christian Stückl undertook the biggest revision of the script since 1860, and an estimated 520,000 guests saw the play. The 2010 play incorporates even further changes to reduce anti-Judaism. We applaud their progress.

Easter is the holiest time for Christians, the time when God had the last word over death itself, taking what satan had worked for evil and creating resurrection and everlasting life. The passion play tells this wonderful story; and with sensitivity in the telling, it can be a source of love and light, like Jesus. Without such sensitivity, though, the story can have lasting negative consequences. Pope John Paul wrote “Forgive us the curse we uttered against the name of the Jews. Forgive us for crucifying you for a second time in their flesh.”  This Easter, let us know how your Passion Play is helping to heal old wounds. Or, if you have a script you’d like to share as a resource, please contact us.

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1The Passion of the Jew Jesus; Recommended Changes in the Oberammergau Passion Play after 1984.
http://ecumene.org/SHOAH/oberammer.htm accessed March 31, 2011

Categories Peacemaking | Tags: , , | Posted on March 31, 2011

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