The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, execution and resurrection have gripped the souls of countless millions throughout the centuries. It is understandable that they have been remembered and dramatized by the Church. One of the most famous of these “reenactments” has been the Passion Play at the Bavarian village of Oberammergau.
Just as every drama must have its hero, so too every drama must have its villain. The obvious hero of the Gospels is Jesus, but who are the foremost villains of the Passion Play? For centuries, the villains have been the Jewish people.
The History of the Passion Play
The Passion Play got its start in 1634, during the gruesome days of the Black Plague. When deaths began to occur at Oberammergau in 1633, the town’s leaders took a vow that if God would spare their village, they would gratefully tell the story of Jesus. Tradition says that after this declaration, there were no more deaths, and in 1634, a play was presented every ten years at the start of the decade.
This tradition is still going strong. The performers must be Oberammergau natives or have lived there for at least ten years. The play requires a cast of 2,200 actors and crew members and is almost six hours long. Now world famous, Oberammergau’s Passion Play is attended by tourists from around the globe and has spawned offspring in places as diverse as Toronto, Canada and Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It was last performed in Oberammergau in the year 2000.
Adolf Hitler called the 1934 performance “a convincing portrayal of the menace of Jewry.” This is not a hopeful sign. Is it any wonder that Jewish people fear the spark of antisemitism that has been so widely popularized in the tradition of the Passion Play for over 300 years?
The Jewish Response
For centuries, the depiction of the Jewish leaders in the New Testament has been overlaid with the ugly stereotypes of antisemitism. This was sadly reflected in the Passion Play script that was written in 1860 and had been in use before 2000. The Jewish characters were seen as money-grubbing Christ-haters. The hated character of Judas was offered as the embodiment of Judaism. The unambiguous message was, “The Jews murdered the Messiah.”
However, in recent years the production has seen long-overdue script revisions. Many Christians frankly are ashamed of the ugly stereotypes that marred the story. These welcome changes de-emphasize the Jewish role and stress God’s purpose in Messiah’s death.
While some references remain, the Anti-Defamation League agreed that “substantial improvements have been made from the 1980 to 1990 production and even more far-reaching ones for the 2000 play.” The American Jewish Committee finds “vast improvements over earlier versions.” 1
A Jewish Jesus – The Antidote to Christian Antisemitism
The changes wrought for the 2000 Passion Play, perhaps unconsciously, have strengthened the point that Jesus is Jewish and that the New Testament is a Jewish book. The Anti-Defamation League reports with satisfaction that “Jesus is called ‘Rabbi,’ stressing Jesus’ ‘Jewishness,’ the term ‘Old Testament’ is replaced by the term ‘Hebrew Bible’ and Jesus says a blessing in Hebrew.” 2
The more Christians understand the Jewish roots of their faith, the more they will appreciate the Jewish people. And the more Jewish people understand that believing in Jesus does not negate Jewish identity, the better equipped they will be to weigh honestly the claims of the New Testament.
For the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament agree on this: that among our frail humanity “there is no one righteous, not even one.” It is for our forgiveness and healing that the prophesied Messiah, the Son of Righteousness, came among us.