restricted access Dramatizing the Passion: From Oberammergau to Gibson
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Dramatizing the Passion:
From Oberammergau to Gibson

In 1633 the village of Oberammergau, in the Bavarian Alps, fell victim to the plague. It seemed to the village elders that their community would be wiped out by the sudden onslaught of the feared disease. Therefore they gathered beneath the crucifix of the parish church and prayerfully swore that, if God would protect them from further depredations of the plague, they would perform the Passion Play, once each decade, forever. According to local records, no one died thereafter from the plague, so the villagers put on the first of their Passion Plays the next year, 1634, and have been doing so religiously ever since.

Some time in the 1990s the actor and film maker Mel Gibson felt himself "trapped with feelings of terrible, isolated emptiness." Through prayer and meditation, he says, he "first conceived the idea of making a film about The [End Page 85] Passion."16 Though compatriots in the film industry tried to discourage him, he persevered. The film opened in the United States Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2004, and was still running in most markets a month later, a remarkable box office success.

I think it is fair to say that the major motivation behind both reenactments of Christ's Passion were pious and even lofty, rather than merely commercial or political. But in historic times when religion can be a life and death issue—during the wars of religion during the 17th century or nationalist and racist struggles of the 20th and 21st centuries—the political messages embedded within religious activities cannot be ignored. This is especially true when the activities are played out on stage or screen before millions of viewers. In the next few pages I will set forth four questions which I believe to be important for the critical understanding of passion dramas, and how those dramas may be used and misused; and then I will address those questions for the traditional Oberammergau Passion Play and for The Passion of The Christ, the Gibson film.

Here are the questions:

  1. 1. Do the presenters claim that the Passion drama (play or film) is an authentic representation of the biblical record?

  2. 2. How do the presenters deal with key Bible verses, especially Matthew 27:25, in which the Jews assembled before Pilate are said to call out "His blood be upon us and on our children"?

  3. 3. Do the presenters make clear the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers?

  4. 4. Do the presenters show "the Jews" as collectively guilty of Jesus' suffering and death?

Let us turn first to Oberammergau. The Passion Play has been performed there for nearly four centuries, and there have been many changes in the production and the script over that time period. But what I will call the "traditional" play was firmly established early in the nineteenth century with a text by two priests, Fathers Ottmar Weiss and Joseph Daisenberger; this form continued with few significant changes, through 1984.

1. Is it authentically biblical? The town fathers of Oberammergau, who controlled the play through an elaborate system of rules and committees, claimed their Passion Play was wholly biblical. The drama opened with a festive entry into Jerusalem by Jesus mounted on a donkey with choirs of children and adults waving palms and singing his praises. The drama of Christian [End Page 86] Holy Week then unfolded, including the Last Supper, the arrest and trial, the crucifixion, and ended with an elaborate resurrection scene. Flashbacks in the form of "living pictures" (motionless tableaux) emphasized Old Testament foreshadowing of New Testament events. With few exceptions (like the insertion of St. Veronica and a character called "Rabbi"), the scenes were based on scripture. The presentation, however, reflected choices made by the authors and directors about what to emphasize and how to do so. The outcome was a melodrama in which a clear distinction was made between "good Christians" and "wicked Jews," with Pontius Pilate and the Romans trying to stand nobly above the fray.17

2. Key Bible verses: The traditional Oberammergauers' interpretive twist is very clearly shown in their use of Matt 27:25. In Matthew's Gospel...