The Oberammergau Passion Play: inspiration for some, deep turmoil for others

Member Submitted Commentary

The Oberammergau Passion Play: inspiration for some, deep turmoil for others
By Rev. John Matthews, ELCA pastor and adjunct instructor of religion at Augsburg University (Minneapolis)
Contact: [email protected]

Author’s Note: As we approach the Spring-Summer-Fall of 2022, and the productions of the world famous Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria, Germany, this commentary can serve as a good introduction – and promotion – to learn some things about the play’s history, blessings and challenges. I have not only attended two of those productions (1984 & 2000) but am also well-versed in Holocaust studies, anti-Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations. My commentary is written to educate and stimulate discussion, especially among those people planning to attend the Passion Play in 2022. Please contact me to discuss. In addition, I am available to make presentations or participate in discussion groups. 

Every ten years since 1634 – with few exceptions – in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, a day-long re-enactment of the final week in the life of Jesus Christ is produced between May and October. (The 1920 play was rescheduled to 1922, due to the defeat of Germany in WWI; the 2020 play was rescheduled to 2022, due to the COVID pandemic; the 1940 play was cancelled because of WWII.) Since 1930, the attendance for the annual performances is approximately half a million persons, coming from all parts of the world. In 2010 the play ran for five hours (2:30 – 10:00 PM), including one meal break; prior to that, a noon lunch divided the 16 acts into morning and afternoon.

This decennial re-enactment of Christ’s passion originated as a vow by the people of Oberammergau in October of 1633, that, if God would spare their residents of the cursed Bubonic Plague then ravaging Europe, they would – out of gratitude – perform such a ‘passion play’ every ten years in perpetuity. After that 1633 vow, no one in the village died from the plague. So goes the legend that energizes the promise; critics have discovered some discrepancies and inconsistencies in the legend.

In this quaint Bavarian village, nestled at the foot of Kofel Mountain, approximately half of the five-thousand residents have some part to play in the production. Tradition requires that those participating in the production must have lived in Oberammergau for at least twenty years. Economic factors also play into the keeping of this sacred vow from 1633. In addition to the gate receipts from those attending each performance, there are hundreds of shops that sell woodcarvings of passion play characters and angels, linens, flags, bottle openers, clothing, letter openers, cheese cutters and porcelain figurines, to name just some, not only to those attending, but also – in the off years – to tourists just visiting the famous village. Most all of the villagers, even those who are not acting in the play every ten years, are contributing in some way to the overall production and village commerce that surrounds the event.

Prior to each decade’s production, the play’s script is re-examined and edited, after which their Passion Play Committee gives final approval, before sending it on to a cardinal of the Roman Catholic church (usually in Munich), who then confers an official church blessing (missio canonica). The fundamental concern is always to insure an accurate (Catholic) representation of Christ’s passion, even while being sensitive to more recent ‘concerns.’ Major revisions were done in 1750, 1811 and 1860, and dynamic discussions routinely occur between those defending ‘older’ versions (called the traditionalists) and others wanting more updated language, concepts and sensitivity (called the reformers).

For sure, many ‘pilgrims’ who trek to Oberammergau for these passion plays find deep spiritual meaning and renewal of their Christian faith. One can ‘enjoy’ the sixteen acts at Oberammergau, that tell the story of Christ’s Passion (Palm Sunday to Easter), in a way similar to what one experiences in the telling of the Passion every year in one’s home Christian congregation. Of course, the extraordinary staging, drama, music, and choreography at Oberammergau amplify the existential gravity to the point that many people begin to feel as if they are in Jerusalem, not Germany! Even the biblical characters who wander the streets before and after the performances carry a certain ‘authenticity,’ and tourists often ask for Jesus’ autograph or a photograph with Mary Magdalene.

So far . . . straight forward information about a four-centuries-old religious tradition that next year (2022) will attract to Germany over 500,000 people from around the world. Why not leave such a ‘sacred tradition’ alone? Why introduce elements of discord and issues of dissention? Why pollute a wonderful religious observance with critical – even damning – dynamics? Read on . . . to learn just how controversial and damaging this world renowned and larger-than-life production of Christ’s passion has, in fact, been. To discuss the problematic nature of Oberammergau’s Passion Play is not to create problems where they don’t exist; the following paragraphs are offered to make more people aware of the controversies and damages which have been occurring for nearly four centuries. Hopefully, a greater awareness of Oberammergau’s history will increase appreciation of the blessedness – and brokenness – of Christian tradition.

Although more detailed accounts of Oberammergau’s Passion Play history are available that can describe the people and the issues more completely (for example, James Shapiro’s “Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World’s Most Famous Passion Play.” 2000 CE. by Vintage Books, or “A Rabbi’s Impressions of the Oberammergau Passion Play” by Joseph Krauskopf, 1901, reprinted 2013), the following paragraphs are intended to introduce the reader to some basic things which not only characterize the ‘troubling’ story told at Oberammergau, but also reveal issues about ‘troubling’ parts of the New Testament narrative itself. In a number of ways, the challenges within the text and texture of the Oberammergau Passion Play are indicative, even paradigmatic, of the challenges already present in Christian/Jewish dialogue. To be discussed here are the controversial topics of deicide, collective Jewish guilt, biblical typology and supersessionism. These topics, while revealed in the fabric of Oberammergau’s Passion Play, can be ‘lenses through which we can observe and examine biblical Christian malignancies.’

Deicide or ‘Who killed Jesus?’ (Deicide is literally ‘the act of killing a divine being.’) Traditionally, in the preaching and teaching of the Church, the ones held responsible for the death of Jesus have been ‘the Jews.’ Which Jews? Well, according to most Christian scripture/tradition, the guilty ones were those Jews who gathered in Jerusalem during that Passover when Jesus came there for the last time, especially those who shouted “Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21). Further, the scriptures suggest that Jewish leaders clamored for Jesus’ death because of his (failed) claims to be God’s Messiah, his disrespect for sacred laws and traditions, and because of his threats concerning the sacred Temple? The text of the 2000 Oberammergau Passion Play reads: “Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth, you are charged with inciting the people to disobedience, scorning the teaching of the fathers, violating the divine commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, and having indulged in blasphemous words and deed.” (p. 67) Now when we turn to Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, Christian scripture/tradition basically paints his role in Jesus’ crucifixion as mildly complicit, not finding Jesus guilty of anything deserving of death; Pilate is portraited as simply carrying-out the wishes of an unruly mob of Jews. Again, the text of the 2000 Oberammergau Passion Play has Pilate saying: “What! You dare presume that I, Caesar’s governor, should serve as a blind tool for carrying out your decisions? I must know what law he has broken, and in what manner. . . No Roman can condemn a man to death for something like this.” (p. 75) Upon closer examination, using Jewish and Roman sources, we discover something different than ‘guilty Jews’ and ‘innocent Romans.’ While the religious authorities in Jerusalem were no doubt aware that Jesus exhibited some alternate/radical views of Torah interpretation, even practice, these would have been ideas that fellow Jews often quarreled about, and certainly were not things deserving death. Therefore, we have reason to question the extremity of the ‘Jewish’ response: “Crucify him!” Regarding the Roman authorities, there has always been an awareness that they had good and sufficient reason to be concerned about Jesus, given his popular appeal and given the highly-charged environment of Jerusalem during the Jewish Passover time each year. What the law enforcement people in Jerusalem did not need at that time was further agitation; the Roman legion was understandably concerned and legitimately interested in quelling any violence before it got out of hand. Crucifying Jesus would serve to diminish certain rebellion (creating greater Pax Romana); crucifixion would also serve to discourage any other would-be revolutionaries or incendiaries. So then, if the crucifixion (of Jesus) appears more likely to be something the Roman authorities had reason to carry-out, and calling for the death of Jesus something quite unlikely for the Jewish religious authorities to demand, why would the New Testament scriptures (or say, the early Christian community behind those scriptures) have shifted the blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews? At this point, it is important to remember that the Gospels were composed in the final decades of the first century of the Common Era. The Romans had destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE and a great dispersion of Jews began; Christians, who were seen as ‘relatives’ of Jews, faced similar abuse and rejection by the Roman occupiers. It is understandable why Christians, seeking some favor and tolerance from the powers that be, would shift the blame for Jesus’ death to the Jews, hence not blaming the Romans. It makes sense, even though such blaming the Jews of deicide was historically erroneous. Aside from the salvific meaning of Jesus’ death for Christians, which does not depend on the ‘Jews killing God,’ the historical misplacement of blame for the death of Jesus has resulted in incredible abuse, often death, for subsequent generations of Jews. This accusation of deicide demands repudiation and repentance on the part of the Church, both for the sake of truth and for the repair of the tragic Jewish/Christian relationship. Especially, since Vatican II, and the proclamation Nostra Aetate, there has been increasing resolve within Roman Catholicism to correct this historical blame and eliminate anti-Judaism in their preaching and teaching. Select Protestant denominations have also called for repudiation and repentance. Oberammergau is one place this false accusation appears; Oberammergau can be a ‘lens through which we can observe and examine biblical Christian malignancies.’

Collective Jewish Guilt – or blaming subsequent generations. Related to the charge of deicide, in which ‘the Jews’ are held responsible for the death of God (Jesus), is the notion of collective Jewish guilt. Are all subsequent generations of Jews guilty, that is, beyond those Jews in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion who supposedly clamored for his death? Biblical support for this notion of collective guilt can be garnered from a text such as Matthew 27:25: “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and our children.’” Again, Vatican II (Nostra Aetate) has resolutely declared that such blame on all subsequent generations of Jews is wrong and harmful. When Matthew 27:25 is proclaimed or taught as infallible and inerrant, without proper contextualization, it perpetuates anti-Judaism and encourages contempt for present day Jews. Oberammergau is one place this notion of collective guilt had been articulated over the centuries; more recent changes strove to include all of humanity as guilty and as recipients of God’s grace. In the Preface to the Oberammergau Passion Play 2000 textbook, we read: “. . . we must nevertheless admit, that this Passion Play, too, contributed in various ways to preparing the soil which eventually yielded the terrible harvest of the extermination of Jews. . . It is important to note that the Passion Play is in no way meant to find a specific person or group guilty, or even less, to assign collective guilt.” (p.7)

Typology – or using/abusing Old Testament texts to argue the case for Christian superiority. Whenever one employs an earlier (Old Testament) text to prefigure a later (New Testament) idea, one is doing typology. Whenever a prophetic (Old Testament) idea or event is quoted as pointing to a (New Testament) fulfilled text or event, one is doing typology. Chapter 8 of the New Testament book of Hebrews elevates the ‘better covenant’ of Jesus, as being prefigured in Jeremiah 31:33ff, when the Lord said that a “‘new covenant will be established. . . not like the older covenant that I made with their ancestors’. . . the first one (becoming) obsolete.” It’s as if Jeremiah’s words – and Israel’s covenant – only had meaning insofar as they pointed to Jesus. Such typology diminishes the (earlier) covenant-faith of Israel to amplify the (later) covenant based on Jesus. And hence, the Christian typological use of Jewish prophetic scripture has contributed to subsequent anti-Judaism and even contempt for present day Jews. Oberammergau is one more place that Old Testament prophetic texts are cited and then ‘fulfilled.’ For example, Isaiah 9 (“For a child has been born for us, . .”), Isaiah 11 (“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, . .”), Isaiah 42 (“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, . . ), Isaiah 53 (“Surely he has borne our infirmities. . .”) & Zechariah 9:9 (“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey. . .”). Almost every act of the Passion Play begins with a ‘Prefiguration’ of an Old Testament event or person: the bride from the Song of Songs, Cain & Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, the bronze serpent, the burning bush, the Exodus.

Supersessionism – or Christianity’s claim that the new covenant in Jesus renders God’s original covenant with Israel no longer valid. In Hebrews, chapter 8 verses 6-7, 13, we read: “But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one. . . In speaking of a ‘new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” These verses, plus John 14:6, Acts 4:12 and I Timothy 2:5, are New Testament texts often appealed to as the Church – for nearly two millennia – has understood its life and faith to have improved upon, overridden, even made void God’s earlier covenant with Israel. Select groups within multiple Christian denominations have categorically rejected such supersessionism, but the inherent difficulty involves a challenge to a perceived fundamental element in the Christian Church’s ‘Master Narrative.’ Does affirming the salvific significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection require invalidation of God’s earlier covenant with Israel/Judaism? Saying it does, amplifies the Church’s negative view of Jews and Judaism. Together with the charges of deicide and collective guilt, one has all the makings of ongoing anti- Judaism, and that becomes fuel for the anti-Semitism that lay at the root of the Holocaust. Although the 1984 Preface of the Oberammergau Passion Play Text optimistically stated, “The play is not concerned to seek a guilty party, Holy Scripture includes the whole of mankind and its representatives in the guilt for Jesus’ death.”, and the 2000 textbook Preface stated: “Likewise, every one of the enemies of Jesus could be one of us, the “I” I call myself: Judas, Peter, Caiaphas,. . . for belonging to a particular community is accidental.” (p.7), the basic storyline of the New Testament and Oberammergau reinforces ‘Jewish’ culpability, not Roman, not everyone.

The reason for providing some detail on deicide, collective Jewish guilt, typology and supersessionism is because these problematic Christian issues have been present and powerful in each re-enactment at Oberammergau. Yes, anti-Semitism – and greater contempt for Judaism – surfaces every decade following Oberammergau’s productions. That ought to be reason enough to scrutinize the text and texture of the passion play for harmful rhetoric and malignant theology. Sadly, it has been Jews themselves who have needed to draw attention to the negative effects of passion plays for almost a thousand years. Numerous times down through the centuries changes in the play have addressed the most blatant aspects of Jewish vilification (e.g. devil-like horns on the costumes of ‘the Jews’ were removed in the past several decades). It has been relatively easier to diminish the ugly pictures of Christ-killing Jews and collective Jewish guilt (issues one and two above) than to modify the typology employed and the supersessionism expressed in the passion story (issues three and four). The latter two issues have been understood to be intrinsic to and organic in the Christian ‘Master Narrative’ on the deepest level; however, neither need be.

The most significant confrontation between the (American) Jewish community and the Oberammergau Passion Play Committee occurred in the years leading up to the 2000 CE season. At the center of the controversy calling for radical change in the images and text of the Passion Play were Rabbi Leon Klenicki of the Anti-Defamation League and Rabbi James Rudin – with Alan Middleman – of the American Jewish Committee. They worked feverishly to create a better Passion Play, yet their ‘reform’ suggestions were usually met with opposition from the more ‘traditional’ defenders of Oberammergau’s efforts. From the Preface of the 2000 textbook in English: “Even if the parties concerned did not agree on all the issues, it was confirmed that ‘. . . substantial improvements have been made from the 1980 to 1990 production and even more far- reaching ones for the 200 Play’ (Rabbi Klenicki, ADL). Alan Mittleman (AJC) can even find ‘vast improvements over earlier versions’ and admits that ‘the authors have gone far in minimizing anti-Judaism.’ Rabbi Rudin (AJC) wrote that he hoped the Passion 2000 ‘will present a new and positive understanding of Jews and Judaism.’” (p. 8) So, progress has been made in the text revisions, albeit modest and in need of further discussion. Interestingly, changes desired by the Jewish critics would involve significant revision in the Church’s historic/biblical ‘Master Narrative.’ Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf’s 1901 book “A Rabbi’s Impressions of the Oberammergau Passion Play” details the ways in which many of the historical inaccuracies in the Passion Play are, in fact, biblical inaccuracies in the Gospels. This is what I meant in the earlier statements that Oberammergau becomes a ‘lens through which we can observe and examine biblical Christian malignancies.’ Further, on a fundamental level, examining biblical Christian malignancies is an intra-faith, internal discipline that we – Christians – ought to be involved in; such an examination becomes even more important when we understand that our malignant texts precipitated pain and suffering for countless others (i.e. the Jews). When Adolf Hitler on July 5, 1942, said, “For this reason alone it is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry.” he, too, was only reinforcing what has been a biblical understanding of Jews and Judaism for twenty centuries.

The decennial passion play production beneath Kofel Mountain in Bavaria’s Oberammergau will likely continue well into the future. We can simply bemoan the terrible ways that it (Oberammergau) perpetuates a bad thing, or we, Christians, can use this venue as an opportunity to examine our ‘Master Narrative,’ repudiate theological malignancies, repent of our apathy and resolve to live into a more respectful future. . . for the sake of humanity, but especially Jews, who have suffered the greatest from our errors.

The theological question . . . (whose answer has ongoing, dire consequences, decade after decade, in the surrounds of Oberammergau) . . . is whether the Gospel, the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ, which constitutes the Church’s foundational belief, the core of its proclamation, can be proclaimed and perpetuated without needing to invalidate God’s earlier covenant with Jews? One responsible answer is: “Yes, God extending God’s divine love and mercy through the life, death & resurrection of Jesus need not require the ending of God’s earlier covenant with Israel.” However, to do that requires modifications and corrections, not only of the Oberammergau Passion Play text, but also of the text of the Church’s New Testament, a divine miracle that would require God’s intervention not unlike the Exodus from Egypt and the resurrection of Jesus!

John W. Matthews – May 2021

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