Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Passion Stories

Posted by John Montgomery on May 10, 2010

Last week on another more toxic site, I found myself being lectured about how the Jews killed Jesus.



My fundamentalist colleague reiterated that our nation is like the ancient nation of Israel – a theocracy founded by God that they (the Jews) just never got right. And what is worse, they killed Jesus. As punishment God then let the Jews suffer persecution for 1900 years culminating in one last punishment, the holocaust. We better look out

One might simply shake ones head in disbelief, especially since no one really takes this stuff seriously – but three other happenings have grabbed my attention this month and so I am writing on what really should be a Lenten topic.

The first is not really about passion stories. Two weeks ago, Atlanta was visited by the Phelp’s family from Westboro Baptist Church. On that Friday, they picketed three local high schools and the Emory Hillel house. It was a full day for them. That afternoon, I was able to watch their antics outside the Selig Center of the Jewish Federation.

Now the folks from Westboro are fanatics, but given the more intense debate in the public square  I am wondering whether some of the current rhetoric of the religious right is increasingly just a small step away from extremist diatribes.

The next event has to do with the recent opening of the Oberammergau Passion play this past May 15th. My father, who attended the play many, many years ago called this to my attention.

As most are aware, this 5 hour dramatic presentation with a cast and company of 2,000 is only produced every 10 years. Of course, that is (with only a couple of exceptions) every ten years since 1634 when the villagers from the small Bavarian town, having survived the plague, promised God that they would take on this holy task.

Of course, part of the problem is that in the 1600s,  Jews were not the most respected people on the block and the play included ugly stereotypes and deep prejudices that undergirded the rather regular persecution of the “people of Israel.”

We live in a post-hococaust world and there has emerged a growing consciousness that the scripts and chacterizations associated with passion plays must in the words of the second Vatican Council’s proclaimation Nostra Aetate be written and performed so that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God as if this followed from Sacred Scripture.”

Of course, what makes it even more difficult for us Christians is that some of the most offensive anti-Jewish material does come directly from our sacred scriptual narratives.

But there have been significant changes at Oberammergau since Vatican II including the following list found in the important study by Leonard Swidler and Gerard Sloyan .

  • 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;
  • the character “Rabbi” has been eliminated and his lines given to another character;
  • 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 Hebrew.

Changes to the script of  the play continue to be made each decade. These modifications seek to address the direct, but also more subtle ways in which the play presents the charge of deicide, collective guilt, supersessionism and typology.

In 1970, the village leadership began conferring with Jewish authorities in order to reduce anti-Jewish imagery. The efforts have had mixed results. However, as of this past February, contrary to what is published on the Oberammergau website, American Jewish groups have not approved the production of this year’s version. The latest statement for ADL documents the negative presentation of Jewish leadership and the a-historical portrayal of Pilate. See ADL website

Most of us have never had the opportunity to see the production in Bavaria or participate in these kinds of discussions. But the 2004 production of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which for some evangelicals and fundamentalists was to have been signaling a major new revival in Christianity, did illustrate how easily we can drift into unconsciousness about these same issues.

If one remembers, in the movie Jesus is portrayed significantly differently than the temple leadership which is portrayed in stereotypical costumes. At the time of this movie’s release, ADL reminded us that

It must be emphasized that the main storyline presented Jesus as having been relentlessly pursued by an evil cabal of Jews, headed by the high priest Caiaphas, who finally blackmailed a weak-kneed Pilate into putting Jesus to death. This is precisely the storyline that fueled centuries of anti-Semitism within Christian societies.

A review also published at that time in the Nation by Katha Pollitt noted that:

Gibson has violated just about every precept of the (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) conference’s own 1988 “Criteria” for the portrayal of Jews in dramatizations of the Passion (no bloodthirsty Jews, no rabble, no use of Scripture that reinforces negative stereotypes of Jews, etc.) … The priests have big noses and gnarly faces, lumpish bodies, yellow teeth; Herod Antipas and his court are a bizarre collection of oily-haired, epicene perverts. The “good Jews” look like Italian movie stars (Italian sex symbol Monica Bellucci is Mary Magdalene.

While much was made of the removal of the sub-titles where Caiaphas vows that the “blood be upon us and our future generations.,” in the sound track, Gibson pulled a “bait and switch” move by keeping the words, only in Aramaic, a language that most of us don’t understand. Gibson later said he did that so as not to be seen as a wimp – he’s okay being anti-Jewish, just not one that is wimpish.

The popularity of Gibson’s movie has faded. Gibson had “cherry picked” the different versions of the Gospel passion stories and added lots of non-scriptural material, but in the long run he did not create a tool for evangelism. Instead it has proved itself to be just one more violent action thriller, BraveLord II, if you will.

The popularity of Gibson’s movie has for the most part faded, but how we tell the Passion story remains for us Christians in a post-holocaust world a huge issue.

Did the Jews kill Jesus?

There is a complex answer to that question (See John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus) and then one that is much more simple – I’ll try the more simple answer. 

No – The Romans did….

Some of the Temple leadership must have cooperated with the occupation forces. But, in the long run, it was the Romans who lynched Jesus as a revolutionary insurgent. (Whether he was an insurgent is a question that we can come back to later.) Crucifixion was in those days a Roman technique for making a stark and horrifying public example of the consequences of discontent.

Mark’s narrative is most interesting to me. Jesus comes to town and parodies Pilate’s grand entry. While the temple leadership doesn’t like him, they don’t want to do anything “during the passover.” But Jesus is grabbed  during the passover. It seems to me, that Pilate, on hearing of the satirical entry skit which may not have not suggested that Jesus is the legitimate monarch, but it clearly made the point that Pilate (or Pilate’s lord) is not, must have sent to the Temple leadership demands that they search for, sieze and bring this radical to him – even if it is the passover.

Pilate is hardly weak-kneed. History clearly tells a different story. Pilate is not manipulated by the priests. His first question to Jesus is not are you the “Son of God,” but “are you the King of the Jews.” The temple leadership is not really in charge. The Jews did not kill Jesus. At least not in Mark’s narrative!

As Matthew, Luke and John issue “remakes” of the narrative, that changes.

Most congregations that I know do not mount major productions of the Passion story like we do with Christmas pagents. But the question of how we tell the story remains. (For a detailed discussion of the relationship between liturgy and Passion plays, see the Catholic Encyclopedia)  

In the congregation that I attend, we did a good job this year – in our Tennebrae service traditional Johanine talk of the “Jews” was translated into language about the “religious leadership.” But the very next Sunday, as the scripture was read about the remaining disciples hiding in the room where they had previously gathered for their last supper with their rabbi, our liturgist dutifully read the text  saying that the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid that the Jews were out to get them. This is the second year in a row that this has happened.

It is now 65 years past the holocaust, and yet many Christians still take the implications of that trajedy unseriously. For any of us to repeat the confused logic of fundmentalists  is one of those things about which we should say one more time, “Never Again.”

Related Links:

Huffingtom Post

Christianity Today

Baptist Standard

One Response to “Passion Stories”

  1. Dennis Rice said

    At out church (also in Atlanta), the minister left out the phrase “of the Jews”, so that the disciples were behind locked doors “out of fear” (John 20:19). That left open the possibility that they might have been fearing the Romans, but by leaving unsaid what many must have heard anyway, he missed a chance to use this text as a “teachable moment” concerning the anti-Jewish tone of John.

    On another occasion, during a study of Mark, I was accused of calling the author of Mark a liar when I broached the topic that the portrayal of Pilate in Mark does not agree with the portrayal of Pilate by Josephus and Philo.

    I think that the anti-Jewish bias in the Christian scriptures is essentially a contradiction at the heart of Christianity and must be resolved. The only segments of Christianity that I know about that are actively dealing with this contradiction are the Christian Zionists. Here in Atlanta, Scott Allen of Israel365, has issued an apology for past wrongs, but his fundamentalist approach does not resonate with progressives who are too comfortable continuing the anti-Jewishness as a support for their anti-Israel political stance. I think Scott will have trouble convincing Reform Jews that he is for real, partly because of his fundamentalist, bible based approach and partly because he has gotten himself tangled up with Hagee’s group, “Christians United for Israel.”

    I would prefer to see an effort by progressives to counter what I consider to be an essential contradiction at the heart of Christianity. The anti-Jewish agenda of the four Gospels is not compatible with the essential Christian message of God’s inclusive love for all humanity.

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