The Problem with Passion Plays

An expert describes the difficult interfaith issues at stake.

Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" revived questions of anti-Semitism in passion plays and how involved Jews were in the death of Jesus. James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, traces the history of the world's most famous passion play in his book "Oberammergau." In an interview before the movie opened, Shapiro explained how passion plays have changed through the centuries, and described the Vatican's efforts to make the plays less anti-Semitic. He also speculated on how Mel Gibson's version of the play might reveal Gibson's--and contemporary Christian--attitudes toward Jews.

Why are passion plays so problematic for Jews?

There are a couple of problems with passion plays. They're a means to an end, a variety of ends. In Oberammergau the ends are the preservation of community and certain community values, and there are economic ends as well. It has to do with a nostalgia for a certain time and a certain view of the past.

This is speculative, but from what I can see about the Mel Gibson film, it will be a way to take the temperature of the culture. It's through plays like "The Merchant of Venice," or passion plays, that you can really take the temperature of Christian attitudes toward Jews.

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I'm very interested in seeing the Gibson film, and I would not want to see it stopped, despite the calls by Jewish leaders or some who might be uncomfortable with it. I think it's important to see as an indicator of popular responses to Jews, as long as it stops short of violence against Jews. If people leave the movie theater so caught up by this that they act like Europeans did in the fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe--go to the ghetto and beat up the Jews--that's not good, and that would be the line that I would not want to see crossed. I don't think that will happen in America today, though it might inflame anti-Jewish views to some degree.

How can passion plays, including Mel Gibson's version, reveal what a culture thinks of Jews?

Passion plays are based on the Gospels, and to a much lesser extent, on what we know historically, independent of those Gospel narratives. They are what's called a harmony of the Gospels--they don't create a passion play just based on Matthew, or strictly on John. They use the most dramatically exciting pieces of each. Only in Matthew is there the washing of hands and the Jews crying out, "His blood be upon us and upon our children."

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