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.

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."

This film is an intervention in Catholic politics. It's not an intervention in Catholic-Jewish relations. Mel Gibson's real adversary is the Vatican.

Is this what Mel Gibson's going to choose? What kind of text is he working from? In terms of the language, Aramaic or not, you know when Pontius Pilate's washing his hands who that is and what he's doing. You know, whether it's in German or Aramaic or Hebrew, when they're crying out 'Kill Jesus' on the way to the cross with him, you know exactly what they're saying, even if you don't know what that language is. Those choices tell worlds about what he's trying to do.

Next, how much historical material that's independent of the Gospel accounts is going to be part of this film? The Gospel doesn't give us all the information we need to tell this story.

Do the historical accounts make the Jews look better than they do in the Gospel?

Sure. Historians will tell you the Romans played a much larger role in this. We have to view the [Gospel] writing not only as Gospel truth but as a product of a particular cultural moment. They had certain narratives they were trying to convey. The pressure that Jewish groups have brought over Oberammergau and other passion plays is to try to historicize events as much as possible, which is to leave the Jews out of it. The Jews didn't kill Jesus, Jesus was a Jew.

I want to know how Jewish Jesus will be in Mel Gibson's version. The first question I'd ask is about the costuming. One of the mistakes the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League made in negotiating over the passion play in Oberammergau is they negotiated over the text. Then they went to see the play, and they were horrified that the Jews ran around with horns like devils, or in dark costumes, while the apostles all wore colorful clothing and seemed young and handsome. The ugly folk played the Jews. I want to see how Gibson has cast these characters. Are the apostles shown to be Jewish? Is Jesus shown to be a practicing Jew?

So the more Jewish Jesus is portrayed, the less likely Jews will be vilified in the movie?

Exactly. But we don't really register in our popular sensibility what Jews were like in the first century. So in Oberammergau, they had him wear a kippah and a tallit. It's not historically what Jews did then, but why not?

The next question I would ask is, does Mel Gibson have on the payroll any Jews in an advisory capacity, so they can help him understand the sensitivities that Jews must feel about this? If he says no, that's also going to tell you something, So again, costuming, language and which part of the harmony of the Gospel he's going to use.

Until the changes were made in 2000, had the script at Oberammergau always been the same?

The village always thought this play was timeless and unchanging, but it changes every time. The scripts are always subject to political pressure. Sometimes political pressures came from the Catholic Church, sometimes it came from trying to accommodate Protestants, sometimes it came from trying to accommodate Jews. Sometimes it came from the defects of the story.

In the medieval dramas that informed Oberammergau and hundreds of passion plays, it was devils and Satan and all kinds of non-human agents that were allying against Jesus. Passion plays were often a popular art form, and those in charge of the Church felt that this debased and degraded its teachings. The Church decided, 'let's get rid of devils and the rest and put a human face on our religion.'

But they still needed an enemy of Jesus. You still need a bad guy: who killed Jesus? It's not a very interesting story if the Romans fill that vacuum. The story the Gospels tell had the Romans washing their hands and the Jews killing Jesus. The Jews fill the devil's role, as the enemies of Jesus.

What has the Catholic Church done to try to make passion plays vilify the Jews less?

Vatican II tried to resolve the issue. They made an effort to say, 'We cannot blame all Jews in time for what happened then.' It was a historical stepping away from what's in Matthew as a way of trying to resolve the deep rift between Christians and Jews.

From what I understand about what Mel Gibson's doing, he is to the right of the Church. He wants to roll back Vatican II, he wants to go back to a Latin Mass, he wants to see this liberalization of the Church reversed. Mel Gibson is going to put the Church in a very awkward position. Either it condemns Vatican II principles, which some in the Vatican are probably ambivalent about, or it defends them, and says that [Gibson's] views are not those of the Church.


This film is an intervention in Catholic politics. It's not an intervention, except indirectly, in Catholic-Jewish relations, or Christian-Jewish relations. Mel Gibson's real adversary is the Vatican; he's trying to return to a nostalgic vision of the Church that predates Vatican II. Part of that is to tell the story of Jesus unlike the revisionist account of it in Vatican II. That means the Jews are going to have to pay the price. And I'm fairly sure that in this production they'll have to be vilified, because that is also part of stepping away from Vatican II.

Your book about Oberammergau ends on a very positive note, showing everything the village has accomplished. Why was controversial for the villagers?

There was such tension between the traditionalists and the modernists in the village that people wanted to deny what they said. It had to do mostly with the production of the play during the Nazi years. I thought when I wrote the book that the villagers had come to terms with their Nazi past but were struggling with religious issues. It turns out they have really come to terms with religious issues and haven't dealt with the Nazi past. It makes me understand that the passions run deep when you're writing about passion plays.

Will the changes that were instituted in Oberammergau affect other passion plays around the world?

Because Oberammergau is the granddaddy of them, the one that survived the restructuring of the passion play by the Catholic Church, it influences hundreds of passion plays around the world. So what happens in Oberammergau happens in other places as well. Since there are half a million people who go there every ten years, it has a larger significance. Many passion plays in the United States, Protestant plays, vilify the Jews.

Have Protestant churches had any reckoning with the passion plays like the Catholic Church did?

They're not as centralized in their authority. Among Protestants, you don't deal with the official church position - there are different denominations and therefore the splintering of these denominations has made it more difficult for more challenges to come against these plays. The American Jewish groups that I've spoken with keep track of these things, but there's not much they can do about them. There's no pressure to be brought to bear.

Why are so many people so interested in seeing passion plays?

There are a couple of reasons. I saw how moved people were when I saw the play in Oberammergau. It's a very simple story, and it's very dramatically effective, especially when Jews are the bad guys and they take responsibility for this. It's excellent theater. I think at a time when people feel very ambivalent about their connection to the Church, for a variety of reasons, there's something very powerful about seeing it visually staged. This is the story.

Many people doubt, especially in our modern secular age. There's something extraordinary about watching the first doubters--the Jews--who refuse to believe that Jesus was King of the Jews or the Messiah. To watch the doubters admonished, to watch them realize that Jesus was who Christians believe him to be; it's a terrific device to reassure. The Jews stand in place of Christian skepticism and doubt. It's a way to awaken faith. I'm sure that's part of what Mel Gibson's trying to do.

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