John Legend, as Jesus, is carried during a dress rehearsal scene from NBC’s "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert." Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Christians, Jews and the dubious history of the Passion play

(RNS) — Passover and Easter once again coincide this year. The first seder (Passover meal) of the eight-day Jewish festival is on March 30, and Easter falls two days later.

During this holiday season, the focus for Christians is on the last days of Jesus' life, the subject of a new documentary hosted by "Downton Abbey" actor Hugh Bonneville. "Jesus: Countdown to Calvary,” will air on most public television stations before Easter.

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Christian Passion plays will be performed in many venues, including an NBC live performance of "Jesus Christ Superstar" on April 1. On the same day, NBC will also air “Easter Mysteries,” an oratorio by Tony-award winner John O’Boyle that focuses on the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers. Both television productions feature an African-American actor portraying Jesus.

Philip Cunningham, a theology professor and co-director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph's University, and the editor of "Pondering the Passion: What's at Stake for Christians and Jews?," describes O’Boyle’s efforts as “a reflection … upon the significance for Christian faith. … It is less concerned with the causes or the extent of his sufferings than with the new life that Christians find in the Raised Jesus.”

Philip Cunningham. Photo courtesy of St. Joseph’s University

Plays depicting Jesus’ death in ancient Jerusalem at the hands of the hated Roman occupation authorities originated in medieval Europe when many people were illiterate and religious teachings were visually transmitted. Tragically, audiences frequently received wildly inaccurate stereotypical images of Jews and Judaism.

Cunningham points out that for centuries, Christians "adopted a 'zero-sum' perspective: For Christian traditions to be true, Jewish traditions had to be false. This binary way of thinking expressed itself in Passion plays in which Jewish characters or even 'the Jews' collectively were portrayed as the perpetually blind, hateful enemies of Jesus."

He also noted that traditionally, "Passion plays often combined the most negative 'anti-Jewish' elements from the four Gospels into a composite narrative that was more hostile to Jews than any single Gospel alone.

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"The image of visceral Jewish hostility to Jesus was pervasive in Christian culture. In artwork, poetry and preaching, the fact that crucifixion was a Roman method of execution — and that the public display of Jesus on a cross suited Roman purposes far more than any Jewish one — was at times forgotten."

The toxic problems Cunningham describes were in full evidence in the 2004 Mel Gibson film, "The Passion of the Christ," which attracted widespread and harsh criticism from Christian and Jewish New Testament experts.

Mel Gibson directing "The Passion of the Christ." Photo by Phillippe Antonello, courtesy Icon Distribution

The Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany is the world’s most famous religious drama. It attracts large audiences every 10 years when there are over a hundred performances. The next OPP will be in 2020.

After attending a 1930s performance of the blatantly anti-Semitic Oberammergau play, Adolf Hitler declared: “Never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the time of the Romans.”

I have been involved with the OPP since 1970 and have visited Oberammergau multiple times, including attendance at a performance. Jewish and Christian colleagues who together pressed for meaningful changes to eliminate the anti-Jewish staging, script and costumes of the play joined me in efforts that have produced a series of positive changes in the production.

Frederik Mayet as Jesus, left, performs with laymen during a dress rehearsal of the Oberammergau Passion Play in the theatre of Oberammergau, southern Germany, on May 10, 2010. More than 2,000 citizens of this Bavarian village participate in the century-old play of the suffering of Christ, staged every 10 years and dating back to 1634. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The tense relationship between Joseph Caiaphas, the Jerusalem Temple’s high priest, and Pontius Pilate, the cruel Roman governor of Judea, is a central feature in the New Testament account of Jesus’ crucifixion and remains a Passion play flashpoint. Caiaphas is, with very few exceptions, always portrayed as venal and keen for Jesus’ death as he manipulates and badgers the supposedly weak overlord of the Roman occupation.

But Pilate, the Roman “procurator” or military governor, was neither weak nor powerless. It was only Pilate and not the Jewish leaders who had the authority to carry out the scourging and capital punishment in the form of crucifixion. The subservient high priest was a political appointment of Roman authorities and served at their bidding.

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Because he owed his religious position to the Romans, a submissive Caiaphas collaborated with them. He satisfied his foreign masters by maintaining “law and order” among the restive Jews living under Roman occupation.

Eugene Fisher of St. Leo University, the former director of Catholic-Jewish relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, questions the claim that Caiaphas and the Temple priesthood were authentic “Jewish leaders”:

Fisher writes: " … Eager to please their Roman superiors, they would zealously seek to bring to the attention of Pilate even the slightest hint of rebellion. … They were not the truly religious leaders of the day, (unlike) the Pharisees. Rather the individuals involved (including Caiaphas) … had sold out to Rome … and represented no more than their own selfish interests."

In 36 C.E., Pilate’s cruelty, especially his mistreatment of Jews and Samaritans, caused his superiors to remove him from office. Pilate was forced to make a humiliating return to Rome.

The cast of NBC’s "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert," featuring John Legend as Jesus, center, during a dress rehearsal scene. Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Another flashpoint: Most Passion plays fail to make clear to audiences the historic reality that Jesus, his family and early followers were all Jews, and not “the first Christians.”

I judge every Passion play by asking if it tells a story that is totally free of anti-Jewish images, costumes and teachings.

I’ll be watching on April 1.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


  1. Keep in mind that Pilate and the Jews (if you believe the NT myths) were necessary accessories in the “rise” of JC. Without that crucifixion, where would we Christians be??

  2. Professor JD Crossan notes from his book, Who is Jesus)

    “Moreover, an atonement theology that says God sacrifices his own son in place of humans who needed to be punished for their sins might make some Christians love Jesus, but it is an obscene picture of God. It is almost heavenly child abuse, and may infect our imagination at more earthly levels as well. I do not want to express my faith through a theology that pictures God demanding blood sacrifices in order to be reconciled to us.”

    So the Jews were acting in accordance with your god’s plans? Give us a break??

  3. “While the brute fact that of Jesus’ death by crucifixion is historically certain, however, those detailed narratives in our present gospels are much more problematic. ”

    “My best historical reconstruction would be something like this. Jesus was arrested during the Passover festival, most likely in response to his action in the Temple. Those who were closest to him ran away for their own safety.

    I do not presume that there were any high-level confrontations between Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod Antipas either about Jesus or with Jesus. No doubt they would have agreed before the festival that fast action was to be taken against any disturbance and that a few examples by crucifixion might be especially useful at the outset. And I doubt very much if Jewish police or Roman soldiers needed to go too far up the chain of command in handling a Galilean peasant like Jesus. It is hard for us to imagine the casual brutality with which Jesus was probably taken and executed. All those “last week” details in our gospels, as distinct from the brute facts just mentioned, are prophecy turned into history, rather than history remembered.” Professor JD Crossan

  4. I actually remember seeing Crossan’s paragraph some time ago. But his particular claim there is NOT the result of either history or homework (scholarly research).

    All he’s saying is that he considers John 3:16 to be divine child abuse, (the famous talk show host Phil Donahue also said the same foolishness).

    Which means Crossan simply rejects **everything** the Bible says about humanity’s giant, terminal sin problem, and he likewise rejects **everything** the Bible says about what it necessarily cost God to pay for it all and save humanity.

    No wonder this guy left the Catholic priesthood. He done dropped ALL the ball, period. He might as well subscribe to YOUR beliefs, Mr. Rational !!

  5. Given that this claim of a giant human sin problem has never been demonstrated with evidence, Crossan’s skepticism is well placed.

  6. Great thing about Professor Crossan’s in -depth , scholarly studies as published in his many books is that they agree with many other scholars conclusions as outlined previously in my review of the Easter and post Easter sightings cons.

  7. On a lighter note. Personal favorites of filmed versions of the Passion story:

    Most “What the heck are they doing in a Biblical film appearance:
    John Wayne in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

    Most Verisimilitude in a Passion Story film:
    Last Temptation of Christ. Set design, costuming, dialogue all tried for something that was supposed to be set in 1st Century Judea.

    Favorite weird take on the Passion Story:
    Jesus Christ Superstar going for deliberate fake abstract theatricality on film, modern flourishes, and Disco era dance numbers and costuming.

    Most influential Passion Story:
    Last Temptation of Christ. It is the only one which has carried over into other genres and mediums. Most notably it was the basis of the famed Alan Moore Superman story, “For the Man who Has Everything”.

    Best marketed Passion Story:
    Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Gibson managed to get an audience known for protesting violent and gory films to line up to see one under the guise of a religious story.

    Most creative use of the Passion Story as an obvious tax shelter:
    Gospel Road by Johnny Cash.

  8. The “Passion of the Christ” was, based on what we know about Roman practices at the time, and correlating the Gospel accounts with the image on the Shroud of Turin, was probably as accurate as it could be gotten.

    Particularly noteworthy was the use of the languages of the time, down to the vulgar Latin of the Roman soldiers.

  9. J. D. Crossan simply loves to make his eccentric speculations sound like something more.

  10. In reality he left Christianity, or at least anything anyone else would recognize as Christianity.

  11. Another amazing coincidence – J. D. Crossan has read all the other Jesus Seminar attendees and groupies many books, and they his, and they all track remarkably well.

    If so, they all must be right.

  12. Crossan is not a skeptic.

    He believes he knows the facts.

  13. It was the only to attempt to do it in those languages. Gotta give Mel Gibson credit for that as well. It was a gutsy change from the usual, Romans speak with British accents, Judeans speak with American accents, which typified the genre since the 1950’s.

    OK. So back to my topic. What is your favorite elements of on-screen Passion Stories?

  14. You are quite mistaken.

    Crossan knows it all.

    Ask him.

  15. Apart from whatever putative spiritual value “Passion” plays communicate, which would be a highly subjective valuation, I think it impossible that such could be produced without a clearly negative view of the Jewish leadership at the time; 3 of the 4 Gospel writers were sincere and devout Jews, and they did not spare the High Priest or the Pharisees (Nor Pilate, for that matter). The Gospels in and of themselves are not anti-Semitic. Any ire in the accounts is directed solely and personally to specific individuals by Jesus according to these eyewitnesses. However, it cannot be denied that the Gospels were in fact twisted by later “Christians” into a tool with which to hammer the Jewish people; unrighteous acts and applications that in all likelihood will not in the end be overlooked by God.

  16. Say no more. I get it, I get it. I really do. The crucifixion, burial & resurrection of the Messiah of Israel & savior of the rest of the planet ALWAYS rub Jews the wrong way.

    One day, though, they’ll be rubbed the right way. No, wait, it’s already a-happening. There are 3 million Messianic Jews now in America – and enjoying The Passion Play year after year.

  17. Like by your antisemitic hero, Martin Luther, for one.

  18. Goddess Mary steals the scene one too many, though. Way extra-biblical, that. But a win-win for Vatican, to the stupid glee of my people of faith.

  19. Not to be confused with croissant, whose theology is much more delicious.

  20. The Law of Moses is such evidence, according to my apostle Paul. LOOK IT UP & LEARN.


  22. The Lw of Moses is evidence that some ancient people had some religious beliefs…not self-validating.

    Look it up? Two years of to say I have looked it up probably more in depth than you. Cheers,

  23. The necessary accessories of Christianity: Without them there would be no Christianity-

    Paul of Taurus was first of the “necessary accessories”. He recognized early on the great wealth of Roman and Greek Gentiles so he wrote his epistles raising Jesus and his embellished life from the dead and the Gentiles “ate it up”. His promise of the imminent second coming was shear brilliance in gathering much silver and gold (the prime necessary accessory). The Romans got jealous ending the life of the first necessay accessory.

    Pilate, although not the founder of Christianity, was another “necessary accessory i.e. he could have easily sent Jesus to the salt mines.

    Constantine and his swords finished the “necessary accessory” scenario.

    Adding this to God not knowing the future, eliminates any God involvement in the foundation of Christianity.


    Christianity and the other contemporary religions are the result of human evolution. We no longer need said religions.

  24. Well & good, then, because whay follows must be a no brainer for you.

    For here in Romans 7 is apostle Paul’s evidence for sin, with the Mosaic Law as the proof:

    7 … I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; 10 and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; 11 for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. … 13 … Through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. … 16 [For] if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

  25. EBS: “It cannot be denied that the Gospels were in fact twisted by later ‘Christians’ [e.g. Martin Luther] into a tool with which to hammer the Jewish people. … [But] that too, is in God’s Hands.”

    ME: No, it isn’t, actually, because God is not an Anti-Semite. We Christians are.

  26. Not guilty if & when God did it. Guilty only if you & I did it.

    When God commanded, Thou shalt not do so & so; He was affirming that only God can do so & so.

    You have a long way to go to know God & Jesus.

  27. Been down that long road only to find the emptiness of space and no supernatural beings.

  28. “ … p 10. Minneapolis 1987 Closed down his book table by Catholic theologians because of conflicting view of Bible chronology. Rec’d apology letter from Professor Max Shapiro, Director of Jewish-Christian Learning at the College of St Thomas” See Twitter thread Gene sees lots of 7’s in Bible Chronology as sign of God’s sovereignty over time.

    “Galatians 4:4 New International Version (NIV)
    4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,”

    King Jesus died 700 years after King Uzziah died in 748 BC, year of Isaiah’s call–Isaiah 6.

    First Christian Pentecost in 30 AD 77777 weeks after Moses call at Burning Bush.

    Amazon has priced his book at $770. His son used to give them away for postage.

  29. I agree…those are indeed words in an old book that showed what some people believed at tha time. But that’s as far as it goes. It is no more convincing than the Koran or reg Veda

  30. Me too.

    Until I was found. For I was lost.

    Not you. You’ve always been in The Lost & Found. Always on The Journey But Always Have Arrived.


    (1) “Highlighting of the figure of Mary in the film … [requires some] prior investment in Mariolatry.”

    (2) “Gibson’s portrayal of Mary, the mother of Jesus, reflects his own Mariolatry”.

    Sources: (1) Slate, February 27 2004, “Why Is The Passion of the Christ So Controversial?”, by Robert Alter. (2) After the Passion is Gone: American Religious Consequences, Rowman Altamira, 2004, by J. Shawn Landres, Michael Berenbaum.

  32. That’s really quite absurd.

    The cure for it is to actually watch “The Passion of the Christ”.

  33. FYI I did “actually watch ‘The Passion of the Christ'”, twice, which did give me the “cure” for denying the existence of Goddess Mary. With this “cure” I can concur with those writers’ professional observations that “[Mel] Gibson’s portrayal of Mary, the mother of Jesus, reflects his own Mariolatry”. In fact, the “highlighting of the figure of Mary in the film … [can’t possibly be done without a] prior investment in Mariolatry” on his part – and then some.

    MARIOLATRY. There, they said it. It’s official now and it’s what I’ve told you all along.

    Here now is Oxford University Dictionary for the record: “Mariolatry [means] idolatrous worship of the Virgin Mary.”

  34. If you had actually watched you’d cite chapter and verse of what particularly supported “Mariolatry”.

    Was it that she was sad that her son was being tortured?

    Was it that she remembered succoring him when he fell down as a child?

    Nah, you didn’t watch it.


    ROBERT ALTER: “Highlighting of the figure of Mary in the film [The Passion of the Christ] … [requires some] prior investment in Mariolatry.”

    BOB ARNZEN: “Nah, you didn’t watch it.”

    SHAWN LANDRES, MICHAEL BERENBAUM: “[Mel] Gibson’s portrayal of Mary, the mother of Jesus, reflects his own Mariolatry”.

    BOB ARNZEN: “Nah, you didn’t watch it.”

  36. Of course if you actually watched it, rather than simply copying and copying pasting Robert Alter’s comments, you’d be sharing with us some actual scenes or dialogue that supported Alter.

    But take a few moments instead and explain Alter’s bona-fides as a Jew, one whose opinion of Christianity and Mary’s role in it is less than favorable:

    In context it doesn’t come as profound, does it?

  37. User Bob Arnzen, have you finished using the José Carioca account now? Disqus would like to clean it up, and also your NRA financial backers won’t want you using that name suggestive of an illegal immigrant over the long term.

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