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Passion Plays in History and Theology
Posted: June 24, 2003

The central narrative of Christian theology is the passion, i.e. the trials and crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. There are four different accounts of the passion in the gospels of Christian Scriptures, in which Jews play different roles. All these accounts culminate in the death and resurrection of Jesus as revealing God's saving power available to humanity. Good Friday and Easter celebrate respectively the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the high points of Christian creed and experience. Christians frequently present dramatic representations of this narrative known as "passion plays."

Because much of Christian Scriptures were written in polemical style that often portrayed Jews and Jesus--and therefore Judaism and Christianity--as adversaries, a common interpretation of the crucifixion was that the Jewish people were responsible for killing Jesus. According to this interpretation, both the Jews at the time of Jesus and the Jewish people for all time bear a divine curse for the sin of deicide. Throughout nearly 1900 years of Christian-Jewish history, the charge of deicide has led to hatred and violence against Jews of Europe and America, and various forms of anti-Semitic expression. Historically, Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter Sunday) was a period when Jews were most vulnerable and when Christians perpetrated some of the worst violence against their Jewish neighbors.

In 1965 at the Second Vatican Council in Rome, the Roman Catholic Church took formal steps to correct this interpretation of the passion. In its document, Nostra Aetate, the Church officially repudiated both the deicide charge and all forms of anti-Semitism. Most Protestant churches followed suit, and since 1965 many Christians have worked cooperatively with Jews to correct anti-Semitic interpretations of within Christian theology. Understanding the influential role that passion plays have exercised in the spread of anti-Semitism, the Catholic Church today urges great caution in all dramatic presentations of the passion to ensure that they not furnish any impetus for anti-Semitic attitude or behavior.

In 1988, the United States (Catholic) Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs issued a pamphlet, "Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion," which stresses that passion plays must avoid caricatures of Jews and falsely opposing Jews and Jesus. It quotes Pope John Paul II's statement that, "Catholic teaching should aim to present Jews and Judaism in an honest and objective manner, free from prejudices and without and offenses." The pamphlet concludes that correct Catholic teaching of the passion is one that portrays Jews accurately, sensitively and positively, because "the Church and the Jewish people are linked together essentially on the level of identity."

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