The Passionists - Compassion

Dramatizing the Passion

by Victor Hoagland, C.P.

SpacerA number of church documents followed the declaration "Nostra Aetate," issued by the Second Vatican Council on October 28, 1965, dealing with the relationship of the Catholic Church and the Jews. Among them are "Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis of the Roman Catholic Church," by the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews (June 24, 1985) and Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion, by the U.S. Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops (1988).

SpacerThe U.S. Bishops' document is especially relevant for judging dramatic presentations like Mel Gibson's movie. While admitting that dramatizing the gospel of the passion is not an easy task because of its complex nature, it asks that one bring the "highest possible standards of biblical and theological sensitivity" to such a work.

Above: The Oberammergau Passion Play (late 19th century). In the early part of the 17th century, the townspeople of Oberammergau, Germany, vowed to perform a play recalling the last week of Christ's life every ten years. Since the end of the Second Vatican Council, the famous play has been the object of scrutiny by Jews and Christians seeking to prevent inaccurate portrayals of the Jewish people. The latest presentation of the play took place in 2000 AD

SpacerTo begin with, the bishops' document offers a guiding theological principle: "The overall aim of any depiction of the passion should be the unambiguous presentation of the doctrinal understanding of the event in the light of faith -- that is, of the Church's traditional interpretation of the meaning of Christ's death for all humanity ... Therefore, any presentations that explicitly or implicitly seek to shift responsibility from human sin onto this or that historical group, such as the Jews, can only be said to obscure a core gospel truth."

SpacerThe creeds and the church's doctrinal statements place responsibility for Jesus' death on all humanity; therefore, dramatic presentations should lead us to "a profound self-examination of our own guilt, through sin, for Jesus' death."

SpacerThe document acknowledges that artists have their own gifts for dramatizing this mystery, but their work should be based on the four gospel accounts and what is known from extra-biblical records.

Avoiding "stock ideas"

SpacerSome "stock ideas," which should be avoided, unfortunately misrepresent the history and traditions of Judaism in Jesus' day. The document lists some of them:

  • Viewing first-century Judaism as if all Jews were the same. In fact, Judaism in Jesus' day was extraordinarily diverse. "The Jews of his day reacted to Jesus in various ways; they were not a unified group at all, nor did they react to him in a unified way.

  • Describing Jesus as opposed to Jewish law. In fact, he was always a pious, observant Jew, who respected and kept the law of his people.

  • Portraying the Old Testament as a way of fear and legalism and the New Testament as a way of love.

  • Setting Jesus and his disciples in opposition to his people. In fact, the gospel shows the Jewish people well-disposed toward Jesus and his teaching. The term "Jews" that occurs in John's gospel can be misread to signify a universal opposition, but it does not mean "all" the Jewish people.

  • Presenting the Jews as avaricious. This can occur by portraying large crowds crying out for his death when Jesus appeared before Pilate or at Calvary. In fact, parts of the gospel indicate the secrecy surrounding his trials, presumably because of the large following he had in Jerusalem and the opposition of the Jewish populace to his death. Even during his trials, some -- like Nicodemus and Joseph -- supported him.

  • Portraying the Pharisees as the primary enemies of Jesus. In fact, Jesus shared some important doctrines with them. They are not mentioned in the accounts of the passion at all, and there were Pharisees among his supporters.

SpacerIn summary, the bishops' document says: "Many of the controversies (or antitheses) between Jesus and his fellow Jews, as recorded in the gospels, we know today reflect conflicts that took place long after the time of Christ between the early Christian communities and various Jewish communities (Notes: IV, 29 A). To generalize from such specific and often later conflicts to an either/or opposition between Jesus and Judaism is to anachronize and, more basically, to vitiate the spirit and intent of the gospel texts" (Notes: III, 28; IV,29F).

also in this issue:
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ" | "Seeing" the Passion of Jesus
Christian Mystics and the Passion |
Dramatizing the Passion
Act with Compassion


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