The Last Supper, which some believe was a Passover meal, as seen in the current iteration of the Oberammergau Passion Play. (Photo/Courtesy Oberammergau Passion Play 2022)
The Last Supper, which some believe was a Passover meal, as seen in the current iteration of the Oberammergau Passion Play. (Photo/Courtesy Oberammergau Passion Play 2022)

The Oberammergau Passion Play once stoked antisemitism. A revised version strives to be less inflammatory

Updated June 23, 2022

In medieval times, passion plays educated an illiterate populace about the trial, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus while providing a profound spiritual experience. Yet they also galvanized otherwise peaceful Christians to heap abuse on their Jewish neighbors by including scenes of angry Jewish mobs chanting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Since 1634, the Oberammergau Passion Play (known in German as Oberammergauer Passionsspiele) has been performed, with few exceptions, every 10 years in the foothills of the Alps in southern Germany. Adolf Hitler attended the 300th-anniversary performance in 1934, after which he proclaimed, “Never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed.” In May, I traveled to Oberammergau to watch the premiere of an updated version of the play — one that was delayed two years due to the pandemic and that, I was told, had been scrubbed of anti-Jewish elements.

Billed as the “world’s largest amateur play,” with 1,800 cast members who either were born in Oberammergau or have lived there a minimum of 20 years (a requirement to act in the play), the Oberammergau Passion Play struck me as completely professional. High production values were evident in the staging, acting, singing, costumes, sound and lighting. Almost a third of the 5½-hour performance consisted of music.

What about the script?

First, some historical background. According to the press materials distributed by the Oberammergau Press Office, in the 17th century, after the Thirty Years’ War and a virulent outbreak of the bubonic plague, “people turned to prayer because of so much death.” In 1633, the villagers in Oberammergau vowed to stage “the play of the passion, death, and resurrection” of Jesus if the dying ended. The dying in the village allegedly stopped, and the people of Oberammergau kept their vow and have performed the play ever since. Some families pass down a role from father to son or from mother to daughter for generations. Actors may play the same role for decades.

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Fast-forward to 1965, when Vatican II, formally known as the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, declared “what happened in [Jesus’] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” Despite the mandate to revise church teachings about the Jews, decades passed before changes were made to the Oberammergau Passion Play’s script. Since the 1970s, Jewish and Catholic theologians together have worked with the producers to rid the play of anti-Jewish stereotypes. (None of the Jewish or Catholic theologians I interviewed for this article characterized the play as explicitly antisemitic.)

According to Rabbi A. James Rudin, the former director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, Christian Stückl is the person most responsible for revising the play. He was appointed director in 1986, and for many years, Rubin worked with him to eliminate anti-Jewish bias.

By 2010, gone were the hideous costumes that made the actors portraying Jews appear devil-like. Also, those actors no longer lurked about a darkened set, accompanied by sinister music.

Such changes did not go far enough to satisfy the Jewish community. Yet many institutions have honored Stückl for his efforts. Abraham Geiger College, the first rabbinical seminary in Germany since the Holocaust, awarded him the 2020 Abraham Geiger Prize. The jury granting the prize noted that the director moved “the internationally renowned Oberammergau Passion Play away from Christian hatred of Jews and towards a balanced portrayal of inner-Jewish conflicts.”

In the current production, Jesus and the villagers wear yarmulkes, and his followers address him as “rabbi” instead of “meister.” In the Last Supper scene, a menorah sits in the middle of the table. At one point, Jesus lifts a Torah scroll for all to see. His followers reverentially sing the Shema prayer to music introduced in 2010 by music director Markus Zwink. The use of the Hebrew language and other changes were intended “to situate the Jew Jesus in his surroundings at the time, less from a Christian perspective and more as a child of his time,” Zwink said in a press release.

The Oberammergau Passion Play is performed in an open-air theater. (Photo/Oberammergau Passion Play 2022)
The Oberammergau Passion Play is performed in an open-air theater. (Photo/Oberammergau Passion Play 2022)

The week after the premiere, I met with Stückl and Frederik Mayet, artistic director and press officer of the Münchner Volkstheater (Munich People’s Theater). Mayet is also an actor, and he portrayed Jesus in the play. With flowing light-brown hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion, he resembled the typical depictions of Jesus in Christian art over the centuries. However, the historical Jesus and his disciples would have looked Semitic, with honey-brown skin and dark eyes. I fleetingly wondered if the reforms of the Oberammergau Passion Play would ever include such a change. (Stückl cast the first Muslim actors in 2000, and the first Muslim lead in this year’s production. Perhaps a dark-skinned immigrant from the Middle East, either Muslim or Jewish, will play the role of Jesus in 2030.)

During our conversation, I learned that after directing his first Oberammergau Passion Play in 1990, Stückl has made yearly pilgrimages to Jerusalem with the lead actors and, more recently, with choir members as well. They walk along the Via Dolorosa and visit the Stations of the Cross. The actors also meet with professor Yair Furstenberg of Hebrew University, who has researched early Christianity and the effect of Roman law on rabbinic law. The trips to Israel have helped the actors understand the Jewish Jesus, free of the Christian perspective, Stückl said.

One problem pointed out by Jewish consultants that Stückl has solved is blaming all Jews for Jesus’s death. In prior productions, the entire mob of Jews at the trial shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” For the current production, Stückl directed only half the crowd of Jews to call for the crucifixion. The shout of “Crucify him!” is balanced by an equal chorus of Jewish voices chanting, “Save him! Save him!” This counterpoint dramatically demonstrated that not all Jews at the trial wanted Jesus to die. (As for the size of the crowd, Jewish experts say it would have been small, since it took place during Passover and most Jews would have been at home preparing for the holiday. Nevertheless, Stückl is not ready to diminish the size of the crowd; he wants as many actors on stage as possible for the climactic scene.)

According to the Book of Matthew, at the trial, Jews responded to the verdict by avowing, “His blood is on us and on our children.” The line has justified centuries of Jewish persecution. Although Jewish experts wanted the line excised, Oberammergau’s priest disagreed. Stückl solved the problem by casting an “old, toothless actor” to utter this damning line, an actor who could barely be heard. When the priest complained, Stückl could honestly say that the line had been delivered. “It is not enough to take the line out,” Stückl maintained. “We have to change people’s minds.”

Reform of the Oberammergau Passion Play “is not finished,” Stückl stated passionately. “It is a process.”

The Oberammergau Passion Play runs through Oct. 2, 2022.

This article was updated with a more precise description of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council.

Miriam Zimmerman
Miriam Zimmerman

Miriam Zimmerman is professor emerita at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, where she taught the Holocaust course for 25 years.