The Secularization of the Passion

John Warwick Montgomery
Ph.D. (Chicago), D.Théol. (Strasbourg), LL.D. (Cardiff, Wales, UK); Professor Emeritus of Law and Humanities, University of Bedfordshire (UK); Pastor Emeritus, LCMS

My article on the 2010 Oberammergau Passion Play appeared in my book, Christ As Centre and Circumference There I pointed out that, though a “Passion Play groupie, . . . I shall probably not attend again.” But I did, and the present article deals with the pluses (a few) and the minuses (a lot) relevant to the 2022 production. To learn the reason why I attended still again, the reader will have to continue to the end of this short article.
First, the upside. The music (orchestra, choir, and soloists) was simply magnificent, and can be purchased on a CD for one’s delectation at home. The interspersing of Old Testament tableaux (as in previous performances) well relate the events of Christ’s life to his prophetic past.
Now, the other side of the coin (Matthew 22:21).
(1) The second half of the Play now takes place in the evening, but no theatre lighting is provided. Thus, it is now impossible to follow half the text using the Play Book. An interlinear German-English text would be most helpful, particularly when the dialogues are spoken very rapidly.
(2) Costuming was dull, in contrast to the generally bright and impressive costumes of past seasons. It was often difficult to identify characters from their costuming. The Romans looked especially strange.
(3) Scenes of breathtaking conversational dullness, e.g., “Jesus in Bethany.
(4) Bizarre historical additions, such as lengthy discussions and interchanges between Pilate and Caiaphas. (Is it really likely that the Roman governor would have bothered to discuss the fate of Jesus in detail with the Jewish high priest?)
(5) Nicodemus is given a political role far distant from what appears in the Gospel records, and nothing whatever is said as to his critical encounter with Jesus in John 3, where Jesus imparts to him of the central gospel teaching of new birth.
(6) The portrait of Judas dominates the Play to such an extent that he, and not Jesus, virtually becomes its focus. Judas is presented as a disappointed idealist and martyr who wants war against the Romans and comes to reject Jesus’s quasi-pacifism. Judas’s suicide scene was particularly awkward.
(7) Overblown attempts are evident to make the Play more “Jewish” by the introduction of Hebrew phraseology, a menorah, etc., in a painfully obvious attempt to avoid the (unjustified) antisemitic criticisms leveled at previous versions of the Play. (Granted, Hitler attended during the 1934 season and attempted to use the event to denigrate the Jews—but the chief source of the current antisemitic detractors of the Play is simply the heavy reliance of the earlier, classic versions of the Play text on the Gospel of John, where the expression “the Jews” is often used generically. It should be obvious that this phraseology was hardly a racist provocation, the Gospel’s author being himself a Jew!)
(8) Omission of critical theological material, e.g., no words of institution of the Eucharist (“Verba”) whatsoever in the scene of the Last Supper.
(9) Not a single one of Jesus’s miracles is presented in the Play. Particularly indicative of the desire to eliminate the miraculous was Peter’s cutting of Malchus’s ear (an event, not so incidentally, recorded in all four Gospels). Instead of Jesus’s miraculously restoring the ear, he merely “touches the ear of Malchus.” No miracles, but the appearance of an “Angel” from time to time. (Apparently, angels are less offensive to a secular audience than a miracle-working, salvatory, divine Jesus.)
(10) No resurrection for a triumphal conclusion to the Play. The stage is replete with people holding lighted candles, but no Jesus. An apparent explanation is given in the Foreword to the Play Book: “The tribute to the celebration of light during the Easter Vigil Mass, the music and reserved visual staging emphasize the character of the numinous and incomprehensible holiness. Thus, the final scene of the play emphasizes the theological principle: the resurrection is a ‘mystery of faith.’

In point of fact, it is no such thing. The New Testament documents, written by eyewitnesses or close associates of eyewitnesses, present the resurrection as precisely the same kind of historical event as the ministry, trial, and crucifixion of Christ. After his Easter resurrection, Jesus appeared physically even to one who did not believe he had risen (Thomas—John 20), and the resurrected Jesus eats with his disciples (Luke 24).
The responsibility for the now essentially humanistic portrait of Jesus in the Passion Play is especially due, as with the productions in 2000 and 2010, to Prof. Dr. Ludwig Mödl (on behalf of Cardinal Archbishop Marx). The Play thus provides sad evidence of how rationalistic biblical criticism has impacted the Roman Church, no less than mainline European Protestantism.
So why did I brave the ghastly German rail system to attend the Oberammergau Passion Play—for the seventh time? My dear Canadian wife Carol, years before we were married, signed up for a European tour to the Passion Play. The travel agency’s tickets turned out to be bogus, so she was never able to attend the Play. I therefore decided to remedy that situation in 2022.
My suggestion to future revisers of the Oberammergau Passion Play is to do a production focusing on a criminal or criminals who would have the affrontery to cheat Christian believers by selling counterfeit tickets to a play that is supposed to present God’s self-sacrifice for the sins of the world. Their theatrical labors could then not avoid the central message of gospel truth and the reality of heaven, hell, and everyone’s need for salvation, not just our longing for social peace and political stability.

  1. (Bonn, Germany: Verlag fuer Kultur und Wissenschaft/Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), pp. 562-64.
  2. On the 2022 Play in general, see Anne Fritsch, Pledge & Play: How the Passion Play in Oberammergau Changes a Village and Impacts the World, trans. James J. Conway (Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2022).
  3. 2022 Passion Play [English text] (Gemeinde Oberammergau), pp. 24-37.
  4. Ibid., pp. 99-113.
  5. Ibid., p. 71.
  6. Ibid., p. 8.