Oberammergau’s “Passion Play”—How Close to the Bible?
By Awake! correspondent in the Federal Republic of Germany
OBERAMMERGAU is a pretty mountain village in Bavaria. Many of its inhabitants have let their hair and beards grow in preparation for a play in which they will participate this year. The play is a tradition based on what their forefathers did in 1633.
Back then a plague threatened to inflict havoc, and the inhabitants swore that if they were spared, they would periodically present what was called the Passion Play. The play was a custom that began in the Catholic Church several centuries earlier, and it portrayed the suffering and death of Christ.
The premiere in Oberammergau was held in 1634. The 350th anniversary was celebrated there during 1984, with performances attracting a total audience of 443,000, including visitors from all over the world. This year the play will be put on from May to September.
Along with hotels and restaurants, wood-carving and souvenir shops line the streets of the village. Indeed, many residents make their living from the play.
Why do so many come? “To me, it’s not theater,” one visitor noted. “It’s a religious service.” That is the way many view it, although it is the local village that now presents the play, not the church.
Playing to the Gallery?
Two clergymen created the more modern version of the play, one writing it in 1810 and another revising it half a century later. The script has been approved by the Conference of German Bishops and “adheres to the Gospel accounts,” claims one source.
However, over the years the producers have compromised the Gospels to avoid offending those of other religions, including Jews. So to a degree, applause from the gallery dictates the script today. For example, cut from the old script were passages revealing the Jewish leaders’ hatred of Jesus, including Matthew 21:43, where Jesus said to the Jewish religious leaders: “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and be given to a nation producing its fruits.”
God’s name, Jehovah, also fell victim to compromise, even though the script includes Jesus’ words to God: “I have made your name manifest to the men you gave me.” (John 17:6) For example, the 1960 script said that Isaac was intended for sacrifice “by the will of Jehovah.” But the 1984 script reads “by the will of the Lord.”
Not True to the Gospels
While the play portrays the events surrounding the arrest, conviction, and execution of Jesus, Biblical accuracy does not play a leading role. For instance, one part portrays events described in Tobias, an Apocryphal book that does not even belong in God’s inspired Word. (2 Timothy 3:16) And a number of times the word “Passover” is wrongly translated “Easter.”
Furthermore, Judas Iscariot is portrayed as an opportunist who was persuaded by the enemies of Jesus to betray his Master. But in reality it was Judas himself who took the initiative, driven by greed, to approach the chief priests. (Matthew 26:14-16; compare John 12:4-6.) Also, a comparison of John 13:21-30 with Matthew 26:20-29 shows that Judas must have left the room before Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. This is logical, as Jesus would hardly have made a ‘covenant for a kingdom’ with his betrayer. (Luke 22:29) In Oberammergau’s play, however, Judas is present at the Last Supper.
Discerning Bible Truths
A Bible student can discern certain Scriptural truths, or violations of them, in the play. An example is the phrase, ‘When worthily enjoyed/The holy bread of the new covenant preserves the soul from death.’ This is in harmony with the Bible’s teaching that the soul is mortal. A person who does not ‘worthily enjoy’ the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice will, of course, not have his soul preserved from death.—Ezekiel 18:20.
The true identity of Jesus can be discerned when, following his resurrection, he tells Mary Magdalene: “I am ascending . . . to my God and your God.” (John 20:17) From this it is clear that Jesus had a God. Thus, he could not be God, as Christendom’s Trinity teaching asserts. So here, when the script sticks to Bible terminology, it contradicts church teachings.
The play makes it possible to identify the Kingdom of God. Philip says to Jesus: “Establish God’s Kingdom in the whole world,” to which Christ replies: “What you wish will happen at the right time.” Jesus later adds: “I shall drink from the fruit of the vine no more until the time when the Kingdom of God comes.” And Thomas asks: “Will each have his own dominion assigned to him?” These conversations reveal that the Kingdom is God’s government for the earth, not simply everlasting life or something within a person, as many believe.—See Daniel 2:44; 7:13, 14; Luke 22:18; Revelation 5:10.
One of the closing scenes depicts the Jewish High Council unsuccessfully attempting to have Jesus’ corpse “thrown into the pit for criminals.” This phraseology is of interest. The Jews considered that criminals were unworthy of being placed in a tomb where God would remember them, and instead they threw their bodies into the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna), where a fire continually burned garbage. In the Bible, Jesus pointed to this location near Jerusalem as a symbol of utter destruction, a condition from which there would be no resurrection of the dead.—Matthew 18:8, 9.
It was not until later, following the apostasy from true Christianity, that Gehenna was coupled with the pagan idea of hellfire. The Oberammergau play betrays the influence of unbiblical tradition when it says: “From hell rise all the spirits,” and quotes the Lord as saying: “I will thrust Satan to hell.” So Bible teachings do not occupy center stage.
Not Promoting Bible Teachings
From May to September, Oberammergau villagers will play all the 1,700 parts in the six-hour drama. They will portray Jewish people, Roman soldiers, Jesus, Judas, and the apostles. And they will repeat the performance about a hundred times on the open-air stage in all kinds of weather.
The play will again attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. But will it encourage them to accept the resurrected Christ and God’s Kingdom, the only hope for solving mankind’s problems? No, for while God’s Kingdom is mentioned in the play, it remains obscure. And while the Devil is twice identified in the play as the ruler, or “Prince,” of this world, what will happen to him is not made clear. Thus, the play does not come to grips with the Bible’s key teachings, and it even contradicts some of them.
The Bible shows that Christ will soon remove Satan and his influence, the root of all evil, from human affairs. All evildoers on earth will also have been removed. Then will begin the Thousand Year Reign of God’s heavenly Kingdom over the earth. (Revelation 20:4, 6) This rule of God’s government will transform the earth into a paradise where obedient humans will live forever in perfect health and happiness.—Psalm 37:10, 11, 29; Romans 16:20.
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The Passion Play’s Roots?
Regarding passion plays, The World Book Encyclopedia comments:
“Passion play is a dramatic performance that presents the death and resurrection of a god. The ancient Egyptians performed passion plays devoted to the god Osiris. The ancient Greeks presented similar plays dedicated to the god Dionysus.”
Gemeinde Oberammergau, Haag
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Gemeinde Oberammergau, Haag