Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"
and the Phenomenon of the Passion Play

The current controversy about the film produced by Mel Gibson and titled The Passion of the Christ that is being screened in some 2800 movie theaters from Ash Wednesday (February 25, 2004) may become more understandable in the context of historical perspective. The Mel Gibson film is not an innovation except insofar as it transfers a traditional form of drama to a new medium that will make it far more available. The passion play genre is a very old one.

The version at Oberammergau in Germany is highly relevant to current discussion of the film. It is performed there once a decade, most recently in 2000 and next in 2010. It has been at the center of continuing discussion, a discussion that became much more intense after World War II because knowledge of German persecution of Jews inevitably made the phenomenon of a passion play suspect and understandably attracted close attention to the details of the Oberammergau script. Analysis of the script (which was not exclusively derived from New Testament sources) motivated a number of scholars to appeal repeatedly during the last half-century for script revisions.

Because of its early history, its continuing influence, and the locale of its performance in Bavaria, the Oberammergau play attracts special notice. Some of these factors were treated in a book published in 2000: Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play, by James Shapiro. There is a brief review of the book online.

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