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What Is a Passion Play?

By Kathy Heydasch
Updated May 17, 2024
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A passion play is a dramatic performance of the trial and death of Jesus Christ which occurred in the first century AD. From the Last Supper to the Crucifixion, a passion play attempts to dramatically represent the passion felt by Christ during this trying time. Passion plays have been around for centuries, with the oldest written passion play dating back to the 1700s. They are also performed worldwide, often with great fanfare and part of longstanding tradition.

This depiction of Jesus immediately prior to his death is a traditional part of many Christian denominations. It is also usually during Easter that passion plays are performed. Good Friday represents the day on which he was crucified, and Easter Sunday represents the day on which Christians believe Jesus Christ rose from the grave.

According to the New Testament, the arrest of Jesus took place in the garden of Gethsemane after a betrayal by the disciple Judas. He was arrested by Temple guards after The Last Supper, during which he gave his final sermon. Christ was subsequently sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, flogged, and then hung and crucified between two thieves.

The crucifixion of Christ is generally believed to be an actual historical event. It is described in all four of the Gospels and verified by contemporary sources. Whether he was the Son of God and/or the Messiah remains an item of discussion in modern theology.

Passion plays are sometimes the target of criticism if the depiction of Jews is deemed to be hostile. This was the case when Mel Gibson released the movie “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004. Gibson directed the drama and was accused of an antisemitic bias.

The longest-running passion play dates back to 1634 in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau. This play still survives today, and over half of the residents in the town participate in the production. It is believed that the town's residents pledged to God that if he would save them from the bubonic plague, every ten years they would produce a play that depicted Jesus' life and death. Once the death rate began to subside, the residents kept their vow and there has been a passion play once every ten years ever since.

The word passion is used to describe very strong emotions toward something. Jesus Christ is believed to have demonstrated great passion during his trial and crucifixion, hence the title of the plays. His strong beliefs about forgiveness are evident in his reported forgiving words from the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

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