Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs


Guidelines for Dramatizing the Passion of the Lord

Guidelines for Dramatizing the Passion of the Lord
Summary prepared by Ms. Celia Sirois
For complete text, Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion,  click here . 

Since the Middle Ages, dramatizing the Passion of Jesus has been, for Christian teachers, an effective way of conveying the central mystery of the faith. Such productions, however, combining as they do theological reflection and historical reconstruction in an artistic form, must be undertaken with due caution. The same dramatic power that makes them able to impart the extent of Christ’s love so effectively can as forcefully serve to impute to all Jews of all time the responsibility for Christ’s death. Mindful of this, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has, in a number of documents*, offered practical guidelines for dramatizing the Passion of Jesus. What follows is a digest of their directives, which apply as well to the Stations of the Cross.

The overriding preoccupation of any dramatization of the Passion must be, in the words of Ellis Rivkin, not who killed Christ, but what killed Christ, namely, our sins.

Those scripting a Passion play must use the best available biblical scholarship to elucidate the gospel texts which were not written to preserve historical facts so much as to proclaim the saving truth about Jesus.

Harmonizing the four accounts of Jesus’ Passion — i.e. constructing a single story of the Passion by combining elements from the four gospel versions — risks violating the integrity of the texts, each of which offers a distinct theological interpretation of Jesus ’ death.

Because of the nature of the gospels, the choice of what gospel passages to use in the making of a Passion play must be guided by the Church’s teaching that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God as if this followed from Sacred Scripture” (Nostra Aetate 4). The claim that a passage is “in the Bible” does not suffice to justify its inclusion.

As ignorance of Judaism often leads to misinterpretation of events, the complexity of the Jewish world of Jesus must be carefully researched and correctly represented; e.g., it is important to know that the high priest was appointed by the Roman procurator.

Crowd scenes must represent this rich diversity and reflect a range of responses to Jesus among the crowd as among their leaders.

The Jewishness of Jesus and his followers must be taken seriously. They must be portrayed as Jews among Jews and not set apart by means of costuming or makeup.

Stereotypes of Jews and Judaism (e.g. depicting Jews as avaricious) must be avoided. [This is especially important in portraying Judas, whose name means Jew, and who is given money for betraying Jesus.]

The Pharisees are not mentioned in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ Passion and therefore should not be depicted as responsible for his death. The Jews most directly implicated in the death of Jesus are the Temple priests.

Roman soldiers should be on stage throughout the play to keep before the audience the pervasive and oppressive reality of Roman occupation.

Problematic passages, like Matthew’s “his blood be on us and on our children” (27:25), that can be misconstrued as blaming all Jews of all time for the death of Jesus, should be omitted. As a general rule in these cases, the Bishops suggest that “if one cannot show beyond reasonable doubt that the particular gospel element selected or paraphrased will not be offensive or have the potential for negative influence on the audience for whom the presentation is intended, the element cannot, in good conscience, be used” (“Criteria,” p. 12).

* This is a digest of the Bishops’ teaching. Pertinent documents of the USCCB are “God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching” (1988) and “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion” (1988).