IS THE BACH ST. JOHN PASSION ANTI-SEMITIC?

From the film The Passion of Christ

​​VOX

By David Tang – Artistic Director, Firebird Arts Alliance and VOX

A Member of Firebird Arts Alliance

As Firebird Arts Alliance prepares to perform Bach’s St. John Passion, and in light of the recent rise in hate towards Jewish organizations and individuals, I feel a special need to address the question of anti-Semitism in Bach’s oratorio. In recent years, protests and boycotts have been staged outside performances of the work, decrying the negative portrayal of Jews in the St. John Passion, and I want to address the question head on.

Much has been written about the subject, and to tackle the question, scholars have explored anti-Semitism in the Gospel of John, then in Martin Luther’s translation of the original Greek, and finally in Bach’s musical setting of the Luther. The debate about anti-Jewish sentiment in John’s gospel seems ongoing; Martin Luther, who openly reviled Jews later in life, seems to have translated the original text with little bias. But what about the St. John Passion?

Undeniably, Bach portrays the Jewish mob in some of the most violent and dissonant music he ever wrote, but I believe that if taken in context, we find a very different perspective on “the Jews.”

The St. John Passion is a study in theological and musical extremes. In its driving, torrid opening movement, Jesus is hailed as the highest Lord and Ruler who will suffer the lowest degradation; vicious musical moments are interspersed with some of Bach’s most tender expressions of guilt, remorse, and piety. These extreme contrasts form the vivid backdrop for Bach’s central message: The Christian believer is the cause of Christ’s fate, not “the Jews.”

After Jesus is bound in the Garden of Gethsemane, the alto sings “From the bonds of MY sins…MY Salvation is bound. To heal ME from all the boils of MY sins, he lets himself be wounded.” For Bach’s congregant on that Good Friday in 1724, the indictment was clear – it is “I and my sins” that are responsible, not “the Jews.”

This theology and Bach’s music are both profoundly 18th century Lutheran, but I believe that great works of art like the St. John Passion can speak truth to all people, from all places and from all times.

For me, the St. John Passion offers more than a Christian world view. In it I also find a warning to all people, regardless of religion, race, or nationality, to stay vigilant against fear, small-mindedness, and hate. I believe the St. John Passion can inspire all people to examine our own shortcomings, not just those around us. And I hope that the piece will enable all of us to consider the unnerving possibility that love and self-sacrifice might be, as another song says, “what the world needs now.”