When I was an evangelical Christian, of the four gospels, the one I loved most was John's. Sure, Mark writes the tautest plot, Matthew charms with his Christmas story, and Luke betrays the compassion of a doctor for the sick. But John, in the most argumentative and dramatic of the gospels, unveils the Power and the Glory:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
And that gospel-in-a-nutshell, that bribe disguised as a gift of love, that verse memorized in Sunday School and thrust into the faces of unbelievers:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
So it was with some shock I heard John’s words again, in Bach’s Passion, and realized how anti-semitic the gospel is. The crowd, repeatedly called “the Jews,” bays for Jesus’ blood, despite Pilate’s insistence that he finds Jesus not guilty of any crime, and when Pilate offers to release him, the Jews ask for the release of Barrabas the murderer instead.
Charles Brink, the music director and conductor of the Grand Tour Orchestra performing the Passion, writes in the program:
Quite a lot has been written about the anti-semitic nature of St. John’s text, and the propriety of altering or preserving the words in modern-day performances. While not trying to explain away the disturbing elements of the text, I hope our performance will convey what I think are by far the most important messages in Bach’s St. John Passion—those of redemption, love, and forgiveness.
It is a hard decision to make, whether to alter or preserve the words, and I am not sure if I would decide differently if I were in Brink’s place. However, his explanation seems to exculpate Bach by putting the blame on John. According to Brink, the anti-semitism, “the disturbing elements,” belongs to John’s “text” while Bach’s Passion conveys the “most important messages…those of redemption, love and forgiveness.”
I think, in both John and Bach, the messages of redemption, love and forgiveness cannot be separated from the anti-semitism. John’s argument is that the Jews, by rejecting Jesus as their king, have given away God’s salvation to the Gentiles. Bach seemed to have understood in the same way the relationship between that rejection and his own salvation. His Passion orchestrates, and sharpens, that dramatic relationship he found in John’s text. As a Chorale puts it:
Christ, who makes us blessed
And has done no wrong,
Was seized for us like a thief
In the night,
Led before godless people,
And falsely accused,
Ridiculed, mocked and spat upon,
As is said in the Scriptures.
The artistic integrity of the Passion seems to me to depend on the dramatic confrontation between the Jews and Pilate over the fate of Jesus. And that integrity, with its unsavory underside, may be a better reason to preserve the words of the Passion.
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Passion According to Saint John
The Grand Tour Orchestra
Charles Brink, music director
Hélène Guilmette, soprano
Renée Lapointe, mezzo-soprano
Matthew Garrett, tenor
Randall Scarlata, bass-baritone
Conflitti di Voci Chorus
Sunday, March 25, 2007, 3 p.m.
St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church