Passion and Persecution: The Music of Bach, the Gospel of John, and Religious Intolerance

A Community Discussion

J.S. Bach’s Passion According to St. John stands alone as a musical masterwork, yet reflects a dark history. The Gospel of John, with its vivid scenes of a Jewish mob urging the Romans to torture and execute Jesus, has been used throughout history as an excuse for virulent anti-Semitism. At a time when violent words and actions against Jews and other marginalized groups are once again on the rise, we feel that such themes cannot be ignored when mounting a performance of this challenging piece.

In advance of our performances in May, the SF Bach Choir will present a panel of four scholars who will illuminate the work’s historical and musical context, and will explore the impact of anti-Semitism during Bach’s time and beyond. We hope to appreciate how Bach’s artistic choices shape our experience of this horrific, yet inspiring and deeply human narrative, and in so doing develop some insight into our own prejudices and vulnerabilities in today’s world.

Attendees will be invited to join the conversation following the panel discussion.


Tom Hall (Moderator), Former music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, is co-author, with historian Michael Marissen and theologian Christopher Leighton, of The Bach Passions in Our Time, which examines the role that Bach’s St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion have played in the long history of religious intolerance.

Jonathan Sheehan, Co-founder and co-director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, UC-Berkeley, works on the history of European Christianity, with particular interest in the history of theology, religious violence and conflict, the challenges of religious diversity, and Christian Jewish relations from the Reformation onwards.

Kirsi I. Stjerna, Professor of Lutheran History and Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, is editor of the book, Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People: A Reader, which explores the place and significance of Martin Luther in the long history of Christian anti-Jewish polemic.

John Efron, Koret Professor of Jewish History at U.C. Berkeley, specializes in the cultural and social history of German Jewry. An expert in anti-Semitism, he will describe the world and culture of 18th century German Jews at the time that the St. John Passion was written.

At the Google Community Space in San Francisco, on the Embarcadero just south of the Ferry Building. Close to BART and Muni. Parking at 75 Howard St. and other lots nearby.