February 10, 2004

The Passion

Actor Mel Gibson has produced a controversial new movie The Passion about the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ which will appear in theatres in two weeks. It is controversial for several reasons. Some people consider it to stimulate anti-Semitism by blaming the death of Jesus on the Jews. The Jewish community is divided on this issue. Some Protestants object to what they see as the mariolatry of the film. The Passion is being heavily promoted, and is seen by Gibson and others as an evangelical tool. It has been endorsed by Billy Graham and the Vatican.

The promotional web site is currently in 18 languages, including Aramaic and Latin. The Latin, by the way, begins with a little error: the title, intended to be "The Story", is L'Histoire, which is French; in Latin it would be Historia. It is worth checking out for novelty's sake; you'll learn, for example, that the ubiquitous FAQ ("Frequently Asked Questions") is Saepe Interrogata ("those things which are often asked").

From a linguistic point of view, the most interesting thing about the film (which I haven't seen) is the fact that the dialogue is in what Gibson believes to be the languages spoken in Israel 2000 years ago: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin. It isn't often that one gets to hear Aramaic spoken. Observant Jews still read Aramaic routinely as it is the language of the Books of Daniel and Ezra and of the Talmud, and a few prayers are recited in Aramaic. One of these is the Kaddish, the prayer of mourning. But as a spoken language Aramaic is on its last legs. Varieties of modern Aramaic are spoken by small groups, mostly Jews and Christians, in Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Israel. In most of these Aramaic is moribund. (Details can be found in the Ethnologue.)

The use of Aramaic as the main language of the film is authentic. Hebrew had passed out of daily use in most of Israel several centuries earlier. Although it continued to be used for religious purposes and continued to be spoken in a few areas, most people in Israel at this time spoke Aramaic. A man from Nazareth would have had Aramaic as his first language and Hebrew as a second language used largely for religious purposes.

What is not authentic is the use of Latin. By this time, Latin, originally the language of the area surrounding Rome, was spoken throughout Italy, though even there it had not entirely replaced the indigenous languages. In Pompeii, destroyed in 79 C.E., many of the street signs and graffiti are in Oscan, a language related to Latin but quite distinct from it. Latin had also spread to some areas colonized by Rome. However, in the Eastern Roman Empire, then as later, the lingua franca was not Latin but Greek. Greek was widely used throughout the Mediterranean area before Rome rose to power, and was extensively used in Rome itself. The upper classes were educated by Greek-speaking slaves and often spoke Greek among themselves. Other people often knew Greek through trade or by virtue of their contact with slaves, many of whom were Greek-speaking. As Rome spread eastward, the Roman army enlisted soldiers for whom Greek was the lingua franca. Thus, Greek was widely known in Israel and the surrounding area and was also the dominant language of the occupying Roman army. It is not an accident that most of the New Testament was written in Greek and that for the first few centuries most Christians read the Hebrew Bible in Greek. A high-ranking Roman like Pontius Pilate, educated in Rome, undoubtedly spoke both Latin and Greek, but very few of the local people spoke Latin.

It is a bit of a mystery why Gibson chose to use Latin rather than Greek in a film that otherwise goes to considerable lengths to be authentic. As far as I can tell, he hasn't offered an explanation. A guess is that it reflects the fact that he is a conservative Catholic, one who rejects the reforms of Vatican II and is reported to attend a Tridentine Mass, in Latin. The use of Latin may reflect his personal attachment to Latin as the traditional language of the Roman Catholic Church. It is true that Latin became the language of the Church, but the origins of that church are in Israel, not Rome, and at the time the dominant languages were Aramaic and Greek, not Latin.

[Update 2004/03/22: The Archaeological Institute of America has an excellant commentary on the historical accuracy of The Passion here. It concurs that the use of Latin is not authentic.]

Posted by Bill Poser at February 10, 2004 11:37 AM