Tom Pittman's WebLog

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2004 March 8 -- Passionate Language

I went and saw Mel Gibson's movie. My mother, who had conscientiously never darkened the door of a movie theater since she was a teenager in the 30s, wanted to see it, so I took her. She said her cataracts would keep her from seeing it, so she would just listen. I told her all the dialog was in Aramaic with subtitles, so listening wouldn't get much. She was able to see it just fine.

All the critics who tried to say it was anti-Semitic simply have not watched the movie. If it has any agenda at all beyond inducing in the viewers a warm fuzzy pious feeling at particularly Catholic religious moments (you can tell when they happen, because everything switches into slow motion), it was a tract against the abuse of power by those who have it.

Sure, some of the power structure in 30AD Jerusalem were Jews, but then so was Jesus and so also were the people in the crowd pleading for mercy for this "holy man." Others in the power structure were Romans, and the most evil and cruel abusers were the soldiers assigned to scourge Jesus. You could tell they were Romans because they spoke Latin, not Aramaic.

Perhaps my perspective is biased somewhat by my own struggle with power-abusing people. So I won't say any more on that topic. I'm somewhat into computational linguistics, so let's look instead at the language(s) used in the film.

Mostly it was Aramaic, which is authentic first-century Judea. Jesus spoke Aramaic, as quoted occasionally in the gospel records, and probably not any other language (Acts 21:37 quotes the Roman commander as surprised that any Jew would speak the trade language, Greek). There was no Greek spoken at all in the movie, that I could tell.

Pilate and his wife spoke to each other in Latin, which is appropriate, as also the soldiers speaking to each other. During the scourging there were some short one- and two-word phrases spoken off-screen with each stroke. They were not subtitled, and it took me a few seconds to realize that they were counting (in Latin) the strokes. The count got up to (I think it was) 31 or 32, then restarted at one when they switched to the nasty barbed lashes. When that count got up to nine (total 40), they were stopped by the commander, probably because 40 lashes was considered cruel and inhumane.

I studied Hebrew more than 30 years ago, and it's similar enough to Aramaic that I could make out one or two words in each sentence. Latin is much closer to the languages I do know that I was able to make out almost half of the words -- certainly enough to know which language they were speaking. What surprised me was how much (apparently accent-free) Aramaic the Romans spoke to the locals. How many American soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan know Arabic or one of the local languages? Almost none. They use translators. Educated people in the first century knew and communicated in Greek, and it's very likely that the real Pilate and Caiaphas spoke to each other in Greek, not a backwater language like Aramaic. The soldiers may have barked orders in pidgeon Aramaic, but certainly not the fluent complete sentences shown in the movie.

More interesting -- and this was probably completely missed by most of the viewers -- the private conversation between Jesus and Pilate started off in Aramaic, but switched to Latin for the heavy theological lines, including Pilate's contemptuous "What is truth?" ("Quod est veritas?") Gibson has Jesus speaking fluent Latin to Pilate! I suppose (especially in the docetic heresy accepted by most modern Christians) Jesus could have been able to do that, but I don't think he actually did know any Latin or Greek. It was the nature of the Incarnation as taught in the New Testament that Jesus laid aside ALL his divine attributes -- especially including omniscience [Mark 13:32].

And finally -- a nit really -- the titulum (inscription) over the cross we are told in the Bible was Aramaic and Latin and Greek, but in the movie it was only Latin and Aramaic (in that order). The lettering looked authentic (the Aramaic was very similar in style to the lettering on the James "brother of Jesus" ossuary), but there was no Greek at all. Oh well.

I doubt the Romans would have spent so much effort on smoothing their cross, the way it was in the movie. This was, after all, just the means of executing the scum of the earth. No ropes tying the arms up, just run the nails through the wrists, which can hold the victim's weight (the blood traces in the Shroud of Turin show wrist wounds, not in the palms), and no nice little foot-rest (one of the ossuaries recently found in Israel had a single nail sideways through both heels; the nail and a fragment of the cross was still there, because the nail had bent around a knot in the wood, so they could not remove it). The movie also showed them ripping off Jesus' outer garment, which the gospel record clearly tells us was not torn.

Obviously the movie was misogynistic, because it pictured Satan as a woman. Nonsense. But the snake coming out of her skirt in the garden and Jesus stomping on its head was a nice symbolism from Genesis 3:15.

It was fun looking for these historical trivia. I'm somewhat hemophobic, and it helped take my mind off the violence and gore.

A year later I had another opportunity so see the movie. Perhaps they edited it differently for DVD, or maybe I remembered it incorrectly above. After they switched to the nasty flesh-tearing scourges, the count went up into the 20s or 30 (but skipped a lot in between). Oh well.