APRIL 8, 2004
The Passion of the Christ has jolted Aramaic from peaceful senescence to play for the largest audience in its history. As a Semitic philologist who studied with the same teacher as the movie's translator, Father William Fulco, I wondered how Aramaic worked in the film. Listening for Palestinian dialects, I encountered a stark linguistic mysticism instead.
Scholars have attacked the claim of authenticity the film stakes on its script: audiences were to believe that Aramaic was used by the common folk, Latin by the colonizers, and that these may have been the precise words Jesus spoke. Robert Alter, Geza Vermes and others criticized its Aramaic as a bastardization cobbled together with Hebrew, and its Latin (which we have no evidence Jesus, or the soldiers, spoke) as a theological hoax on the order of the Donation of Constantine.
But to understand the role of language in a religious artifact like The Passion, it is not enough to correct its grammar. Its very claim to be in the "original" Aramaic and Latin is, linguistically and theologically, most remarkable. And the experience of the movie may best be analyzed as that of a revival ritual, the point being to draw on the past to produce realities that never before existed.
Contemporary texts paint a bracingly cosmopolitan linguistic picture of first-century C.E. Jerusalem: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, with two of the three sometimes together, are inscribed all over the city. Latin was a foreign language, found in names and official terms but alien to speech. Jonas Greenfield, the great Aramaist from whom Fulco and I learned, compared the synagogues of Jerusalem to those of the old Lower East Side: both were packed with diaspora Jews, moving from language to language to find a common tongue.
This is not what the philologist hears in the film. The problem is not that the Aramaic is tainted with Hebrew-mixture is what readers of Galilean inscriptions, the Palestinian Talmud, or early Midrashic texts like Genesis Rabbah would expect. Nor is it that the actual dialogue sometimes sounds like it's read by first-year students -- this is probably about as well as actors can manage. The problem is the pretense of purity: the presentation of the languages of Palestine as Aramaic, on the one hand, and Latin, on the other.
What's behind this? Why does the movie represent a linguistically hybrid reality "in" one language -- and why Aramaic? Christological Aramaic is an old theological project. Dating at least as far back as Johann Albrecht von Widmanstadt's 1555 translation of the Syriac New Testament into Latin, the tradition claims that Aramaic (not Hebrew or Greek) is the key not merely to Jesus' cultural background, but to his ipsissima verba, and thus an unmediated experience of him. The attempt to paint the "Semitic" background of the New Testament as exclusively Aramaic, and Hebrew as a moribund, strictly liturgical language, corresponds to a theological polemic against Judaism as a "dead" religion serving the "letter of the law," not its living spirit.
In the movie, the only two lines spoken in Hebrew are quotations (though not in order) from the fixed Passover liturgy. This view avoids conclusive evidence for strains of spoken Hebrew in this period, found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Bar Kokhba documents, and early Rabbinic literature. Sadly, since Moshe Segal's groundbreaking grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew, the scholarly debate on this topic has split neatly along ethnic-religious lines. Most major studies of the continuing life of Hebrew are done by Jews, and the "Aramaic approach" to the original words of Jesus is the province of Christians.
But the movie's final irony and real religious novelty is how blood trumps language, via language itself -- a quintessentially mystical move. Like anyone transformed by a religious ritual whose words he did not understand, Gibson says he experienced the Latin mass as communicating not information but visceral religious experience. Thus, rather than the code-switching mixture of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek the texts present, the film gives us a combination of Latin and Aramaic that actually serves to produce, in Gibson's words, an experience that "transcends language" through sheer incomprehension.
Language here does not transmit true or false statements but disorients and disarms. It is part of a phantasmagoria of "authentic" detail designed to create a paradoxically authentic religious experience now, by projecting a modern vision into a fictional linguistic form. This attempted mystical union of filmed blood and written gospel is a bold, complex and strange form of ventriloquism.
Seth Sanders is Writer for Humanities, Religion and Arts at the University of Chicago and an editor of Cuneiform in Canaan:the Babylonian texts from ancient Israel; for a fuller version of this article see home.uchicago.edu/~sanders.