Sunday, April 18, 2004

MORE ON THE LANGUAGES of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. This morning the Scotsman has an article, "Gibson's Christ film is all Greek to me, says language expert", in which "Edinburgh author" Peter Burnett is interviewed. The only Peter Burnett I can find who fits this description is a children's author who won an award for his writing a couple of years ago. Excerpts:
Burnett, who studied Hebrew and Aramaic at Glasgow University, says the Romans in Jerusalem would have spoken Greek, the empire's common tongue, and not Latin.

Burnett, 33, said: "It's very Life of Brian to have the Romans speaking in Latin, and it's just downright absurd to have the Jewish people talking in Latin.

"Think of the letters of Paul and of the gospels - all written in Greek, the common tongue of the day and of the empire.

"The Latin is creative to say the least, and is given a strong Italian accent to draw it away from the Latin reading contests we remember from school.

"Jesus speaking Latin is also a joke as he doubtless didn't even know Greek, unlike his educated advocate, Paul."


It is the first time Aramaic, which has links to both Hebrew and Arabic, has been used in a Hollywood blockbuster.

But Burnett pointed out that there are only incomplete records of the ancient version of Aramaic Jesus spoke.

He added: "There is only one bit of Aramaic in the New Testament - 'Lord, Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?' - so they use that to great effect."

I'm afraid that last sentence is incorrect. First, it is not entirely clear that the transliterated words in question are Aramaic rather than Hebrew. There are textual variants as well as differences between Matthew's and Mark's renderings and the words could be taken as a mixture of the two languages. Second, the passage is misquoted: it's "My God, my God," not "Lord, Lord" (Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:34). Third, and more importantly, there are other words transliterated in the Greek New Testament which are clearly Aramaic, such as talitha koum in Mark 5:41 and maranatha in 1 Cor 16:22.

Also, it's worth noting that Jesus may have known some Greek (whether he did or not is debated by specialists) and that we have quite a bit of Aramaic in the Dead Sea Scrolls which is roughly contemporary with Jesus and which must be fairly close to the Aramaic he spoke.) The Romans may well have spoken Latin among themselves, although they would have used Greek when talking to the locals.

Once again, the journalistic mind baffles me. Why does the Scotsman go to a children's author to get authoritative information on the languages of first-century Palestine when there are people in Scotland who really are experts on the subject? Ahem. (And not just me, although this is directly in my line of research. Timothy Lim, Peter Hayman, and Richard Bauckham are all in Edinburgh or within a few miles.)

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