Why is Aramaic considered a dead language

March 26, 2004

Dead languages ​​- living images

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" mystifies the religious codes

Charles Martig

Because of the indignant journalism in the feature sections of the leading media, Mel Gibson's film about Jesus initially came under massive anti-Semitic suspicion. After the German theatrical release, the accusation was added that he indulged in "pornography of violence". However, the massive criticism overlooks the fact that the film is supported by a deep conviction of the director and producer Mel Gibson. Even if this appears to be politically incorrect and is placed in the corner of Christian fundamentalism in Europe, the film cannot be denied a certain radicalism. The relationship between dead language and living iconography shows where the power center of the film lies: in the mystification of religious codes.

A fundamental decision by Mel Gibson is that his Jesus should speak the same language as the historical Jesus around 2000 years ago. This language is Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language related to Hebrew and classified as a "dead language" by linguistics. However, Aramaic still exists in the Middle East today, where it is spoken in dialect by a few people. In the 8th century BC, the language was spoken from Egypt to Asia and Pakistan. It was the main language in the great Assyrian empire, in Babylon and later also in the Chaldean empire and in Mesopotamia. Aramaic was also widespread in Palestine and replaced Hebrew as the most important language between 721 and 500 BC. Many Jewish laws were drafted and transmitted in Aramaic. It had a central position in education and trade, comparable to the importance of English today. Aramaic also formed the basis for the Talmud. It is believed that Jesus spoke and wrote in Western Aramaic, the dialect of the Jews at the time. Language has played a prominent role in conveying religious ideas for both Jews and Christians. Franz Rosenthal characterizes this fact in the "Journal of Near Eastern Studies" (1978):

"In my view, the history of Aramaic represents the purest triumph of the human spirit as embodied in language (which is the mind's most direct form of physical expression) over the crude display of material power. (...) The language continued to be powerfully active in the promulgation of spiritual matters. It was the main instrument for the formulation of religious ideas in the Near East, which then spread in all directions all over the world. (...) The monotheistic groups continue to live on today with a religious heritage , much of which found first expression in Aramaic. "


Ancient languages ​​are raised

Gibson's advantage is that he turned to specialists for the phonetic design of his film. An expert on Aramaic and ancient Semitic cultures, Father William Fulco of the Chair of Mediterranean Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, translated the script into Aramaic for the Jewish characters and Vulgar Latin for the Roman characters. He also acted as a dialogue coach on the set. In addition, the pronunciation of today's Aramaic dialects was included in order to create the most authentic acoustics possible. In Latin, the pronunciation is based on Italian phonetics.

If you keep in mind that the original concept was to show the film only in these ancient languages ​​and to dispense with subtitling, it becomes clear what expressiveness and function language has in film. There is a paradox in the effect of the dead languages: On the one hand, they are proof that the film is as close as possible to the world around 30 AD and creates a space of experience that signals authenticity. The opposite is the effect that 99 percent of the audience do not understand the languages ​​spoken in the film and therefore do not respond to them cognitively, but emotionally and associatively. The power of Aramaic for the intellectual expression of religious ideas, as Rosenthal described it, is reversed here. Above all, Aramaic makes a contribution to the development of a mystical aura around the figure of Christ. The effect is comparable to the use of "Elvish" in the trilogy "Lord of the Rings" by Peter Jackson. The language of the elves is used to characterize a group of figures that are actually out of this world. Against the background of this popular myth, the Aramaic-speaking Jesus in Gibson's film should also be understood, whose language already seems far removed for today's audience. Seen through the eyes of a "Lord of the Ring" fan, he is actually more of a mythical creature than a historical figure.


Mystifying and archaic effect

Gibson harnesses the tension between authenticity and rapture. For him it is about putting his Christ in the authentic time. At the same time he emphasizes the divine side of the main character and his superhuman possibility of suffering so strongly that he was probably in the disputes of the 3rd and 4th centuries after Christ, in which it was about the relationship between the human and divine nature of Jesus Christ - as a follower of a heresy would have been judged. Contrary to the dictum of a large number of film critics who read the use of ancient languages ​​as a claim to authenticity, the main effect of Aramaic is above all the mystification and archaization of the story of the crucifixion. It is not the intellectual debate that is required here, but the emotional experience of suffering as a great secret. The Aramaic and Latin languages ​​thus become the code for a religious identity model. This model postulates that Christian belief is not based on the mind but on the "Mysterium Corpus Christi". The mystery consists in the fact that a religious community identifies with the body of Christ - and thus also with his path of suffering. This turn to the sacred as a mystery is religious because it opens up a direct reference to a transcendent horizon that transcends the world that can be experienced.

The turn to the sacred as a mystery is also a link back to archaic sacrificial mechanisms, as described by René Girard in "The Sacred and Violence" (1987). The scapegoat mechanism, which is based on the fact that an innocent victim is killed and then appears to be holy through the effect of the myth, also applies to the "Gospel according to Mel Gibson". The fascination for the blood sacrifice is so strong in the cinematic gaze and in the narrator's perspective that the hyperrealism of violence, the destruction of the body and the outflow of blood seem logical from his point of view. With Girard, however, the film would be countered by the fact that it exaggerates the main character's story of suffering and conceals the mechanism of violence that lies behind it. In fact, the Roman law enforcement agency carried out the killing and, through its hegemony in Judea, caused it. In the film, however, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate appears as a level-headed ruler who gives in to the people and the agitating high priest Caiaphas and who is forced to pronounce the death sentence. Gibson has here unreflectedly adopted and exaggerated the view of the Gospels. The accusation of anti-Semitism seems justified here. As a director and devout Christian, Gibson moves in a delusion context that blinds him to the dangers of mystification. In addition, the archaization of the cinematic language concept has a much more lasting effect. With the connection to Aramaic and Latin, the connection of the Christian faith to the understanding is no longer possible. What Gibson shows is no longer rationally comprehensible, but can only be experienced as a "secret of faith", directly accessible in the archaic original state, so to speak.


Iconographic search for traces

Images of Christ on the cross, which explicitly address suffering, go back to the late Middle Ages. Even then, blood mysticism played a central role. An example of this is the depiction of the crucifixion of the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, which was created between 1505 and 1516 for the Antonite monastery in Isenheim and can now be seen in the Unter den Linden museum in Colmar. Here the expression of the suffering on the cross is increased to the stream of blood that flows down at the feet of Christ. Together with the cult of relics, the mysticism of blood was kept alive in the Catholic folk religiosity until the Baroque period. In the Passion Play - from today's perspective large-scale religious events that served "propaganda fide", i.e. to make the faith known - the images of Christ covered in blood were passed on. In the German-speaking area, the Oberammergau Passion Play had a lasting effect on the liveliness of the blood iconography. In the Mediterranean region, the tradition of the passion play and its imagery has been preserved to this day. But images of the agony of crucifixion were also cultivated in high culture, to which the famous Bach cantata "Oh head full of blood and wounds" is a testimony. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger argues in a preprint of his aesthetic-theological publication "Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty" (2004) that the redeeming image of Christ includes the disfigured face of the crucified, he knows he is committed to a tradition:

"Beauty wounds, but it is precisely in this way that it awakens people to their highest destiny. I will never forget the Bach concerto that Leonhard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the death of Karl Richter. I sat next to the Protestant regional bishop Hanselmann. As the last note one of the great cantatas of the Thomas Cantor had faded away triumphantly, we looked at each other spontaneously and just as spontaneously said to each other: 'Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true.' In this music such an unheard-of force of reality had become audible that one no longer knew through inference, but through shock that this could not come from the void, but could only be born through the force of truth, which in the inspiration of the Composer currently sits down. " (Die Welt, March 18, 2004).

With this argumentation, the radical images of the suffering of Jesus in Gibson's film could basically also be justified. Not Cardinal Ratzinger himself, but the chairman of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, Archbishop Patrick Foley, did this in television interviews by praising the film as exemplary and recommending it as a meditation on the Passion of Christ. For outsiders who are neither familiar with the tradition of blood mysticism nor the popular religiosity of the Passion Play, this argument may sound absurd. But it is precisely this pictorial tradition that Gibson takes up and reanimates.


The real picture?

The archaic power emanating from the blood metaphor is combined with the mystifying quality of Aramaic and Latin. The power of the images increases with the hyperrealism of violence, because this stylistic device conveys the claim to authenticity: The aim is to show how a crucifixion really took place in Judea in the first century AD. The discourse of mystification is intertwined with the discourse of authenticity and beyond that with a claim to truth: "It really was like that!" This corresponds to the Pope's word "It is as it was", which was put into circulation by the production company Icon.

If you analyze Gibson's image of Christ in the context of the Jesus films, it is noticeable that he leans heavily on Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ". The figure of Christ on the cross is based on the same iconography of the blood-covered head under the crown of thorns. Correspondingly, it is also embedded in an environment that is heavily saturated with brown and ocher tones and which is often very cautious about the lighting - the so-called "low key". Scorsese shows the Passover festival as a sensual religious event based on the blood as a symbol of life, which ultimately turns into the crucifixion in the fate of Jesus. Gibson also starts from this blood symbolism, but uses it - and here the ways separate - in the sense of the late medieval blood mysticism. The crucial difference is probably the narrative perspective. Martin Scorsese was aware that he was telling a fictional story and asked the hypothetical question what would have happened if Jesus had not died on the cross. His narrative and aesthetic experimental arrangement was misunderstood and heavily criticized by many Christian churches. Scorse's achievement, however, is his critical use of iconographic traditions in a literary adaptation. At Gibson, the opposite approach is just visible. He adopts the Gospels without reflection, uses them to develop a fictitious collective text for his script and pretends that it authentically reproduces the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. The blood symbolism functions as a sign between image and meaning. Semiotically one could speak of an equation between the salvation-historical significance of the blood, which is shed for the forgiveness of sins for all people, and the image of flowing blood. This equation underpins the images' claim to authenticity. However, this claim does not allow any critical discourse about the images. This explains why the film is discussed bipolarly in public. In this use of image and language there is no "as well as", no subjunctive and no self-critical distance. This self-image of the director and the numerous viewers who identify with this image of Christ should be the fulcrum of the criticism. Against this background, the allegations of anti-Semitism and the brutality of the depictions of violence appear as sidelines.


Charles Martig is the managing director of the Catholic Media Service, a film journalist and co-editor of the media magazine.



Official website for "The Passion of the Christ" (with press materials from the film distributors):

Portal kath.ch: Collection of articles on "The Passion of the Christ":

Martig, Charles: Dossier "Jesus Christ - Film Star", with contributions by Thomas Binotto, Matthias Loretan, a.o. Zurich 1998-2004: http://www.kath.ch/film/jesus/default.htm

Isenheim Altarpiece: picture of the crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald, 1506-1515:



Everschor, Franz (2004): No good news. Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is causing a stir in America. In: film-dienst 6/2004: www.filmdienst.de

Everschor, Franz (2003): Passion in Aramaic. Early discussion of Mel Gibson's Christ film "The Passion". In: Medienheft, July 14, 2003:

Girard, René (1987): The Holy and Violence. From the French by E. Mainberger-Ruh. Zurich.

Hasenberg, Peter (2004): The Passion of Christ. In: film-dienst 6/2004: www.filmdienst.de

Jessen, Jens (2004): No mercy. Just blood, pain and hatred: Mel Gibson's unchristian Christ film. In: Die Zeit, March 4th, 2004.

Martig, Charles (2004): Love, Blood, Faith. In: Blick, 6.3.2004:

Ratzinger, Joseph (2001): The wounded beauty. The deformed face of the crucified one belongs to the redeeming image of Christ. In: Die Welt, March 18, 2004.

Rosenthal, Franz (1978): Aramaic Studies During the Past Thirty Years. In: The Journal of Near East Studies. Chicago, pp. 81f.

Schithals, Walter (2004): The glorification of violence is alien to the Bible. In: Die Zeit, March 25, 2004.

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