The Passion of the Christ (also known as The Passion) is one of the highest grossing films of all time. It was shown in 2004. The Passion of the Christ focuses on the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus on earth. It’s a biblical drama directed by Mel Gibson, largely based on the Gospels of John, Luke, Mark and Matthew.
The movie starts from the Agony in the Gethsemane Garden to the grievance and insomnia of the Mother of Christ, the brutal scourging of Christ and His crucifixion to His resurrection.
Clarity and linguistic authenticity
The production people of the movie endeavored to ensure the authenticity of the depiction of the environment and culture at that time, down to the languages spoken during the specific period in history.
Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic are the languages used in the dialogue.
In the movie, Jesus and His disciples spoke Old Aramaic. It was the daily language used by most Jews. On the other hand, Hebrew was spoken by the Jewish authorities, although in reality, this language was for religious use only. Latin was the language used by the Romans, while Koine Greek was spoken by the Roman Empire in the east. The Gospels were in Koine Greek as well, with several words and phrases in Aramaic included.
In the first few screenings of The Passion of the Christ, it did not have subtitles. The director later decided that for clarity’s sake, subtitles should be inserted, so that people would properly understand everything that is being said. People who have seen the film with and without subtitles said that the subtitles made The Passion of the Christ a better movie.
In order to make the dialogue clear for every moviegoer, Mel Gibson sought the help of Rev. William Fulco. He is a Jesuit priest who received his doctorate from Yale University. He used to teach Aramaic at Yale before transferring to Loyola Marymount University (in Los Angeles) where he teaches ancient Mediterranean studies.
Gibson sent the script to Rev. Fulco in 2002. Most of the script was based on the Gospels, and he was given the task of translating it into the three languages – Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew. He later translated the foreign language translations into English for the subtitles.
The movie depicts Palestine’s linguistic diversity during the time of Jesus, which is featured in the movie. Most of the population used Aramaic. The Jews that were imprisoned in Babylon adopted the language. Their original language, Hebrew, was relegated to liturgy and religious writings. In the movie, Jesus also spoke Hebrew when he was reciting the prayer called The Passion. The Roman soldiers in Palestine spoke Latin, while the entire Roman Empire was using Greek, which the Jews elected not to use because they believed it was a mark of secularization.
Rev. Fulco deliberately left out Greek and used Latin in the script, creating a distinction between the crude Latin spoken by the soldiers and the elegant Latin enunciated by Pontius Pilate. He said that he took the liberty to insert some linguistic playfulness in the script, which served to illustrate the communication gap between the Roman soldiers who were speaking in Aramaic and the Jewish people who were speaking in Latin. He said he intentionally created dialogue errors through the use of wrong endings for several words as well as wrong pronunciations to highlight the difficulty in communication.
In some of the verbal exchanges between Jesus and Pilate, the latter spoke to Jesus in Aramaic, which was supposed to be the mother tongue of Jesus. But to show that Jesus will not be beaten by Pilate, Jesus answered him in Latin.
Some modern linguists say that there were errors in the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. Rev. Falco counters that the language evolves so there would be differences between Old Aramaic and modern Aramaic.
Knowing the languages of The Passion of the Christ
To make things clearer, it is better to know a bit about these three languages featured in The Passion of the Christ.
Aramaic is a language of the Northwestern or Northern Central Semitic language group belonging to the family of Afroasiatic languages. It was one of the languages originally used by the Aramaeans, a group of ancient people in the Middle East. It is closely related to Phoenician, Syriac and Hebrew languages.
It was first used by the Aramaeans around the latter part of the 11th century BC and became the second language of the Assyrians in 8th century BC. The spread of the language was attributed to the huge deportations of its speakers caused by the Assyrians. Likewise, it was the lingua franca of the Babylonian merchants, thus, Aramaic became the lingua franca in the Middle East around the 7th and 6th centuries BC, replacing Akkadian. When the Achaemenian Persian dynasty ruled the region, Aramaic became the official language.
At its height, the Aramaic language had many variants that were spoken in different locations, which are known today as Northern Arabia, Eastern Arabia, Kuwait, Palestine, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Speakers are also found in some areas in northwest Iran as well as in south central and southeast Turkey.
When the region was conquered by Alexander the Great, Aramaic was replaced by Greek as the region’s official language.
Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus (Jesus Christ or Jesus of Nazareth), who was born in Judea, which was under the Roman Empire. He was a Galilean Jew and spoke the Jewish Aramaic dialect.
Many of the Aramaic dialects were retained in Syria and Palestine during Roman times. In 6th century BC, Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the language spoken by Jews. In fact, some portions of the Bible were written in Aramaic.
It was the everyday language of the Jews while Hebrew became the language of the upper class, the government and religion. The language continued to be used until 650 AD before it was replaced by Arabic.
In the early parts of the Common Era (CE or AD), Aramaic had two varieties – East and West. In several villages in Syria, West Aramaic is still spoken.
Notable among the East Aramaic dialects is Syrian, which became a literary language between the 3rd and 7th centuries. There are still small groups of Nestorian and Jacobite Christians in the Middle East that speak East Aramaic today.
Hebrew is another language of the Semitic language branch that is related to Moabite and Phoenician. It was the language used in ancient Palestine before it was replaced by Aramaic in the 3rd century BC. For a long time, Hebrew was only used as a literary and liturgical language. Surprisingly, Hebrew was revived in the 19th and 20th centuries and is now Israel’s official language.
The language has a long history. Biblical or Classical Hebrew was used in writing most of the Old Testament. During its Rabbinic or Mishnaic period, it was used as the language for the recording of the Jewish traditions or Mishna, which was not used as a spoken language of the people. In the Medieval Hebrew phase, its lexicon was enriched by words borrowed from various languages, including Arabic, Spanish and Greek. The fourth phase is Modern Hebrew, which is used today in Israel.
Biblical Hebrew can barely be found in the Bible and scholars attribute this to Masoretic editing. Other inscriptions of the biblical period that used Hebrew can be found in the Phoenician characters in the 9th century BC.
Latin is part of the Indo-European language family and is the root of the Romance languages of modern times. Latin used to be spoken by small communities living near the lower part of the Tiber River. The widespread use of the language was attributed to the rise of the political power of the Romans initially in Italy and then through the many areas in southern and western Europe and in the western and central regions along the Mediterranean coast of Africa.
For literary and scholarly purposes, Latin was widely used in the West, beginning from the Middle Ages until recent times. The Roman Catholic Church’s liturgy used Latin until late in the 20th century.
As one of the oldest languages in the world, Latin has undergone many phases and evolutions. It spawned the Romance languages. It was an oratorical and literary language, aside from being the language of the Catholic Church. It was the language of international communication, science and scholarship and was influential in the development of the languages spoken in the West.
Latin is still taught in different educational levels around the world.
The Passion of the Christ trivia
Aside from learning a bit about the film, The Passion of the Christ, you learned something about the languages that were used in the film. You might be interested to know some interesting facts about the movie as well.
Jim Caviezel starred as Jesus of Nazareth in The Passion of the Christ. The actor received a raised hairline and prosthetic nose for his role. He also had to wear brown contact lenses to hide his blue eyes. Mel Gibson, the film’s director, wanted to transform Caviezel’s image for the film and bring it closer to the local environment during that particular period. Several paintings showed Jesus Christ with blue eyes. In reality, people at the time of Jesus had brown eyes.
The actor suffered shoulder separation when he had to carry the 130-pound wooden cross, and the pain showing on his face during the time that he was carrying the cross was real.
He was also accidentally whipped twice during the filming and the actor said that the second one was more painful than the first, and it clearly showed in his body’s reaction and his facial expressions that were magnified on screen.
Lightning struck the film set several times during filming. There was a rumor that Jim Caviezel was hit by lightning while hanging on the cross but the production company did not confirm or deny the rumor. Jan Michelini, the assistant director confirmed that he himself was hit by lightning twice on the set of the movie.
The power of the movie caused several members of the production crew to convert to Catholicism. One was an Atheist by the name of Luca Lionello, who incidentally played the role of Judas Iscariot in the movie.
Even Mel Gibson said that several small miracles happened during the filming of The Passion of the Christ. He said the several people suffering from various ailments were healed. People having problems with hearing and sight were cured. He said one of the most significant was what happened to the six-year old daughter of a crewmember. She was born with epilepsy and used to have up to 50 seizures a day. After the release of the movie, the seizures of the little girl nearly disappeared. She is now coping with her ailment better.
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Image Copyright: Hans Memling [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons