Jots & Tittles
Ancient Aramaic Lives! (On the Big Screen)
Imagine the surprise of Bible scholar and archaeologist William Fulco when, while quietly logging ancient artifacts in his Jerusalem office one day last summer, he got a phone call out of the blue, from a man he didn’t know, named “Mel.”
“Hey Padre. It’s Mel. I have a project for you.”
The brash caller turned out to be no less a personage than Mel Gibson, the superstar Hollywood actor and director. He wanted to recruit Fulco, a professor of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Jesuit priest (hence the “Padre”), for what promises to be Gibson’s most ambitious, and certainly his most controversial, film to date: a retelling of Jesus’ last 12 hours, filmed entirely in the languages spoken in first-century Palestine. Fulco’s job: Translate the film’s screenplay from modern English into first-century Aramaic—the language Jesus spoke—and Latin (for the Roman characters).
“I figured he’d gone mad,” says Fulco, describing his first reaction to being recruited for such an unusual task. But the project was so intriguing he couldn’t refuse.
The film, called The Passion, won’t be released until Easter 2004, but it is already generating a lot of controversy. In a September 2002 news conference a confident Gibson, who is directing (though not acting in) the film, told reporters, “They [studios and distributors] think I’m crazy, and maybe I am. But maybe I’m a genius.”
For Fulco, translating the screenplay into the vernacular of first-century Palestine was no simple matter. Although there are plenty of examples of written Aramaic (including some Dead Sea Scrolls), there are precious few clues about what the spoken language actually sounded like in the first century—so a certain degree of linguistic invention was required.
In creating a reasonable facsimile of first-century spoken Aramaic, Fulco began by extrapolating backward from modern Aramaic dialects such as Syriac, which are still used as the liturgical language of some Christian communities in the Middle East. But since, he says, modern Aramaic probably differs from the Aramaic Jesus spoke as much as (or more than) modern English differs from that of, say, Chaucer, he also worked forward from Old Testament books like Daniel and Ezra, parts of which are believed to have originally been written in Aramaic. He used the medieval Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible, which, unlike the earliest manuscripts of the Bible, includes vowels along with consonants, thus recording one tradition about how the words should be pronounced.
“I aimed for … somewhere between the possible and the plausible,” Fulco says. “When the film is viewed by lovers of Aramaic of whatever variety, I await everything from bemusement to outrage.” However, modern Aramaic-speaking Eastern Chaldean Christians—of which small communities exist throughout Turkey, Iran and Syria—have expressed nothing less than delight at the prospect of a major film in their tongue: One e-mail correspondent told Fulco, “Praise God! Hay
Gibson’s idea, Fulco explained to a BBC interviewer, is to make the audience “flies on the wall … witnesses, as authentically as possible, to the events.” Although news reports on The Passion have cited Gibson’s 011intention to release the film with no subtitles, Fulco revealed to BR that the theatrical release most likely will have them.
Gibson has said he wants The Passion to have an authenticity that is lacking from most film adaptations of the Bible; he does not want to create another “cheesy Hollywood epic.” Gibson explained: “Many people have told the story but … it’s like looking at it from the wrong end of the telescope. I mean, Jesus either suffers from bad hair or it’s inaccurate or you don’t believe it.” Using Aramaic in his film is only one example of how Gibson is striving for authenticity. Another is opting for a less-well-known, multinational cast instead of big Hollywood names.
Gibson, whose films (such as the Oscar-winning Braveheart) are known for their graphic violence, is also bringing a high degree of graphic realism to his portrayal of Jesus’ torture and crucifixion. According to Fulco, the crucifixion scenes will be “quite brutal.”
The main source Gibson used in writing the screenplay, besides the gospels, is a gruesome account of the Passion told by an 18th-century German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, based on a series of mystical visions she had. After her death, her visions were compiled into an 1833 book, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The book describes in harrowing and graphic detail such things as the wounds inflicted by the executioners’ whips and Jesus’ agony in being nailed to the cross. Gibson, a devout Catholic, hopes his film, too, will force viewers to confront the intensity of Jesus’ suffering and, thus, the extent of his sacrifice.
Despite Gibson’s efforts to create an authentic first-century setting, the film will depart from strict historical accuracy in some ways—one of which alert BR readers may have already caught: the decision to film Roman dialogue in Latin instead of Greek. Even though Latin was the language of Rome itself, Greek was the urban lingua franca of the Eastern Mediterranean in the first century; but Gibson decided to have Pontius Pilate and his Roman minions speak Latin—for two reasons: It would be more familiar to more people nowadays than Greek; also, since many of the cast members were Italian, they already knew Latin, and spoke it uniformly, because it is part of their regular education.
“It was the overriding desire of Mel Gibson and the entire crew to convey to the viewer the meaning of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Fulco says. “It was not their intention to do a documentary. They sought to move the heart rather than the head, although there is much in the film to do both.”
Fulco still doesn’t have any idea how Mel Gibson chose him for the job of Aramaic translator. Fulco resisted asking the director because, he says, “it’s more fun not to know.”
The Original Bible Belt
Ancient Mesopotamia—heart of the Fertile Crescent and the cradle of civilization—is the subject of a major exhibition, Art of the First Cities, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. On display are nearly 400 objects, including cylinder seals and tablets, weapons, jewelry and sculpture—loaned from 50 museums throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The exhibition traces the origins of urban culture and art in such city-states as Troy, Mari, the cities of the Indus Valley and Ur (according to Genesis, the home of Abraham and the Israelites). Many objects are leaving their home countries and home museums for the first time ever. Above is a gold and lapis lazuli lyre panel from 25th-century B.C. Ur, decorated to look like a bull’s head. The exhibition will run until August 17. For more information visit www.metmuseum.org
The Bible in the News
It seems there is hardly a wall to be found without somebody’s handwriting on it. According to numerous reports in the popular press, politicians and sports figures and pop stars of all sorts are prone to viewing this phenomenon.
The first to witness the “writing on the plaster of the wall” was, according to Daniel 5, the Babylonian king Belshazzar. The king summoned assorted royal diviners and wise men, but they were unable to read the cryptic message. That task fell to Daniel, “one of the exiles of Judah,” who, inspired by the Most High God, interpreted the enigmatic writing “Mene, Mene, Tekel and Parsin” as an indication that the king had been weighed (tekel) and found wanting. His empire’s days were numbered (mene); it would soon fall and be divided (parsin) among others.
Most “handwriting on the wall” references in the press make no explicit reference to the biblical passage. Sometimes, it is nestled among other “gloomy clichés,” such as “the ship was sinking fast” and “the fat lady was doing her scales.” Other examples defy easy categorization, such as a report in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer titled “Bar Patron Sees Handwriting on Wall, Sues,” about a woman who became incensed over the number of “good times” that scattered graffiti claimed she had provided.
The illegibility of the biblical handwriting may be alluded to in stories such as these: “Perhaps recognizing the handwriting on the wall, Palm Inc. is changing the handwriting input component of its Palm operating system for hand-held organizers.” From sports: Patriots’ fullback “Marc Edwards saw the handwriting on the wall and knew he didn’t speak the language.” And from schools: “Teachers See the Handwriting on the Wall, but Who Can Read Today’s Penmanship?”
The biblical connection is clearer to Bryan Miller, former Bank of America president and currently president of an evangelical Christian school, who seems very certain that his sources are as good as Daniel’s: “It wasn’t skywriting,” he told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “But there were things to me that were better than that. We’d like the handwriting on the wall or audible voice. None of that happened, yet I was just as assured of God’s will.”
During the build-up to the recent Operation Iraqi Freedom, the press included a number of references to “handwriting on the wall” as something that Saddam Hussein should read or that should give his high-ranking military commanders pause. For the most part, such references are quite general. But a few drew a line between the ancient Babylonian king and the present Iraqi dictator. Thus, we find this opening sentence for a story in the Chattanooga Times Free Press titled, “Saddam: ‘Handwriting on the Wall’”: “Iraq’s vicious Saddam Hussein has seen ‘the handwriting on the wall.’ He has, indeed, been ‘weighed in the balances and found wanting.’” Elsewhere, the same author, Lee Anderson, in an article titled, “Nebuchadnezzar or Belshazzar?” writes: “Saddam Hussein has the ambition of being a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar. The United States must assure that, instead, he becomes a modern-day Belshazzar … Saddam, like Belshazzar, must have his kingdom taken from him.”
Unfortunately, even respected sources cannot always be relied upon. Thus, a Los Angeles Times commentary, titled “Nebuchadnezzar Shows the Way: Saddam Hussein’s Hero Swallowed Pride (and More) in Accepting Exile,” misidentifies the biblical king in whose reign the handwriting on the wall appeared and is also in error about the monarch’s fate as an exile. Even though this story’s advice to Saddam to go into exile may have been excellent, its biblical basis was as shaky as, it turns out, Saddam’s Hussein’s hold on the Iraqi people.
Ancient Aramaic Lives! (On the Big Screen)