Gibson, Stern and Latin

Coby Lubliner

During the last week of February 2004 the American media devoted a lot of space to two events in the realm of popular culture: the release of Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” and the cancellation of Howard Stern’s call-in show by Clear Channel Communications.

Except for the fact that Gibson and Stern are both rich white men born in New York State in the mid-50s, there appears to be no relationship between the two events.

A small but important aspect of Gibson’s film got quite a bit of coverage: the use of Aramaic (by the Jews) and Latin (by the Romans) as the languages of the film. No one seems to have questioned the authenticity of Aramaic, and there is no doubt that it would have been the native language of a Galilean Jew such as Jesus of Nazareth. But it seems to be well established that in Judea the spoken language at the time was still Hebrew; even a century later, Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi – who lived in Galilee – hired a Judean maid so that his children would grow up speaking Hebrew. Since the film’s action takes place in Jerusalem (the capital of Judea), Aramaic would have been spoken only between Jesus and his fellow Galileans, or by Jesus to God just before he gave up the ghost (as quoted by Matthew and Mark, though Luke and John have different reports), but not between Jesus and the local Jews, or by the latter among themselves.

As regards Latin, on the other hand, several specialists have pointed out that the language of most of the “Romans” in Judea at the time, as well as of the Jewish upper crust, is more likely to have been Greek. (During most of the Christian era, until the independence of Greece, Greeks were called Romans – Romaioi in Greek and Rum in Turkish – and spoken Greek was called Romaic.) But Gibson seems to have an affinity for Latin; he is, after all, an adherent of a Catholic sect that rejects the reforms of Vatican II, the most notable of which was the elimination of Latin from the liturgy, so that he probably prefers Pater noster and Ave Maria to “Our father” and “Hail Mary.”

And since the Latin-speaking Roman soldiers in the film get to wreak a great deal of violence, perhaps violence-prone Gibson fans will be inspired to learn Latin as well. And a video game called “Crucifixion” (or maybe “Krucifiction,” for trade-mark purposes), with sound effects in Latin, can’t be too far off.

With the Stern show, the straw that seems to have given Clear Channel severe back pain was the use by a caller of a “crude racial epithet for African Americans,” as at least one journalist put it. I can only speculate (full disclosure: I don’t listen to Stern’s show any more than I go to see Gibson’s movies), but most probably the term in question was the Latin word for “black” in its masculine form. (When the word is written in English, the middle consonant is doubled in order to keep the first vowel as in Latin so that the word rhymes with a synonym for “larger” and not with the name of a big cat, and to avoid confusion with the name of an African country that did not ship nuclear materials to Iraq. But we’re talking oral use here.)

I have long believed (with no real evidence to back it up) that the use of this word in preference to the more standard term – the Spanish-Portuguese word for “black” – originates in the fact that among eighteenth-century English gentry (and their North American cousins) fluency in Latin was a matter of course – for all I know, there may still be public-school chaps who call their parents pater and mater – and its use was tinged with irony. It was only when the usage filtered down to the uneducated classes that the irony was lost and the word became an epithet.

Oddly enough, when Southern politicians and the like needed a less offensive term, they resorted to the feminine form of the adjective, used with no reference to gender. But then one would not expect to find among their ranks after the Civil War classical scholars such as John C. Calhoun.

Back to “The Passion of the Christ”: the movie is supposed to be based on the Gospel of Matthew. In that book the word “black” occurs only once, namely in the Sermon on the Mount (5:36): “Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.”

But, as I understand it (see full disclosure above), Gibson is not interested in the teachings of Jesus, only in his physical suffering; besides, the verse is one that the movie’s hair stylist might take the wrong way. Furthermore, even if Gibson had chosen to include (perhaps as a flashback) the Sermon on the Mount, that would have been in Aramaic.

Consequently, at least this time moviegoers are spared from hearing “black” said in Latin, and if the movie has provoked protests, they are not over racial epithets but rather over racial stereotypes that some commentators have compared with the Nazi variety.

But if this Latin thing catches on, who knows? A movie based on Revelation, for example, might have “and I beheld, and lo a black horse” (6:5) or “the sun became black as a sackcloth of hair” (6:12). (You can find the Vulgate text here.) The fun may be only beginning.

March 3, 2004

© 2004 by Jacob Lubliner

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