The bizarre story of Jesus spouting Aramaic to warn Missourians about the danger of a pro-stem cell initiative on the state ballot continues. An (unintentionally) wild Washington Times story provides further background on how the actor who played Jesus in The Passion came to intone pigdin Aramaic commanding the voters of the state not to “betray him with a kiss” (by voting for the initiative). Thanks to reader Tony for providing the link:
Actor Jim Caviezel opens the political ad [ed., watch video] with a brief statement in Aramaic, the common tongue of biblical-era Palestine and the language of Mel Gibson’s blockbuster movie, saying: “Le-bar nash be-neshak.”
Bill Fulco, the Loyola Marymount professor who translated Mr. Gibson’s script for “Passion” and coached the actors on the ancient language, told The Washington Times yesterday the phrase means: “You betray the Son of Man with a kiss,” a reference to Judas’ betraying Christ and a phrase used in the Greek of Luke’s Gospel.
The only problem is that this is not what the Aramaic means. What “Jesus” (or is it “Jim”) actually says is more like “Son of Man with a kiss.” The “you betray” part is missing. Since bar nash means “son of man” and be-neshak means ‘with a kiss,’ the only Aramaic word remaining in the sentence is le. And I assure my readers that “le” can in no way be construed as “you betray.”
I always say that there is a danger in resorting to evangelical professors of New Testament for expert opinions on subjects for which they have, at best, second-hand knowledge. The reason I say this is that we Jews have been studying the Aramaic text of the Talmud for several thousand years. It is practically in our blood. Not so with most New Testament scholars. I’m not saying that they are not knowledgable in what they teach. But they do not have that direct contact with a 2,000 year old tradition of Talmudic interpretations and study. And the result is this embarrassment.
At least, the group should’ve gotten a second confirming opinion from a non-evangelical, non-right-wing Talmudic/Aramaic expert.
* UPDATE: I asked one of my former teachers, Dr. Daniel Matt, an expert on Jewish mysticism who has published the defintive English translation of Sefer Ha-Zohar (from Aramaic) to comment on this matter. Though Danny takes issue with my characterization of Prof. Fulco’s abilities (a point I’ll freely concede since he knows him far better than I), he confirms my impression of the ad:
You’re right that the verb is missing. But the le- serves here to introduce a direct object. The actor apparently left out the verb but retained the le –, which indicates to me that he intended the complete verbal clause.
By the way Bill Fulco is not a fundamentalist. He’s a very good scholar of Aramaic. I don’t know why he overlooked the lack of the verb here.
Despite Danny’s endorsement, which I accept at face value, I’m puzzled why a serious scholar would allow his field of study to be apprpropriated and abused in domestic political debate. *
It is quite delicious to hear the thinking of the idiots behind this idea of using Aramaic to convince Missourians to rebel against stem cell research:
Cathy Cleaver Ruse, a spokeswoman for Missourians Against Human Cloning, which produced the ad, said the group had Mr. Caviezel say the Aramaic phrase in a contemporary setting but without subtitles “to make the ad a little more intriguing.”
When presented with Mr. Fulco’s translation, which was confirmed by several other Aramaic scholars, the group agreed to release the exact translation exclusively to The Times.
“It means ‘You betray me with a kiss,’ which means Amendment Two is a betrayal because it is deceptive,” Ms. Ruse said.
And of course it does not mean “you betray me with a kiss.” As I said above, it means roughly “son of man with a kiss.” And instead of “making the ad a little more intriguing” I’d say it made the ad off the deep end bizarre.
Oh and just in case anyone wanted to argue that I was uncharitable to evangelical New Testament professors, just listen to the political theology absolutely devoid of scholarship in these choice comments:
Tom Schreiner, a professor of New Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said yesterday Mr. Caviezel is implying the amendment may seem “loving and kind” to its supporters, but when read closely, it is “actually a betrayal.”
Nathan Jastram, a biblical scholar from Concordia University in Wisconsin, agreed, saying it implies “murder is being planned under the guise of compassion.”
“Just as Judas betrayed Jesus to death while testifying with a kiss that he was his friend, so stem-cell researchers are causing the death of embryos while testifying to the public that they are searching for ways to promote life,” he said.
I’d like someone to tell me what their so-called expertise in New Testament theology has to do with political pontificating about stem cell research? Because they know something about the Good Book means they understand how its particular theology translates to a contemporary political-scientific issue like stem cell research? C’mon, this is beyond bizarre.
The Washington Times boasts about the ad:
It has been played more than 160,000 times on YouTube.com since its release Tuesday night to the media.
Yeah, I watched it a few times last night. You’re going to probably watch it. Alessandra Stanley watched it before you sniffed at it in her NY Times TV commentary. Do they really believe that those 160,000 hits are coming from folks who plan to vote NO on the ballot initiative? Hell no, most of them come from folks like us who want to see what strangeness the conservative evangelical crowd can come up with next.
Almost miraculously, considering the media source, the Washnigton Times does give the last word to a rabbi who finds the ad in poor taste:
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue in Washington said he finds the Caviezel ad “distasteful.”
“There’s another religious approach that embraces research on stem cells because it saves lives,” he said. “There should be a discussion about that.”
They should’ve asked the good rabbi about the Aramaic as well.