Q. Why did Mel Gibson decide that Jewish characters in his film, “The Passion”, should speak Aramaic?
A. He must have heard that Palestinian Jews of the time spoke Aramaic as their vernacular, but it is a complicated question and he was not necessarily right. More attention should have been given to the development within Hebrew of a more colloquial version which became Mishnaic Hebrew.
Hebrew and Aramaic are sister-languages; the name Aramaic comes from the place name Aram, describing a region from the mountains of Lebanon to the River Euphrates and from the mountains of Taurus to Damascus.
The Midrash (Gen. R. 18:4) expresses the Jewish belief that Hebrew was the original language, though there are Aramaic phrases in the Hebrew Bible; Jacob called a certain place “Gal-Ed” whilst his father-in-law Laban named it in Aramaic “Y’gar Sahaduta” (Gen. 31:47).
There is a great deal of Aramaic in the Books of Daniel and Ezra. The Jews exiled to Babylonia learned to speak Aramaic, but Ezra and Nehemiah urged the return to Hebrew as part of the restoration of the people to their own land. Much of the Babylonian Talmud is in Aramaic, as is Targumic and other material, though there are various Aramaic dialects.
Apart from the academic question of Aramaic v. colloquial Hebrew among Palestinian Jews of the time of Jesus, “The Passion” raises another linguistic issue – the use of Latin as against Greek; Gibson apparently decided to suppress all speaking of Greek despite the arguments to the contrary.