By now, it seems, all who have seen Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” — and many who have not — have formed an opinion on what, if anything, it might mean for Christian-Jewish relations.
But what relation, if any, does Mr. Gibson’s depiction of the first-century demography of the Holy Land bear to today’s strife-torn nation of Israel and its Arab-populated territories? Few have even asked.
We hear two ancient languages spoken in Mr. Gibson’s carefully reconstructed Jeru-salem: Aramaic, a Semitic language of Syrian origin that had replaced Hebrew as the daily language of the Jews of the Holy Land by Jesus’ time, and Latin, the Indo-European language of Rome that became the administrative language of the Roman Empire. That suggests that just two groups of people lived in the Holy Land during Jesus’ time: Latin-speaking Ro-man bureaucrats and legion- aries, and the Aramaic-speaking Jews (including Jesus) who lived under Roman rule.
Where, then, were all the Arabs?
The answer to this question is twofold. First, Mr. Gibson greatly oversimplified the ethnic and linguistic composition of the Holy Land during Jesus’ time. (On the streets of Jerusalem, for example, especially during Passover, when the city was flooded with foreign pilgrims from the vast Greek-speaking Jewish diaspora abroad, you were as likely to hear Greek spoken as Aramaic.)
The director probably simplified for entirely defensible dramatic reasons. The cultural confrontation between Romans and Jews that leads to Jesus’ death is, after all, one of his main themes. Why confuse his audience with additional ethnic and linguistic communities irrelevant to his story?
There is also a historical reason for the absence of Arabs from Mr. Gibson’s Jerusalem: Almost no Arabs lived in the Holy Land, much less the sacred Jewish city of Jerusalem, during Jesus’ time.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of Arabs in the ancient world. Virtually all of them lived on the other side of the Dead Sea on the Arabian peninsula, on a swath of land stretching from present-day Jordan down along the Red Sea to present-day Yemen and bordered to the east by an uninhabitable desert.
Southern Arabia was a center of the spice trade (some of the spices came overseas from as far away as India), and nearly all Arabians made their living in some fashion from the caravans of spices, incense, pearls and gems (also imported from India and Ceylon) and other luxury goods that traveled the long route north into the Roman Empire.
The northernmost Arab kingdom of Nabatea, more or less contiguous with modern Jordan, was especially prosperous during Jesus’ time. Its Greek-style capital city of Petra, with columns and facades carved out of rose-colored living rock, was and is a marvel of Hellenistic architecture. The Romans, who had conquered both the Holy Land and Syria during the century before Jesus’ birth, did not manage to annex Nabatea until the early second century A.D. They never got farther south.
As for the Jews of the Holy Land, they had been battered, conquered, dispersed and dominated by foreigners almost continuously for more than 800 years before Jesus was born, and those depredations by Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans had left their cultural mark on the Holy Land.
From 333 B.C. to around 165 B.C., the lands of David and Solomon were under the thumbs of various descendants of Alexander the Great’s generals, who encouraged the establishment of Greek settlements on both sides of the Jordan River. Still, the Jews living there managed to preserve both their religion and their cultural identity, and they managed even to achieve short-lived political independence under Judas Maccabaeus and his descendants until the Romans came.
Greek cultural influence was inevitable, however, especially on upper-class Jewish lifestyles. By Jesus’ time, it was likely that everyone in the eastern Mediterranean world, from the educated classes down to lowly tradesmen, spoke at least a little Greek, even in Jerusalem, the most Jewish of Jewish cities. Hence, the Christian Gospels and the letters from the Apostles that constitute the New Testament were written in Greek. The Gospel of John reports that the title “King of the Jews” that Pontius Pilate ordered to be placed on Jesus’ cross was trilingual: “written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.”
In A.D. 70, after a failed Jewish revolt, the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and in A.D. 135, after a second revolution fizzled, the emperor Hadrian obliterated the city, paved it over and drove off its Jewish population. In its place he built a new Roman-style city that he named Colonia Aelia Capitolina, complete with Roman baths and pagan temples. Hadrian banned Jews from setting foot inside Jerusalem, and he provided financial incentives for residents from elsewhere in the empire to settle in the Holy Land, which he renamed Syria Palaestina instead of Judea in another effort to obliterate its Jewish identity.