Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Where did Ancient Israel come from?

To understand who we are, our behavior, our customs and practices, our ways of thinking, our tendencies, our values and vices -- in other words, our identity, it is important to understand our origins. Where did we, Filipinos, come from? Who were our ancestors? What did our ancestors look like? Their language? Their beliefs?

As we say in Tagalog, "Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi makararating sa paroroonan" (A person who does not look back to where he/she came from, will not reach his/her distination)

Similarly, the question on the origins of Ancient Israel is fundamental to understanding Israel's identity, its religion, its values, and its faith in Yahweh.

Where did Israel as a nation come from?

The classical understanding is that Israel came from Egypt (based on Exodus), conquered the so-called Promised Land (based on Book of Joshua), and later on established itself in that land also called Canaan ruled by their kings, notably David and Solomon (as in 1-2 Kings).

This is the story that we get from the Old Testament. Yet we know today for a fact that the bible is not a history book nor is concerned of presenting historical facts and preserve them as historians do today. Thus, to rely solely on the bible to search for the historical origins of Israel is not enough. Extra-biblical literature (that is, written texts outside the biblical canon), archeological remains of the past, ancient inscriptions, monuments, and the like are further materials being examined to get a historical picture of the origins of Ancient Israel.

Here's an article in answer to that search for the the origins of Ancient Israel
The Origins of Ancient Israel
Summary /Excerpt by R. C. Flores, svd
(July 2004; updated 28 July 2006)

The Issue
The initial answer to the question above is that the Israelites came from Egypt. A group of descendants of Abraham escaped from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. They wandered for forty years through the wilderness; they crossed the Jordan River in the land of Canaan. After a series of wars against the natives of Canaan, they conquered all the Canaanite cities under the leadership of Joshua. The first half of the Book of Joshua recounts the total defeat of Canaan; the second half of the book describes the division of the land among the tribes of Israelites. The book ends with the whole of Israel coming together at Shechem for a covenant renewal ceremony.

As we however, open the pages of the Book of Judges, we get a very different picture. It begins with listing of places not yet conquered by Israelites, even territories mentioned earlier by Joshua as already occupied (compare Joshua 11:16-17 and Judges 1:9). Judges as a whole gives the impression of along, continuing battle between the newly arrived Israelites and Canaanites, who continually to hold on to much of the territory; and it is not until the beginning of the monarchy, in the Second Book of Samuel, that King David takes the city of Jerusalem from the Canaanites.

Besides the contradictions between the Books of Joshua and Judges, there are problems reconciling archaeological data with the stories in the Pentateuch, Joshua and Judges. For instance, the Book of Exodus describes a series of catastrophic events in Egypt (the plagues) ending with the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians. If all of these events did take place in the magnitude in which Exodus describes them and all within a short period of time, one would expect it to be recorded in some source other than the Bible. However, no Egyptian records, archeological or otherwise, mention the events of Exodus.

Concerning the wars and victories in of the Israelites in the Book of Joshua, archeological evidence does not support “lighting” or suddend and massive conquest of Canaan. Several cities mentioned as conquered, destroyed and burned by the Israelites show no evidence of destruction. Examples are the cities of Jericho and Ai. The popular story about walls of Jericho crumbling down (Joshua 6:20) could be anything but historical.

Theological rather than Historical
Scholars acknowledge that the biblical story of the beginnings of Israel has a theological rather than historical purpose. It expresses the fulfillment of promises that God made to the chosen people—Abraham, Sarah and his descendants. The center of the promise was that God would give them a land of their own. If the biblical account of the origins of ancient Israel is not history in the modern sense of the term, what is the historical origin of these people? In order to understand better the world of the author, scholars are also interested to know where the Israelites came from. With the recent archeological discoveries in Palestine and in Egypt, scholars today have a wider view of the issue and have developed three models to explain Israelite beginnings.

The Conquest Model – William Foxwell Albright
The Conquest model is based primarily on the Book of Joshua. W.F. Albright, an American archeologist in the first half of the twentieth century was mainly responsible for articulating this model and finding archeological support for it. According to this theory, the story in the Pentateuch to Joshua is based on underlying history; the Israelites came out of slavery in Egypt and, after some years of migration through the desert, invaded Canaan from the east. Albright cited archeological evidence to support the historicity of the conquest. He pointed to excavations of several large Canaanite cities that showed evidence of destruction like Debir, Bethel, Lachish, and especially Hazor (see Joshua 11:11).

Albright’s views had been influential for many years. Even today, many Fundamentalists and conservative Catholics have cited him as proof that the Bible is historically accurate. There has, of course, been much archeological research since Albright’s time, and much of the evidence he used is no longer considered valid. The weakness of this model, as pointed above, is its inability to explain why some major Canaanite cities like Jericho show no archeological evidence of destruction and the and also the different account of the conquest in the Book of Joshua.

For a summary of the problem of the Conquest Model, click on this.

Peaceful Infiltration Model—Albrecht Alt
This theory maintains that the early Israelites were nomads from the surrounding regions who gradually and peacefully began to settle in the highlands of Canaan. As these settlements increased, there were occasional battles between the new Israelites and the Canaanite cities, and as the cities declined and Egypt lost control of Canaan, the new Israelite settlers became the dominant force in the land of Canaan.

Albrecht Alt, a German biblical scholar, developed this model based on the stories in Genesis about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who were first nomads before they became Israelites. The early Israelites were also formerly nomads or semi nomads who had migrated into and out of Canaan on a seasonal basis long before they settled in permanent villages. With the decline of the Canaanite city-state system, they were able to occupy the lowlands as well.

The advantage of this Peaceful Infiltration model is solution to the problem of too bloody and violent beginnings of Ancient Israel. Moreover, this gradual process of migration parallels the modern experience of the many migrants all over the world. The problem, however, of this model is that it cannot explain why are the material culture and religion of the Canaanites and migrant Israelites similar if the two came from different cultural backgrounds. The theory also has to explain why the Bible tells a different story of Israelite origins.

Social Revolution Model—George Mendenhall and Norman Gottwald
The theory maintains that most of the early Israelites were not people who came into Canaan from elsewhere but were indigenous Canaanites. The lower-class Canaanites were heavily taxed by the Canaanite kings and had little control over their own lives, so they finally rose up in a violent revolt. The revolt was successful, and these people then established a new decentralized, egalitarian society in the highlands.

It was G. Mendenhall, in a 1962 article, who began to discuss the phenomenon of people politically separating themselves from the dominant rule in Canaan. In subsequent years, Norman Gottwald developed his model in much more detail. His 1979 book, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C.E., combined extensive analyses of texts and archaeological data with a sociological study of changing societies.

The beginning of the Israelites can be traced back to lower-class Canaanites like peasant farmers, sheep and goat herders, itinerant metalworkers, priests renegade from the official urban-based cults, and mercenaries, and other nomads who were living in an oppressive Egyptian feudal system of the Canaanite city-states in the thirteenth century. These marginalized people wanted more freedom, economic and political independence from the city-states. They had withdrawn or fled from the oppressive economic and social conditions of the coastal plain and fertile valleys and settled in the rugged, rocky hill countries where sought to recreate new way of living characterized by equality, freedom, sharing goods, stronger family ties, respect for everyone, and belief in one God called El.

This newly formed egalitarian community is strengthened further with the arrival of a small group of refugees from Egypt under the leadership of a man named Moses. These refugees brought with them their stories and memories of a god called Yahweh, who had liberated from slavery and forced labor under the pharaoh. The Canaanites who had experienced similar situations of domination or virtual slavery adopted the Egyptian refugee’s story as their own. They also began to worship Yahweh as their patron deity who stands by the poor and frees the oppressed.

The Social Revolution model has been criticized for going too far beyond the evidence and for imposing modern ideology, particularly Marxist ideology, on the process. But it has been influential in leading biblical scholars to make more use of the social sciences and to focus attention on the Canaanites themselves as the possible people from which Israel emerged. Moreover, this model is relevant to the so-called “third world” countries characterized by massive poverty, economic injustice, and inequality; the many political, economic or religious refugees and displaced people around the world; indigenous and tribal minorities who had been forced in the past to go up in the mountains to avoid the oppressive system of the lowlanders; and the many urban squatters who are forced to be relocated far away from their places of work in the name of development.

For a summary of N. Gottwald's theory, click on this.

A. Ceresko follows the the model proposed by G. Mendenhall and N. Gottwald. It is for this reason that he suggests to read the Old Testament, in particular, the Pentateuch as a literature that records Israel's struggle for liberation. Israel's God has acted in history to liberate his people, to be free to worship him. The Pentateuch, therefore, is a protest literature to challenge an oppressive situation of the past, yet it is also testimony of Ancient Israel’s struggle for justice, peace, and integrity of life and creation.

John J. McDermott, What Are They Saying About the Formation of Israel? (New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1998).

Anthony R. Ceresko, Introduction to the Old Testament: A Liberation Perspective (revised and expanded Edition; Quezon City: Claretians, 2001).

Randolf C. Flores, “Theories on Israelite Origins” (unpublished paper, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1996).

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Tax and Toll Collectors

"Many tax collectors and sinners came"
Read: Matthew 9:9-13
Since the Philippine government implemented a lifestyle check on its employees, eleven officials from the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) face charges of graft and corruption at the Ombudsman. The current BIR commissioner is also battling charges of failing to collect the target P675 billion collection for this year. This department has always been a favorite "den of thieves".

In the world of the New Testament, the expression "tax collectors and sinners" (Mt 9:10) is common, almost like a slogan. Why are tax collectors sinners? Not all of them are corrupt (as there are a lot good souls also at the BIR).

The Greek word "telōnēs" usually translated "tax collectors" properly means "toll collectors".

(called Levi in the Gospels of Mark and John) worked in Capernaum, Jesus' second hometown along the edge of the Lake of Galilee. This town was strategic as it was located along the major road of international trade between Damascus and Egypt. Goods and merchandise sold in other towns had to pass through Capernaum. Tolls had to be paid for goods entering and leaving Capernaum. Matthew was a toll collector who worked in the Capernaum custom house (someone like a customs collector today).

The strategic location of Capernaum,
situated near one of the main highways connecting Galilee with Damascus

Why are toll collectors called "sinners"? The rich and the educated, a minority in Jesus' day, routinely criticized toll collectors because such job was not honorable as collections were paid to the colonial power, Rome. Though against their will because they were Jews, they had to do the job to survive. Any extra amount came from tips from the merchants who passed through Capernaum. Toll collectors rarely could cheat because of the efficiency of the auditing of the Roman empire.

Toll collectors were not sinners because they cheated on their job. They were simply stereotyped as sinners because they worked in such a "dirty" job. We can’t but admire Jesus who ate with them and considered them as friends.

Capernaum today, once a busy transit fishing port

For an advanced study of this topic click on this site.

For news (in Tagalog) of the on-going SVD Chapter, click on this blog.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Abbreviated mission assignment and more SVD Chapter news

Here's a first hand report on what's going on in the SVD 16th General Chapter, grabbed from Munting Mensahero (Little Messenger), an email news written by Jerome Marquez (delegate of Philippine Central Province).

Note: News in Tagalog.
Click: Abbreviated mission assignment and more SVD Chapter news

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Edilberto Sena and Jose Boeing, SVD Receive Death Threats

The two gentlemen are actively involved in the protection of the environment and biodiversity in the Diocese of Santarem of the Amazon Region in Brazil. Edilberto Sena, founder and present director of Radio Rural, uses the air to educate the locals on the vital importance of ecological balance. Jose Boeing, a missionary of the Society of the Divine Word is the zonal coordinator for its office responsible of promoting justice, peace and integrity of creation.

They are being accused of conspiring with Greenpeace activists who are currently waging war against Cargill, the leading exporter of Soya. Soya expansion has been blamed as one of the leading causes of the deforestation in the Amazon.

The website of Associazione Macamondo reports that a certain "community" in Orkut under the name "Fora Greenpeace" (Greenpeace Out) wrote: "We want to kill Edilberto Sena and Fr. Boeing for the good of Santarem."

These and other more threats have prompted members of Society of the Divine Word where J. Boeing belongs to write this open letter authored by A. Pernia, the current Superior General.

Please take time to read and forward this letter to others (pls. click to forward).

Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice' sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven (Mt 5:10)
As missionaries of the Society Divine Word (SVD), gathered together in Rome for the General Chapter, an international assembly of SVD brothers and priests, we are pained by the recent events occurring in the Amazon Region of Brazil. We refer to the death threats received by Fathers Edilberto Sena and Jose Boeing SVD. Likewise we are deeply affected by the pressure exerted upon the two bishops and all the organized social movements of the Diocese of Santarem. The work they are doing is in line with the global mission and vision of the SVD.. As a gesture of solidarity with them and with all the people who fight for justice, ecology and the integrity of creation, we ask:
  1. for the possibility of an open dialogue with Cargill regarding problems related to agri-business. In this dialogue all concerned parties should be represented, as should other representatives of civil society.
  2. or the immediate investigation of the recent events by the Ministry of Justice, the Public Ministry and the Federal Police.
  3. for the protection of the concerned individuals threatened by death.
  4. that Cargill present the studies on the environmental impact of its establishment in Santarem and legalize its status as demanded by national and international laws on human rights.
  5. for respect towards the indigenous peoples in the Amazon region, and for the preservation of the integrity of the forest.
Rome, June 10, 2006

Fr. Antonio Pernia SVD
Superior General and President of the General Chapter
On behalf of the 149 participants who represent the 6102 Divine Word Missionaries working in 70 countries worldwide

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Opening of the 16th SVD General Chapter

This blog on the opening of the 16th SVD General Chapter comes a little late. But as they say in Tagalog, "Huli man daw at magaling, naihahabol pa rin!" (rough translation, "Better late than never" or "Better late than later" as we say in the Philippines).

The past chapters were always held in Nemi, ca. 30 kms south east of the city of Rome. This time, due to a much bigger number of capitulars (a good sign for the SVD indeed), it is being held at the Salesianium Hospitality Center, which can easily accommodate 170 capitulars and staff. The center is located few kilometers away from the Fiumicino Airport.

The Chapter commenced last Sunday (04 June 2006), the day the Church's celebrated the Pentecost, the anniversary of the sending of the Holy Spirit, in the forms of tongues of fire, to the gathered disciples. The said disciples, now equipped with new "tongues" came out and preached about Jesus in the languages of those who came up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish holiday. While most of us spent years and years and lots of money to master another language, the disciples did it just like that.

These Aramaic speaking Galileans were suddenly fluent in the languages of the ancient Near East and of Roman Empire: "Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs." That's why people thought they were dead drunk at 9:00 in the morning (see Acts 2).

It was not difficult to see that the opening mass was a celebration of languages (also a Chapter agenda). Tony Pernia, incumbent superior general who presided the Eucharist, switched from English to Spanish, though he is a Filipino, a Boholano native speaker in particular. The songs were in these two major languages of the SVD though the organist was a German.

Prayers of the faithful were read in yet uncommon languages of the SVD: Mandarin, Kikongo, Guarani, Hungarian, Pidgin, Malagasi and Vietnamese,seven prayers corresponding to the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Paul Jaucian, the provincial of the Philippine Central Province who speaks Mandarin, explained later that the first prayer on Wisdom by a confrere from the Mainland whose name is withheld here for security was meant for the Chinese government to allow more rights for the Christians to practice their faith in that huge country where the SVD Founder, Arnold Janssen had first wished to send his members to do mission. Our Chinese confrere must have been thinking of the recent tension between China and the Vatican in the ordination of two Chinese bishops without the latter's approval. The secretary general of the China Patriotic Catholic Association stood to his ground while the Cardinal of Hong Kong raised his protest to the world media. Indeed, the intervention of the gift of Wisdom is vital.

The "Our Father" was prayed each in his or her own mother tongue. The sound of that prayer was interesting and, foreboding. It sounded like glossallalia, the Charismatic "praying/speaking in tongues".

While the SVD is opening their Chapter, huge number of lay people belonging to charismatic movements, called here in Italy "movimenti ecclesiali" were celebrating Pentecost (and a vigil the night before) with the Pope in St. Peter's Square. The Pope addressed the groups mostly composed of Focolare, Communion and Liberation, Sant'Egidio, Neo-Catechumenal Way, L'Arche, the Sant'Egidio Community, Cursillo (surprised it still exists), and the Christian Life Communities and praised them as "a bright sign of the beauty of Christ and the church" in the world today.

Being Religious
Are religious orders and congregations now seen as an antiquated sign?

This seems to be an unarticulated question mark in the minds of some officials of the Vatican who overpoweringly promote these lay movements at the expense of the religious orders. In consequence, relations between the Vatican and the religious orders have become constrained. Some time late last year, the Vatican snubbed the conference of 800 superiors of religious orders; it forgot to invite their leader, a brother and a non-cleric, to the papal funeral last year; and last May at the gathering of 1,500 superiors of women's and men's religious orders, Benedict XVI himself commented on the religious life as experiencing "the danger of mediocrity, adopting bourgeois values and a consumerist mentality" (whew!).

This should be left unsaid but well---the opening liturgy in the Chapter is a vector of this tendency. The singing was phlegmatic. While there are now lively, lovely and professionally recorded songs composed by our SVD confreres around the world (e.g. Raul Caga's two albums), most songs were "foreign to the SVD", and older than the youngest capitular (the Indian Jude Herald Menezes, 33 who works in Siberia; the oldest is North American Robert Pung, 90).

The so-called symbolic offering was perfunctory. Each SVD zone was supposed to present something that symbolized itself (we've heard this before). The Americans carried a piece of multi-colored piece of cloth, either a banner or flag, but short of a cheering paraphernalia for the forthcoming World Cup in Germany (09 June 2006). The Asia-Pacific zone, for instance, brought in a basket of fruits direct from the Salesian dining hall and the bananas must been imported from Ecuador as observed by Joey Artienda who works there. It would have been exciting if the offering was the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Mahayana texts considered sacred by majority of people living in that part of the continent.

All of these must have been what the Filipino superior general had in mind when he preached in the homily about "beginning". Pentecost recalls the beginning of the Church but also Creation. Rather than making the usual contrast between Babel and Pentecost, the general linked the Spirit at the beginning of the Church with the Spirit that was hovering over face of the waters at the beginning of the world.

The Spirit (the ruach Elohim, literally "wind/breath/spirit of God") that was moving, shaking, awakening the earth to emerge from the waters through God's Word was likened to the Spirit that shook the disciples to their feet and loosened their tongues to proclaim boldly Jesus' message. It was hoped that the same Spirit breathe into each SVD member in and out of the Chapter and "renew the face" of this Society.

Monday, June 05, 2006

One heart many faces

[advertisement] The album creates a genre that could foreshadow cosmic unity between the sacred and the profane, faith and reason, heart and mind. Its melody sways from a typical soulful pinoy-hum inflected by a forlorn voice to a more emphatic, confidence-filled hymn, marked by heightened voices and polyphony of instruments. A theme song called paradoxically, "One heart, many faces" strides along this route: from a lonely sound of a singular, undefined flute as if in a far-away mission land a la Morricone's The Mission, to the African sounding drums, ba dam ba's of Arnoldus Co. and to the syllabaric o-a-o of the reverend sisters of the Holy Spirit.. With the thought alone that the Pink Sisters append their voices to the praise part of the song could make one feel "co-canonized." The songs' spirit moves from lament to praise; from "wounded" to "graced". (RCF on the album "By Love" by Raul Caga now available in music stores).

Download the first track "one heart many faces" [at megaupload wait for 45seconds, at the last 10 seconds an ad pops out and blocks the download box, close that ad and click download]

The State of Biblical Studies in The Philippines

(first posting: May 2005; revised and updated June 2006)
"Do you understand what are you reading" (Acts 8:30)? This question of Philip to the Ethiopian officer is as relevant as in the first century A.D. The quest for the meaning of the biblical text is less a data base information gathering than a believer's "faith seeking understanding" (St. Anselm of Canterbury, 11th cent. A.D.) Understanding the meaning of the text does not stop at intellectual enlightenment. The Word of God can reconfigure the horizon of the reader; it is "living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). In reading the text, a new and better world is posed before the reader. God's Word becomes a source of hope.

Critical Reading of the Bible
Formal biblical study devotes a critical reading of the text. Such critical reading in is concentrated in the schools of theology and seminaries run by both by Catholics and Protestants (like Union Theological Seminary, Adventist Institute for Advanced Studies, both in Cavite, Asia Theological Seminary--Quezon City). In the Catholic schools of theology, most biblical courses are introductory in nature. More in-depth exegetical courses are rarely offered. One reason is that students (mostly candidates for the priestood) lack thorough knowledge of the biblical languages. A recent development, however, is the creation of a PhD/STD in Biblical Exegesis at the Loyola School of Theology where students are required of a thorough knowledge of the biblical languages (four semesters of Greek and Hebrew) before they can register for the exegetical courses.

Scholarly publications are rare and sporadic. Professors seldom do scholarly work because of administrative and pastoral duties. Scholarly articles are published in local academic journals and hardly ever in international journals. Most published works are merely introductory (like A Key to the Understanding series by Maryhill School of Theology). No scholarly commentaries have ever been published. There are two exceptions however. The late Belgian CICM NT scholar Herman Hendrickx had come out with a five volume commentary on Luke's Gospel (The Third Gospel for the Third World, Claretian Publications) but unfinished (up to chapter 19 only). The untimely demise of this missionary has terminated what could have been the longest commentary on Luke.

Anthony Ceresko, OSFS, a North American, had been Old Testament studies and biblical languages at Divine Word School of Theology (Tagaytay City) untill his death last 14 August 2006. Before his death, he was the only one in the country who had a doctorate in Sacred Scripture (SSD). Ceresko, who did his doctoral dissertation on the Book of Job at the prestigious Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome (Biblicum) and was the most productive among the biblical scholars in the Philippines. His two books, Introduction to the Old Testament and Introduction to Old Testament Wisdom (both locally published by Claretian Publications) are both scholarly and pastoral in their approach, written in a liberation theology perspective. Ceresko wrote scholarly articles published locally and internationally. His last book, launched in Bangalore, in May last year was on St. Francis de Sales and the Bible.

These two scholars, however, were non-Filipinos. Nonetheless, we can always say that the class lectures, talks, conferences and seminars given to many church groups in the country would serve as our Filipino biblical exegetes' "works".

A big leap in biblical scholarship in the country is the creation of an elite association of biblical professors and scholars. The Catholic Biblical Association of the Philippines (CBAP) now running on its sixth year holds an annual convention in which a scholar from abroad is invited to deliver an academic paper. Those who had been invited so far were James Swetnam (Biblicum), Jan Lambrecht (Catholic University of Louvain), Francis Moloney (Australian Catholic University), John Pilch (Georgetown University), Charles Conroy (Gregorian University), Amy Jill Levine (Vanderbilt University), Paul D. Hanson (Harvard University). This year's keynote speaker is Gale Yee (Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA). On those said conventions, selected local members presented their scholarly works and later on were published as official proceedings. The CBAP has also collected, edited and published the public lectures of the visiting scholars from abroad usually consisting of four to five articles.

Other Schools
Biblical scholarship and teaching, until recently, have been a monopoly of clerics and religious, most of them were trained abroad, either in the Roman universities or in Louvain's Catholic University. Four years ago, however, the Claret Bible Center has started to offer introductory and exegetical courses to lay people. The center has three level Pastoral Biblical Study program and has an average of twenty new students every year. In the academic year 2004-2005) it has opened its biblical language program. Forty percent of its students have enrolled in Biblical Hebrew course. Some students have also started to take up Biblical Greek in the CBAP summer biblical language program. The center envisions training its students for biblical research and scholarship besides pastoral work and teachings. A similar course, but leading a degree in M.A. in Religious Studies is offered at the Mary Hill School of Theology.

Popular Reading of the Bible
If biblical scholarship in the country is lagging, popular reading of the bible, however, is widespread and its growth is impressive. Without mentioning the many Sunday bible schools and bible studies conducted by the evangelical and born-again Christians, bible studies, basic bible seminars, bible sharings have become indispensable formative activities in parishes and in the so-called covenanted or charismatic communities. The Bishops have put up years ago the Episcopal Commission for Biblical Apostolate to coordinate the many biblical centers and apostolate in the dioceses throughout the Philippines. Many religious congregations too have their own biblical apostolate program. The Basic Ecclesial Communities' main activity is bible sharing and sometimes supplemented by group bible studies. However is the case, most facilitators of these bible studies and bible sharings do not have sufficient background in biblical studies and so there is always that tendency to do a fundamentalist, subjective and esoteric reading of the bible.

The ecumenical effort to translate the Bible into the local dialects under the supervision of the Philippine Bible Society is another plus factor for the popular reading of the Bible. The publications of cheap and subsidized bibles have been beneficial to the poor. Today the bible is accessible in one's own dialect, including the dialects of the indigenous peoples. However, translations need to be polished and improved. Since many of the translators lacked sufficient knowledge of the biblical languages and formal biblical studies, Filipino translations of the bible today are still unreliable.

The Tension: Critical Reading vs. Popular Reading
Is there a tension between the scientific study of the bible and the popular reading of the bible; between historical critical method and bible sharing method? While biblical scholars have been criticized for being too technical in their work and their academic research irrelevant to the spiritual life of its present readers, there is also the clamor to simplify and popularize their works in language understandable to those who are into popular reading--in basic bible seminars, short-termed bible studies, and bible sharings. In other words those into popular and spiritual reading of the bible acknowledge the importance of the contributions of experts to better understand the meaning of the biblical text and to avoid such fundamentalist, fantastic reading of the biblical text. The scholars too realize that the sources of the meaning of the biblical text are not to be found only in the historical and critical analysis of the biblical text. Bible professors and scholars in the country very often do pastoral work and this allow them to be in touch with real situations thereby leading to a discover of the meaning of the biblical text that is faithful to the original intention of the author and at the same relevant to contemporary issues.

A Proposed Approach to Reading the Bible in the Philippines
When we read the bible, we actually begin to inhabit three worlds: the world of the author of the text, the world of the text, and the world of the reader. It is on this interaction of these three hermeneutical loci that may lead us to a meaningful and productive reading of the biblical text.

The World of the Author

Understanding the world of the author brings us closer to what he or she originally intended to mean in the text. The theological assumption of our concern for the author's intention lies in the concept of inspiration. Dei Verbum speaks of the author as "sacred writer(s)" in which through his or her intention God had chosen to manifest his will (no. 12). Biblical scholarship and teaching certainly play a big part in this quest for the meaning of the text as intended by the author. The scientific investigation of the text using the historical-critical method is indispensable. Scholars need to employ carefully and methodically the disciplines of the method beginning from textual criticism and moving to philological analysis, source and redaction criticism. Such diachronic process is complemented by a historical investigation of the culture, society, philosophy, and literature of the Ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world. Because of the socio-political and economic situation in the Philippines, scholars can shed light to this through focusing their research on such social issues in the bible like the concept of justice and injustice, liberation, the meaning of poverty, slavery, corruption, oppression, suffering and hope, women, children, ecology, peace, inculturation and the like.

The World of the Text

Meaning does not rest only in the authorial intention. The text itself has an openness and potential to mean more than the author originally meant. Once the text becomes a written text, it gains a life of its own. The author is now situated apart from his or her work, both in space and time. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur terms as "distantiation this disjunction between the author's intended meaning and the referential meaning of the text. The text becomes autonomous with respect to the intention of the author; it escapes or "explodes" the world of the author to the world of the text thereby creating a surplus of meaning.

Understanding however the world of the text entails analysis of the intricate composition of the text. This presupposes of the original languages of text and other Semitic and ancient languages that may shed light on a particular biblical word or expression. Furthermore, the world of the text is unfolded in the final form reading of the text, unfolding its literary structure, explicating its narrative style, literary, poetic and rhetorical techniques inherent in the text. Here, literary analysis like narrative and rhetorical criticisms, is a valuable instrument to uncover the meaning of the text.

The World of the Reader/Listener

The text is simply antiquated or dead without a reader or a listener. Since there is already distanciation between the author and his/her text, the situation of the present reader can shed meaning to it. The reader brings with him/her background, education, cultural values, philosophy in life, etc in interpreting the text. Indeed the text can shed light and provide hope to the reader's situation and vice versa. That is why the reader's consciousness of his/her own sitze im Leben can lead to a fruitful interaction between him/r her, the author, and the text.

It is on this aspect that popular reading of the bible in BEC's for instance, is important to biblical interpretation. The world of the reader also includes those who have interpreted the text in the past. Hence, the so-called history of the influence of the text plays an important interpretative role, which should include both the Church Fathers and Jewish approaches of interpretation. The works of the artists, playwrights, songwriters interpreting the biblical text in artistic and literary way are just examples of the world of the reader interacting with the other two worlds.

The Bible in the Philippines is starting to undergo an interpretative shift. Critical reading of the bible is beginning to be opened to lay people, especially to women, while popular reading is being accepted by biblical scholars as an important approach to biblical interpretation. The tension between a critical reading and a popular reading of the Bible engenders a due consideration to the three worlds of biblical interpretation: the world of the author, the world of the text, and the world of the "reader. This interpenetration of these three worlds lead to a "fusion of horizons" (H. Gadamer)--a renewed and a better world is posed before the reader for him/her to inhabit. The meaning of the biblical text is not only being unfolded before the reader but also his/her life, worldview, and orientation is being reconfigured. The text becomes indeed a living Word of God that challenges yet gives hope.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Gospel of Judas

I wrote an article in reaction to the so-called Gospel of Judas. Philippine Daily Inquirer (Sunday 09 April 2006) published it front page, please click here: Here's an unedited version of that.

The controversial "Gospel of Judas" is soon to be made available to the public. The National Geographic Society has announced its intention to publish later this month an English translation of a 31-page ancient manuscript written in Coptic language. Judas is a "saint" in this writing, as some press releases have insinuated. The publication is timely. It is Holy Week, days when we Christians "weep" for Jesus and scorn Judas. Likewise, the publication is opportune commercially as it rides high on the economic success of The Da Vinci Code and the soon to released movie based on it. The novel claims that the Vatican has tried to cover up this text and other apocryphal texts
The publication of this Coptic manuscript, if authentic, will give us a text of what we know only from secondary sources, from the reports of the early Christian writers on a certain Gospel of Judas. Also it will shed light on how early Christians, at least from the so-called "Gnostics" understood Judas. Coptic was the indigenous language of Egypt spoken from about A.D. 200 to 1000. The Christian Bible was translated into Coptic around A.D. 300, as Christianity spread in Egypt.
In the 2nd century A.D., discrete religious movements began to challenge Christianity especially in Egypt. Today, we tag those movements as "Gnosticism" and the adherents as "Gnostics", although these terms were never used in that period. Our knowledge of who the Gnostics were and what were their teachings are based on ancient manuscripts and reports of the early Christian writers (technically termed "Church Fathers"). For instance, in 1945 manuscripts written in Coptic were discovered in Upper Egypt near the modern village of Nag Hammadi. Among the writings restored are the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of Mary (although fragmentary). These books appear to have been copied and read by Christian monks. The manuscripts date back from the 2nd and 3rd centuries. These are now available in public, both in their critical editions and modern translations, readily available online. To say then that the Vatican covers up the publication of manuscripts is baseless and utmost an advertising tactic.
Among the Church Fathers, Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130-200) was the earliest reporter to inform us of the challenges of the Gnostics. In his writing, Against Heresies he mentioned a sect calling themselves the Cainites (followers of Cain) and possessing a book they call the Gospel of Judas. Another writer, Epiphanius of Salamis (ca. 310-403) described the Cainites as boasting of being relatives of Cain, the Sodomites, Esau, and Korah. Those who know their Bible well will understand that these characters are biblical villains. And so naturally the Cainites admired the greatest villain of all, Judas Iscariot. Epiphanius writes: "They consider him [Judas] their kinsman and count him among those possessing the highest knowledge, and so they also carry about a short writing in his name which they call the Gospel of Judas." In that culture, to call someone kinsfolk is to be a follower of that person, one reason why Jesus called his disciples "brothers".
If Judas achieved such heavenly knowledge, a Gnostic Nirvana so to say, why did he betray Jesus? Epiphanius tells us of two reasons given by this group: (1) Judas knew, remember he had the knowledge, that Christ was wicked because he "wanted to distort what pertains to the Law." Here one must remember that Jesus' teachings often came in conflict with the Jewish understanding of the Law of Moses. (2) Judas knew that the power of the "archons" (these are naughty and lesser deities in Gnostic cosmology) will be drained if Christ were to be crucified. So Judas "bent every effort to betray him, thereby accomplishing a good work for our salvation." The Cainites argued that Christians in fact should "admire and praise" Judas, "because through him the salvation of the cross was prepared for us and the revelation of things above occasioned by it."
In short, in the eyes of this group, Judas helped Jesus to save humanity when he betrayed his master. He therefore faired better than the rest of the disciples who did not understand that Jesus must suffer and die.
We can raise two questions on the logic of this Gnostic group. If they were indeed sincere of preserving the Law of Moses, why did they claim to be followers of Korah (leader of the first unsuccessful "people power" against Moses and Aaron; see Numbers 16:1-50)? Second, if Judas had the knowledge of Jesus' fate, why did he not have the knowledge of his own fate--his attempt to return the money to the authorities, his remorse, and eventual suicide? Whatever we understand today of the psychology of suicide, it was the most shameful death in that world. It is well known that Gnostics emphasized knowledge over moral actions.
Of course we are reading the polemics of the Church Fathers who were refuting the Gnostics at time. Their description, in a way, was "colored" by their intent. That's why the forthcoming publication of a copy of the Gospel of Judas can offer us direct evidence of what Gnostics might have thought of Judas or the stories of him they might have told.
In a positive sense, the story of Judas will allow us to rethink of the problem of God and evil in the world (technically called "theodicy"). Since what Judas did was part of God's plan, does God then intend evil in the world? Dear to the Gnostics is the idea that God created a disordered and chaotic world. We don't even have to be a Gnostic to realize that the world at times is flawed. How else can we explain this but to say that God is responsible for this? That's why the Gnostics adored the villains like Judas. They were the epitomes of a disordered world. But the issue they raised is in no way fresh.
Around 4,000 years ago, in the ancient Near East, there was already literature containing laments of individual over the seeming injustice on the part of God. In the Bible, we read a long debate over this issue in the Book of Job--God allowing and tolerating "the adversary" (hassatan in Hebrew) to destroy a very good person like Job. Such experience is universal. Our local papers reported once of a young man, losing all that he had including his family in the Guinsaugon tragedy, broke down in a mass, lamenting: "I don't believe in God anymore. Why did He take away our loved ones, the old and the young?" For us Christians, evil is a reality as well as a mystery with which we have to reckon, finding its climax and answer Jesus' passion and death.
Another controversy that could come out from reading the Gospel of Judas is the question on God's mercy and forgiveness. If God were indeed merciful, did he forgive Judas? Traditionally, many have thought that Judas is probably in hell, because of Jesus' severe indictment of Judas: "It would be better for that man if he had never been born," as he says in Mark 14:21. But these words do not tell us of the fate of Judas. Jesus' words were more of a lament rather than a legal sentence. That explains why Job and Jeremiah lamented, out of their present sufferings, better to have not been born (Job 3:11; Jer 20:18).
Let us take two scenes from the Passion Narrative to illustrate Jesus' compassionate attitude toward Judas. First, during the Last Supper, in the account of the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, Jesus predicted that the one who is eating with him is going to betray him. Jesus did not identify who would be the traitor. In the version of Matthew, Judas spoke: "Is it I, Lord?" In Greek, this rhetorical question should mean, "Surely, not I Lord?" expecting a "No" for an answer. After Judas had asked a second time, Jesus replied, "You have said so". It was an ambiguous answer. The rest of the disciples understood that Jesus was not referring to Judas since they did not react against him. But the Gospel writer intended his readers to understand that Jesus knew somehow of Judas' evil plan. At that point then, Judas could have retracted.
Another familiar scene is on Judas' kiss at the Mount of Olives. Luke has this account: "He [Judas] approached Jesus in order to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, 'Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?'" Judas was about to kiss Jesus but Jesus was warned him, at the very last moment, to refrain from the evil act. Another chance was offered to retract.

In short, Jesus was giving all the chances for Judas not to commit such treachery and that Judas was responsible for his actions.

In a similar spirit, St. Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419), an influential Dominican preacher, said in a sermon in 1391:

Judas who betrayed and sold the Master after the cruciflixion was overwhelmed by a genuine and saving sense of remorse and tried with all his might to draw close to Christ m order to apologize for his betrayal and sale. But since Jesus was accompanied by such a large crowd of people on the way to the mount of Calvary, it was impossible for Judas to come to him and so he said to himself: Since I cannot get to the feet of the master, I will approach him in my spirit at least and humbly ask him for forgiveness. He actually did that and as he took the rope and hanged himself his soul rushed to Christ on Calvary's mount, asked for forgiveness and received it fully from Christ. He went up to heaven with him and so his soul enjoys salvation along with all elect.

Nonetheless an evil act is always an evil act no matter what the result may be. The end does not justify the means, so we say. Early Christian writers saw to it that Judas' action was not worth emulating. He was motivated by greed (Matt 26:15), by Satan (Luke 22:3), and by Satan plus a habit of stealing (John 13:2; 12:6). Thus they stressed Judas' violent death, whether through a suicide as Matthew 27:5 informed us, or as Luke recounted in the Acts of the Apostles: "Falling headlong, he [Judas] burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out." More gruesome is the report of Papias in the early 2nd century A.D.:

His flesh swelled so much that he could not pass where a cart could easily. His eyelids swelled so much that he could not see any light at all, and his eyes could not be seen even with a doctor's instruments, because they had sunken so far from the surface of his face. His genitals were more enlarged and unsightly than any other deformity, while blood and worms flowed from all over his body, necessarily doing great harm just by themselves. After many such tortures and punishments, he died on his own property, and that on account of the stench the place is desolate and uninhabited even until now, and that today no one can go through that place without stopping up his nose with his hands, because the stench of his flesh spread out over the land so much.

Even for us Filipinos, we do not tolerate Judas' action. That's why his image is absent in the procession during Good Friday; in the jeepneys, in play on his name, the cheater is warned: "Hudas not Pay"; a traitor is called, "Hudas"; no one is named or baptized "Judas" (although I have baptized children with names like Osama, Bin Laden, Saddam, and Hitler); Our Pasyon scorns Judas as: hayop, palamara, alibughang matakaw, budhi'y salawahan, tampalasan, puno ng kasakiman, lilo.

In retrospect, the issues that will be raised in reading the Gospel of Judas are not something new. Nor they will "shake Christianity to its foundations" as some press releases have suggested. As before, people of faith continue to reflect on these questions.
This makes the Gospel of Judas relevant and interesting to read. As in other ancient literary works, however, critical reading is always prescribed. Here are some tips:
(1) We need to be conscious that what we read is a modern translation of a language that is no longer spoken, and that the manuscript available is one among other copies that got lost or yet to be discovered. The original might no longer be found. Those who had copied the text were working without the technology that we have today like photocopiers and scanners. For sure, they had committed copying errors, added or deleted some lines, consciously or unconsciously. A good translation depends on a reliable text and a thorough knowledge of the original and target languages, in this case, Coptic and English. That's why a reliable translation of an ancient text must have passed through the rigors of what biblical scholars term as "Textual Criticism". In the case of the Gospel of Judas, this remains to be done. As an example, it was only recently that complete critical editions of the manuscripts discovered between 1947 to 1956 near the Dead Sea in Jerusalem came to be available to the public, 38 volumes in all. This is in no way to hide something. Such is the demand of scientific scholarship whose interest is truth and not profit.
(2) The circumstances of any discovery of ancient artifacts or manuscripts for this matter are essential to their authenticity. How were they discovered? Usually, an artifact that is found direct from the site by archeologists and not through some antique dealers gains immediately a certain degree of authenticity. The Gospel of Judas is in the possession of a private collector right now. We will wait for the National Geographic issue to tell us the circumstances of its discovery and for the private collector to allow independent experts to examine it. Here's another example to illustrate the warning. Some years ago, there was news of the discovery in Jerusalem of an ossuary. The James Ossuary, as it is now called, contains an inscription in Aramaic that says: "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus" and was reported to be an ossuary used during the time of Jesus. Could this be the burial box of the remains of James whom the Gospels wrote as the "brother" of Jesus? Subjected to scientific and paleographic analysis, the second part of the inscription with says "brother of Jesus" is now found to be a 3rd or 4th century fraudulent addition.
(3) A background literature is needed to understand an ancient text. For the Gospel of Judas, the best background is the Passion Narrative in the four Gospels and the account of the death of Judas in Acts 1:16-20. Paul, the earliest of the Christian writers, was conspicuously silent of the story of Judas. Chronologically, it is proper to read the accounts in the New Testament first before other writings that came later. For Christians, it is wise to remember that the Gospels and the rest of books of the Bible are sacred writings, the Word of God. Other writings, like the Gospel of Judas, can help us understand the world of the ancestors of our faith, but they are not the Word from whom we draw our joy and hope.