Monday, June 05, 2006

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.

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