Protestantism in the Philippines: Bible Study

History bears witness to the profound impact of the Bible on the life of nations, and to how it has moved and inspired many people, including statesmen and social reformers, to work for the betterment of their fellow human beings even at great cost to themselves.
(Rodrigo Duterte)

The Holy Bible
Photo courtesy of Crosswalk
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Bible is the best-selling book of all time with more than five billion copies sold, while Publishing Perspectives puts the estimate to more than six billion copies. The Little Red Book (毛主席语录) by Mao Zedong follows a distant second with around a billion copies, albeit there are claims that all of Mao's works combined have sold as many as that of the Bible, and the Quran (Koran) at third with around 900 million copies. Considered by Christians as sacred, the Bible is regarded as the highest or the ultimate authority for being the very Word of God (Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος). This is particularly highlighted by the theological concept of Scripture Alone (sola scriptura) forwarded by Protestants, and to an extent Evangelicals, which maintains the Bible as the only cornerstone of sound doctrine. While the history and the authorship of the Bible is debated to this day, especially in the face of seemingly conflicting archaeological finds, there is wide recognition of its significance in society as a whole.

Fidel Ramos is the first Filipino Protestant
to become Philippine President.
Photo courtesy of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
The importance of the Bible in society has also been recognized in the Philippines. On November 19, 1982, President Ferdinand Marcos signed Proclamation No. 2242 to designate the last Sunday of November as Bible Sunday, and the week thereafter as the National Bible Week. On November 21, 1986, President Corazon Aquino signed Proclamation No. 44, moving the Bible Sunday and the National Bible Week to the last week of January. This was superseded by Proclamation No. 1067, signed by President Fidel Ramos on August 26, 1997, wherein the Bible Sunday was removed, but the National Bible Week was retained. Almost two decades later, on January 5, 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Proclamation No. 124, making January as National Bible Month, and the last week of January as National Bible Week. With the series of proclamations recognizing the Bible's role in nation building, there seems to be little consideration of how the Bible has spread in the archipelago anyway.

Issues of translation and canon
While Christianity was supposedly brought to the Philippines by the Spanish, Filipinos were particularly forbidden to read the Bible. Since Bible reading is considered lawless among the laity, there were Filipinos who were forced to read it in secret. One of them would be Nicolas Zamora, known to be the first Filipino to be ordained a Protestant minister. There is also the notion that  Jose Rizal read the Bible, albeit he was not a professing Protestant. In his discussion on the existence of purgatory, Rizal writes that the term did not appear anywhere in the Bible, suggesting that he might have read and studied the Bible as well. Of course, Zamora, and most likely Rizal as well, knew how to read the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin, and the Spanish Bibles, yet many Filipinos at the time were not even educated in any foreign language (including Spanish). Reinforcing this observation is the lack of translation of the Bible to any vernacular in the Philippines during the period, perhaps except the translation of Luke to Pangasinan in 1887. This is best exemplified by an excerpt from Rizal's Noli Me Tangere. At one point, Fr. Damaso says that all should have knowledge of the Bible:
All should know by heart the Holy Scriptures and the lives of the saints and then I should not have to preach to you, O sinners! You should know such important and necessary things as the Lord’s Prayer, although many of you have forgotten it, living now as do the Protestants or heretics, who, like the Chinese, respect not the ministers of God. But the worse for you, O ye accursed, moving as you are toward damnation!
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Then again, he seems to contradict himself later on, when he preaches that the Bible is not available for all to study:
Marvel, O sinners! You, in spite of what you study, for which blows are given to you, you do not speak Latin, and you will die without speaking it! To speak Latin is a gift of God and therefore the Church uses Latin! I, too, speak Latin!
Truly, while the sermon was said to be delivered in both Spanish and the vernacular (in this case, Tagalog), Latin was the language wherein the Bible was available in the Philippines. While there have been earlier translations, such as the Spanish translation of Fr. Felix Torres Amat published in 1824, and the Pangasinan translation of Pastor Manrique Alonzo Lallave published in 1887, they were not readily available to be read by most people. In the case of Alonzo Lallave, his attempt to distribute Bibles in Spanish were stopped by the colonial administration. Since it is the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church not to translate the Bible from the Latin Vulgate, as affirmed by the Council of Trent, it will not be until 1965 when the said church promulgates Dei verbum as a result of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). The document states that the Bible may be translated into other languages other than Latin. Of course, the Roman Catholic tradition may also hold some flaws, albeit there is indeed the point of losing details due to translation. For instance, the Vulgate was largely a translation work by Jerome of the available Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic texts in 382 to 405. Provided the church only wanted to keep the original language of the Bible, then it is certainly not in Latin. At any rate, other translations even before the Second Vatican Council like the English Douay-Rheims (1582, 1610) have been approved by the Roman Catholic Church, mainly as an instrument against the Protestant Reformation (also known as the Counter-Reformation).

A fragment of the Gospel of John,
reputedly the oldest copy of
the New Testament yet discovered.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Just as complicated as the translation issue is the issue of content, particularly the Biblical canon. Jerome claimed to base his Biblical canon from the Council of Nicea (325), but since the said council's primary product is the creed affirming the divinity of Jesus Christ (the Nicene Creed), it is uncertain whether the delegates at Nicea agreed upon a canon. Nevertheless, even before Nicea, there have been attempts to establish Biblical canon mainly due to the existence of opposing views on various Christian doctrines. Darrell Bock (2004) mentions the second century (c. 100 onwards) arguments between church leaders such as Irenaeus and Origen, and "heretics" such as Marcion and Valentinus (Valentine) on which books should be included in the Bible. Also known as gnostics for their emphasis on "access to secret knowledge," the likes of Marcion and Valentinus removed and added books to the Bible which they saw fit to their teachings. Among these had titles such as the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Gospel of Barnabas, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Hypostasis of the Archons, the Apocryphon of John, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Apocalypse of James, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Apocalypse of Thomas, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, the Third Epistle to the Corinthians (3 Corinthians), the Epistle to the Laodiceans, the Shepherd of Hermas, the two epistles of Clement (1 and 2 Clement), and the Three Steles of Seth, among others. The prevailing concept of the Bible being inerrant maintains that there are no inconsistencies in the overall doctrine of the Bible. This is in support of the recognition of the Bible as the Word of God, since God cannot lie to or be in conflict with Himself (Hebrews 6:18). In addition to this is the concept of God providing the Holy Spirit to His people, enabling them to discern what is correct (Romans 8:5-8). As Jesus Christ put it, "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:32). If an alleged book of the Bible contradicts this doctrine, then it is likely to be non-canonical, and the earlier church leaders may have had the time to work on them. For instance, Jerome worked on the Vulgate for more than two decades. This is comparable to the advent of "fake news" in our era, primarily through social media. While news sources and photos may refer to the same person (e.g., Donald Trump), place (e.g., Mayon Volcano), or event (e.g., Independence Day), there are some which would have a somewhat distorted report compared to most of them. While this is not to say that the popular is always right, it would be relatively easier to spot the odd ones out through comparison and elimination. As Hermann Hesse would say, "The truth has a million faces, but there is only one truth," and to paraphrase Tertullian, "Truth precedes error." This process may have been slower during the early years of Christianity, but history reveals that time is of the essence for sound doctrine. If it is a fad, it is likely to flounder, but if it is a fact, it is likely to flourish. Otherwise, we might have had a Bible with twice as many books.

John Calvin
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
However, the Biblical canon is far from resolved even after two millenia since Jesus lived, and no single article may be able to contain the entire issue. The Catholic Bible has 73 books (46 for the Old Testament, 27 for the New Testament), which canon is somewhat different with that of Jerome's Vulgate. For instance, Jerome excluded Baruch, but it was in the Catholic Bible. Meanwhile, Jerome included the Prayer of Manasseh, and the Epistle to the Laodiceans, but they were not in the Catholic Bible. The Protestant Bible has less books for the Bible with 66 only (39 for the Old Testament, 27 for the New Testament), and excluded additions such as Psalm 151, 1 and 2 Esdras (3 and 4 Esdras in the Vulgate), the Prayer of Azariah, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon. Nevertheless, even during the Reformation, the Protestant canon was not yet considered mainstream. For instance, Martin Luther's German translation of the Bible (from available Hebrew and Greek texts, but not much from the Latin Vulgate) in 1522 had 61 books. He excluded Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Baruch, Esther, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation as non-canonical. Luther is particularly against the inclusion of Esther since it has not mentioned God anywhere in its content. Later on, the efforts of the Reformed tradition, of which John Calvin was among the primary figures, would establish what is now the Protestant Bible as early as 1559. Luther's followers also chose the canon agreed upon by the Reformed tradition. It is also through the efforts of the Protestant movement that the Bible was democratized, encouraging all Christians to read, study, and meditate on the Bible (Joshua 1:8). Of course, this reveals yet another contradiction in Fr. Damaso's statements, wherein he says Protestants have forgotten the Word of God, yet in the somewhat farcical scene, he himself had forgotten the Bible reading he was about to discuss.

Presbyterian missionary Robert Morrison (far right) is believed
to be one of the first Protestants to conduct missions in China.
In this 1828 illustration, the Bible is being translated.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Bibles for Filipinos
While not all of the Roman Catholic clergy in the Philippines then may be similar to Fr. Damaso, it is correct to observe that the Bible was not widely studied among Filipinos for most of the Spanish colonial period. To this day, there are Filipino Roman Catholics who have not even read the Bible, which goes to show how this tradition has become firmly embedded in Philippine society. Evidently, it will be through the entry of the Protestant movement in the Philippines which will make the Bible translated in the indigenous languages of the Philippines, and will make it available for more Filipinos. During the 1830s to the 1850s, there were attempts from Protestant missions in China, and later in Japan (mainly British and American), to bring Bibles to the Philippines, and likely to begin evangelism as well, but they were not realized. At best, the circulation of these Bibles were confined in foreign commercial houses, which at the time have been growing in number. As of 1859, there were 15 foreign commercial houses in Manila, of which seven were British, and three were American.

Manrique Alonzo Lallave
Photo courtesy of Protestante Digital
In 1870, the German seller Heinrich Hoffenden saw the opportunity to distribute Bibles in the Philippines, figuring the change in the colonial administration would mean relaxation on the Bible ban. However, his little break came to an immediate end with yet another change in the colonial administration in 1871. In 1888, another attempt to bring Bibles was made by that of Alonzo Lallave. He got hold of one of the Protestant Bibles Hoffenden sold in the Philippines. His reading of the Protestant Bible led him to become a Protestant pastor at Seville in 1874. Almost a decade later, in 1883, he finished the translation of the Gospel of Luke to Pangasinan, publishing it in 1887 at London. He would also publish a dictionary on the Bible from 1881 to 1884. Alonzo Lallave was said to have died due to an illness in 1889, albeit there is the notion that he was poisoned by his opponents. In 1896, Nicolas Zamora's father Paulino was arrested and exiled for being involved in the Philippine Revolution and for distributing copies of the Spanish Bible. In 1898, the first Protestant mission entered the archipelago, and they made use of the Pangasinan translation of Luke done by Alonzo Lallave, making it the first book of the Bible to be widely distributed in the Philippines. Among the first to receive a copy of these Bibles was President Emilio Aguinaldo himself. A year later, a Bible depot was established, which would lead to the founding of the Philippine Bible Society (PBS) with Rev. Jay Goodrich as its first general secretary. PBS is currently a member of the United Bible Societies (UBS), a global fellowship of some 149 national bible societies worldwide.

Pascual Poblete
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Among the first translations of the Bible to Tagalog was the New Testament translation done by Pascual Poblete in 1898. Poblete was a renowned translator. Besides the New Testament, he also made Tagalog translation of Rizal's Noli Me Tangere in 1909. In 1905, the first complete translation of the Bible into Tagalog was published and distributed by PBS. This version has become known as Ang Dating Biblia. Deriving on the available Spanish and English versions, particularly that of Fr. Torres Amat (1824), the King James Version (1611), and the American Standard Version (1901), Ang Dating Biblia included only 66 books. This shows adherence to the Protestant canon as forwarded by the Reformed tradition. Derived from this version is the 1978 translation called Ang Biblia, followed by a 2001 revision of the same name. A more recent translation to Tagalog was the Magandang Balita Biblia, which was first published in 1973, completed in 1983, and had a revision in 2005. This version was largely derived from the Good News Bible (1966, 1976). Other recent translations to Tagalog were Ang Salita ng Dios (2010), which was largely derived from the New International Version (1978, 1984), and Ang Bagong Tipan: Filipino Standard Version (2009), which was largely derived from the English Standard Version (2001, 2007). Meanwhile, among the first to translate the Bible in Philippine languages besides Tagalog would include Cayetano Lukban and his Bicolano version of the New Testament (1899), Isabelo de los Reyes and his Ilocano version of the New Testament (1904), and Braulio Manikan and his Hiligaynon version of the New Testament (1912). The PBS would later publish complete versions of the Bible in Ilocano (1912), Bicolano (1914), and Cebuano (1917). Again, by complete, this means adherence to the Protestant canon, albeit not all translators were Protestants, such as Poblete and de los Reyes who were founding members of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Philippine Independent Church or Aglipayan Church).

The Book of Isaiah is almost completely intact in the
Dead Sea Scrolls or the Qumran Caves Scrolls.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Conspiracy of the Lost Verses
Later translations have the benefit of newer archaeological discoveries involving earlier copies of the Bible. For instance, there are the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Qumran from 1946 to 1956. The scrolls are dated to be made at around the second century (c. 100 onwards), making it around 200 years older than the Vulgate, and around 700 years older than the Masoretic Text. To date, there are still parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls which were not deciphered. At any rate, the discovery of older copies show that there are parts of the Bible that were added later. This led newer translations, such as the New International Version and the English Standard Version, to omit, bracket, or footnote verses that were once present in older translations of the Bible, such as the King James Version, which derived more from the Vulgate and the Masoretic Text. Among the supposedly lost verses would include Matthew 18:11 (For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.), and Acts 8:37 (Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”). In addition, there are also later translations, such as the 2011 revision of the New International Version, which are gender neutral (e.g., brothers only or brothers and sisters).

These conscious choices among later translators brought controversy on which translations are more faithful to the original texts. There are some who choose to use only older translations like the King James Version and its derivative Ang Dating Biblia. Among them would be Filipino televangelist Eli Soriano. Meanwhile, there are some who choose to use only newer translations like the New International Version, and the English Standard Version. There are yet others who choose to use multiple translations to avoid relying heavily on a single version. A 2014 study in the United States shows that up to 55% of Americans prefer to use the King James Version, compared to 19% for the New International Version, and 26% to other English versions. In the perspective of history, unless older evidences surface and provide a supporting or a differing view, the conclusions reached by existing proof stands, albeit tentative at best. Also, one has to think if the supposedly lost verses would have changed the message of the Bible whether or not it was present.

Ferdinand Marcos election campaign
Photo courtesy of the National Library
Significance of the Bible in the Philippines
What is the significance of the Bible today, besides having January as one whole month to commemorate its existence? For one, Filipinos seemed to have adapted the American tradition of having the Bible during presidential inaugurations. On December 30, 1953, Ramon Magsaysay became the first Philippine president to take oath of office with a Bible. Ferdinand Marcos took a step further by taking oath with two Bibles in 1965, one from his father Mariano (who was Aglipayan), and the other from his wife Imelda (who was Roman Catholic). As for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, she took her oath of office in 2004 with the Bible used by his father Diosdado in his 1961 inauguration. The same goes for Benigno Simeon Aquino III, who took his oath with the Bible his mother Corazon used in 1986. While the Bible in this setting is not always noticeable, its low profile presence in every presidential inauguration suggests the continuing importance of the Bible in building the nation, or at least in the political sense, the increasing significance of Christian voters who regard the Bible with utmost importance.

Rodrigo Duterte holds the Bible
Photo courtesy of Sunday Adelaja
Going from the national level to the personal level, a 2012 survey by the National Book Development Board (NBDB) shows that the Bible is the most read book among Filipinos with 58%. An earlier survey conducted by the PBS in 2008 show that only 40% of Filipinos read or own the Bible, a figure that coincides with the 2003 NBDB survey showing 38% readership of the Bible. At any rate, the Bible trumps romance (25%), comedy (24%), or history (14%) materials in terms of readership. However, it does not seem to translate to other possible statistics on religion and values. For instance, the Bible encourages attending church as honor and service to the Lord (Isaiah 58:13-14), a 2017 survey by the Social Weather Stations shows that only 48% of Filipinos regularly attend church, wherein followers of the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) have more attendees (90%) than Protestants (71%) or Roman Catholics (41%). While slightly higher from 43% in 2013, and there are statistical margins of error to consider, it goes to show that Bible readership does not necessarily equate to church attendance, at least in the Filipino context. Of course, church attendance is not the sole parameter to be considered a Christian, but what observable Filipino values can be derived from the Bible?

Of course, the message of the Bible seemingly resonates with many Filipinos mainly because it shows the love of God, culminating with the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ, to save His people from slavery to sin (Romans 6). For much of the recorded history of the Philippines, the Filipinos were considered second-class citizens by their colonizers, even if slavery was not officially enforced in the colony. Our colonizer was portrayed as a mother lacking love to her children, and the colonized sought a way out of such dismal situation. Meanwhile, God has not forgotten His people, even if parents may forget their own children (Isaiah 49:15). Apparently, Filipinos can heavily relate with this concept of freedom (John 8:36), even though there are colonial traditions in the Christian context which remain to this day. In this regard, Protestantism offers an alternative to the human traditions restricting Christians (Mark 7:8-9). However, while her Asian neighbors begin to show hastily growing Protestant populations (20% South Korea, 9% Malaysia, 7% Indonesia, 3% China, 2% Japan, 2% Vietnam), the Philippines remains a Roman Catholic majority (80%), with more or less 5% of the population being Protestants (government statistics show a more conservative figure of around 3% only). It took the Protestant movement 120 years to reach its current standing in Filipino society, opening the Bible to every Filipino who would read. Has the movement lost steam, with the Bible relegated to a novelty item status, or will the movement continue to fulfill the Great Commission given by Jesus Christ, with the Word of God at its very heart?

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
(Hebrews 4:12)
Protestantism in the Philippines: Bible Study Protestantism in the Philippines: Bible Study Reviewed by Al Raposas on Thursday, January 25, 2018 Rating: 5

No comments