The Bible In Philippine History

Jan 12, 2023, 12:08 AM
Eufemio Agbayani III

Eufemio Agbayani III


Unless you are very active in church, you might not be aware that January is National Bible Month. Evolving from a National Bible Sunday in 1982, the month-long celebration is facilitated by the Philippine Bible Society and its partners from various denominations.

While those who study history are bound not to be biased for or against a particular faith, it cannot be denied that aside from being a sacred text for a majority of Filipinos, the Bible also played a crucial role in Philippine history.

First, it informed the ideals of many of our heroes. It was reported that Andres Bonifacio owned a copy of the Bible, and we know Jose Rizal did own one in Spanish due to entries in his bibliographic cards in the NHCP collection.

Second, the distribution of copies of the Bible in languages beyond Latin and Greek signified the opening up of the Philippines to wider trade in the 19th century. These copies (usually in Spanish) were smuggled through American and British businessmen. The earliest known attempt was in 1828 and the earliest confirmed arrival was recorded ten years later.

Third, the Bible became a catalyst for freedom of religion, a most cherished right of every Filipino. For centuries under Spanish rule, only the priests and their colleagues could own and read the Bible. The ecclesiastical authorities feared that unauthorized translations may run against generally-accepted norms.

The earliest known translation into a Philippine language of a whole book within the Bible was that of Manrique Alonso Lallave, a Spaniard who was removed from the Dominican Order for his liberal beliefs in 1871. Having been assigned to Pangasinan from 1863 until his arrest and removal from the Order, he endeavored to make God's word known more clearly to his former flock. He began translating the Gospel of Luke into Pangasinan in 1873 and then planned for a Protestant mission to the Philippines.

In May 1889, Lallave arrived with a colleague, Francisco de Paula Castells, bringing with them copies of the Gospels and Acts translated in Pangasinan. Unfortunately, this was impounded and they were only able to smuggle out few copies of the Bible in Spanish and Chinese. While he failed to establish a Protestant congregation before his untimely death, he was able to give copies of the Bible to Paulino Zamora, Luis R. Yangco, and his son Teodoro.

The Zamora and Yangco homes would later produce prominent men in Philippine Protestantism. Paulino's son, Nicolas Zamora, was ordained the first Filipino non-Roman Catholic pastor and later established the Iglesia Evangelica Metodista en las Islas Filipinas or IEMELIF. Meanwhile, the Yangcos would figure prominently in Protestant churches, with Teodoro supporting the building of chapels and expressing his faith through the compassionate way he managed his expanding business empire.

(I have to mention that Paulino Zamora is said to be a nephew of Fr. Jacinto Zamora, one of the three martyr priests executed on 17 February 1872. Perhaps this injustice pushed him to seek for heavenly justice elsewhere.)

Fourth, it became a means to preserve Philippine languages. Upon the implementation of freedom of religion under American rule, various Filipino scholars began translating the Bible (or at least portions of it) into local languages. They include Pascual Poblete in Tagalog, Cayetano Lukban in Bicolano, and Isabelo de los Reyes in Ilocano. Some of these early translations are now exhibited at the PBS' Bible Museum in Ermita, Manila.

Today, institutions like the PBS and the Summer Institute of Linguistics translate the books of the Bible in various Philippine languages, be they of many speakers or few. The translations also document the evolution of a language, which words were being used at the time, and what they meant.

Thus, whether or not you are a believer, it is worth celebrating National Bible Month. Let's flip the pages of the Bibles we own — whether it got passed down to us by our elders or it was given to us freely by a religious group — and see how our language and worldview got preserved in them.



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