No need to change ‘pabasa’ text

A Roman Catholic bishop based in Metropolitan Manila wants a revision of the “pabasa,” the traditional Holy Week practice of publicly chanting the passion of Jesus Christ from the Last Supper all the way to the Resurrection.  He says that the “pabasa” is based on the Gospel of Saint John, but re-written with local embellishments. Those embellishments, the bishop says, promotes anti-Semitism (hatred for Jews) because it portrays the Jews as the villains responsible for the death of Jesus.  He says that a revision is necessary to erase the anti-Semitism characterizing the “pabasa.”

The bishop opines that those responsible for turning over Jesus to the Roman authorities are lumped together by the “pabasa” as Jews, as if Jesus and his disciples were not Jews themselves.  For the bishop, the enemies of Jesus were the priests in Judaism. 

 As for his interpretation of the Gospel of John, the bishop suggests that this gospel has anti-Semitic tendencies considering that the Jews in the post-pentecost period actually condemned as heretics their fellow Jews who converted to Christianity.  He added that the anti-Semitic overtones of John’s gospel were encouraged by the Spanish friars, who disliked Jews in Spain, in the “pabasa” which they eventually promoted in the Philippine Islands.       

The bishop likewise cites “Nostra Aetate” (In Our Times), a document that emanated from the second Vatican council convened by then Pope John XXIII in 1962, which is more popularly known as Vatican II.  That document states that although the Jewish authorities and their followers demanded the crucifixion of Jesus, the death of Jesus cannot be placed solely in the hands of all Jews, including the Jews of today.

With all due respect to the bishop, his insistence that the “pabasa” is anti-Semitic and must be amended is baseless.

Since the “pabasa” is premised on what is written in the John’s gospel, an evaluation of this Philippine Holy Week practice must be done in the light of what is provided in John’s gospel and in the historical record.

In Judaism (the religion of the Jews), the high priest is vested with the sacred responsibility of preparing the Jews for the arrival of the Messiah.  Because of the sacred nature of his duties, the high priest enjoyed a privileged status in Jewish society in Roman-occupied Judea.  He and his close associates in the Jewish religious hierarchy enjoyed a lifestyle ordinary Jews in the land could only dream of.

With the privilege enjoyed by the high priest and his colleagues came power, thanks to a deal the Roman authorities made with the Jewish religious leaders in Judea.  That deal allowed the Jews in Judea to retain their religious beliefs and practices, their synagogues, and their monarch (King Herod, and later his son Herod Antiphas, were the Jewish royals back then), but prohibited the Jewish religious leaders from imposing the death penalty on any of their kind without the prior consent of the Roman emperor or his procurator in Judea.  The deal, however, did not exempt the Jews from paying taxes to Rome.  Thus, the high priest and his associates exercised absolute religious authority and limited political authority in Judea. 

In exchange for those concessions, the Jewish religious leaders guaranteed that they will suppress any rebellion within their territorial jurisdiction.

Naturally, the Jewish religious leaders enjoyed the perks of their office, with the permission of the Roman authorities, and at the expense of the Jewish population.   

Whether the Jewish religious authorites abused their privileged status in Judea is not the concern of this essay.  What must be emphasized is that the high priest Caiphas (and Annas before him) could not have had a better religious and political arrangement with the Romans, who were not exactly benevolent to the people they conquered in other parts of the world.

Thus, as long as the Messiah hasn’t arrived, and as long as Rome’s accommodation isn’t abused, Caiphas and his group enjoyed a lifestyle akin to royalty.  Conversely, when the Messiah does finally arrive, their lifestyle will be put to naught. 

When Jesus Christ entered the equation, it was enough cause for Caiphas and his group to panic.  Because Jesus had fulfilled the prophecies in the Holy Scriptures, many in Judea saw Jesus as the Messiah.  Caiphas and his group realized that if Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah, they will be unemployed in no time.  That is the main reason why Caiphas and his group saw Jesus as a threat and plotted against him.      

The Roman procurator in Judea, Pontius Pilate, is recorded in Roman documents as an honest but stern bureaucrat, and one who disliked his having been assigned to Judea. 

When an angry mob composed of the more vocal part of the Jewish population in Judea, particularly those identified with Caiphas, gathered outside Pilate’s headquarters to demand the crucifixion of Jesus, Pilate tried to argue with them with a view towards releasing Jesus.  Although Pilate declared that Jesus committed no crime, the mob replied “let his blood be on us and on our children.” That was enough for Pilate to acquiesce to mob rule.

In fine, Jesus died on a Roman cross, upon the instigation of Caiphas and his allies inside and outside the Jewish religious hierarchy in Roman-occupied Judea. 

A close examination of the texts of both the “pabasa” and the gospel will readily indicate that their references to the Jews is not for the purpose of encouraging hatred for or the persecution of the Jews, but simply for historical orientation.  Stating what happened to Jesus through a “pabasa” based on the gospel of John is not an endorsement of anti-Semitism.

It must be emphasized that the Philippines has no historical tradition of anti-Semitism.  In fact, Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon issued visas to many Jews fleeing the Nazis in Europe, particularly when America was no longer in a position to take in refugees.  Moreover, persecution on the ground of one’s religious affiliation is frowned upon in modern times. 

Topics: Victor Avecilla , Roman Catholic bishop , pabasa , Holy Week
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