Ecole Biblique of Jerusalem celebrates 125 years. An interview with Fr. Pérennès
JERUSALEM- The French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, conducted by the Dominicans, celebrates its 125th anniversary. Th oldest biblical research center in the Holy Land has made numerous outstanding contributions in the field of archaeology, not to mention its pioneering work in the field of historical-critical exegesis of Scriptures. What about the past 125 years? What challenges and prospects for the future? We offer the perspective of Fr. Jean-Jacques Pérennès, OP, new Director of the Ecole Biblique.
It is not easy to summarize the 125 years of Ecole Biblique’s existence, especially since it underwent important changes of context, First, politically: the end of the Ottoman Empire, the two world wars, the creation of the State of Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, etc. Then on the ecclesial level: the study of the Bible has dramatically changed, to move to Vatican II and its consequences. I do recall over these 125 years that the Ecole Biblique has lasted and managed to pass through many challenges founded by religious men who have given their lives totally to this project. It is still our goal today to be present here in Jerusalem, in this eight centenary of the Dominican Order, as an excellent study center for the Word of God, sustained by religious who have totally devoted themselves.
A figure remains inseparable of the Ecole Biblique, that of Fr Marie-Joseph Lagrange. What does this great figure inspire to you? What more remains of his intuition?
The figure of Fr Lagrange remains indeed a big inspiration to us all, for he was able to launch a scholarly study of the Bible, taking into consideration sometimes the intervention of modern science, while doing it in medio ecclesiae, despite the very harsh and sometimes unfair criticism he had been subjected to on behalf of hierarchy and/or some of its members. We hope that the ending up of his cause of beatification will allow shedding light on this possibility to be at the same time a great scholar and a great believer.
How is it possible to explain hesitancy, almost hostility of certain figures to Fr Lagrange and his historical-critical method of the Bible? (Let us just remember former relations with Rome which have never been easy!)
Part of the hesitancy towards his person is due to his era: the 19th century brought up new revolutionary ideas to Bible-linked science: history, linguistics, epigraphy, archaeology, etc. Certain discoveries were sort of a genuine shake up for a literary and naïve reading of the Biblical text which few Catholics practiced, except for highly educated clerics. The boldness of Fr Lagrange and his first companions was to take seriously challenges posed by modern science to believing readers, without rejecting everything, as was done by men like Renan or Loisy. Other hesitancies were more cyclical: for example, the animosity of this or that German Jesuit which can be explained on the one hand by the consequences of wars of 1870 and 1914. What is deplorable is that the impeachment and the slandering could have influenced certain judgments brought against Fr Lagrange. From this side, times have so much changed. But it is very confusing regarding all what Lagrange has borne, as shown in his biography written by Fr Bernard Montagnes and the scrupulous study of his writing by Fr Maurice Gilbert (1).
The spreading of the Ecole is now international. What are the fields where the Ecole was distinguished? What are the fields/competencies which it would like to bring forward?
The Ecole Biblique was distinguished by major works in biblical matters: the great comments of Fr Lagrange, history and geography works on Palestine made by his first assistants such as Frs Abel and Vincent, then de Vaux, Benoit, Boismard. These founding works enabled the Ecole “to run as school” – that is to prepare generations of Bible students who came for training here under the guidance of these tutors. These students are currently professors in their turn, throughout the world. The Ecole was then known through publications like the Biblical Review or associated collections (Etudes bibliques et Cahiers de la revue biblique) without forgetting numerous works written by professors. Mention should be made of the successive editions of the Bible de Jérusalem, first in booklets, then in successive editions. The Bible de Jérusalem is an annotated Bible with, for each book, an introduction summarizing the term of exegetic research which develops over the years. This Bible de Jérusalem has practically fed the Christian people and prepared the renewal of Vatican II. Later the Ecole Biblique became famous through its contributions to major archaeological sites like Qumran, Tell el-Far’ah, Tell Keisan, Khirbet es-Samara in Jordan, and more recently Blakhiyeh and St Hilarion Monastery in Gaza, added to various sites maybe less spectacular but sensitive in Jerusalem area. These excavations, in the course of publication, which contribute to deepen our knowledge of the Biblical areas and of Palestine, were carried out through limited financial means of the Ecole biblique which does not earn the support of powerful foundations or organizations.
The initial objective of the Ecole biblique was to “get the Biblical studies out of their primitive look” and to work towards a credible and serious exegesis. 125 years have passed along; one might say that the objective was reached. What would be the new intellectual challenge of the Ecole Biblique henceforth?
Actually we might consider that the hard work undertaken by generations of professors known to the Ecole Biblique now raises this discipline up to the level of a true scientific discipline, as shown by partnerships of research, wound up between the Ecole Biblique and other church and lay universities. We should underline here the outstanding character of our library, one of the best all over the world. Funds and the way it is being run and put at the disposal of researches make thereof an exceptional tool appreciated beyond the borders of the country where we live.
Each generation brings forward new challenges. Today the Ecole Biblique carries a very ambitious project, called “La Bible en ses traditions”, whose objective is to broaden our understanding of the Bible through the history of its reception in miscellaneous fields, such as patristic, liturgy, history of the art, etc. This new approach in coordination with updated technologies announces yet further developments in the times ahead.
At the time where religious fundamentalists come back forcefully into the world, including the Christian world, this critical and believing approach of the Scripture is relevant.
You are the new Director of the Ecole biblique. What impulse would you like to inject into this anniversary-year?
My main effort this year is to renew the teaching body, to enrich it with new skills. The scientific study of the Bible at this high level of specialization is very demanding, requires a true ascetism, a thorough involvement. Not everybody is ready for such an effort. Praise the Lord, the Order of the Dominicans draws today still more young people, devoted and generous. It is a true blessing which we receive with gratitude in this year marking the 8th centenary of the Dominican Order. This generation should later be able to draw lessons from the experiences of previous generations.
From this point of view, it is not useless that the Ecole biblique be borne by a religious community which prays and celebrates liturgy together and proves in its daily life the call for brotherly love embodied by the Word of God.
I would also like to promote cooperation among different Biblical institutions of Jerusalem who will gain much from working together, which we have successfully started with the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum.
Interview conducted by Manuella Affejee.