Interview with Fr. Alessandro Coniglio on the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum of Jerusalem

We met Fr. Alessandro Coniglio, ofm, recently appointed a Discrete of the Custody, to talk about the last academic year and the new one that will soon be opening at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (SBF), of which  he is the Secretary and an Adjunct Professor.

Fr. Alessandro, can you talk to us about the academic year that has just come to an end at the SBF? How can you take stock of it?

The academic year that has ended was the first year that was really post-Covid. It is consequently undeniable that there has been a great step ahead compared to the previous two years, when we had to hold lessons online for most of the time. From the teaching point of view as well, this can work only for some subjects, such as exegesis and introductions, but overall it does not work. It is incompatible, for example, with Biblical languages, where continuous contact between teacher and student is fundamental; it is in the continuous tests, which necessarily have to be carried out in-presence. From this point of view then, this was the first year in which we have gone back completely, or nearly completely, to lessons in presence.

Connected with this, there is the growth in the number of enrolments, as well as the fact that we were able to rely again on auditors. We offer the possibility, in addition to those who want to follow the cycle of degree and then a doctorate in Biblical studies, to follow the courses as auditors. This option attracts many people who work in Jerusalem and who want to deepen their knowledge of the Biblical lands and the Bible. The advantage lies in not being obliged to sit examinations and, at the same time, in the possibility of having a much closer contact with the Biblical land, the Holy Land and some introductory information on the Scriptures. Ultimately this has been the increase in quality of this last year compared to the immediately preceding years.

What can you tell us about the year that is to come?

For the coming year we are expecting even more enrolments. We will have at least about ten new students enrolling on the degree course.

In terms of syllabi is anything changing? Is there anything new?

In terms of syllabi, not really. The degree cycle has a standard syllabus of about 120 credits, which have to be completed in three and a half years. This entails an offer for the introductory course i.e. the morphology of Greek and Hebrew and the introductory courses to the Biblical environment. Plus Biblical geography, Biblical history and Biblical archaeology. These are courses that come back every year. The syllabus of some of these courses changes slightly, but not the morphology of the languages and geography.

While some courses tend to change the syllabus from one year to the next, others, especially the language ones, are standard. What changes, for example, in Greek and Hebrew syntax is which chapters of the Old and New Testaments are analysed by the teacher in the class or on which chapters the examination will focus. These syllabi change every year, but the approach to the subject remains the same.
The courses of exegesis change every year, not only thanks to the contribution of the teachers who are stably in the faculty (the majority are friars minor), but also thanks to a stable core of resident teachers and a group of guest professors.
We will have a total of nine guest lecturers, who will help us to differentiate the exegetic methodologies and the approaches to the Biblical text, while we, the stable teachers of the faculty, tend to repeat the courses every year, although changing the content. For example, I teach the Book of Psalms, and every year I change the number of Psalms that we analyse during the course.

Generally which Psalms do you analyse?

It depends on the type of course and the individual type of Psalm. Last year I held a course on the Psalms at the doors of the Psalter, i.e. the two entrance Psalms and the five exit Psalms. Next year, I expect to do a course on the Psalms as the links of the five books of the Psalter. I think that theoretically the there are four links of the Psalter, so theoretically there would be eight Psalms, but in general it is difficult to analyse more than four Psalms in great depth. A great deal depends on the length of the Psalm.

For example, Fr. Matteo Munari ofm, who teaches exegesis of the New Testament, changes the chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew that he analyses every year. He tackles a different chapter each year but the type of methodological approach is the always the same. However, to offer our students new voices and new approaches, above all to the Biblical text, every year the SBF invites different teachers from other academic centres.

What can you tell us about the advance of the archaeological activities?

As far as the advance of the archaeological activities is concerned, our Institute is pleased to see that over the past few years, we have developed collaborations with different and new archaeologists.

We have a friar minor who is studying at the PIAC, the Pontifical Institute of Christian archaeology in Rome, fr. Amedeo Ricco ofm; we have a stable collaboration with fr. Yunus Demirci, a Capuchin friar minor, who graduated from the Hebrew University; we have a collaboration with Dr Daniela Massara, who is the General Manager of the Terra Sancta Museum of the Flagellation as well as collaborating with Fr. Eugenio Alliata ofm,  the last of the great archaeologists of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum.

There is also an excellent multi-year collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). When we started the work at Gethsemane for a new welcome centre for pilgrims in the Kidron Valley with the construction of a tunnel that makes it easier to access the Basilica of the Nations, naturally we had to do a preliminary archaeological excavation. On that occasion, the IAA, which supervised it, then asked our specialists at the SBF to analyse the ceramic material found in the dig, as well as collaboration on the evaluation of the results of the excavation. A Mikveh (a ritual Jewish bath) and the mosaic floors of a church were found in the excavation at Gethsemane.

Collaboration with the PIAC, the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology in Rome is starting on a re-evaluation of the excavations at the Shepherds’ Field in Beit Sahour and there is obviously the excavation at the Holy Sepulchre for the restoration of the floors, in which fr. Amedeo Ricci, the Ph.D. student at the PIAC in Rome, is actively involved; he is officially following the excavation works for the Studium Biblicum, accompanied by fr. Eugenio Alliata who is still at the head of all the archaeological activities.

Lastly, the collaboration with the guest professor, Dr Voros Gyozo, who teaches at the Academy of the Arts in Budapest, has been going on for years. He has a licence for excavation at Machaerus (Jordan) until 2029 and next year he will be holding a seminar on archaeology of the New Testament at the SBF in the second semester.


Interview by Filippo De Grazia