Bruce Metzger (1914-2007)

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I'm a bit late with this, but Bruce Metzger managed to survive about week after his 93rd birthday last month, right during the time my computer died, so I couldn't put together the kind of post I wanted to. The nice thing is that I could now go back and read what everyone else said before saying anything myself.

Several things stick out to me Dr. Metzger's contribution to biblical studies in general and textual criticism in particular, but it's his effect on the popular level that I'm most grateful for, so I'll say a couple things about that before including some wonderful anecdotes from people's interaction with him. I'm not going to link to all the writeups in the blogosphere since his death. The Princeton Seminary writeup does a good job of capturing some of his achievements, and you can follow the links below from where I took the anecdotes for a number of other writeups and accounts. Instead, I'll mention two things I'm grateful for from his work that have had an impact at the popular level, even if his most important work was fairly technical scholarship in textual criticism.

1. Metzger was one of the Christian scholars interviewed for the fictional interview format of Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. Strobel presents the book as first-person reports of an investigative reporter's interviews with Christian biblical scholars in a way that increases the reporter's confidence about Christian claims. He begins with textual criticism, discussing with Metzger whether we can take the Bible as a reliable source in terms of our current texts reflecting what the original said. It's one of the strongest chapters in the book. After all, Metzger was widely viewed as the most important scholar in the field of New Testament textual criticism. I'm less pleased with some chapters in that book, but several of them are top-notch, and the one based on what Metzger has to say is perhaps the most careful of them all.

2. It was almost entirely due to Metzger's insistence that the NRSV committee refrained from using gender-inclusive language for God. The NRSV is the most academically respected translation and is usually the translation of choice for most university courses on the Bible. I very much doubt it would have the same credibility if Metzger hadn't won over the translation committee to an understanding of why their original intention would have been such a bad idea. I think there is room for good translations that use different policies on gender-neutral language when referring to humans. I don't think the same is true for language about God.

Also, some excellent anecdotes have come up in bloggers' tributes. Several have stuck out to me as indicative of Metzger's personality and temperament.

From Ben Witherington:

We were studying Eusebius at Princeton in the summer of 1976 when suddenly a man ran into the class, interrupting Professor Metzger's lecture. As was his way, Metzger quietly stopped what he was doing and asked how he could help the breathless man.

The man said, "Dr. Metzger, I have here the earliest copy of the Gospel of Mark in Syriac!" Metzger smiled and asked politely: "Do you mind if I have a look?"

The man handed over the manuscript, beaming—the great expert on ancient Christian manuscripts was about to validate his discovery, or so he thought.

After less than a minute, Bruce Metzger handed the manuscript back and said, "Well, it's very interesting, but a Syriac copy of Mark, it is not. It's a 6th-century manuscript in Boharic of no particular notoriety." As the Bible says, the man's countenance fell, and he left the room quietly.

From Mark Goodacre:

This reminds me of the one occasion I met Prof. Metzger. He came to lecture in Birmingham on the NRSV in 1996 and my colleague David Parker, a friend of Metzger's, introduced me -- and he was as delightful in person as everyone says he was. I remember one thing in particular from his lecture. When discussing the issue of gender inclusive translation, he explained the difficulties over translating sentences traditionally translated with male-specific language, like "Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear". Prof. Metzger explained that he had received a letter from someone strongly urging him to use the new gender inclusive pronoun "thon", thus "Whoever has ears to hear, let thon here." He said that he replied to her by saying that he would be willing to consider the use of "thon" as soon as it appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary.

From commenter Jill JKM at Evangelical Textual Criticism:

On another occasion, one of our more charismatic 'scholars' took issue with one of Dr. Metzger's interpretations of several verses in the book of Revelation. She proceeded to share the interpretation she had received by 'the gift of the Holy Spirit' while she was praying over that Scripture the night before. Some students began to giggle. But Dr. Metzger thanked the young woman for sharing her interpretation and noted that he placed great faith in the ability of the Holy Spirit to assist us whenever we interpreted Scripture. He stated further that he, himself, never approached the study of the Bible in any language apart from prayer and the invocation of the Spirit. And then class continued.

Finally, from Daniel Wallace:

During our conversation, he showed me an urn in his office. I was curious as to what was in it; bizarre notions flashed through my head. He said, “This urn contains the ashes of a Revised Standard Version Bible.” Metzger had been on the translation committee for the RSV, and a zealous fundamentalist preacher torched the Bible from the pulpit one Sunday, declaring it the work of the devil. He then sent the ashes to the committee chairman. Metzger became the chairman of the committee for the NRSV (published in 1990) and was bequeathed the urn and ashes. He commented sadly, “Isn’t it a tragedy what people sometimes do to the Word of God!” Then, with keen wit (something I would learn over the years was vintage Metzger) he quipped, “I’m so glad to be a translator in the 20th century. They only burn Bibles now, not the translators!” I left his office in awe of this great man who obviously loved the Lord and loved the Bible.

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