As is my annual custom, I attended the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference in 2007. It was held in San Diego. One of the sessions was dedicated to the memory of Bruce Metzger (who died in February, 2007, just four days after his 93rd birthday), a man who taught New Testament at Princeton Seminary for nearly five decades. There were four presenters, the first of whom was Bart Ehrman, Professor Metzger’s last doctoral student.
Ehrman relayed the famous ‘squirrel story’ that anyone acquainted with Metzger lore knew about: One day, while walking with an unnamed student across the campus at Princeton Seminary, Metzger and student stopped to see a squirrel racing up a tree. The squirrel jumped from the tree to another that was out of its reach. Suddenly, the squirrel fell to the ground and died. Metzger turned to the student and said, “I know what the Greek word for squirrel is.”
Ehrman went on to note that the story had some features to it that simply didn’t ring true: Metzger was a compassionate man who would hardly have made such an insensitive comment at the demise of the furry little creature; Metzger was a humble man, not given to bragging about himself to the effect of using the occasion to parade his knowledge; and squirrels, as a rule, do not die if they miss their target: they simply get up and keep on scampering.
After several years of hearing many variations on this story (I have heard at least two quite different variations myself), Ehrman finally found the occasion to get to the truth of this seemingly apocryphal tale. He began to tell Metzger the story and when he came to the part about the squirrel’s unfortunate end, Metzger interrupted: ‘poor little squirrel.’ This was proof that the story was a myth since Metzger’s attitude was obviously at odds with what he was supposed to have said years earlier.
From this, Ehrman offered an analogy to the SBL crowd: getting to the truth of the historical Jesus is a tricky task, and legends about him would often spring up without any genuine historical base. In other words, Ehrman saw in the apocryphal story about Metzger a parallel with the stories about Jesus that are recorded in the Gospels.
There are some difficulties with Ehrman’s analogy, however. First, the squirrel story only involved one unnamed eyewitness at an undefined period. In fact, several different names were given for the student (including Ehrman’s!) in different versions of the tale. The period in which it supposedly occurred spanned decades. This is unlike the Gospels in that most of the stories involve more than one eyewitness and are stated as occurring at relatively specific times.
Second, the story has had many versions that often widely diverged from each other. (For example, one version that I heard but which was not mentioned in Ehrman’s telling of the tale: Metzger was walking across the campus of Princeton Seminary when he saw a squirrel acting quite erratically. It ran up one tree, then down again. Up another tree, then down again. It repeated the same acts a couple of times. Metzger stopped to observe its behavior. A crowd of students gathered around him to see what was so interesting. The squirrel continued its behavior then suddenly stood up, looked around, and keeled over. The students were waiting for some profound comment to come from the lips of the revered professor. He looked puzzled for a moment, then said, “Does anyone know the Greek word for squirrel?” I like that version of the story!) But here’s the problem: the many varieties immediately create suspicion about its historicity. What is most analogous is not the Gospels en toto, but the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11). That passage has more variations than any other pericope in the Gospels. It is not without reason that most New Testament scholars reject the authenticity of the story. And a large part of the reason is that the story has multiple versions, and is located in several places in the Gospels.
Third, the oral tradition about Metzger and the squirrel spread without controls, spanning the globe and cutting across decades. But it was oral tradition created in a time when the printed page had come to replace memory. We are not like the ancients whose memory was far more acute; unlike the ancient world, ours is a written culture, not an oral one.
Fourth, Ehrman is a devotee of Metzger. Almost anyone touched by Metzger’s life was. But Ehrman was especially so. He called Metzger his Doktorvater. He described Metzger as the greatest living textual critic in his book Misquoting Jesus. And he dedicated the book to him. Yet, in spite of his obvious fondness for Professor Metzger—or, more accurately, because of it—Ehrman was unwilling to perpetuate the myth. Instead, he did historical research and determined that the story was a myth. He set things right in a public setting (SBL) and spoke the truth about its roots. Now if Ehrman was a Metzger devotee and a good historian, it should not surprise us that he wanted any memory of Metzger to be accurate. The man was a giant among scholars who needed no embellishment; the truth about him was already astounding.
Putting all this together, the analogies with the historical Jesus that Ehrman suggested are inadequate. Most stories about Jesus involved multiple witnesses; most stories about Jesus were pinpointed in time (or at least narrowed considerably rather than fitting more than one decade); most stories about Jesus did not take on such a wide variety of forms; and oral tradition in Jesus’ day was substantially more stable than it is today. There is one analogy that fits, however: Ehrman was a devotee of Metzger and yet investigated the truth of the story; so also, the evangelists were devotees of Jesus. Should we not expect them also to have investigated the truth about Jesus stories?
It is always refreshing to put to bed myths about a great hero because such bubble-bursting displays honest research and scholarship. And now that Ehrman has set the record straight in a public setting, there is born memory in community (just as there was, from the beginning, about Jesus). Those of us who were at the meeting will tell the squirrel story as a fable and not confuse it with historical fact. Perhaps the evangelists could tell the difference, too.