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In Memoriam: Bruce M. Metzger (1914-2007)

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Dr. Bruce Metzger was unquestionably one of the greatest New Testament scholars of the 20th century. He was also a friend. I am never prepared for any friend’s death, regardless of how old he or she is. It hit me hard when I heard the news on Valentine’s Day that he had passed from this life to the next the day before. He had turned 93 just four days earlier (February 9).

Almost immediately, eulogies came from many quarters. The Associated Press published an obituary notice, as did Christianity Today. John Piper wrote a tribute to this great man. So did the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. Major newspapers picked up the tribute and published it.

What could I possibly add to the eulogies? Only a few personal reminiscences. But I wish to begin with some general comments, so that the reader can know a bit more about this gentleman-scholar.

Bruce Metzger graduated from Lebanon Valley College in 1935 with a B.A. From there, he went to Princeton Seminary for his bachelor of theology degree (the equivalent of a master’s degree today), earning it in 1938. Metzger then enrolled in the classics department at Princeton University and earned his Ph.D. in 1942. But he never left Princeton, New Jersey.

In 1938, he joined the faculty at Princeton Seminary. The school had been a bastion of conservatism until the early 1930s. Liberal influences troubled several of the faculty, who left and started a new school, Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Metzger came to Princeton after the fallout.

He mastered several ancient and modern languages and ended up teaching at Princeton for 46 years. He was one of the editors of the standard Greek New Testament used today, and was the senior editor of the NRSV. His scholarship has proved to be almost impeccable. The author of numerous books and articles, including standard scholarly works in various fields, Metzger was amazingly productive. Yet in spite of his productivity, he was always very careful.

His specialty was New Testament textual criticism, the field whose primary goal is to ascertain the wording of the original text. Many considered him the finest NT textual critic of the 20th century.

The above can be found in almost any tribute. I want to turn my attention now to my own reminiscences of Dr. Metzger. From the many stories and anecdotes I could mention, I will limit myself to just two.

First, I had briefly met Dr. Metzger in November 1980 at the annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting. Two years later, I went to Princeton and spent some time with him in his office at the seminary. I was interested in studying under him for my doctoral work. I learned at that time that he was not allowed to take any more doctoral students; he had turned 65 almost three years earlier, and the seminary had a mandated retirement age in place. He was my reason for wanting to go to Princeton Seminary; without him there, I decided to earn my doctorate elsewhere.

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.

Second, ten years later, Dr. Metzger would be the Griffith-Thomas lecturer on the campus of Dallas Seminary (1992). This is the most notable lectureship at Dallas Seminary each year, taking place every February. The lectures are then published in the seminary’s journal, Bibliotheca Sacra. He spoke for a week in chapel, as well as in classrooms and off-campus meetings. Everywhere he went, he was recognized. I had the privilege of being his liaison for that week. On his last day in Dallas, I drove him to church and to the airport. He wanted to go to Highland Park Presbyterian Church (after all, he was a Presbyterian). I came to campus to pick him up. As I opened the passenger side-door, he took his hat off and sat down. I noticed that a comb was still in his hair! As I walked around to the driver’s side, I was in an existential crisis. Do I say anything about the comb? If I do, I will surely start laughing—I wouldn’t be able to help it! But then I thought, if I don’t, I will know what those snickers are in the pew behind us at church. And then I’d really start laughing! I had to speak up now.

So, when I got in the car, I said with as straight a face as I could manage, “Dr. Metzger, do you know that you have a comb in your hair?”

He laughed gently, and said, “Oh! I wondered where I had left it!” The classic absent-minded professor. One can only imagine what he was thinking about when he got distracted in mid-brush.

During the week he was at Dallas Seminary, I sensed that the students’ love for Jesus Christ rose significantly. Dr. Metzger was the epitome of grace; everywhere he went, he touched lives deeply for the Lord. He was a conservative light at Princeton, borne out of deep convictions that had been tested over several decades.

There are, of course, hate-mongers who are quick to condemn any biblical scholarship that doesn’t agree to a T with their ultra-conservative views. A search on Google will reveal a lot of venom directed against Dr. Metzger. To be sure, there are things over which many Christians will disagree with him. But on the essentials of the faith, it’s hard to take issue with him. He was adamant about the deity of Christ and his bodily resurrection.

And one measure of his impact is the legacy he has left behind. When we were at the Presbyterian church in Dallas, several people came up to him afterward and told him that they had studied under him X amount of years ago, or had heard him speak at some conference. There was profound respect in their tone. And for good reason. Bruce Metzger was a scholar’s scholar, a gentleman’s gentleman, and a humble servant of Jesus Christ. He has marked my life in ways that go beyond what this little tribute reveals. Although it is an overused word of effervescence—to the point of being a cliché—I mean it sincerely when I say that Dr. Metzger is an inspiration to me. I will miss him dearly.

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