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Bruce Metzger and the Squirrel: A Blast from the Past

A Blast From the Past: four years ago I posted the following, an amusing anecdate about my mentor in graduate school (and beyond) the illustrious New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger.


As with all great men, Metzger was widely talked about among those who knew and revered him. There were lots of stories told about Metzger at Princeton Seminary. Someone should probably collect and publish them. I was especially interested in the stories, since I came to Princeton in order to study with him. Most of the stories were meant to be funny, and we always wondered which, if any of them, were “true” (in the sense that they really happened).

Far and away the most commonly told and best known story was the one I heard when I first arrived at the seminary in 1978. It is the story of Metzger and the Squirrel.

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Bruce Metzger is the author of several books including The Early Versions of the New Testament and The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, And Restoration.

Metzger and the Squirrel Part 2: Another Blast from the Past
Constantine Before His Conversion



  1. Avatar
    marcrm68  July 21, 2016

    Metzger is the name of Leonard Cohen’s player of antique stringed instruments…Bob I think. The man is unbelievable…

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  July 21, 2016

    The Greek word for squirral is αφράτα αρουραίος.

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    doug  July 21, 2016

    My wife and I laughed out loud at the squirrel story. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. epicurus
    epicurus  July 21, 2016

    Having recently read “Jesus Before the Gospels,” I couldn’t help comparing this many versioned story of Metzger to the stories of Jesus, and how they were modified and probably embellished overtime, either by adding people and events in, or taking them out.

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    bbcamerican  July 21, 2016

    I couldn’t wait for the repost tomorrow, so I searched and found “Metzger and the Squirrel: Part 2”. I’m sorry; I couldn’t help myself. The whole situation had me envisioning you, Dr. Ehrman, as Robert Langdon from the Da Vinci Code running around Princeton Theological Seminary trying to find out the truth of the squirrel story. It is a fascinating anecdote that is analogous to many cherished, legendary stories, as you yourself point out. How do legends start? How are they modified and expounded over time? When hearing the expounded story, how many people who were actually involved in the original event can even recognize the reality within the legend? Is it possible the the small kernel of truth to a legend is completely overshadowed by the story that grows up around it? How much of the legendary accounts of bygone eras began with just such a small kernel?

    Very thought-provoking…

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    Wilusa  July 21, 2016

    OK – I’ll ask what I assume many others will be asking: What *is* the Greek word for squirrel? (The story would be funny – and therefore understandable – if the word *sounds like*, maybe, “splat”!)

  7. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  July 21, 2016

    I always found William James’ story about the campers and the squirrel most interesting. He and some friends are around a camp fire and they see a squirrel on a large old fir tree. James(?) goes over to the tree to get a closer look but, whenever he tries to get a straight-on look at the squirrel, the squirrel moves around the tree. James follows it around and around, never quite catching up with it. Finally, he gives up and returns to the camp fire. The question arises among his fellow philosophers, “Did he go around the squirrel or not?” Argument ensues and gets passionate but the two sides can come to no resolution. Finally, James shows his pragmatism: “It depends on what you mean,” he said, “by ‘around’. If you mean he went from facing the belly of the squirrel to its lefty side to its back to its right side of it and back to its belly, then, No, he did not go around the squirrel for he was always facing its belly for the most part the entire time. But, if you mean he went from the north of it to the west of it to the south of it to east of it and back to north of it, then, Yes, he went around it.” Love it!

  8. JDTabor
    JDTabor  July 21, 2016

    Over the years I have heard countless A.D. Nock stories, from Malherbe, Ferguson, and others who studied with him on the 1960s. Sometimes I would hear the same story about other scholars, like Morton Smith. I wonder how these things circulate. Two Nock stores is remember:

    1. Nock used to study naked in his little office at Harvard. He would open a refrigerator and put a fan by the door to blow on him. Once when he was interrupted unexpectedly the visitor cried out: OMG. Nock replied, No my dear Sir, only his humble servant.

    2. Nock did not have his Ph.D. When asked once why he stopped with just his M.A. he replied, “Well my good Sir, who would examine me?”

    Anyone heard versions of these, about Nock or anyone else?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2016

      Yup, I’ve heard them both — the first one in several versions! Maybe in Charlotte they have Tabor stories?!?

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    rburos  July 21, 2016

    I like Via’s version better, plus it benefited from a good setup. Nice to know you guys are human as well.

    But I wonder, in a moment of seriousness, whether or not the second versions of the joke were as meaningful (i.e. funny) without knowledge of the first version. And that leads us back to the purpose of the blog–I know you are into textual criticism, but is source criticism then the most important?

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    sheila0405  July 21, 2016

    Hey! A really good example of how a legend can grow over a short span of years. Kinda reminds me of the story of Jesus. ???? My mind tends to go in different directions, so forgive me if this didn’t make much sense.

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    Kirktrumb59  July 22, 2016

    Point taken. Sequential oral transmission of “facts,” with or without agendas >> distortions.

    Another point: the importance of prosody (another Greek-derived word) in oral discourse. Prosody, simply, refers to the non-verbal rate, rhythm, pitch, amplitude of the actual words (“verbal”) along with accompanying gestures. A change in prosodic intonation can radically alter the understanding of person b of what’s been said by person a. Per Ehrman: ” I need to stress that it is hard to convey the story in writing. It really has to be told, orally.”
    For example: “I know the Greek word for squirrel.”
    I KNOW the Greek word for squirrel. (clench fist)
    I know the GREEK word for squirrel.
    EYE (can’t underline, change font size or embolden in this field) know the Greek word for squirrel! (point your thumb at yourself)
    I know the GREEK word for SQUIRREL? (tilt head, shrug shoulders, rotate eyeballs up)
    This courtesy of evolutionary neuroanatomic segregation of brain functions.

  12. Avatar
    Matt7  July 22, 2016

    I don’t see how they would know that the σκίουρος had missed a branch and not just died of a heart attack.

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    RonaldTaska  July 22, 2016

    Terrific story which illustrates how tales, including the tale of Constantine’s conversion, get changed and embellished as they get passed along.
    My squirrel story: One Saturday evening, I was eating dinner and drinking wine outside on the deck at the Chapel Hill house of a noted UNC Professor. This was the first time I had dined with this professor. In the midst of the meal, he picked up a 22 and shot dead a squirrel that was eating in his garden. He never said a word and kept on eating.

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    Dhul_Qarnayn  July 22, 2016

    God bless Bruce Metzger

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    SteveWalach  July 22, 2016

    In keeping with Bruce Metzger’s acclaimed status as a textual critic, he might well have said, “Skíouros,” which is a relatively close cognate for the English “squirrel.”

    If Metzger said whatever he said without fanfare, emotion, moralizing or philosophizing, then his fame as a detached, truth-seeking textual analyst holds true — a stoic at heart, which is Greek for …

    Good story, Bart.

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    dragonfly  July 23, 2016

    I’m not really surprised you got in the story. My guess is someone heard “Metzger and a student were walking across campus” but whenever they saw Metzger with a student, it was you. So in their head that’s how they imagined it. Then when retelling the story, they are not so much retelling how they heard it, but how they imagined it when they heard it. I have often wondered if some of the gospel stories were at one point “Jesus and one of his disciples” and got changed to “Jesus and Peter” simply because Peter was the most well known to the person who heard the story at the time. Maybe Peter was just “one of the guys” during Jesus life, but became more prominent later.

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    Samuel Riad  July 23, 2016

    Hi Bart,
    You mentioned that one of the best ways to promote your book is to appear on podcasts. I can see you have done that for your last book here: http://www.americanfreethought.com/wordpress/2016/03/01/podcast-244-bart-ehrman-jesus-before-the-gospels/

    Is there a list of the podcasts or websites that you recommend?

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