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Do I Have a Grudge against Bruce Metzger?

QUESTION:

A more personal question:  did you have a grudge against Dr. Bruce Metzger? I have always seen conservative textual critics and scholars pit you against Dr. Metzger’s views.

 

RESPONSE:

When I first read this question I was very surprised indeed.  A grudge against Bruce Metzger???

Metzger, as many readers of this blog know, was my teacher and mentor, and I never had anything but the most profound and utmost respect for him, from the moment I first had the privilege of meeting him until the time of his death – and still today.

I don’t think there’s anyone in the known universe who would disagree that Bruce Metzger was the greatest NT textual scholar ever to come out of North America.  I first heard about him when I was an undergraduate at Wheaton College.  I was taking Greek there, and began to be interested in pursuing the study of Greek manuscripts.  I knew that Metzger had been one of the five editors who had produced the standard Greek New Testament that everyone used.  He was the only American on the committee.  And when I told my Greek professor that I was interested in doing graduate work in the field, he enthusiastically told me that I should try to go to Princeton Theological Seminary to study with Metzger.

As fate would have it, in my senior year in college Metzger came to Wheaton to give a lecture.   I was too nervous to introduce myself to him, but I stood in awe of his knowledge and insight.   And so I applied to Princeton Theological Seminary in order to go study with him.   PTS at the time (and still, I imagine) had only one program for master’s students, the Masters of Divinity degree, a degree that is designed principally to train students for Christian ministry.  I had long been active in churches by that time, but I had already decided that I wanted to be an academic, not a minister.  (Among other things I had been a youth pastor in a church for three years.)

The MDiv program at Princeton (as virtually everywhere else) is a three-year degree.   Roughly speaking, about two of those years are focused on serious academic study of topics that ministers should know about:  Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, Theology, and so on.  Interspersed with such studies are the more practical fields that affect church ministry:  Preaching, Counseling, Christian Education, and so on.   I was not much interested in these practical fields, but in order to get the degree I had to do them.  They ended up paying off for me on a personal level, but at the time I simply wanted to do the academics, especially New Testament.

So I took every class I could with Metzger, and – still nervously – talked with him after class and on rare occasions at lunch in the student dining room.  Before my senior year I asked him if he would be willing to supervise a master’s thesis for me in the field of textual criticism.  He was more than happy to do so, made a suggestion about what it could be when I explained some of my interests, and I did it with him.  It required a boatload of work, massive reading.  The thesis was about the development of the history of textual criticism, with a focus on why the recent (at the time) resurgence in interest in thinking that the vast bulk of manuscripts from the Middle Ages preserve a better form of the text than the fragmentary but much earlier manuscripts do was completely wrong and wrong-headed.  I called the thesis “New Testament Textual Criticism: Quest for Methodology.”

While writing the thesis I applied to the PhD program at PTS to work with Metzger, and got in.  And then I became his student.   I was, in fact, his very last student from a very long and illustrious teaching career.   And he and I became very close.  He and I talked all the time; he had me over to his home; he and his wife invited my family over to celebrate Christmas. He taught my first PhD seminar and helped me publish the paper I wrote for him.  He was my advisor.  He eventually directed my dissertation.

After I graduated with the PhD I was Metzger’s personal research assistant as he was the chair of the New Revised Standard Version translation committee.   In that capacity I worked extremely closely with him.  Eventually I stayed in his home (when my family had moved) for a time; we roomed together at a conference.  And so on and on.

I think it is fair to say that of all of Metzger’s students over the years I was the one who was closest to him personally.  For me he was a kind of second-father-figure.  I had nothing but respect for him, and never will have.

He was the most remarkable scholar in some ways.  He was not a deep thinker, and would even admit that he was not trained in philosophy or deeply interested in recent developments in theology.  He was in fact a very simple thinker.  But he had the most retentive memory I had ever seen.  He had billions of facts in his head.  He was uncannily knowledgeable about everything having to do with the Bible, and early Christianity, and manuscript studies, and ancient languages, and scholarship in modern languages (French, German, Italian, Russian, and so on).  He really was quite remarkable.

Metzger was always a huge supporter of me and my work.  That was true even when I moved away from my Christian faith.  Around 2002 he agreed with Oxford University Press to ask me to assist him in producing a fourth edition of his classic work on NT textual criticism.  And it was about that time that I started writing Misquoting Jesus.  When it was published, he read book, and told me that he liked it very much.

Metzger and I never talked about my personal faith.  It simply wasn’t an issue for us.  I know that conservative scholars like to claim him as their own, and so to set him up over against me.  But he never set himself up against me – at least to my knowledge – and never said a bad word about me, again to my knowledge.  Or I against him.

I have obviously gone in very different directions personally and theologically since I first met him, but I have never changed in my deep admiration for him, and I still stand in awe of the vast reservoirs of his knowledge.  We had real mutual respect for one another and for our respective pursuits of scholarship.  Anyone who says that he and I were at odds simply has no clue about our personal relationship.  I’d be surprised indeed if anyone heard from him that we were at odds, and I know they haven’t heard it from me.

 


My Big Day Appeal
Debate in Dallas on Friday

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    jgranade  September 19, 2015

    I read this on a tablet and inadvertently tapped on 4 stars instead of 5. Sorry for the under-rating.

  2. Avatar
    Jana  September 19, 2015

    I admire your patience for having to field if not fend off and therefore clarify personal questions where strictly academic studies are involved. However, your admiration and gratitude is obvious. Thank you. Frankly I lose patience with such “Facebook like” questions. Sorry not able to read much at the moment … internet is unreliable and much sickness in my pueblito.

  3. Avatar
    francis  September 19, 2015

    Dr Ehrman: I watched your debate with Kyle Butt on the subject of suffering..My conclusion is he is a young child with very little life experience. He quotes the bible chapter and verse and understands very little.. I have no clue what type of audience you were addressing. My father suffered for years before he died,,,My mother had to have her legs removed to stop the infection in her toes. These people were just ordinary folks yet they suffered terribly before they died. Its just part of life there is no deity involved…

  4. Avatar
    Jeff  September 20, 2015

    Such a heartfelt story of your mentor, Bruce Metzger. Sounds like a wonderful man. When I first heard of you, an early interview with host Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, I was fascinated with the book topic, Lost Scriptures. I did not know your personal religious views at the time but thought this fellow has something valuable, worthy of further reading. Years later I stand happier, more informed and less afraid of the scripture from my youth. I believe I speak for many when I say thanks for making this once mysterious collections of books make sense in the context of history and human endeavors. ( Now, would you mind focusing your scholarship on making sense of Donald Trump? )

  5. Avatar
    Lawyerskeptic  September 20, 2015

    How do you define “deep thinker?”

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2015

      I mean someone who has a deep philosophical grounding for profound thoughts that do not occur to the rest of us. Or something like that.

  6. Avatar
    PZaas  September 20, 2015

    What a beautiful tribute! I hope all of your readers are familiar with Metzger’s own informative and funny memoire, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian.

  7. Avatar
    PZaas  September 20, 2015

    Sorry typing on a tablet. Memoir.

  8. Avatar
    Hank_Z  September 20, 2015

    The person who asked this question apparently has read very little of your blog. You’ve consistently been clear your respect and appreciation for Bruce Metzger.

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 20, 2015

    OT, but I can’t resist passing it on. It just occurred to me to check this. You thought you’d mentioned the “virgin” mistranslation in Matthew in Chapter One of your New Testament textbook because you’d actually mentioned it in Chapter One (page 24) of your *Bible* textbook! (And in your chapter on Matthew in that book, you reminded the reader of what you’d said about “Isaiah” back on pages 23-24.)

  10. Avatar
    Everythingmustgo65  September 20, 2015

    Hi Bart,
    What a lovely story of how a teacher/mentor and student can have such a nice, supportive relationship and get on well in spite of having a different set of beliefs/views. If only the rest of the world could be so grown up and evolved then it would be a much more harmonious place to be in.
    One thing I am curious about though is how someone comes to terms with their faith when they see such inconsistencies and contradictions from the source they rely on? Do you think that it comes down to their experience of God rather than their knowledge about God that carries them on? Also do you have any views on what Christians claim to be their experiences? (psychological explanations maybe). Did you ever have any experiences that you believed were of God? Such as hearing him etc.?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2015

      Yes, I think (despite what people might sometimes claim) that it comes down to some kinds of experiences. I used to think I too had such experiences, but now as an agnostic I explain them through other common psychological processes.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 20, 2015

    I was stunned by the question since you have blogged over and over again about your tremendous respect for Dr. Metzger. It is somewhat surprising that he was not that interested in the theology derived from the New Testament. It is also surprising that all his knowledge of New Testament scribal changes and New Testament contradictions and discrepancies did not affect his faith. It is also surprising that Dr. Metzger and you maintained a very special relationship despite having such different theological views. Often different theological views ruin friendships.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 20, 2015

    P.S. Different theological views even ruin marriages.

  13. Avatar
    Jason  September 21, 2015

    Clearly the person who posed this question has never read any of your books. I don’t think there’s a single one that doesn’t contain a warm remembrance of. Dr. Metzger. Do you ever wonder though if academics operating at his level (not him specifically) feel obligated to pretend their faith and particularly their belief in super-nature is unaffected by their education and profession?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2015

      I suppose some do, but my sense is that most are completely sincere and committed.

      • Avatar
        Jason  September 23, 2015

        You may be too gracious to those who set themselves against you some times.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 23, 2015

          Ha! I’m usually not accused of being too gracious!!

  14. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  September 21, 2015

    I’m embarrassed to admit that being close to very religious Christians has been hard for me. I remain all-too-cognizant of the immense gulf between the ways we each see humankind, the world, and the cosmos. My daughter is a Mormon (although socially liberal for the most part! She even likes Bernie Sanders!). After she was baptized, I let the fact that she was Mormon get in the way of the wonderful relationship we’d had. Now, for the sake of our loving relationship, we just don’t talk about it. Unless I or she has a very straightforward, factual question for the other. As an assertiveness training therapist once told our group, “You can always ask for information.” I admire your focus and your emphasis on the positive. It seems related to your genuine (it seems to me) desire to not change minds but to dispense knowledge and nurture critical thinking. You are a role model for me. By the way, I’m 69 years old.

  15. Avatar
    LarryAAngus  September 21, 2015

    Bart, if anyone has any doubts about your respect for Dr. Metgzer, you might share some thoughts you gave at his memorial service at the Society of Biblical Literature before at least three hundred. To this day, I don’t believe I have ever heard a more powerful obituary of love, fun, and respect for a scholar. I too was a student of his and stood in awe of his remarkable wisdom and kindness. There has never been any question in my mind that you were his favorite student. That he would respect your Misquoting Jesus says a ton about him, and his openness to at least considering new scholarship. I guess things go full circle. My folks thought it was awful that I studied under one who chaired the RSV translation. Although I think he would disagree with you on some issues now, I believe he would be cheering you on for your honesty and what you are doing to rattle Christianity, and ironically, making it more relevant for a fast changing time as he did for those who said, “If the King James was good enough for Paul, it was good enough for Jesus.” I disagree with you sharply on your view of the gnostics, but I love you as a brother, and so that Dr. Metgzer would love you as a son, as I believe that is the respect he had for you, as you show in your blog above, and whether he might be the only one who “beat” you in a debate, to be his “son,” there could be no higher honor bestowed upon you. I appreciate you both as Elaine kind of says, “Beyond Belief.” You both have stirred Christianity, and please, whether we are ‘conservative” or ‘liberal,” we need to say, “Praise the Lord” Thank you for your blog and keeping the real debate alive. Rev. Larry Angus

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2015

      Thanks. I wonder if I still have those remarks somewhere. That was an honor to do.

      • Avatar
        Judith  September 21, 2015

        Please share with us if you can find!

  16. Avatar
    Theonedue  September 21, 2015

    What was the reason Mark invented an angel at the tomb of Jesus? What purpose did they serve as a literary device in the Old and New Testaments? Did the Jews believe that the angels mentioned in the old and new testaments actually exist?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2015

      Someone had to announce he had been raised. Mark doesn’t call him an angel.

      • Avatar
        Theonedue  September 24, 2015

        Who do you thin Mark was referring to? From the context it seems like an angel.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 25, 2015

          THat would be my guess.

          • Avatar
            Theonedue  September 25, 2015

            Did the Jews believe that the angels that were mentioned in the Old Testament (like Gabriel) were real creatures, or did they consider them symbolic motifs?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 26, 2015

            They almost certainly thought they were real.

  17. Avatar
    cchen326  September 22, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman I understand that Theodicy was one of the biggest issues for you as a Christian. I was wondering if Dr. Metzger had shared any insight into how he saw suffering and how it was reconciled with his Christian faith all those years you learned under him? You mentioned that he was not a deep thinker, but to me suffering is a big topic for any Christian whether or not one was philosophical.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2015

      No, I’m afraid we never talked about it. I’m sure he had some very clear views about it though.

  18. Avatar
    JonH  September 22, 2015

    The other day, you wrote: “Did the Historical Jesus Claim To Be Divine?” Dr. Bass thinks the answer is YES. I think the answer is NO.

    But during the debate, Mike Licona tweeted: “Bart Ehrman giving opening statement. Grants that Jesus claims to be God in the New Testament. ”
    https://twitter.com/MichaelLicona/status/645028131854639104/photo/1

    I assume you didn’t change your mind in the intervening few hours. Do you know what Licona might have been referring to?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2015

      Yes, I think that the NT authors *claim* that Jesus thought of himself as divine (at least John does). But the debate was not over what the Gospel writers said Jesus said, but about that Jesus himself really said.

  19. Avatar
    Theonedue  September 25, 2015

    Do you think the historical Jesus considered himself God, or did he think he was a created being?

    Did he think he was the only way to heaven?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2015

      You should read my book how Jesus became God. Short answers: created being; no.

  20. Hastings
    Hastings  October 1, 2015

    Three years as a youth pastor is enough to turn anyone off from the ministry; possible from Christianity altogether!

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