I’ll end this set of reflections on my relationship with Bruce Metzger with a surprising question about my relationship with him, and my response. (My sense is that those who have been reading this thread will not be surprised by what I say)
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.
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 the 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.