Many years ago on the blog I was asked about my relationship with my mentor Bruce Metzger, an internationally famous scholar of the New Testament who is generally acknowledged as the greatest expert on biblical manuscripts in America, ever. He was also a devout Christian, an ordained Presbyterian minister. I, obviously, am not. (Though I was very much a committed Christian when I first met him.) Here is the question and my initial response.
Hey Bart, I know you studied under Bruce Metzger and my question is how did he feel about your skepticism toward the trustworthiness of the N.T?
Bruce Metzger and I had a long and very close relationship. I was his student for seven years and his research assistant for the New Revised Standard Version (he was the chair of the translation committee) for a couple of years. He directed my masters and PhD theses; he helped me break into publishing; he worked to get me into editorial positions for journals and monograph series; he guided my research until I struck out on my own. I dare say I was closer to him than any student that he had in his four decades of teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary. He became a kind of father figure for me. He was a great New Testament scholar and a great man.
I first heard of Bruce Metzger when I was in college studying Greek. My Greek professor at Wheaton, Gerald Hawthorne, knew that I was interested in studying the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament, and he told me that if I wanted to study with the world expert, I should apply to Princeton Theological Seminary for my graduate work and study with Bruce Metzger, who had taught there for his entire career.
And so I did. I arrived in Princeton in 1978. Metzger already had a curiously ambiguous standing there among the faculty. The students, as a rule, adored him, and his classes were very large. But many of his colleagues considered him old-fashioned, overly pious, and theologically too conservative. Which made him perfect for me as a young evangelical Christian!
It was hard to
Members of the blog can read every post, five a week, every week, going back to 2012. Joining is easy and inexpensive, and every penny that comes in goes to charity. So why not join? Click here for membership options get to know him early on, as so many students wanted to take his classes and ask his advice. But I took everything I could with him, and after a couple of years we were on a solid teacher-student relationship. At PTS we had the option of writing a senior thesis, and I approached Metzger about directly a thesis in textual criticism (i.e., the reconstruction of the text of the NT). He had been pleased with my performance in the classes I took with him, and agreed to direct the thesis. And, in fact, he suggested a compelling topic: the status of the Majority Text in NT textual criticism.
The deal is this: as I have stated in other posts, we do not have the original writings of the NT, but only copies made later, in many cases many centuries later. Textual critics and modern Bible translators have to decide which of these surviving manuscripts to trust for giving us the form of the text that is most like what the authors originally wrote. The King James Bible, for example, is based on a different set of manuscripts from most modern translations. Most modern translators think that the most ancient manuscripts (roughly speaking) are more likely to give us the original form of the text than the later, medieval manuscripts.
The problem is that we have only a few early manuscripts, and many hundreds (thousands!) of later ones. This creates the unique situation that the vast majority of manuscripts are simply wrong in the text that they present. But is that plausible? That most of the evidence is wrong and only a tiny sliver of it is right?
That is what most textual critics think (since this tiny sliver is the most ancient piece of the puzzle; and because of other, more complicated reasons, that I won’t go into here but will discuss in a later blog if anyone is interested). But in the 1970s there appeared a group of textual scholars, all of them conservative evangelical Christians, who insisted that the majority of manuscripts are more likely representative of the original text, and that the earliest manuscripts represent aberrations that had not yet been weeded out.
This view was not simply based on a theological assumption that God would not have allowed his true words to have disappeared from copies of the Bible for many centuries, although that assumption was often at work, driving the view. But these scholars had other arguments as well, and Metzger thought it would be interesting to have a thesis that dealt with that view and its arguments head on. And so he urged me to write about it.
And I did. I called the thesis, “New Testament Textual Criticism: Quest for Methodology.” I worked closely with Metzger on it, and he was very positive and affirming in his response to it. It was awarded the Senior Prize in NT at Princeton Seminary, and there are scholars today (gods know why….) who still refer to it (I got a request for a copy just last week; unfortunately, it’s not in electronic form — this was 1981! – so I can’t easily make it available. But it’s absolutely not WORTH being made available. It was just a master’s thesis, not a book, and I was just starting to learn the ropes of scholarship).
I wanted to continue my work in textual criticism after my master’s degree, and wanted to work with Metzger more. He was an unbelievable fountain of knowledge. It’s not that he was a deep thinker. He was not. He was not philosophically oriented or theologically profound (this is what his colleagues found disturbing). He was very simple when it came to theology. But he was highly insightful about texts, an inordinately careful reader, and a fantastic philologist. He seemed to know everything about the New Testament from a historical perspective. He could read, at ease, all the necessary languages – Greek, Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic, Hebrew, and so on and on. And the most impressive thing was that he had BILLIONS of facts in his head. Billions! You couldn’t believe what he knew, often about the most obscure topics you could imagine, involving the Bible, the history of early Christianity, ancient languages and cultures.
Short story: I applied to do my PhD at Princeton to work with Metzger, was admitted into the program, and ended up being Metzger’s final PhD student.
I have not yet answered your question! But this is fun remembering those days and my relationship with one of the truly great scholars of the NT in the twentieth century. I will continue my reflections in the next post – and possibly in several more to come!
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.