Saturday, March 10, 2007

LINGUISTFRIEND REFLECTS ON THE PASSING OF BRUCE METZGER

In December, Fausto and I had a vigorous and stimulating discussion of Luke’s 2:14 verse which comes up every Christmas, most often in the inaccurate but admirable form “Peace on earth, good will to men.” I suggested that if Fausto wanted to learn about the logical underpinnings of the correction of such Greek texts, there was no better work to turn to than Bruce Manning Metzger’s classic treatise on the textual criticism of the Greek New Testament, “The Text of the New Testament” (first published 1964; translated into German, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese), which actually discusses this very passage. This is a wonderful book for anyone who reads the NT in Greek, and has much value even for those who do not. I can recall very clearly when I came to a point in the mid 1960s at which I needed an orientation to its subject matter in the course of my doctoral work. I simply sat in the high-backed chair in a corner of my Newtonville (MA) living room and read the book through to the end, utterly absorbed. We can be grateful that this book has been updated with the assistance of Bart Ehrman (4th ed. 2005).

Recently I was saddened to learn of the death from respiratory failure on February 13th, 2007, at age 93, of Metzger, George L. Collord Professor emeritus of New Testament Language and Literature in Princeton Theological Seminary, who was one of the central figures of American religious scholarship. It is easy to misunderstand the significance of the phrase “religious scholarship”. Metzger was a type of historian, a historian of the Greek Christian texts; there is little that he wrote that could not have been subscribed to with equal conviction by any Christian, Jew, Unitarian, Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian, etc., who had the rare qualities of mind and depth of learning that distinguished Metzger. He was a man of deep Christian (Presbyterian) religious conviction, but he was also the sort of religious scholar for whom factual honesty and competence are primary. Of him it could have been said, as Richard Johnson said after the death of the great English legal and religious historian John Selden in 1654, “If learning could have kept a man alive, this our brother had not died.”

Metzger was born in Middletown, Pennsylvania, on Feb. 9, 1914; his parents were Anna and Maurice Metzger. He graduated from Lebanon Valley College in 1935, received a bachelor of theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) in 1938 and a master’s degree in theology in 1939, and an MA (1940) and his doctorate in classics from Princeton University in 1942, after being ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1939. He began his teaching at PTS in 1938, where he taught for 46 years until he retired in 1984.

The points at which his work is most likely be visible to the general reader are his participation in the committee work for the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (full text published in 1952), his work on the Old Testament apocrypha and apocalyptic literature, and his general editorship of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, published in 1990. The NRSV revision’s work on elimination of archaisms and sexism of the biblical text is still debated. The NRSV has been issued in forms for Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox groups. Both the RSV and NRSV were published by Metzger as study bibles in Oxford University Press editions, in collaboration with Herbert May for the RSV and later with Roland Murphy for the NRSV. Metzger published later popular works of religious scholarship with Michael Coogan, of which the edited “The Oxford Companion to the Bible” (1993) is noteworthy. He oversaw the Reader’s Digest condensed Bible, published in 1982. Metzger’s work on Bible translation had its organizational aspect also: he was a trustee of the American Bible Society from 1948 until he became trustee emeritus in 1999.

One should not underestimate the extreme character of the reaction to the revised versions of the Bible. Metzger would show visitors to his PTS office an urn in which reposed the ashes of a copy of the RSV Bible, torched from the pulpit by one opponent of the revision, who then sent it to the chairman of the committee of revision. Metzger inherited the urn when he became chairman of the revisers’ committee for the NRSV in 1975, and commented to one visitor “I’m so glad to be a translator in the 20th century. They only burn Bibles now, not the translators!” Much uninformed hatred is still to be found in conservative Christian comments on Metzger’s work.

Those who read the NT in Greek will be aware of his participation in the editing of four successive editions of the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament (1966-1994), which gives particular attention to documenting theologically important variation in the Greek text, and the two editions of his very important textual commentary on the Greek text (1971, revised 1994), in which he discusses the reasoning that should be used in judging the varying readings of the text of the Greek New Testament in many important passages. Together with his aforementioned introduction to the textual criticism of the NT “The Text of the New Testament”, they constitute a set of works which will be used regularly by anyone who reads the Greek text of the NT with care. His “Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Greek Paleography” (1st ed. 1981) succeeds (but does not entirely replace) the earlier and unobtainable albums on NT Greek paleography by W.H.P.Hatch. I wish that it had been available when I was teaching myself Byzantine Greek minuscule paleography in the early 1970s. He was also particularly active in the study of the early Eastern translations of the Bible, a testimonial to which is his distinguished monograph “The Early Versions of the New Testament” (1977). His book “The Bible in Translation: Ancient and Modern Versions” (2001) is for a more general audience.

Metzger wrote many specialized papers and many other books for students of the NT and especially of its text, at various levels, from the most elementary to recondite scholarly monographs and bibliographies. He gave much effort to works which would open the study of the textual criticism of the New Testament, not only to scholars who might specialize in it, but also to non-specialists for whom it might be meaningful. This sort of general publication has become more common in recent years, and is well exemplified in the popular and pedagogical writings of Bart Ehrman, who was among the last students of Metzger.

Metzger received much scholarly recognition. He was elected Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy in 1975, a group which in 1994 awarded him the F.C.Burkitt medal for his research on the Bible. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society class of humanities in 1986. At times he was a visiting scholar at nine different scholarly institutions, and he received many testimonials of academic recognition. The obituary by Metzger’s student Michael W. Holmes published by the Society of Biblical Literature describes him as “arguably the greatest textual specialist and biblical translator America has produced”. The same obituary bears witness to Metzger’s sterling personal qualities, which are testified to by many whose paths crossed his. Besides the obituaries on which I have drawn here (especially those in the New York Times, the Society of Biblical Literature Forum, the American Bible Society, Dan Wallace for the urn story, and Christianity Today), Metzger left an autobiography “Reminiscences of an Octogenarian” (1997).

When one reads the works of such a scholar as Metzger over many years, one gradually comes to understand the logic of the world of thought that he has created. The death of such a scholar would inevitably result in the destruction of that world, but with the genuine exception that his writings and teaching have the effect of its perpetuation, perpetuation not only among his own students but also among many whom he never met. Metzger himself learned from and freely acknowledged his appreciation for the work of many preceding scholars of all times; one fascinating aspect of his book on “The Text of the New Testament” is the extent to which it reflects the history of the study of its subject matter. Metzger’s thought-world will continue to exist in his writings, in the work of his students, and in the doings of other scholars and members of the broad interested public who learn from those whom he taught either directly or indirectly.
LinguistFriend

4 comments:

kim said...

What a lovely tribute.

He was born the same year as my father.

fausto said...

"Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis."

ms. kitty said...

Agreed-------a beautiful tribute, LF.

LinguistFriend said...

Thank you, Kim and Ms. Kitty. Metzger was also of the same age that my father would have been, but my father did not last as well. Fausto, I envy your familiarity with the text of rites of passage. Latin works well for them, as the common language of
West European learning and religion.
LinguistFriend