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Revisiting a Non-Standard Scholar

Bruce Metzger devoted his life to helping us know early Christianity and its manuscripts better.

We were studying Eusebius at Princeton in the summer of 1976 when suddenly a man ran into the class, interrupting Professor Metzger's lecture. As was his way, Metzger quietly stopped what he was doing and asked how he could help the breathless man.

The man said, "Dr. Metzger, I have here the earliest copy of the Gospel of Mark in Syriac!" Metzger smiled and asked politely: "Do you mind if I have a look?"

The man handed over the manuscript, beaming—the great expert on ancient Christian manuscripts was about to validate his discovery, or so he thought.

After less than a minute, Bruce Metzger handed the manuscript back and said, "Well, it's very interesting, but a Syriac copy of Mark, it is not. It's a 6th-century manuscript in Boharic of no particular notoriety." As the Bible says, the man's countenance fell, and he left the room quietly.

The anecdote encapsulates a couple of Professor Metzger's enduring and endearing qualities. First, he was unfailingly polite and kind as part of his Christian witness. Second, he had an absolutely second-to-none encyclopedic mind. I remember asking him for some leads on a paper I was writing for him. He looked down at the table, closed his eyes, and you could almost hear his mind sifting through index cards. He gave me 8 to 10 exact references, to both well-known and obscure articles, from memory. I knew I was in the presence of greatness, of a Christian scholar who had devoted his life to helping us know early Christianity and its manuscripts better.

Bruce Metzger was someone special in my own life as well. I had been offered a full-ride scholarship to a particular seminary, but had also been accepted elsewhere. I came to his office and asked him where I should go for a good evangelical education. Without hesitation, he told me to go to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, even though I knew he would have liked me to come to Princeton. He always worked for the best of the one he was helping, even at his own expense.

Several years later, in 1977, after doing summer study with him, I asked Professor Metzger's advice about where I should pursue my doctoral work. He told me I could work with him and do a thesis on Didymus the Blind. I had no idea who that was, but I assumed he was important. I hesitantly asked him what if I wanted to work on the subject of women in the New Testament. He told me to go to Durham, England and work with C.K. Barrett and C.E.B. Cranfield, and to go with his blessing. Then he smiled his big, gracious smile, and I knew it would be all right. I have seldom had better advice in my entire life.

Of course, many will remember Professor Metzger for his work on the RSV translation committee. I remember when that translation first appeared in the '50s. RSV Bibles were burned soon afterward on the lawn of a fundamentalist church in my home state of North Carolina because of the translation of Isaiah 7:14. Metzger quipped: "Well, we have come a long way since William Tyndale. Now, at least, they burn the translations rather than the translators!"

He was a great man, one of the giants in the land of New Testament scholarship. But most importantly, he was a profoundly orthodox Christian man, and I have no doubt he is hearing even now the heavenly benediction, "Well done, good and faithful servant; inherit the kingdom." If the measure of a man is seen in the lives he has touched for good and for God, then Bruce Metzger was one of the great saints of the last century. May God raise up such giants once more and show us the way forward.

Ben Witherington III is professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.

Related Elsewhere:

See also today's obituary of Metzger.

Other obituaries have appeared in Newsday and The Trentonian.

Brandon Watson's Novum Testamentum Blog is linking to other blogs discussing Metzger's passing. The Evangelical Textual Criticism blog is soliciting memories.

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