Professor Bruce Metzger
New Testament scholar
Published: 22 February 2007
Bruce Manning Metzger, biblical scholar: born Middletown, Pennsylvania 9 February 1914; ordained a minister of the United Presbyterian Church 1939; Teaching Fellow in New Testament Greek, Princeton Theological Seminary 1939-40, Instructor in New Testament 1940-44, Associate Professor 1948-54, Professor 1953-84, George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature 1964-84 (Emeritus); married 1944 Isobel Mackay (two sons); died Princeton, New Jersey 13 February 2007.
Bruce Metzger, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at the Princeton Theological Seminary, was a Bible translator and New Testament textual critic. His Text of the New Testament: its transmission, corruption and restoration (1964) has been the standard primer for students for over 40 years; in 2005 it went into a fourth revised edition.
Among his many publications that also remain in print are other fundamental studies: The Early Versions of the New Testament: their origin, transmission and limitations (1977), dealing with the translations from Greek into other early languages of Christianity, and The Canon of the New Testament: its origin, development and significance (1987).
For those whose biblical studies are concerned with verifiable scholarship, Metzger has always been a wise guide; his publications are filled with the results of wide reading, encyclopaedic knowledge and meticulous research. His enviably fluid English style brings these topics to life, and his incessant curiosity into the byways of the disciplines throws up some entertaining obiter dicta in footnotes.
On a more popular level, his Manuscripts of the Greek Bible (1981) is an album of photographs of manuscripts with his explanatory notes that introduced the disciplines of palaeography, codicology and papyrology to a public who previously may have thought such subjects belonged to hospital wards.
Metzger was at the centre of major international research work. As a member of the Greek New Testament Project committee he was involved in the preparation of a thesaurus of variant readings in the Greek manuscripts of Luke's gospel, which was eventually published by the Clarendon Press under the editorship of J.K. Elliott in two volumes in 1984 and 1987. He was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Vetus Latina Institute in Beuron in Germany, whose work involves the recovery of the pre-Jerome Latin Bible. He was also an adviser to the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, from which much pioneering work emerges.
It was his membership of the small committee that was set up by the international bible societies that made Metzger's name well known among New Testament scholars. The United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament which they produced has gone through several editions since it was first published in 1966. Metzger wrote its companion volume, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (1971) which explained the textual variants printed in the New Testament and the reasons why the committee decided on what to print as its text. That vade-mecum has been a useful first port of call to generations of students.
The text this committee produced was adopted for the 26th edition of the Nestle Novum Testamentum Graece and this ensured that the principal Greek New Testament used today for academic study and as the basis for translations is the one co-edited by Metzger. In addition, for decades Metzger also edited the scholarly monograph series "New Testament Tools and Studies" published by Brill of Leiden.
Amazingly, given his many scholarly commitments, Metzger was also very active for several years as the Chairman of the Bible Translation Committee for the New Revised Standard Version. This inevitably brought him wide recognition. The translation was published in 1990 in the United States to great critical acclaim. The British version appeared in 1994. Its dignified but clear modern English puts it head and shoulders above other modern translations and it is equally valued in public worship and for private academic study.
A few years earlier Metzger was involved with a more controversial project initiated by Reader's Digest. The condensed Reader's Bible (1982) he edited for them obviously upset many traditionalists, but it did succeed in bringing the Old and New Testament within the grasp of a new readership. Another project of a more popular nature was his editing (with Michael Coogan) of the encyclopaedic Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993).
Bruce Manning Metzger was born into a legal family in Pennsylvania in 1914 and attended Lebanon Valley College before entering Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey as an ordinand of the Presbyterian Church. His successes as a Master's and as a doctoral student there led to his joining its faculty in 1940; he then spent his entire academic life at Princeton. He retired as the George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature in 1984.
His wife, Isobel, was the daughter of the Rev John Alexander Mackay, the third president of the seminary. Metzger's full and active life regularly took them well beyond New Jersey. He was an indefatigable traveller, giving lectures throughout North America as well as in New Zealand, Australia, Europe, South America, South Africa, Korea and Japan, among other countries; he was much sought after as a speaker and consultant on the Biblical text. He spent three sabbatical terms in Oxford and Cambridge, and regularly visited Britain. He lectured throughout the British Isles including London, Leeds and Dublin.
Understandably, many academic honours came Metzger's way. He was elected a corresponding fellow of the British Academy and he was especially proud to be awarded its F.C. Burkitt Medal for Biblical Studies in 1978. He was also honoured by three Festschriften, in 1981, 1985 and 1994.
A familiar figure at large conferences, Metzger became president of the American Society of Biblical Literature in 1971 and of the international New Testament society Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas the same year. All who met him or corresponded with him attest to his friendliness and his generosity with time and help. His formidable erudition was coupled with an old-fashioned courtesy that branded him a Christian gentleman and scholar.
J. Keith Elliott