Reminiscence sof and Octogenarian

By Bruce Manning Metzger
Peabody, Mass. : Hendrickson (1997). 242 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
9.2 (Fall 1998) : 250-252

Any Greek student, current or former, will readily recognize the name of Bruce Metzger, George Collard Professor of New Testament Language and Literature Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has been at the forefront of Greek studies and translation projects for over fifty years. Three generations of students have used his little Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek (Princeton, N. J.: Theological Book Agency, 1946-1991). This reviewer belonged to the second of those generations and is using it on the third. The sheer number of his scholarly publications (over twenty volumes), his extensive editorial work (Bibles, dictionaries, serialized journals, Greek New Testaments), and his numerous journal articles have firmly established him as what some might call the leading New Testament scholar in America in the twentieth century. His distinguished teaching career at Princeton Theological Seminary stretched from 1938 until his retirement in 1984.

Metzger’s “memoirs” are simple, straightforward, and unassuming. He takes the reader from the roots of his “Pennsylvania Dutch” upbringing to interviews with Popes and Patriarchs in his later years. Along the way, he provides some fascinating background to some of the biggest scholarly projects of the century. His description of the many scholars with whom he has worked, some of whom are household names, provide a “human face” to this esoteric world of theological academia.

Metzger’s description of his classical preparatory school and college education in Pennsylvania serves to recall how different the “typical” education is today. He delights writing about his purchase of second-hand book bargains during those days. Two such discoveries (Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible and Alford’s Greek Testament) were in “Weaver’s Book Barn” in the Lancaster County village of Blue Ball. This was of particular interest to this reviewer since I have made a few such discoveries there myself many years later! His decision to attend seminary is worthy of serious consideration:

When a friend suggested that perhaps I might become a teacher of New Testament Greek, I immediately recognized that this was the kind of work I would find altogether congenial. I therefore began to make plans to study at Louisville under A. T. Robertson, one of the leading New Testament scholars of the time. However, before actually making formal application I learned that Robertson had died in September of 1934. I therefore began to consider other institutions, and ultimately decided upon Princeton Theological Seminary (11,12).

Thus, the reality of mortality led to a Southern Baptist loss and a Presbyterian gain!

Metzger’s chapter on his Princeton student days (13-32) involves gracious appreciation for his two academic mentors there, William Park Armstrong and Henry Snyder Gehman. He arrived after the “Westminster departure” of Machen, et al. He even had a brief connection with the last of the Hodge dynasty—Caspar Wistar Hodge taught him systematic theology. The seminary recognized what they had and offered him a teaching position upon graduation, while he finished his doctorate in classics at nearby Princeton University. Marriage and family soon followed (two sons). Throughout the book, Metzger majors on his academic and writing activities. This reviewer wishes that Metzger had included a few more personal items about his family life and personal interests. In other words, one is at a loss to know what he did in his “spare” time.

It appears, however, that one of the reasons for his prodigious scholarly output over the years is that scholarship has been almost his sole personal interest. The rest of the book details his many activities involving translation and editing projects, often revolving around professional colleagues in the Society of Biblical Literature. He explains how many of his books grew out of courses he taught and lectures he gave. Consider the following:

During the following months (of 1944) I began collecting information for another publication, entitled Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek. The work of compilation involved the laborious task of counting the number of citations of each word in Moulton and Geden’s concordance to the Greek New Testament—information that today can be obtained quickly by means of a computer. My next task was to prepare on a Vari-Typer each page for photographic reproduction and printing by lithography (34, 35).

Metzger goes on to describe how publisher after publisher did not believe that the book would sell and how he finally had to get it printed himself. He concludes by remarking on how amazing it is that more than two hundred thousand copies have been distributed!

Metzger’s firsthand description of his role in the production of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (chap. 7) and the “New” RSV (chap. 8) provide fascinating insights into the challenge of translating the Word of God. He even includes a photograph of the ashes of an RSV that a North Carolina pastor publicly burned in 1952! The author provides firsthand accounts of the UBS Greek New Testament (chap. 6); his significant contributions to the science of textual criticism (chap. 14); his editorship of the Reader’s Digest Condensed Bible (chap. 10); and his most recent achievement, the Oxford Companion to the Bible (chap. 15). He also tells about some “literary forgeries” that he has helped to uncover (chap. 11) as well as his help in exposing “the saga of the Yonan Codex” which has something of a happy ending (chap. 9). He even concludes with a chapter on “Interesting People I Have Known” (chap. 18, pp. 216-28).

Bruce Metzger has been a conundrum to some. He has moved in the highest levels of higher critical scholars, always maintaining the highest standards of scholarship. Yet he apparently has maintained throughout his career a higher view of Scripture than some of his more liberal associates and a generally evangelical faith. One wishes that he had written more about those matters, but one also looks in vain to find in these “reminiscences” anything about his personal views on any controversial matters. It is truly an irenic collection of reflections that more than repays the short time it takes to read them.