Professor brought Bible up to date, down to earth
My former professor Bruce Metzger, who retired from the Princeton Theological Seminary faculty in 1984 as the George L. Collard Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, died on February 13, 2007. A few days prior to his death, I jogged by his former stately Princeton home, remembering the huge, positive impact he made shaping my ministry. Metzger served as the preeminent scholar in the world on how the New Testament was written, its sometimes faulty editing in later translations and how many translations evolved from Greek into vernacular bible readers understand.Dr. and Mrs. Metzger opened their home for high tea to students. He led us into the basement to show how he stored writing projects. He stuffed his manuscripts in a dilapidated freezer. Like a miner protecting golden nuggets, Metzger assured us that his precious manuscripts would survive any storm or fire that might devastate his home. I cherish memories of Dr. Metzger for his unfailingly gracious demeanor balanced by encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and its formation. Gracious personality mixed with an irrepressible passion for biblical truth is rare. The Gospel of John opens with God definitively revealing His identity. Want to know whom God looks and sounds like? Greet Jesus-the very Word of God-claims John. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).Grace and truth. Jesus is the only person who perfectly held in tandem grace and truth. Bruce Metzger came very close to duplicating this achievement. Some scholars are gracious, but they stand for nothing and fall for most anything. In contrast, some defenders of Christian orthodoxy verbally slay enemies of the truth, acting as if acid runs through their veins. Bruce Metzger blended grace and truth.Graceful character connects with peopleWhen I arrived on campus in the late 1960’s as tensions over the Vietnam War escalated out of control, Dr. Metzger quintessentially looked the part of a Princeton Professor whose serenity outdistanced the political storms outside. He wore wireless glasses over a rather pasty complexion, indicating most of the light shining on him came artificially in dim library stacks. His attire featured a neatly pressed dark suit, a starched white shirt and conservative tie, accented by a white handkerchief in the left breast pocket. His meticulously groomed gray hair, against the backdrop of his Brooks Brothers suit, fit my picture of how a classic Princetonian looked. Metzger seemed unlike some senior Profs with national reputations at the University. They could sound uppity. They liked to work with graduate students, leaving incoming freshmen for teaching assistants to mentor. Metzger didn’t run with this crowd. Yes, he was about the only one in town offering seminars to Ph.D. candidates on esoteric subjects such as Coptic and Syriac translations of the Bible, read from original manuscripts. But he eagerly anticipated teaching New Testament introductory classes to first-time students. He taught me from the Greek in Galatians, too, as well as leading a course on the much-debated book of Revelation. His encyclopedic knowledge of scripture glistened in class like the Hope diamond. He loved to relate quirky tidbits about biblical translators. He’d take a biblical verse and spend twenty minutes recounting how it had been translated through the centuries, referring to ten or twelve languages without pausing.He always began classes with prayers featuring elegant simplicity. Dr. Metzger’s unassuming high-pitched voice was steeped in awe as he addressed our majestic God. He used an immediate, concrete vocabulary that captured life with all its grittiness. I don’t know if God grades prayers. If he does, Metzger’s go almost to the top of the class. Only a colleague, Dr. George Hendry, could top Metzger’s prayers. Hendry, a Scotsman, taught me theology. If Metzger spoke prayers as if written by God, then Hendry, with the rolling of his R’s, sounded like God. Presbyterians graduating from Princeton Seminary know that, though God is everywhere and in all places, His favorite habitat is Scotland!Truth expressed in the Bible raises a ruckusDr. Metzger stirred up controversy. Coaxed by Reader’s Digest, he headed a team that offered a slimmed-down version of Holy Writ, the condensed Reader’s Bible (1982). For conservative Christians, this tactic of knocking out the “begat” passages and odd ancient dietary laws spelled trouble. Doesn’t every biblical word breathe divine majesty? Therefore, a truncated Bible committed the horrible sin of cutting God down to our size. Metzger quietly yet convincingly spoke to irked Christian groups over the world, assuring them this slimmer Bible wasn’t thin on right doctrine or spiritually anorexic when announcing the way of salvation through Christ.Serving as Chairman of the Bible Translation Committee for the New Revised Standard Version, published in the United States in 1990, brought Metzger and his team acclaim and derision. Some Christians like me were brought up convinced that God should only be addressed with “thee and thou.” Moreover, our venerable biblical translations read as if God were a male, only perfectly supersized. God was addressed as “you” and “your” and masculine references to the divine were often omitted in the translation Metzger supervised.His aim never wavered in being faithful to the original languages in which the Bible was written, even as Scripture needed to express God’s truth in majestic simplicity to catch the attention of inhibited readers. The NRSV Bible is imbued with language majestic as God; yet meaningful to us. Metzger worked the miracle of a verbal incarnation with grace and truth. How God is smiling on him and his wise biblical scholarship.The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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