Dr. Bruce Manning Metzger, New Testament professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary was one of the preeminent American New Testament critics and biblical translators of the twentieth century.
Metzger was born in Middletown, Pennsylvania, on February 9, 1914. After earning a B.A. from Lebanon Valley College in 1935, he entered Princeton Seminary, graduating with a Th.B. in 1938. So began a lifelong association with Princeton Seminary during which he became one of the school’s greatest intellectual treasures. He was ordained in the United Presbyterian Church (now the PCUSA) in 1939. In 1944 he married Isobel Elizabeth, the elder daughter of John Alexander Mackay, the third president of the Seminary.
Bruce Metzger’s sheer brilliance, clarity, and Christian devotion set a high standard. He taught at PTS while he continued to study (Princeton University, M.A., 1940; Ph.D., 1942, classics), serving as teaching fellow in New Testament Greek (1938–1940) and as instructor in New Testament (1940–1944). He was appointed assistant professor (1944–1948), associate professor (1948–1954), and professor (1954–1984). He was named the George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature in 1964. He retired in 1984 and was named professor emeritus.
A preeminent New Testament scholar, Metzger was known internationally for his work in biblical translation and the history of the Bible’s versions and canonization. He was one of the world leaders in textual study of the New Testament, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha. He served as chair of the Committee on Translation of the American Bible Society (1964–1970), and as chair of the Committee on Translators for the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV) from 1977 to 1990. The impact of this work is incalculable, and Metzger saw the NRSV through the press almost single-handedly. Published in 1990, the NRSV made changes to the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (RSV) in paragraph structure and construction, eliminated archaisms while retaining the Tyndale-King James tradition, polished renderings in the interest of accuracy, clarity, and felicity of English expression, and eliminated masculine language referring to people, insofar as this did not distort historical accuracy.
Metzger understood and was passionate about the significance of biblical translation for ecumenical dialogue. In 1993, he presented a copy of the NRSV, Catholic Edition, to Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. In 1957 he served on the committee that translated the Apocrypha. In 1972 he chaired the subcommittee that translated 3 and 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151 for an expanded version of the Apocrypha. He personally presented this expanded version to His All Holiness Demetrios I in 1976. It was important to him that Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant Christians have recourse to a common biblical text as an instrument of unity.
Bruce Metzger cared about and provided for his students. Generations have been grateful for his Lists of Words Occurring Frequently in the Coptic New Testament, and his Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek (first published in 1946) became a standard study tool. He edited The Oxford Annotated Bible in 1962, and in 1966, along with Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, and Allen Wikgren, edited the United Bible Societies’ edition of the Greek New Testament. This text, especially adapted to meet the needs of Bible translators, with its beautiful original font and indication of the relative degree of certainty for each variant adopted in the text, proved to be an enduring landmark. The editors were later joined by Carlo Martini (the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan from 1980 to 2002). A warm friendship grew between Metzger and Matthew Black, the doyen of Scottish text-critical scholars. The honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from St. Andrews University was bestowed on Metzger in 1964; and all Scots are moved by seeing that he is wearing his St. Andrews tie in his portrait in Princeton Seminary’s Speer Library.
There were other honors. In 1994, he was awarded the Burkitt Medal for Biblical Studies by The British Academy in London (of which he had been a corresponding fellow since 1978). This is only awarded in recognition of a lifetime of distinguished biblical study. He was elected president of Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (1971) and the International Society of Biblical Literature (1971), and was the first president of the North American Patristic Society (1972). He was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (1969 and 1974) and visiting fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge (1974) and Wolfson College, Oxford (1979).
There were many other books, including the classic studies The Text of the New Testament, Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (1964, and translated into German, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Italian and Russian) and The Early Versions of the New Testament, Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations (1977), which have been particularly influential. Bruce Metzger’s last publication before his death was Apostolic Letters of Faith, Hope, and Love: Galatians, 1 Peter, and 1 John (2006).
Bruce Metzger cared passionately about the Bible, and in 1982 became the general editor of the Reader’s Digest Condensed Bible. He lectured throughout the nation and the world, in North and South America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, and South Africa, often at churches and universities where his former students ministered and taught. He was awarded honorary doctorates by Lebanon Valley College, Findlay College, St. Andrews University, the University of Münster, and Potchefstroom University in South Africa.
A Bible autographed by Bruce Metzger is sealed in the time capsule embedded in the corner of Princeton Seminary’s Scheide Hall.
Princeton Seminary President Iain R. Torrance said that, “despite all his distinctions, Bruce Metzger never lost his modesty, or his courteous welcome, genuine interest in, and encouragement for much younger scholars. He was a warm and supportive colleague within the Seminary and beloved by many scholars and lay people in Princeton and throughout the world.”