Why I’m Not A Red Letter Christian

October 15, 2012 in Theology · 5 comments

I’m not a Red Letter Christian. By this I don’t mean I’m opposed to Tony Campolo’s and Jim Wallis’ Christians-for-social-justice movement. I mean it in a very literal sense: I don’t like red text in my Bible.

Red letter Bibles print the words of Jesus in red, presumably so that we can better focus on his very important teachings . It’s the theological equivalent of underlining important passages in a textbook so that you can go back and quickly study them before an exam. As Christians, what could be more important than the teachings of Jesus? But for such a ubiquitous convention, it’s notable that red letter Bibles are a relatively new concoction; the first one was printed in 1899, but since then they’ve become the de-facto standard for American Evangelicals.

There are three reasons why I’m opposed to this convention:

  1. Linguistically, the quotations from Jesus in the Bible aren’t even his exact words. Jesus didn’t speak English — his primary language was Aramaic. He may have known Hebrew and Greek, but his day-to-day speaking and teaching were in Aramaic. So even if we knew what Jesus’ precise words in Aramaic were, the English words we’re highlighting in red are merely a translation, and all translation necessarily involves paraphrase and interpretation. But we don’t have his precise words — the Gospels were written in Greek, not Aramaic, and even a cursory comparison between the Gospels reveals disagreements on wording. Furthermore, the Gospels were written quite some time after Jesus’ public ministry; they weren’t intended to provide exact word-for-word transcripts, but instead they (hopefully) capture Jesus’ ideas. To highlight words in red as if they are a magical incantation straight from the mouth of God is to deny the historical and textual evidence.
  2. Typographically: red letters are difficult to read. Every other book in the world prints all its text in black, and there’s a good reason they do so: black text on white paper is easy to read. Red text is just plain hard on the eyes. And to compound matters, the red used in many Bibles is often more pink or orange than red. A river of pink running down the page, set in what is already a barely readable font on semi-transparent paper, does not make for a pleasant reading experience. Which of these two is easier to read?
  3. Theologically, are the words of Jesus really more important than the rest of the text? Why do we have the entire Bible, most of which isn’t Jesus’ teachings, if his words are what’s truly important? Why don’t we just trim out all the rest and carry around a “Sayings of Jesus” pamphlet? Christianity is not simply based on the sayings of Jesus, it’s not just about following his teachings. Jesus wasn’t just a charismatic teacher who we should pay attention to and seek to emulate. To reduce Christianity to merely the words of Jesus, or to highlight those words over and above the rest of the Bible, is to distort and diminish the work of God throughout history and ultimately waters-down and even obscures the message of the Gospel. I’m not saying the words of Jesus aren’t enormously important. But we need to carefully ask ourselves: are they truly more important than the other words in the Bible?

If you have a red letter Bible and are happy with it, then by all means continue to use it. But the next time you’re considering purchasing a Bible, take the time to see what black letter editions are available.

For more on the history of red letter Bibles, visit http://www.crossway.org/blog/2006/03/red-letter-origin/.

For further discussion of red letter Bibles from a design perspective, visit http://www.bibledesignblog.com/2009/03/red-letter-bibles.html.

4 comments… read them below or add one

Christie L. October 16, 2012 at 10:04 pm

Hi there – John Shore posted a link and that’s how I found you.

I agree with points 1 and 2. However, your third point ruffles me up a bit.

In my spiritual journey, I have gone from ignorant to seeker to follower… and truthfully, I am not quite at that full believer stage.

Part of how I got to where I am today is through those hard-to-read red letters. You see, I have been drawn to Jesus for a while and still had never taken the time and effort to find out exactly what he taught and those red letters were calling to me! I figured, hey, what a perfect place to start! I can go in and read some red text and have all the answers! Woohoo! …I shortly found out how naive that idea was.

What those red letters did to me was make me read more–I had to read outside those red letters to understand what those red letters meant. They were a stepping stone for my Biblical education.

So, while I understand your argument that the red letters are no more important than the others, they are what led me to the others and THAT is why they are beautiful to me.

Much Love,

Christie

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Dan October 17, 2012 at 7:40 am

Christie,
Thanks for your thoughtful response. I did intend to ruffle some feathers with point three, and I understand where you’re coming from. I can’t think of a better way to start a spiritual journey than with the words of Jesus…I just don’t think they should be in red, because to me, that makes it too tempting to confine the journey to only those red words. As you rightly point out, we have to go beyond the red text if we want to truly start to understand the Bible.

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tommy truthfull August 12, 2013 at 8:43 pm

the problem with red letters is the assumption that Jesus was speaking. In Revelation red letters twist the reading to say that Jesus is the Allmighty, what a crock that is . If Jesus is the son of God ,why doesn’t the bible call Jesus God the Son???? Jesus tells os that the Father is greater than he is? how could that be if he is God, and his Father is God. Then in the tenth century these so called cat-holics come up with the trinity and throw the holy spirit in the wash? The holy spirit does’t have a name….)only a description. Jesus refers to the spirit as a helper. The helper is masculine so he refers to the helper as he. The holy spirit is an it,not a he. All persons have names, why doesn’t the spirit hav a proper name….????? Simple , ITS NOT A PERSON. So when these Chritendummers want to twist the scriptures they just red letter a passage and verify Jesus is God.
The Alpha and the Omega Refers to Yahweh, not Jesus. What does alpha and omega mean. Its the first letter in the Greek alphabet and the last word in that alphabet. Measning Allmighty God never had a beginning, But Jesus was the beginning of creation by God in Revelation 3:14. Jesus is referrerd to as tha Amen.

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Dan August 14, 2013 at 9:13 am

“If Jesus is the son of God ‚why doesn’t the bible call Jesus God the Son????”
Mark 1.1, 3.11, 15.39, Lk 1.35, 3.38, 22.70, Jn 1.34, 1.49, 11.27, 20.31, Acts 9.20, 2 Cor 1.19, Heb 4.14, 1 Jn 4.15, 1 Jn 5.20

“Then in the tenth cen­tury these so called cat-holics come up with the trin­ity”
I’m not sure why you think the Trinity is a 10th century doctrine. At the very least the Nicene Creed formally expresses trinitarian belief, and that was 325 AD (and not specifically Roman Catholic)…but trinitarian beliefs were expressed by church fathers prior to that.

As to Rev 3.14…far more likely than thinking that Jesus was the first creation is that this verse is a parallel of John 1.2-4, where the Word is present in the beginning and all things were made through him. Beginning here doesn’t mean first created, but rather the originator, ruler, first cause and origin of creation.

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