~ 6 July 2004 ~

Seeing Red

Reading my travel-sized Bible over the last few days has once again reminded me of the problem with red-letter editions. You know—the ones with “Words of Christ in Red” printed on the spine.

In fact, it’s hard to find an English translation of the Bible these days that does not have the word of Christ in red. Even the new English Standard Version (ESV) has red-letter editions. Typically, to find an edition of the Bible that is all in black print, one has look at the low-end ($5 giveaway editions) or the high end ($60 + genuine leather editions). Everything else in between is “in the red.”

Ostensibly, the sayings of Jesus are put into red type to draw attention to the importance of the words of our Lord. After all, if Jesus said it, we should pay attention to it, right? No argument here—the words of Christ are extremely important.

The problem is, however, that if we believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God, and that all Scripture is God-breathed [2 Tim 3:16], how are the rest of the words of Scripture (the ones in black) any less important?

Is not all the Bible the word of God? Why not put the entire text in red? Here’s a novel idea: for the sake of our eyes, put all the text in black. Historically, the practice of putting the words of Christ in red is recent. Some reports have the practice emerging at the beginning of the last century. It is probably no coincidence that liberal theology, which denied the inerrancy of Scripture, was emerging at that time as well. A theology that venerates some Scriptures and castigates others is very friendly to a red-letter edition.

There are also questionable parts of red-letter editions where some passages printed in red may not even be the words of Jesus. The Greek manuscripts having no punctuation, many red letter editions include John 3:16 as a quote of Jesus to Nicodemus. A careful evaluation of the passage, however, reveals that it may be a return to the author John’s editorial comments and not a quote of Jesus. With a proper view in play, it matters not in the end—as it is all the word of God.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with reading a red-letter edition of the Bible (it’s definitely better than not reading the Bible at all), Christians should begin to move away from the practice. Publishers should cease deemphasizing the bulk of God’s word by placing certain words in a different color. The underlining and highlighting should be left to the student.

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3 Comments:

  1. rebecca » 6 July 2004:

    I really, really, really agree with you on this one.

    If I had a nickle for every time I’ve had a discussion of the argumentative type where someone says something like, “Well, my scriptural proof is the very words of Jesus himself”–as if that is the trump card, case closed, end of story, close the book, go away and leave me alone–I’d be rich. Well, not really, but at least I could buy a candy bar.

    Another problem I see with the red words idea is it gives some the idea that the words are direct quotes of everything said in any given situation, rather than a summary (although a competely accurate one) of what was said.

  2. Colby » 15 July 2004:

    I think Paul did use a red pen when he would write the words of Jesus in the New Testament. Of course, when we get away from Paul’s use of the King James English we really are just wandering in the dark.

  3. Doug » 18 September 2004:

    I really liked what you said about this. It hasn’t been a real point of contention to me, just a musing. I have placed greater weight on the words in red all my life, perhaps because Jesus often clarified the OT for us. This is yet another example of how words in red actually dumbs down the reader of the Bible a bit.

    I’ll be shopping for a new Bible in a few months, unless I get one for Christmas (I’m leaning toward a NKJV). If I see two comparibly priced Bibles, one with red and one without, I’ll go for the “without.” Just as important than choosing the right Bible for oneself is the realization that both you and I (and Rebecca) have come to. Color coding doesn’t change the message.

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