Red Letters

At Midwinter Conference in Chicago I was made aware of the recent release of two books isolating the words of Jesus in scripture: The Words of Jesus (Phyllis Tickle) and The Red Letters (Timothy Beals).  Phyllis Tickle said that the result was so powerful that her publisher insisted that she add headings and breaks so as not to overwhelm the reader.  There is certainly an appeal in this sort of thing.

I wonder, though, do the words of Jesus make sense out of context?  Some of them will: love your neighbour, for instance.

On a related, but shallower, note, what do you think about red letter Bibles: Bibles in which the words ascribed to Jesus are printed in red?  This blogger makes an argument in their favour.

These days it seems nearly impossible to find black letter (i.e. Bibles without the words of Christ in red) editions of certain translations, at least on bookstore shelves (although pew Bibles tend to be black letter).  Specifically, the translations favoured by evangelicals: New International Version; New Living Translation; English Standard Version; and Today’s New International Version.  Both Bibles my parents bought me (both NIV) were black-letter.  I wonder if red letter Bibles are becoming increasingly popular?  With the release of the above books, I suspect they are.

Everything else aside, I tend to find the red print distracting and sometimes difficult to read.  But there are some other issues, which didn’t really come to mind until I bought a copy of the TNIV: which words are the words of Christ?  The original languages did not have quotation marks denoting speech.  Take John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (That’s the Marc version, an amalgam of several versions, I’m sure).  Most translations have Jesus saying those words–so in red letter Bibles they’d be printed in red.  The NRSV and the ESV, however, have a footnote indicating that “some interpreters hold that the quotation concludes with verse 15”.  The TNIV actually goes the whole way and does not include verse 16 as part of Jesus’ words, but (in my edition) prints the words in black as part of John’s narrative.

Where Jesus’ words begin and end is often a case of guesswork on the part of translators, unless the context clearly calls for it being speech.  Looking at John 3:16, I can see arguments working both ways.

Ultimately this issue of translation doesn’t make a difference, but it’s an interesting point anyway.

Probably of more concern is whether the words of Christ are more valuable or “more scripture” than the rest of scripture (what the blog I link to above quotes Don Carson as calling “a canon within a canon”).  In a sense I can see Jesus’ words calling for special attention.  But if we hold that all of scripture is God’s word, then the words of Jesus (the God-man) aren’t more valuable than the rest of the Bible.

A more minor issue: nobody held a tape-recorder to Jesus’ mouth when he spoke and as far as we know he didn’t write his own words down (he didn’t employ a stenographer), so the text we have of Jesus’ words are someone else quoting him by recollection.  This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be trusted, but simply that the words of Jesus are perhaps not quotations in the sense that we might have in mind.

Semi-related things:

  • Everything else aside, I tend to find the red print distracting and sometimes difficult to read. 
  • The TNIV people have done something clever: all of their two-column editions of the TNIV are printed such that if I say I’m reading on page 985 of my TNIV Bible, if you turn to that page in a different edition of the TNIV, you will end up with the same text as I’m reading.
  • I don’t like the sans-serif font the TNIV people decided to use.  I prefer serif fonts for reading (the font of this text is serif–it has little hooks or dots at the ends of the lines of the letters.  The title of this post is a sans-serif font.)  Plus it’s a little too light–which I suspect is partly due to its lack of serifity.
  • Lastly, what do you do with your old, worn out Bibles?  Do they gather dust on the shelf or do you throw them out?  (See this ancient post of mine.)

One thought on “Red Letters

  1. MayB

    I can’t even throw out a regular book. I’m pretty certain I would be damned to hell for all eternity if I threw out a Bible. I keep all mine (I have 14… and issues) but I have friends who donate their old ones.

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