Tag Archives: Bible

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.)

Bible Chronology

After my last post I was thinking about all the bibles I’ve had over the years.  Here is chronology of those bibles (now that I’ve written it I’m reluctant to post it, because I might look like a crazy):

1.  Early childhood — I had a children’s bible of one sort or another.  I’m pretty sure I never read it.  But I really liked the glossy, full-colour drawing dispersed throughout.  My favourite picture was the one of Samson, filled with one last gift of strength, pushes against the pillars of the Phillistine temple (?), killing himself and many of the people nearby.  In the pictures, the pillars are frozen in mid-buckle.

2.  Later childhood — I was given a paperback NIV, with a blue, faux-leather-looking cover.  Everyone had one.  I still have it.  The corners of the pages are curled and it’s tearing.

3.  1992 – I was given a shiny new NIV thinline bible for my birthday.  It took me through jr. high, high school and Bible college.  It was a really nice size Bible.  In jr. high and early high school I used this bible to argue with friends about the roles of husband and wife in marriage (submit!  I was such a clueless little idiot) and, worse, pre-mill vs. post-mill theology (didn’t have a clue about that either, we each just went with whatever our dads believed).  I also underlined throughout it and in bible college followed the suggestion of multi-coloured (coded) underlining and circling, etc.

4.  University (c. 1997-1998) – I decided I wanted to “study” the Bible some more and thought perhaps a study bible was the place to start.  Not having a clue about these things, I asked my dad.  My dad, being a John MacArthur fan, suggested the John MacArthur Study Bible (NKJV), but warned that the temptation with a study bible is to always go down to the commentary immediately after reading the scripture text.  Dixie gave me this study bible.  I never did use it much because a) it’s bulky; b) I realized that perhaps a better choice of study bible would have been one with commentary from multiple scholars; c) I realized shortly after receiving the JMSB that John MacArthur may not be my cup of tea.  The NIV Study Bible would probably have been a better choice at that point.  I still have the JMSB and refer to it from time to time.

5.  Post-university (ca. 2002 -2003) — my NIV thinline was coming apart at the seams and was filled with multi-coloured markings and notes about marriage roles and a sketch of the Romans Road evangelistic tool.  I felt like a different person in my faith by that time, not really identifying with all that stuff, so I wanted to start with something clean and fresh.  Ended up with an NIV Thompson Chain Reference bible.  The Thompson Chain Reference system is really quite useful and I still use it a lot.  However, I do find the chain references, etc. distracting for general reading and the text in my edition is crowded tightly into two columns which occupy only about 2/3 of the page.

Here things start to get a little crazy.  I tend to be compulsive about some things (see this post about some of my favourite books and my redundant Tolkien collection) and buy on impulse.  I admire Phil for his deliberate and patient choices–I could learn a thing or two (probably more) from him.  Learning that skill would save me money and frustration.

Anyway, about this time I also started on my short-lived quest for the “perfect” bible.  There is no such thing, of course.

6.  Somewhere along the line here we were given a copy of The Message (remix).  I read it more like a commentary than a translation (it is a paraphrase).  I refer to it from time to time.  That edition is apparently gauranteed for life–or would be if we lived in the U.S.

7.  Thinking back to my bible college days, I thought that perhaps bible note-taking might be a useful thing to do, so I got a NIV wide margin bible.  I took only a couple of notes.  It was the victim of a poor attempt at trying out RLP‘s good idea of putting each book of the bible into its own duotang folder.  Fail!  I’m not sure where that gibbled bible went.  Chucked it, I suspect, although I would have done that with a great sense of guilt.

8.  When Luke was still a baby, I wanted to have a Bible that I could slip in my pocket so that I could carry my kids without having to manhandle the large TNIV Thompson Chain bible as well.  Purchased a pocket ESV, which I use when I travel or do visitation.

9.  When Dixie’s mom’s Christian bookstore closed in 2008, I picked up an NRSV pew bible.  I continue to use it: it has plain text without the distraction of cross-references or commentary, although the type-face is budget (pew bibles are generally inexpensive) and not the best for reading.

10.  The TNIV appears to be used more and more in our denomination and some of the editions I saw at the Midwinter Conference reminded me of that thinline edition of the NIV I received some 17 years ago.  That old bible is, after all this time–all these years of working in the cover–the most comfortable, most readable bible I’ve had.  So I bought myself a thinline edition of the TNIV, and in a sense came full circle.  Inside the front cover:

Presented to

___Marc Vandersluys      




___February, 2009          

11.  Oh yes, after landing in Saskatoon after the conference, I stopped in at the Jesus Christ Superstore (Scott’s Parable), looking for a TNIV bible.  Happened upon a pulp-paperback edition of the NLT for $1.99!  Couldn’t pass that one up.  The NLT has gone through a couple of revisions and is gaining a lot of respect, even as a bible study tool.  The NLT Study Bible, for example, is getting rave reviews (and, not surprisingly, so is the ESV Study Bible).

There you have it, folks.  These days I refer to the NRSV, NLT, ESV, NIV and TNIV.  The tactile-loving side of me would almost like a hard copy of the NET Bible, which has thousands of translators’ notes (instead of the commentary found in a study bible), but I can easily access it online.  Plus, after pulling out that old NIV thinline bible, I realized that I probably could have used that bible for many years more than I did.  So I had better curb my urges.

I know you’re thinking this is totally ridiculous, and I agree, it totally is.  But looking at the translations, commentaries and theological books I have collected over the years, it makes me wonder if my compulsions didn’t in a way “foresee” my current direction in life, even while I didn’t see it coming until much later.

On the other hand, all this translation acquiring probably distracted me from the more important issue of actually reading the bible, in any translation.


I caught a bit of Ideas on CBC Radio One.  I see now that it’s an interview with Susan Neimann, author of Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists (sounds like just the book for me).  I’ll have to listen to the podcast of the full program later, but she talked about some interesting things in those 5 minutes or so in which I was listening.

She was talking about two stories about Abraham: Abraham’s pleading with with God for Sodom and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac.

She noted in the Sodom story that Abraham pleads with God on a moral basis even though the Law as Jews and Christians would know it did not exist.  On what did Abraham base his ethics?  On something other than the written (Mosaic) law.

While Abraham pleads for Sodom on ethical grounds, Abraham says nothing to God later on when God tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Clearly, Abraham could have taken issue with this on an ethical basis as well.

In the first story, she says, Abraham was acting on reason and in the second he was acting on faith.

(I didn’t hear if she thought one was better than the other, but I suspect she will not give either one priority.  I also don’t know if she pointed out that God still destroys Sodom, because it didn’t meet even Abraham’s minimal requirements.  However, in the story of Isaac, in which Abraham says nothing, God spares Isaac in the end.  Not sure if any of those things have anything to do with her topic either.  I must listen to the podcast later.)

I always enjoy seeing scripture through fresh or different eyes.  Growing up with the Bible and its stories it’s easy to take them (or the way you have always read them) for granted.  And I rarely take the time to sit down and really contemplate a passage of scripture, but this sort of interesthing tends to be the result.

Which translation of the Bible do you use?

Which translation of the Bible do you use? (AKA, my defense of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible)

I grew up with the New International Version (NIV)—standard text, I think, for my generation of evangelicals—and I still use it: I use an NIV Thompson Chain Reference Bible and have an exhaustive concordance based on the NIV text, and most of the scripture I remember is from the NIV.

In the last couple of years I’ve been checking out other translations.  Initially it was about finding the best translation, but I no longer believe there is an overall “best” translation or that such a thing is even possible.  Of course, each translator or translation committtee claims that their version is the most accurate or the most faithful rendering of the original languages of the Bible, and each of us poor, non-original-language-reading saps must decide which committee’s or scholar’s word to go by.

Now, from what I can tell (as a layperson) the difference between the translations is for the most part superficial: placement of punctuation (which does not exist in the original text), word choice (between similar English words), word order and whatnot.  Two people using two different translations are not likely to come away from the same texts with a different interpretation or understanding—if they do, it’s because of what the interpreters bring to the text, rather than what the translation gives the interpreter.  But with the proliferation of translations these days, we do, at some point,  have to make a choice.  (Is it me, or is it evangelical Protestant groups that are releasing all these new versions these days?  What does that say about us?)

In the last couple of years I’ve been drifting more towards the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).  Growing up, I was told that this was a “liberal” translation, though the reason for this was never made clear to me.  As far as I can tell, the NRSV is considered “liberal” because of two things: the use of gender inclusive language and the translation of Isaiah 7:14 (is it “virgin” or “young woman“?).  I’m assuming gender inclusive language is no longer much of an issue, as both the New Living Translation (NLT) and Today’s New International Version (TNIV), both generally accepted in conservative circles, use inclusive language.

As for the translation of Isaiah 7:14: first and foremost, it seems to me to be a moot point, given that in the NRSV both Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:26-34 use the term “virgin” in reference to Mary.  So the doctrine of the virgin birth is not at issue between translations.  Second, I don’t want my choice of translation to be based on an ideological or doctrinal slant.  In fact, I don’t want the process of translation itself to be based on that (which again makes me wonder about the myriad new translations appearing from evangelical publishers). The goal of any translation should be to provide an accurate, faithful rendering of the original text (within the limits of the translation process), even if that means that the most faithful, accurate and, dare I say, honest translation of that Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 (for example) is “young woman” rather than “virgin” (I’m not a scholar, so I’m not saying it is).  This is not at all an unreasonable expectation, particularly from an evangelical viewpoint which believes that it should be scriptures shaping our theology rather than our theology shaping scripture (or translation).

I’m sure the issue is more complicated than I’ve described here and I don’t have the answers in the translation debate.  I simply have to take someone’s word for it, and before I can do that, I have to decide whose word is most trustworthy.  And so on and so forth.

Which is precisely why I am increasingly leaning towards the NRSV.  The NRSV is the only translation, as far as I’m aware, which in general knows no denominational boundaries.  The NIV, TNIV, NLT (New Living Translation), ESV (English Standard Version), and others tend to be accepted and used specifically by evangelical or conservative denominations.  This doesn’t make them poor or inferior translations, but I do find it curious that the majority of those using these translations belolong to a relatively small section of the Christian spectrum (I admit this is conjecture, rather than fact).  The NRSV, on the other hand, is widely accepted among evangelical Protestant churches and mainline Protestant churches, as well as the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church (there may be exceptions of course, such as the King James Only-ers), and academics and scholars respect the translation as well. So I lean towards the NRSV because it’s ecumenical—it’s not the translation of one view of the Bible.  The NRSV is not a conservative Bible or a Reformed Bible or a Catholic Bible or what have you—it can be any one of those, but it need not be any.

I’m not saying the NRSV is perfect.  I’m not saying the other translations are bad (I can be kind of neurotic about having one of everything, so I own several translations).  I’m not saying the NRSV the most readable. I’m just saying I appreciate the fact that it’s ecumenical.  It is meaningful for me that, in a world of increasing division between liberal and conservative, this ideology and that ideology, this theology and that theology, the NRSV is a translation of the Bible that seems to transcend those boundaries.

The Bible isn’t an answer book…

From Jesus Shaped Spirituality:

The answers we give each other suck. The answers in the Bible are big, generic and can’t be fit into the map of your life as specifically as you want. God wants us to trust who he is, what he’s done for us in Jesus and what he promises to finish doing. Along the way, he has some good advice and specific commands, but not many answers to the mysteries of life that torment us.

Believe in the God of the Bible, and have lots of questions of “Why?”…..You’re probably going to get tired of hearing things like “Everything God does he does for our good” or “God allows evil so that good will come from it.” God’s not sitting in a booth playing fortune teller or shrink for a nickle.

He’s God. His goal is that we trust him, and live the best lives we can based on that trust. A significant part of that kind of life is moving past the “Whys.”

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not convinced when preachers say that all the answers to life’s questions are to be found between the genuine bonded leather covers of my Bible.  I like the “big picture”, God-centered understanding presented here.