Red Letter Bibles: Should Publishers Print Them?
There is love, in the red letters
There is truth, in the red letters
There is hope for the hopeless, peace and forgiveness
There is life, in the red letters
These lyrics come from the song Red Letters sung by dc Talk in their album, Supernatural, released in 1998. For some, this song is undoubtedly very encouraging (that is, if you’re still listening to dc Talk). The Red Letters contain love, truth, hope, peace, forgiveness, and life because they come from the Savior: Jesus the Messiah (on the origin of Red Letter Bibles click here; for a defense of Red Letter Bibles click here).
However, there is something incredibly misleading about this song and in that regard the entire concept of printing Red Letter Editions of the Bible. For one thing, if I can be so bold, the Red Letters are not the words of Jesus. The words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are written in Greek. As any translator or Seminary student who has studied Greek will tell you, translating is both a science and an art. The process of working from one language to another is a rather fluid endeavor. There’s no such thing as a “correct translation,” though of course there can be inferior and even incorrect translations. Yet there can possibly be multiple appropriate translations. To make matters more interesting, Jesus was likely speaking in Aramaic for the specific sayings and discourses that we have recorded in the Gospels. Thus, at the level of linguistics, we should not think of the Red Letters as the words of Jesus.
To go beyond the issue of translation, we have four Gospel accounts. In certain contexts we see that Jesus’ words differ slightly from each other. For example, notice the words of Jesus in Matt 7.11 and Luke 11.13. Both Gospels record the same saying of Jesus. Here they are compared side by side:
Matthew 7.11: If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Luke 11.13: If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
Of course, here we have evidence that the Gospel writers are recording the words of Jesus selectively and in accordance with their unique contributions as authors. For Luke, the Holy Spirit is the “greatest gift” that the Father in heaven could give to his children, which is consistent with his emphasis on the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts. And this is just one example! Thus, given the differences between the Gospels it is even more important not to regard the Red Letters as the words of Jesus.
How then should we think about the “words of Jesus” as we have them in the Gospel accounts? It is for this reason that theologians have made a distinction between the ipsissima verba (‘the very words’) and the ipsissima vox (‘the very voice’). When we read the Red Letters we are not reading the words of Jesus, rather we are reading the voice of Jesus. We can be confident that the Gospel writers properly recorded the “gist” of Jesus’ words, so this distinction ought not be alarming . In fact, it provides a helpful means to account for the variations in Gospel accounts. When we read the Gospels we hear Jesus’ voice, but let us not reductionistically assume that we’re reading his words (Because he didn’t speak English, nor did he teach in Greek for that matter).
Another problematic aspect of Red Letter Editions of the Bible is that they unfortunately position the sayings of Jesus as more important than the actions of Jesus. Thus, there appears to be a subtle form of Gnosticism here that undermines the role of history. Furthermore, the Red Letters create an awkward ‘Canon within a Canon’; making the Gospel sayings of Jesus more important than anything else in the rest of the Bible. For these reasons I think that publishers should stop publishing Red Letter Bibles. All of God’s word is valuable, and requires our careful attention. See Darrell Bock’s chapter in Jesus under Fire, “The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive or Memorex?” (ed. Michael Wilkins and J. P. Moreland).