The Problem with Red Letter Bibles

All God’s Words are Important

If you are a Bible reader, chances are at some point in your life, you’ve owned a red letter Bible. A red letter Bible is one where the words of Christ are in red font, to highlight their importance. I was reminded of this by an NPR story about a new edition of the gospels that contains no chapters or verses, but the text only. Other editions have done this previously, so it’s not brand new. If it lowers the barrier of entry for new readers of Scripture, so much the better. However, in removing the chapters and verses, one thing the Manuscript Project inserted was red letters. I think the implications of this are beyond what most people consider. There are three things that one should consider when it comes to red letter Bibles.

1) It is an editorial decision about where to begin and where to end the red letters.

In many cases, this is obvious. Matt. 17:20, for example. He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” It’s clear where the evangelist’s introduction stops, and the quotation of Jesus’ words begins. But other passages are more difficult. John 3:16 is the most famous verse in Scripture. It occurs after (seemingly) a discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus, but where exactly do Jesus’ words end, and John the evangelist’s narrative pick up again? It is entirely possible that Jesus words end at verse 15, and the entire paragraph beginning with verse 16 is comprised of John’s words. Where to start and stop the red is thus an editorial decision, but one that subtly directs the reader to think, “these words are the really important ones.” If John’s narrative does pick up at verse 16, however, it makes no difference whatsoever in their importance for Christians. Red letter markings undermine this fact by drawing an artificial distinction.

2) It represents a canon within a canon.

The idea of a “canon within a canon” is a term used to explain when people, groups, or traditions favor one part of Scripture over others. The effect of this is a demotion of some books of Scripture, some parts of God’s word, as lesser. (One must distinguish this from the idea that some books teach certain doctrines more explicitly or systematically than others. Were one to look for the clearest explanation of justification by faith, one would look to Romans rather than Revelation.) But just as the editorializing I detailed above involves the imposition of relative importance to some parts of Scripture, so too does the “canon within a canon.”

Michael J. Kruger describes this in explaining how New Testament scholar Kurt Aland approached the problem of knowing which books are canonical. Quoting Aland, he notes “Thus, the only way forward is to discover the “canon within the canon” by reducing the New Testament to its core truths and selecting the parts that will bring “unity to the faith.”[1]

What Aland says accords with what the Red Letter Christians states as one of their core values. “By calling ourselves Red Letter Christians, we refer to the fact that in many Bibles the words of Jesus are printed in red. What we are asserting, therefore, is that we have committed ourselves first and foremost to doing what Jesus said.” First and foremost are Jesus’ words, that is, they are to be favored over the God-breathed writings of the Apostles. Elsewhere on the site, we read, “Jesus is the lens through which we understand the Bible.” This is a reversal of fact, however. We know about Jesus from the Bible. As John says, “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ.” The other writings of the New Testament are not a barrier or hindrance to our deeper knowledge of Christ, they are God’s own method of it! The idea of Jesus first (apart from Scripture?) in order to understand Scripture is an impossibility. We know about Jesus only through the writings of the New Testament–all of them.

It is a false dichotomy to suggest Jesus’ words must be favored over the rest of the New Testament. It is not either/or, but both. If Christians are not living according to the teachings of Jesus, the solution is not to strip away what the Apostles wrote, but “these things ought you to have done, and not to have left the other undone.” It was Paul who wrote, “Be imitators of me, even as I am of Christ.”  Red letter Bibles perpetuate the erroneous view that we must prefer and obey one part of the New Testament over others. We should also note that the progress of salvation history, the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan, happens in such a way that we relate to different parts of Scripture differently than believers of prior ages did. That Christians do not keep the Mosaic law, or are they obligated to do so is an example of this unfolding. But the Pentateuch, where the law was given, remains God’s inspired word even as we are on the other side of the cross from where Israel first received it.

3) Red letter Bibles represent a view of inspiration that is problematic.

Christians have always believed that all of Scripture is God-breathed, in every part; the epistles no less than that gospels. Setting some words off in red as an indication they are more important than the other words cannot but make one think they are more inspired than others. Should Christians pay less attention what Paul wrote, because his words are not in red? We believe that the Holy Spirit is the one who inspired the writers to record what they wrote, whether it is the words of Jesus in the gospels or the words of the apostles in the rest of the New Testament. Therefore, it does not add anything to the authority of God’s word (and in fact may confuse the issue) to have some highlighted above others. There isn’t a two-tiered inspiration of God’s word. The progress of salvation history that I noted above is most clearly demarcated between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. It’s a far more difficult case to make among the books of the New Testament itself, especially since the apostles state that they are teaching the Word of the Lord.

The Manuscripts Project has a noble goal in making the Bible more approachable for new readers. I applaud this. My advice would be to complete the task they have started in removing chapter and verse divisions by also removing the editorial imposition of red letters. God’s word can and will speak to hearers in a monochromatic font.



[1] Michael J. Kruger. Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Kindle Locations 1856-1860). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.


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