The red letters.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 October

Back in medieval times, western scribes used to rubricate certain texts. If you’re not familiar with that word, it means “render in red letters”—they’d highlight certain important parts of the books, like headers and commentaries and pull quotes, by putting the words in red ink. After the printing press was invented, full-color or spot-color printing was of course possible (’cause the Gutenberg Bible was full color) but time-consuming and not cost-effective. So printers went with bold letters, slanted letters, capital letters, capitalized letters, bigger letters, or whole different typefaces—whatever you could print in black.

Meaning bibles were likewise printed in black ink. Red-letter editions didn’t begin till 1899. It started with Louis Klopsch, editor of The Christian Herald, who was writing an editorial, and read this passage from the gospels. (Which, for once, I’m not gonna put in red letters, ’cause it’s not what Klopsch would’ve read.)

Luke 22.20 KJV
Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.

I’m guessing Klopsch at first imagined the New Testament printed in Jesus’s blood, and then that grisly image was replaced with the idea of simply Jesus’s words printed in blood-red text. He thought it was a neat idea; his pastor thought it couldn’t hurt; he produced 60,000 copies of a red-letter New Testament later that year. They sold out quickly.

The reason I’ve lumped this article under the category of bible translations rather than simply bible, is because a certain amount of interpretation is involved in figuring out what parts of the bible oughta be printed in red letters.

Fr’instance Revelation. The book is Jesus’s revelation to his apostle John. A “Lamb as it had been slain” Rv 5.6 KJV sits upon the heavenly throne in Revelation 5 to open the seals of an important scroll, and it’s safe to assume every statement from the throne thereafter comes from the lamb. The lamb is obviously Jesus. Yet not every publisher of a red-letter bible remembers this, and puts the statements from the throne into red letters.

Sometimes it varies by publisher; sometimes translation. Fr’instance when Jesus is instructing Nicodemus in John 3. In the second edition of the New International Version, published 1984, John 3.16 is in red letters, ’cause most translators figure he said it. But in the third edition, the current 2011 edition, Jesus’s quote stops at 3.15. Verse 16 isn’t red-letter anymore. It’s not a Jesus quote; now it’s the apostle John’s commentary.

John 3.14-17 NIV
14 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

The NIV isn’t the only translation which does this. There’s the Lexham English Bible and the New English Translation. The Good News Translation (a.k.a. Today’s English Version) cuts Jesus off even before, at verse 13.

Yeah, where Jesus speaks and where he doesn’t is pretty much interpreters and translators’ judgment call. Therefore it’s also a judgment call as to where the red letters go. True from the very beginning: When Klopsch put together the first red-letter New Testament, he used the King James Version, which has no quotation marks because they weren’t in standard use till his century. Kopsch had to use his best judgment as to where the Jesus-quotes begin and end. That’s not always clear. The hope was the red letters would help make it clear.

Red letters here, there, and everywhere.

The idea caught on big time, which is why you’ll find red-letter editions of bibles just about everywhere. My very first bible was a red-letter gift/award KJV, presented to me by my Sunday school for memorizing lots of verses—which I still have, though it’s quite worn out. I’ve since gone digital, but most translations on my bible software offer a red-letter option, which I use. Bible Gateway does likewise.

And y’might notice whenever I pull-quote scripture, I tend to rubricate any direct quotes from our Lord. And the LORD. I started doing it years ago, when I realized, “Why’m I highlighting the stuff Jesus says, but not the stuff the LORD says? Jesus is the LORD, after all. It’s inconsistent.” So I started highlighting the LORD’s words in blue… then switched to violet once I started blogging, ’cause blue text on the internet tends to be hyperlinks. Then I realized, “Why’m I color-coding the persons of the trinity?” and have since gone with red throughout. The Father’s in red, the Son’s in red, the Holy Spirit’s in red. When it’s God, it’s red.

Why do I do it? Extra emphasis. Doesn’t a direct quote from God deserve the extra emphasis?

I know, I know. There are gonna be those Christians who point out the entire bible points to God, the entire bible is inspired by God, and often the stuff Paul or Moses or John or David wrote is just as relevant as something the Almighty said, ’cause they reflect God’s will and sentiments exactly. And I don’t disagree with these people! Lots of scripture reflects God’s thinking. We’d be foolish to ignore it.

Thing is, too many Christians are in the really bad habit of not paying enough attention to the direct quotes from God. They don’t wanna follow him so much as follow their own thinking, which they’ve extrapolated as “biblical principles” from a whole lot of out-of-context verses. You listen to their sermons: They’ll seldom to never quote God. They’ll quote his apostles, prophets, and sages. They’ll dig through the bible’s historical stories, and do their darnedest to extrapolate “principles” from them. It’s almost like they’re avoiding the Almighty altogether.

So whenever people complain, “Oh, those ‘red-letter Christians’ are a bunch of kooks; we’re supposed to read the whole bible”—yes we are supposed to read the whole bible. But we’re especially meant to read the God quotes. Anybody who suggests we aren’t… well, I’m gonna be just a bit wary about them.

The Red Letter Christians.

Next we have the Red Letter Christians movement, started by Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne in 2007. These’d be the folks who really want to emphasize Jesus’s teachings, take them and Jesus seriously, and live by them. Sounds good, right? And largely it is.

Thing is, these guys are also prominent members of the Christian Left. Full disclosure—I tend to appreciate the Christian Left a whole lot more than the Christian Right. Maybe that’s because I grew up Christian Right, and its problems bug me way more than the problems of the Left. The Right has way too many nationalists and Mammonists, racists and sexists and homophobes, and spends way too much time fretting about the End Times and not enough time loving their neighbors. Obviously that’s not true of all of them, but just enough of them.

No, this doesn’t by default mean the Christian Left is the way to go. They have their own problems. They’re too often guilty of soft Marcionism: They treat the Old Testament’s commands as if they’re a whole different dispensation which was largely nullified by the New Testament. When the LORD judges sinners in the OT, they dodge it and ignore it rather than struggling with it; they recognize Jesus calls upon us to love everyone and save judgment for the End, but they act as if even Jesus won’t judge people at the End. He will—though to be fair to the Christian Left, he’s definitely not gonna judge people for the petty things the Christian Right overemphasizes. The Lambs and Kids Story makes that obvious. But too often the Left keeps giving a free pass to works of the flesh, as if Paul didn’t really mean it when he said people will these traits won’t inherit the kingdom. Ga 5.21 After all, the Paul quotes aren’t in red letters.

All this is to say the Christian Left’s typical problems are frequently the Red Letter Christians’ typical problems. But just as I’m not gonna throw the baby out with the bathwater, I’m not gonna say the Red Letter Christians aren’t on to something when they say we gotta take Christ Jesus’s red-letter teachings seriously. I absolutely agree we Christians need to focus the bulk of our attention to his teachings. To live out the Sermon on the Mount, rather than look upon it as a nice ideal which won’t become reality till the second coming. If we’re gonna call ourselves Christ-followers, doesn’t it make sense to actually follow him?

Thing is, humans are creatures of extremes. Some Christ-followers are gonna follow Jesus so hard, we’re gonna foolishly ignore all the apostles and prophets and teachers who know him much better than we do. That’d be dumb. But it happens all the time. Lookit every zealous young follower in any movement, who presumes they’re a true believer, and aren’t so sure about the older folks who aren’t willing to be as hardcore. Lookit all the “cage-stage” Christians who’ve convinced themselves the rest of us are probably compromised and devilish, and use their fleshly zeal to justify other fleshly behaviors. Every movement has ’em. I’ve seen ’em in the Christian Right and Left. They need to grow up. Some will. Some won’t.

The Red Letter Christians have the right idea, but we need to use wisdom to implement it properly. Definitely read Jesus’s teachings. Definitely obey his instructions. Definitely work on good fruit. But definitely read the rest of the bible as well. Jesus himself said they point to him, Jn 5.39 and they do so in all sorts of useful ways. Don’t cherry-pick ’em; read them.