What are the pros and cons of red letter Bibles?
Red letter Bibles and Red letter New Testaments are Bibles that claim to have colored in red everything Jesus said. As a result the four Gospels have the most words in red letters and some Bibles have colored red the words of Jesus in other parts of the Bible.
The first red letter edition of the New Testament that was published by itself and not as part of a Bible was in 1899 according to the American Bible Society. Notice the word “alone.” In a tweet they wrote,
According to Gerald C. Studer, the editor of Bible Editions and Versions (formerly Bible Collectors’ World), the idea of printing in red letters the words ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament originated with Louis Klopsch (1852-1910), a German immigrant who came to New York at a very young age and eventually became the editor of The Christian Herald. The first Red Letter edition of the New Testament alone was published in 1899. The first Bible to include a red letter New Testament was issued in 1901.
Since then many Bibles have been published with red letter New Testaments. Most publishers are glad to provide red letter editions of the New Testament and the Bible because people want them. But what are the pros and cons of red letter Bibles? Let’s examine the issue.
Pros of the Red Letter Bible
Louis Klopsch, the man who is credited with the concept of the red letter Bible, believed there was one primary advantage to a red letter Bible. The reader of the New Testament would be able to quickly find the words of Jesus and confirm the “authenticity of the Old Testament.” For some readers the red letters make it easier to identify when Jesus is speaking. That is the most common reason given for wanting a red letter New Testament or red letter Bible.
Cons of the Red Letter Bible
There are three main disadvantages of a red letter New Testament or red letter Bible. These disadvantages are presented in the order of greatest importance to the least importance.
Red Letter Bibles Confuse What Is Authoritative
The first disadvantage of a red letter Bible is that readers may tend to believe that the red letters are more authoritative or more important than the black colored words. It is easy to fail to understand that Jesus actually wrote all of the Bible. That is, all the words of the Bible are from Him. That is the message of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which says.
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NASB)
Here we are told that all Scripture is inspired by God or God-breathed. That means Jesus wrote every word in the Bible. Therefore, the words Jesus spoke are not more authoritative than the black words. Also, 2 Peter 1:20-21 teaches us that the Holy Spirit moved the prophets to write Scripture. So, the Trinity wrote all of Scripture. Therefore, we could say all the words of the Bible should be in red letters.
Red Letter Bibles Are Not Consistent In Coloring
Yet, a serious student of the Bible will understand that the red letters in the Gospels are simply the words Jesus spoke while He lived on this earth. Consequently, there are many red words in the four Gospels. But we must remember that Jesus, as the Son of God, appeared as an “angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament and spoke to different individuals. In theology, the Old Testament appearance of the Son of God is called a theophany or a Christophany. So to be consistent, should the Old Testament words of the Son of God be in red letters? Clearly, the Son of God became known as Jesus when was He born in human flesh. Therefore, we must remember that the red colored words only highlight the words Jesus spoke while on earth. Yet, some words outside the Gospels in the book of Revelation are red in color. At the time the book of Revelation was written, Jesus was no longer living on planet earth, but He was dwelling in heaven. Yet, the reason they included the red words in Revelation was Jesus spoke from heaven. So, the red letter editions are inconsistent and confusing. The red letters ignore the Old Testament words spoken by the Son of God as a theophany or a Christophany, and include red colored words outside the Gospels when Jesus was no longer living on planet earth, while including the words in the Gospels which Jesus spoke while living here.
Red Letter Bibles Function As Commentaries
A third disadvantage of red letter Bibles is that some words are colored red that should not be colored red. One example is found in Revelation 1:8. The New American Standard Bible (NASB), King James Version Bible (KJV), and the 1997 New King James Version Bible (NKJV) colored Jesus’ words red in this verse.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “ who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Revelation 1:8 (NASB)
But the New International Version Bible (NIV) and the English Standard Version Bible (ESV) did not highlight Jesus’ words in this verse, even though they colored Jesus’ words red in the gospels. It should be noted the NKJV Bibles after 1977 did not color Jesus’ words red in this verse. This means the Bible translators do not agree on which words should be red in the book of Revelation.
It should be noted that all of these Bible translations do not color the statement in Revelation 21:6. since Revelation 21:3 says a “loud voice from the throne” spoke those words. That means we cannot be confident that Jesus spoke those words, because we do not know if the “voice” was from Jesus. The same is true of the statement in Revelation 1:8. It is important to note that the verse says “the Lord God” spoke these words. But who is the “the Lord God”? Does this refer to Jesus or God the Father? A good example is Luke 1:32 where Lord God refers to God the Father. So some Bible versions do not believe Jesus spoke these words and so Bible versions did not color the words red in Revelation 1:8. They are not consistent.
So, this causes confusion to the serious student. This means the red letter Bibles have functioned as commentaries. That should never happen. That is the responsibility of a pastor or a Bible scholar to interpret the Bible. We do not want our Bibles to function as a commentary, unless we understand what is happening. For example, a study Bible is contains commentary notes in the footnotes.
We have discovered that there are more cons or disadvantages to red letter Bibles than there are pros or positives. Red letter Bibles a) can cause confusion about what is authoritative in Scripture, b) inconsistently color words spoken by Jesus and the Son of God, and c) tend to function as commentaries. Therefore, red letter Bibles are recommended only for the Christian who understands the disadvantages of these Bibles.
1. Rev. Peter Nafzger. When Did Publishers Start Printing Red Letter Bibles? American Bible Society. March 09, 2011 (news.americanbible.org/article/when-did-publishers-start-printing-red-letter-bibles).
2. “Explanatory Note,” in The Holy Bible: Red Letter Edition. Christian Herald. 1901.
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