The Problem of “Red-Letter” Bibles

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I subscribe to Google Alerts because they are a very helpful research tool. If you’re not familiar with Google Alerts, when you subscribe, you can put in topics or names – and then, almost real-time, whenever these “hits” appear anywhere on the internet, you receive an alert into your email Inbox.

One of these alerts just arrived in my Inbox concerning “Phyllis Tickle” – and it was related to one of my “pet” issues, so I decided to just go ahead and write about it while we’re sitting in a hotel room in west Chattanooga in the midst of our move back to Indiana.
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In 2008, Phyllis Tickly published a book entitled “The Words of Jesus: A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord with Reflections by Phyllis Tickle.” In a review by “Publisher’s Weekly” as posted on Amazon.com we read, “Award-winning author and speaker Tickle (Rediscovering the Sacred; The Divine Hours), who is PW’s former contributing editor in religion, chooses to take the red letter Bible one step further in this excellent study tool.” Of the four reviews on the Amazon site, they are at least as positive as the publisher’s review.

However, I don’t think “red-letter” Bibles really should be taken a step further. Rather, I would suggest that the decision to print such Bibles was probably a mistake in the first place. The reason is this: By having the words of Jesus appear in red, the impression is (wrongly) given that what Jesus said is somehow more important and to be taken more seriously than the rest of the Bible.

But this isn’t the case at all. We are to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4) – and a high view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible as Scripture, as the Word of God, leads us to conclude that every word in the Bible is from the mouth of God (2 Timothy 3:16).

Of course, what Jesus said had special significance in the context of His earthly ministry. But in the context of the entire Word of God, they are certainly no less important, but neither are they more important. Rather they are equal – completely and fully, in every respect.

This is even more important to understand in a day when groups like “The Jesus Seminar” try to figure out just what of those “red-letter” words Jesus actually said. (And their conclusions are that He probably didn’t actually say much of it.) And, we are in a day when more and more of those who are gaining notoriety as leaders and spokesmen (like Rob Bell for example) for an ever-larger segment of evangelicalism – men and women who are trying to redefine “inspiration” and see the Bible not so much as inherently inspired and infallible, but rather as the product of men, who were occasionally blessed by God with spiritual insights.

This is not how we should handle the Bible. If you have a red-letter Bible, why don’t you consider going out and buying one that isn’t – and start your Bible study afresh. Let’s fully understand and believe that when Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” – and he did it because it was revealed to him by the Spirit of God, it carried truth that was as great and profound as when Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life,. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

The second temptation we face when using a “red-letter” Bible is to lift verses out of their context and memorize them without ever having any idea what is found in the preceding or following paragraph. I haven’t read Mrs. Tickle’s work, so I can’t comment if she has appropriately dealt with Jesus’ words in context. I hope she has. And I hope that each of us, whenever we study any verse or passage, we will not conclude our work until we know and understand the context.

As I frequently told my students (and being a very original person – meaning I can’t remember from which thief I stole the idea) – “the context is not the main thing – context is the only thing.” A serious student of the Word of God should be able to overlook the chapter and verse divisions, which are often a distraction to true Bible study – and he needs to be able to look past the words in red – so that appropriate value can be assigned to the “words in black” – the very breath of our Lord.

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not just singling out this work by Phyllis Tickle, which I’m sure she would describe as a labor of love. But I am suggesting that perhaps this type of work is not necessarily taking us in the right direction in our overall understanding and appreciation of the Word of God.

Dave James
Ministry Coordinator

3 Comments
  1. I always liked those red-letter Bibles, and was thinking about to get one, but now I see the disadvantages of it…very useful post, thank you!

  2. I have a friend in the Church of Christ who’s written almost the same thing. The idea of separating segments of Scripture from context via the “red letters” strikes me as a borderline “addition” to the text.

    However, it is useful when searching for a particular saying of Christ, being that it cuts out three-quarters of the New Testament. Heh. That doesn’t sound so hot either, does it?

    Good thoughts.

  3. With the many tools now available for searching, even that really hasn’t been an issue for close to 20 years.


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