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The Red Letters of Jesus

Why are the words of Jesus in red print? The mother and son Bible translator team of Verna and James Linzey explain the significance of putting the words of Jesus in red letters and how it was supposed to help readers of the Gospels.

Are the red letters of Jesus really that different than the black letters of the rest of the Bible? Why are there diverse font colors, and what is the significance? Red letter Bibles were first published in 1899 by an influential Christian leader named Louis Klopsch, editor of Christian Herald magazine.[1] He was a devout man who deeply desired all people to read, understand, and value the Bible. Although Klopsch’s motivations were sincere and beneficial, the presence of red letter Bibles may actually confuse rather than clarify the reading of Scripture in a couple of important aspects.

All Scripture, the entire Bible, was inspired by God.

First, with more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts and fragments dating from the 2nd century and onward, we only know the earliest and best Greek witnesses for how the Gospel writers set forth their eyewitness account of the Jesus event. We can also observe that the Gospel writers did this in very different ways. For example, we know that Jesus often taught in Aramaic, which is a language similar to Hebrew. In Mark 5:41 he heals a little girl, and Mark records him as saying, “Talitha koum.” Mark writes that this Aramaic phrase means, “Little girl, get up.” So there are some places in the Gospels where we have what is often called the ipsissima verba (the very words) of Jesus. Mark actually gives us the Aramaic words of Jesus.[2] This is a great benefit to us because all the Gospel writers chose to write in Greek and not Aramaic. When having the opportunity to write in the very words of Jesus’ cultural language of Aramaic, the Gospel writers chose not to so that their written witness might have widespread distribution throughout the Greek speaking world. The presence of Aramaic is rare in the Gospels, and we typically only have access to the ipsissima vox (the very voice) of Jesus. This is a helpful distinction for dialogue related to Jesus. Very rarely do we have an oral tradition that the Gospel writers preserve for us that reflects what Jesus actually said (his very words), but the norm is that Gospel writers give us Jesus’ words in a literary and theological way that is particular to each of their eyewitness accounts (his very voice).

Image: Bethany Laird

Matthew uses Jesus’ phrase the “kingdom of heaven” 32 times, whereas Luke, Mark, and John give us “kingdom of God” or “eternal life.”[3] There are a few reasons why the Gospel writers choose different words or phrases to attribute to Jesus depending on the literary and theological intention that the writer has for his audience. Matthew’s Jesus prefers “kingdom of heaven” because this kingdom is opposed to and will be victorious over the kingdoms of earth, especially the Jewish and Roman anti-messiah kingdoms. On the other hand, “kingdom of God” is over and against the strong Greco-roman pantheon structures and worship of the audiences for Mark’s and Luke’s Jesus. John’s Jesus has a strong focus on “eternal life” since his gospel is a post-resurrection reflection on what Jesus has actually provided anyone who follows his teachings.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Summer 2018

About the Author: Verna M. Linzey (1919 –2016), MA (Southwestern Assemblies of God University), DMin (Fuller Theological Seminary), was the chief editor of the New Tyndale Version Bible and a translator for the Modern English Version Bible. She wrote The Baptism with the Holy Spirit, The Gifts of the Spirit, and Spirit Baptism. She also hosted the television programs “The Word with Verna Linzey” and “The Holy Spirit Today with Dr. Verna Linzey.”

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