Are Jesus’ Words Really in “Red Letters?”

Can we trust that what we read in the Gospels are really the words of Jesus?

Can we trust that what we read in the Gospels are really the words of Jesus?

Many Christians like reading from so-called “Red Letter” Bibles because they are told that the words spoken by Jesus are written in red ink. It can be helpful for some readers, since in the King James Version, there are no quotation marks used to identify when someone is speaking.

The idea of “Red Letter” Bibles goes back to 1899, when the editor of the Christian Herald magazine, Louis Klopsch, was inspired by reading Luke 22:30: ” Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. (KJV)” Klopsch was passionate about getting God’s Word out to people, and so he envisioned a new Bible where the words of Jesus could be represented by the color of His blood.

However, the use of a “Red Letter” Bible can be misleading, as it may give some people the impression that the words of Jesus are somehow more important than the other words in the Bible. But theologically, this is wrong-headed since everything in the Bible is inspired by God, according to 2 Timothy 3:16. In that sense, every word in the Bible should be printed in red!

Reading from a “Red Letter” Bible might set you up to have some skewed expectations about Scripture. What are the appropriate expectations we should then have?

A Caution About the “Red Letter” Approach to the Words of Jesus

There is also another set of issues that can be a bit trickier for a student of the Bible. First, not only does the King James Version not have quotations marks in the English, neither did the original Greek New Testament. Bible translators have to infer from the grammatical context where quotations marks should be placed.

Secondly, while the Gospels of the New Testament were written in Greek, most scholars agree that Aramaic was Jesus’ first language, and opinion is mixed as to how much Greek Jesus knew and spoke. In some cases, the Gospel writer would preserve a direct Aramaic saying of Jesus, as in Mark 15:34. But most of the time, the Gospel writers themselves were translating Jesus’ words from the original Aramaic to the Greek New Testament text. This may account for some differences between some of Jesus’ sayings between the four Gospels.

Thirdly, and this is most interesting, there is about a 20 to 30+ year time gap between the time Jesus spoke something to the time that the saying is written down in the Gospel form that we have. However, this need not be alarming. Unlike our modern age where we are dependent on the written word and the Internet, the early Christians lived in a world where oral tradition played a much greater role in preserving important information. Stories and sayings were preserved as they were passed from community to community over the years. This is certainly true in the case of the Gospels. But it should not be surprising if some of the remaining differences between the Gospels reflect the fact that the Gospel writers were presenting their work in different settings, as the early church continued to grow, selecting appropriate material and sayings of Jesus aimed at different audiences.

According to the majority of evangelical Bible scholars, as stories and sayings got passed along, certain details were paraphrased or summarized, such that the basic gist of a story or saying became crystalized to reinforce the most salient parts of the stories or sayings being preserved, according the particular objectives of each Gospel writer: Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.  It may bother some people to think that we do not have a tape-recorded exact transcription of all of the original words of Jesus. Some well-meaning Christians even go to great lengths to try to defend such an exact “Red Letter” approach. On the other side are those skeptical critics who think that the followers of Jesus simply made things up and inserted words into Jesus’ mouth without any care for historical truth.

But it is completely unnecessary to insist on having the “exact words” of Jesus as a defense against skeptical criticism. As New Testament scholar, Darrell Bock, encourages us in Jesus Under Fire (page 75), “the authors of the Gospels, though recording accurate and true accounts, did not always intend to gives us a ‘memorex’ tape. It is possible to have historical truth without always resorting to explicit citation.

In academic lingo, while we may not have the ipsissima verba, or the “exact words” of Jesus, we do have the ipsissima vox, or the “exact voice” of Jesus. A good example of this is the famous Sermon on the Mount, which most people find in Matthew 5-7. But did you know that there is a modified version of this sermon in the Gospel of Luke, which Luke says was delivered on “a level place” (Luke 6:17), as opposed to a hillside?  Just compare the “Beatitudes” as they are found in Matthew 5:1-11 with what you find in Luke 6:20-26.  For example, Matthew has Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” whereas Luke has only, “Blessed are the poor.” So which one is correct?

Well, probably the best answer to give is that they are both right. Most Bible scholars today argue that while there may have been one particularly memorable “Sermon on the Mount,” with thousands of listeners on Matthew’s hillside, it is quite reasonable to think that the material that is preserved for us in both Gospels represents Jesus’ teaching given to his hearers over multiple occasions, and therefore it was not just a one-shot deal.

A Plea for Realistic Expectations When Reading the Gospels

In our church, the preacher delivers his sermon at two separate services, but I can tell you that both sermons are not exactly the same word for word. However, it would not be reasonable to think that the preacher was preaching vastly contrary sermons simply because the verbage is not exactly identical between the two services.

It need not compromise anything regarding Jesus’ teaching if we consider that He may have repeated Himself in different ways over different occasions and that different disciples may remember some of the details slightly differently. The main thing is that the basic gist of what Jesus’ message remains the same across all four Gospels, even if there are some particularities encountered along the way that might be difficult to understand and harmonize. Something like a Gospel harmony with all four Gospels written out side-by-side can help to compare the various similarities and differences between the Gospels, such as this online version.

There is a reason why we have four separate Gospels and not just one “super” Gospel. Each individual Gospel records the events and words of Jesus from a different angle, giving us four unique portraits, but the subject of the portraits is always the same: Jesus. Rather than undercutting the message of the Bible, these various portraits enhance the credibility of the Gospel. If all four Gospel writers said exactly the same thing, a skeptic might wonder if there was some sort of collusion here. The fact that not every particular, minor detail in all four Gospels lines up perfectly is evidence that there were multiple, independent eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus, all bearing testimony to the same, identical body of truth, yet merely examined from slightly different perspectives.

I have nothing necessarily against “Red Letter” Bibles, and surely Louis Klopsch was motivated with the best of intentions to spread the Good News of Jesus to as many people as possible. But I am also concerned when otherwise sincere students of the Bible develop inappropriate expectations of what they are reading, and at times try to fight battles that need not be fought which only serve to reinforce the resistance of the skeptic .

Yes, the records of the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony. But sorry folks, the disciples simply were not walking around with handheld camera recorders marking every word and footstep of Jesus, ready to beam up their report transcripts to satellite for the 24-hour CNN/PBS/FOX news cycle. That is a 21st century fantasy far removed from the world of 1st century Palestine. The Gospels were completely faithful to the genuine history as they were guided by the Holy Spirit, but they were not encumbered with technology and its lust for precision like we are today.

We must continue to remember: If the early church was not bothered with the idea of having four separate Gospels, each looking at the story of Jesus from different perspectives, they why should we, in the 21st century, just now be complaining?

Sadly, many of todays’s most outspoken critics of the Bible originally moved in a skeptical direction after being disillusioned by misleading expectations of the Bible. They may have thought that the Gospels contained no internal tensions, no nuanced expressions, and no subtle variations, until in their “shocked” amazement discovered minor differences in these “Red Letter” quotations between the Gospels that seem hopelessly opposed to one another. But these supposed “contradictions” in the Bible are way over inflated. Such skeptics focus on minor details, while missing the bigger picture.  As Jesus Himself put it,  they are “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24 ESV).

Folks: You can trust your Bible.

We should remember that it is the Bible as a whole that is the Word of God to us, and that the Holy Scriptures are trustworthy as it is, even if we do not understand all of the minute details within the Bible. Let us not “miss the forest for the trees,” as some would say. We do not need anything in “Red Letters” to distract us from this truth.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

10 responses to “Are Jesus’ Words Really in “Red Letters?”

  • John Paine

    While I understand that it is very difficult to determine where direct discourse starts and stops in ancient Greek, I still like using red letters to highlight what Jesus said. The red letters indicate where the translation has Jesus talking, not a direct quotation. We should very definitely pay attention to the red words for an obvious reason–they have divine authority within the limits of the transmission and translation of the manuscripts. Your point is well made, and overlooked by many who have an overly simplistic view of the Bible. That’s one thing that makes Veracity so exciting–we promote a more intimate appreciation of the Bible. Thanks for another really, really good post towards that goal.


    • Clarke Morledge

      Thanks for the feedback, John.

      I have a good one for you. Here is an intriguing example where it is difficult to tell where the words should be in “red letters” or not. In John 3:10, it is pretty evident where the Gospel writer begins a quotation from Jesus, “Jesus answered him…..

      But where does the quotation stop? Scholars are divided on this. Many say that the closing quote ends at the end of verse 21.

      See this “red letter” edition of the Gospel of John.

      Yet others say that the closing quote should be earlier at the end of verse 15. If that is the case, then verses 16 to 21 could simply be the Gospel writer’s summarization of Jesus’ message and not some direct quote from Jesus. Some evidence supporting this latter view is that the references to “the Son” are all in the third person, not in the first.

      See note “h” here at the end of verse 15.

      So should that famous verse, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (verse 16) be printed in red or not? We are not entirely sure.

      Does it make any difference theologically? In my way of thinking, absolutely not! It is still true whether or not it came from the lips of Jesus directly or if it is simply a summarization of Jesus’ teaching from the Apostle John. Either way, it is still authoritative and still the Word of God.


    • Clarke Morledge

      I also found this website sympathetic to the King-James-Version-Only Movement that argues why quotation marks should not be used in Bible translations, which is meant as a critique against modern translations. Presumably this would also include the use of “Red Letter” Bibles, too.

      Though I do not agree with the KJV-Only argumentation, they do raise a number of valid concerns about the difficulties of doing Bible translation.


    • Red Letters

      LET US PRAY… Jesus said:

      Mat 10:34

      Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

      Mat 10:35

      For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

      Mat 10:36

      And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

      Mat 10:37

      He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

      – AMEN


    • Clarke Morledge

      Thank you, Red Letters. I am not sure what you are trying to say by quoting verses from the Gospel of Matthew, but I appreciate your honor for the Word of God. Was there something else you were hoping to communicate?


  • dwwork

    Clark, great post. Jesus taught for three years, if every word He spoke was written down as John says in his Gospel there would not be enough books to write it all down. David


  • Ayegba Jude

    A great and really educating piece. I found it very helpful.


  • Michael Wilson

    I teach a bible class and I think that we all believe that red letters were Christ words.Thanks for this insightful information it good to read these views


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