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There Are No Red Letters

December 01, 2016By: Paul Carter

Reality check:  There are no Red Letters in the Bible.  

On November 29th 2016 Red Letter champions Tony Campolo and Shayne Claiborne called for Christians to “to repent and be born again again as Red Letter Christians.”[1] Campolo has long held that for Christianity to be viable in the post modern culture it must adopt a trimmed down canon that focuses more on the “pure words of Jesus” and less on the more troublesome teachings found elsewhere in the Bible. Campolo takes particular exception to the moral and sexual ethics represented in the letters of Paul. The solution to this problem is simply to deprioritize those letters and to focus exclusively on the “Red Letter” portions of Scripture.

But is that really an option? And is that something Jesus would want us to do?

Jesus did not seem embarrassed by the parts of the Bible that embarrass Mr. Campolo. When he quoted from the Old Testament he assumed that would be the end of the discussion. He said to the Pharisees:

“You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. (Matthew 22:29 ESV)

When people were off track he corrected them by making direct appeals to the Old Testament. He said frequently:

Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him… (Matthew 12:3 ESV)

Or have you not read in the Law… (Matthew 12:5 ESV)

“Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Matthew 21:16 ESV)

Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone (Matthew 21:42 ESV)

It sounds like Jesus was one of those fellows who believed that if you had a verse you won the argument. It sounds like Jesus believed that the Old Testament was the Word of God and since he was God and the Word of God I think we should assume a close connection between the “Red Letters” of Jesus and the words of the Old Testament. The Apostle Peter understood them as one and the same. In 1 Peter 1 the Apostle refers to Jesus as the Spirit of prophecy; he says:

"Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories." (1 Peter 1:10–11 ESV)

According to Peter, it was Jesus who was speaking through the Old Testament prophets. Therefore, it seems pretty hard to argue with the fact that, according to the Bible, Jesus wrote the Old Testament. It is the Word of God breathed out by the Spirit – see 2 Timothy 3:16. Since Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy and the Word of God….. shouldn’t it all be in Red Letters?

The Red Letter argument seems even more fatuous when we turn to the New Testament. The general consensus among scholars is that Jesus would have preached primarily in Aramaic, a Hebrew dialect, while occasionally discoursing in Greek.  He would have used Hebrew proper in the synagogue setting and he may also have had a working knowledge of Latin because of the Roman occupation.  The New Testament is written exclusively in Greek.  What that means is, in all likelihood we have no actual words of Jesus as he spoke them in the New Testament.  Everything we have comes by way of the Apostles. 

Therefore it is sheer nonsense to pit one part of the New Testament against the other as though the first half gives us the pure perspective of Jesus and the latter half gives us the less pure perspective of the Apostles.  Read the titles:  

The Gospel of John.

The Gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Matthew. 

You don’t get “straight up Jesus” anywhere in the New Testament; you get Jesus as Matthew, guided by the Holy Spirit remembered him or Jesus as John guided by the Holy Spirit remembered Him. In The Gospel of Mark you get Jesus as Peter remembered him and as Mark, guided by the Holy Spirit wrote down those recollections. There is no such thing as "pure, unfiltered Jesus" anywhere in the New Testament.

We need only quote from one passage to make that point.  In the famous “Sermon on the Mount” Matthew records Jesus saying: 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3 ESV)

A quick comparison with Luke’s Gospel reveals that Matthew did some interpretation in his translation: 

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20 ESV) 

Which was it?  Poor? Or poor in spirit?  The answer of course is neither.  Jesus likely gave this sermon in Aramaic and the particular words he used are unrecoverable. Matthew translated whatever Jesus said with “blessed are the poor in Spirit” while Luke translated it more simply as “blessed are the poor”. Scholars agree that the versions of the Sermon on the Mount recorded in the Gospels are merely summaries.  Matthew’s version could be read aloud in 17 minutes; there is no way Jesus preached for only 17 minutes.  Given the standards of the day it was more likely that he preached for 1-2 hours at least.  What we have in the Gospels are sectional summaries and chapter divisions at best.  In all likelihood Matthew added the words “in spirit” because the rest of the sectional dialogue indicated that Jesus was focused more on an attitude of helplessness and humility before God and not on material poverty only.  Therefore he added the words to provide clarity, but in doing so he interpreted Jesus for us; of that there can be no debate.  In Matthew 5:3, among the most famous of the Red Letters, what we really have is an apostolic, Spirit guided recollection.  We have “black letters” remembering and testifying to Jesus.

Don't be alarmed at this, it was, after all, Jesus’ idea.  He said to the Apostles: 

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12–15 ESV) 

Commenting on this verse J.I. Packer said:

“He had promised the twelve that the Spirit should come to teach them what in His own earthly ministry he had left unsaid, and He kept His promise; so that the apostolic teaching was in reality the complete and final version of His own.”[2]

I’m not sure if J.I. Packer ever did a mic drop but if he did he would have done it there.

There are no Red Letters.

The Bible speaks with a single voice and that voice – Old Testament and New - is the voice of Jesus. 

Thanks be to God.


Paul Carter



[2] J.I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” And The Word Of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 64.

Category: General

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