Have you ever thought, “Why are Jesus’ words printed in red in some Bible translations?” I have. The practice began in the late 1800s, when Louis Klepsch reflected upon Luke 22:20: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Impressed by the symbolism of blood, he asked a publisher friend to print a red-letter Bible. The friend complied, and the practice has stuck. Today, “the red-letter option appears to be a fixed feature, welcomed and demanded by many Bible readers the world over” (Beals, The Red Letters, 15). Despite its popularity, though, the practice is problematic for three reasons.
First, in some places, translators are unsure whether Jesus is speaking or the author is narrating. John 3:16 is an example of this. Some translations render this verse as Jesus’ speech (e.g., the 1984 NIV); others don’t (e.g., the 2011 NIV).
Second, this practice implies that the “black letters” are not Jesus’ words. Such a view of Scripture is incorrect. The whole Bible is Jesus talk, either directly or indirectly. He is the Word who authors the Word. Ultimately, all of Scripture could be printed red.
Third, these translations support the faulty narrative that the “black words” are second class. As some “Red Letter Christians” teach, “There is a whole different feel about God when we move from the black letters in the OT to the red letters of the NT” (Claiborne/Campolo, Red Letter Revolution, 7). This is a subtle way to suggest that Jesus corrects the shortcomings of the OT. All Scripture is of equal worth, however. There are no inferior or superior parts.
Does this mean you should throw away your red-letter Bible? No. Keep it and read it. Just remember that what Paul says in 2 Tim 3:16: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”