Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Let the reader understand" - Red Letter Edition

The origin of "red-letter edition" Bibles - Bibles that print the words of Christ in red ink - reportedly center on an edition conceived and printed by a man named Louis Klopsch right at the dawn of the 20th century. Inspired by Luke 22:20 ("This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you" [NAB]), Klopsch produced both a New Testament (1899) and a full Bible (1901) that used red ink for the words directly attributed to Jesus, as well as those words in the Old Testament quoted by him in the New.

This first red-letter edition was published by The Christian Herald Bible Press, with versions quickly following from the presses of Thomas Nelson, A.J. Holman, and others. Red-letter editions are now a standard of the Bible publishing industry - even to the point that the recently published, environmentally conscious Green Bible mimics the format, printing the words that (loosely) deal with nature and conservation in green.

Several months ago my colleague Jimmy Barker mentioned red-letter Bibles in passing, and I credit that conversation for sensitizing me to what I found recently while leafing through the Gospel of Mark in my Crossway ESV Thinline Bible, which I bought to use in teaching my classes this fall.

Jimmy was mentioning that these red-letter Bibles often print the text of John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life"[NAB]) in red ink, which presents some interesting questions of interpretation for the reader, as the text is not clear in any English version as to exactly which words of the larger passage are direct quotations from Jesus, and which words are narrative commentary about Jesus. (I suggested at the time that he write a post for us about it, and I hope he will once his dissertation is finished.)

It was this observation that made me sensitive to another strange instance of red ink - this time in Mark 13:14 (reproduced here): "But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be - let the reader understand - then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains."

The text, in my Crossway Bible, is reproduced entirely in red. However, the text contains that aside, "let the reader understand," that opens up an entire realm of interpretive complexities.

In many editions, this phrase is rendered as a parenthetical aside that is not logically conjoined with the quotation around it. An editorial addition that came about in the process of writing the account of Jesus' words. While this explanation does not dispel all the interpretive questions that can arise, it goes a long way toward keeping the logic of the passage intact.

To print this aside in red, however, is to make the visual claim that this phrase is a direct quotation of Jesus. This would mean, on the face of it, that in the midst of this discourse about desolation and fleeing to the mountains, Jesus paused a moment and actually said the words, "let the reader understand."

To print these words in red is to gesture toward an entire theology of omniscience on Jesus' part. It is to imply, visually, that Jesus was well aware that his words would not simply be heard in that moment, but remembered, written down, and read in the future. Given the ubiquity of the Bible in our culture, this may not seem as controversial an assumption as it actually is.

To print these words in red ink is to make the tacit claim that Jesus was speaking words that would be heard as a non sequitur to his immediate audience - not a parable or a difficult phrase, but a complete anachronistic gesture toward the written page - for the benefit of future audiences. Some contemporary readers, of course, seem to have no problem with this.

I do, however, especially in light of the very mixed presentation we can observe across the various English editions of the Bible with regard to these passages. Editors and publishers do not have anything approaching consensus with regard to where to put quotation marks or parentheses around these sentences.

Thus the practice of printing the aside in red ink strikes me as somewhat sloppy on the part of Crossway's editors. Perhaps others will disagree with my reading (and I hope you will leave a comment if you do - I'd like to hear your thoughts), but the anachronistic reading (omniscience or no) just seems off to me. I would argue that this phrase would convey a much more consistent visual logic if it were printed in black, while the rest of the words remained red. Barring that, the decision to print in red demands at least an explanatory footnote.

I have been doing some research to see if these matters are being discussed anywhere online or in Crossway's own literature. I haven't found much yet. If anyone knows of any, please add them to the discussion below.

Meanwhile - let the reader understand - I have some mountains to flee to. See ya.


Katie Z. Dawson said...

I've occasionally stopped by here and thought this was a really interesting post.

I almost never use red letter bibles. It just hadn't been my practice. But I'm very aware that many of my parishoners attribute things to Jesus that he never said, or that more properly belong to the gospel about Jesus (or in some cases, they come from somewhere out of left field). I wonder how much red letter bibles help this, or in the case of what you have found, hurt.

Anonymous said...

I know this is a really old post that I have come across. However, I would like to point out that, in my opinion, Jesus actually did say the "aside". He wasn't talking about His words, which would later be written. He was talking about Daniel's words, from which he knew many in his audience would read in the temple scrolls at their first opportunity.