I was startled recently upon reading of the baptism of Jesus by John in Mark 1:11: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” While this declaration itself is profoundly startling, I was startled in a less important way by the fact that the heavenly declaration of the living God is not in red letters. Why? Unfortunately, the ESV I use on my iPad is the ubiquitous red-letter version. While the fondness for this version is well meant, as was its nineteenth-century originator Louis Klopsch, I believe that there is a hidden danger lurking here, although to me—and I am sure I am not alone—the danger is obvious: the words of the incarnate Son seem more important than the rest of the Bible. This is patently not true, since the entire Bible is inspired by the Spirit of the Son, as we shall see.

But first I would like to briefly look at the origin of the red-letter Bible. Here is what Steve Eng says:

It is a surprisingly recent innovation, instigated by Louis Klopsch (1852–1910), an enterprising immigrant journalist. . . . By 1890 he was American editor of the British weekly, The Christian Herald. . . . Then on June 19, 1899, while composing an editorial, his eye fell upon Luke 22:20: “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which I shed for you.” Seizing upon the symbolism of blood, Klopsch asked Dr. Talmage if Christ’s words could not be printed in red. His mentor replied: “It could do no harm and it most certainly could do much good.” . . . Red letters are especially useful in the King James Version and in other translations where quotation marks are not used. There are also those super-intricate quotations-within-quotations (some of them four times removed), where the red letters are crucial for separating the words of Christ from surrounding text.[1]

The Evangelical publisher Crossway pinpoints the first publication:

The first red-letter New Testament was published in 1899, and the first red-letter Bible followed two years later.[2]

Crossway goes on to defend the red-letter New Testament. But by emphasizing the extensive words of Jesus, the incarnate Christ, mostly in the four gospels, the words of the eternal Word are unwittingly diminished. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . .” (John 1:14). The Son is the eternal Word, the second person of the Trinity. Prior to the incarnation he is intimately involved in the history of redemption in the Old Testament. Jude asserts this when he says, “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 1:5). Paul reminds us similarly:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (1 Cor. 10:1–4, emphasis added)

The capstone of my argument against the red-letter version is revealed by Peter:

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. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Pet. 1:10–12, emphasis added)

So the Spirit of Christ inspired the old covenant prophets, demonstrating that these words are as much Christ’s as are his words in his humanity; and they bear the same authority.

Klopsch explained what he believed one main advantage of the red-letter version is:

The plan also possesses the advantage of showing how frequently and how extensively, on the Authority of Christ himself, the authenticity of the Old Testament is confirmed, thus greatly facilitating comparison and verification, and enabling the student to trace the connection between the Old and the New, link by link, passage by passage.[3]

He goes on to make an argument for the red-letter Bible that actually undermines his case:

In the Red Letter Bible, more clearly than in any other edition of the Holy Scriptures, it becomes plain that from beginning to end, the central figure upon which all lines of law, history, poetry and prophecy converge is Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. He expounded in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself and the Divine plan for man's redemption, and the Red Letter Bible indicates and emphasizes this Divine exposition and personal revelation at each successive stage, making them so clear that even the simplest may understand. It sheds a new radiance upon the sacred pages, by which the reader is enabled to trace unerringly the scarlet thread of prophecy from Genesis to Malachi. Like the Star which led the Magi to Bethlehem, this light, shining through the entire Word, leads straight to the person of the Divine Messiah, as the fulfillment of the promise of all the ages.[4]

Jesus’s own hermeneutic demonstrates that the TANACH (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings) reveals him in his suffering and glory (Luke 24:27, 44).

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. . . . These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.

Furthermore, Paul’s words, as well as all the New Testament writers’, are of equal authority with Jesus’s because it is his Spirit that inspired them. Jesus promised this before his death:

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. (John 16:13–14)

Peter equates Paul’s writings with Scripture:

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Pet. 3:15–16, emphasis added)

My initial thoughts were spurred on by the realization that the words from heaven at Jesus’s baptism in Mark 1:11 were not in red, and this gave rise to a concluding thought: Even if those words, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” were in red, the problem would not be solved because Mark’s historical record of this event is also inspired. Who wants to read red type anyway; it is distracting at least, and misleading at worst.

All my other formats for the ESV do not have the red letters, and I like not seeing red; but when I see red, it makes me grateful that usually I do not, as it tends to undermine the authority of the whole Bible.


[1] Steve Eng, “The Story Behind: Red Letter Bible Editions,” International Society of Bible Collectors, (Bible Collectors World, Jan/Mar 1986), http://www.biblecollectors.org/articles/red_letter_bible.htm. Reprinted by permission of Triads Quarterly.

[2] “The Origins of the Red-Letter Bible,” March 23, 2006, by Crossway, https://www.crossway.org/articles/red-letter-origin/.

[3] Louis Klopsch, “Explanatory Note,” in The Holy Bible: Red Letter Edition (New York: Christian Herald, 1901), xvi. From Crossway’s “The Origins of the Red-Letter Bible,” https://www.crossway.org/articles/red-letter-origin.

[4] Klopsch, “Explanatory Note,” xvi.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, May, 2024.

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Passio Jesu
On Buxtehude, Membra Jesu Nostri

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