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Highlighting Jesus’ words in red doesn’t “fix” the Bible
To appreciate the text, we need to learn that it has authority as a whole, not as individual books or verses.
I love serving on the advisory board for the Anabaptist at 500 project. My favorite part is just being around other Anabaptists who really care about the Bible. We’re working on a project that gives the Bible an Anabaptist framing in honor of 500 years of Anabaptism. In our Bible, which comments on the CEB, we’ll have Anabaptist marginal notes, scholarly marginal notes, and marginal notes from 500 community groups. Further, we have essays on each book of the Bible, as well as topical essays that augment our Anabaptist understanding of the text. It is an exciting project and I hope you and your friends and congregants participate as you can!
One of the questions that the project’s director posed to us recently is whether this Bible should have red letters in it to highlight the spoken words of the Lord. A lot of Bibles have them, but we have found that most study Bibles do not. I have to admit, I do not know where we landed on the decision, but at the very least we had a lively discussion.
I have read Bibles that note Jesus’ words in red and I suppose they have been interesting to me, but I am unsure of how helpful they were in terms of discerning the meaning of the Bible. I don’t think that designated words help us grow to understand the meaning of the text.
Furthermore, the Bible itself shows that specific quotations shouldn’t carry disproportionate weight. The very Gospels themselves are four different accounts of the life of Jesus. He is quoting as saying different things and sometimes doing different things. Heralding these contradictory passages “above” the others invites a disagreement about what Jesus said, instead of showing us the different voices, occasions, and audiences of the Gospels. Highlighting the words of the Lord, as quoted by the Gospel writers, undoes the value of the relationship of the stories, and kind of flattens them out to a singular meaning.
The actions of Jesus a just as important as his words, and if we are highlighting one, we might as well highlight the other, and at that point, we are saying that the hermeneutical center of the text are the Gospels. Now that is a readily held view, especially in Anabaptist circles, but it is one that must be interrogated before being defined by an editorial choice to merely highlight these texts.
If we indeed decide that the Gospel are more important than the rest of the test, we have to make an argument for such a take. Such a perspective has led to anti-Jewish bigotry and violence, however. Jesus himself couldn’t have possibly thought this was true and the man held a very high view of the Hebrew Bible. As Christians who follow him, it makes sense for us to do the same. We cannot disregard the Old Testament as less important than the New for the simple reasons that the very writer of the New Testament didn’t – and most importantly, the Son of Man didn’t as well.
The Bible itself gets its authority as a whole text. Individual texts or passages don’t have more authority than others, but rather, the metanarrative is where we collect God’s authority . I want to emphasize this way of reading the text because it seeks to honor what I think the intent of the red letter people or the Gospel-centric people. I think they want to read the Bible in a way that gets rid of the “messiness” of Old Testament and of Paul but centering the Gospels. The problem with that approach is that 1) The Gospels are as messy and 2) the diversity of the text is essential to our understanding of it.
In the Gospels, Jesus is very judgmental and speaks of eternal damnation regularly. If we turn to Paul, we see a gracious God whose love knows no boundaries and who universally saves all of us. The “mess” of the Bible isn’t just contained outside of the Gospels. And the sooner we realize that, the more likely it is for us to have an appreciation of the text.
The Bible is a complicated group of books with different audiences, occasions, and even perspectives. When we read the text as a collection of what the community of God’s children says about God. Holding them together gives a few that honors that diversity, but simply sidelining parts of the text lends itself toward the worst things of Christianity, notably, anti-Semitism. While I don’t think people fond of red letters in the text are anti-Semitic, it is essential that we guard against the tendency to make supreme our perspective. Rather than bringing our understanding of the text to it, we should seek our best to learn from it, acknowledging that invariably, we will bring our own biases. We should embrace our perspective, in order to gain an understanding of how it influences us.
The whole of the text gives it its authority. When we segment parts of it out, we can lean into the tendency to make its most challenging parts do the worst things. Highlighting the words of Jesus doesn’t change this problem, it actually feeds it. Our goal then should be to appreciate the text as a whole and let the metanarrative, through the discernment of the Spirit, guide us through what feels too hard or messy for us.