Evangelical Textual Criticism

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chaplin on Red Letter Bibles

Doug Chaplin aka Clayboy thinks Bibles with the words of Jesus in red might be "the worst evangelical heresy" for three reasons:

1. It lies about the nature of the books we have – reports and narratives by witnesses of words (most of them anyway) spoken in another language, and already someone else’s words by the time they reach us.

2. It overthrows the nature of scripture. The whole canon is the locus of inspiration and witness to revelation.

3. It denies the incarnation. The whole point about the nature of gospel as witness to the Word made flesh is that Jesus’ deeds do God’s work, and his words are one part only of the story. Story is the category through which we know Jesus, not dictation, because we need to see and know God’s life lived out in human flesh and not simply instructions dictated in a vacuum. The stories are not just a rather unimportant framework for the words; the stories are the essence of the god news of the incarnate Word.

Also read Peter Head's defence of the red letter bibles and a subsequent discussion here.

Update:

In the comments to this post, Stephen Carlson pointed out that Chaplin's arguments against red letters "also argue against the modern practice of using quotation marks in the narrative" for the following reasons:

(1) Just as the red lettering mark words Jesus didn't actually say (because he spoke in Aramaic), so too are the words in quotation marks not really the exact words of the speakers especially in the gospels.

(2) Just as red lettering give focus to Jesus' words over others, so too do quotation marks give focus to some words of the biblical text but not to others.

(3) Just as red lettering distinguish Jesus' words (in red) from his actions, so too do quotation marks.

Peter Williams points out that many languages manage without speech marks and before the twentieth century English Bibles managed well without them.

Chaplin has responded to Carlson on his blog Red Letter Bibles strike back arguing that quotation marks are not to same. However, he concludes that "it might be possible to construct a purist argument that all our texts should be written in a largely unpunctuated stream of uncials … BUTIDONTTHINKTHATWILLCATCHON."

7 comments:

  1. I'm afraid these reasons also argue against the modern practice of using quotation marks in the narrative. If red-letter is wrong, then so would quotation marks for these reasons.

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  2. I think you need to expand on that point, Stephen. I'm going to pick this up in a separate post shortly, so I invite you to drop in.

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  3. (1) Just as the red lettering mark words Jesus didn't actually say (because he spoke in Aramaic), so too are the words in quotation marks not really the exact words of the speakers especially in the gospels.

    (2) Just as red lettering give focus to Jesus' words over others, so too do quotation marks give focus to some words of the biblical text but not to others.

    (3) Just as red lettering distinguish Jesus' words (in red) from his actions, so too do quotation marks.

    So I'm not seeing a material difference between red lettering and quotation marks. (One could also consider the practice of putting O.T. quotation in block capitals.)

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  4. Not all errors are heresy. I think the currency of the word heresy should not be devalued.

    If red letters are to be used it would be best to use them for headings as in mss.

    Many languages still manage without speech marks and before the twentieth century English Bibles managed well without them. The advantage with having no speech marks is that you can leave open questions of when speeches end (e.g. John 1:15ff., 3:15ff., 3:30ff.), or when they begin (e.g. Hebrews 10:37).

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  5. As far as I can see there are two issues here. First, are quotation marks and/or red letters appropriate conventions in other sorts of English literature. Second, when a text is being translated into English, do these conventions accurately represent what is being communicated in the donor language.

    While it may be debated whether or not quotation marks accurately represent what is being communicated in the Greek text of the gospels, red letters are neither appropriate conventions in comparable English literature nor do they reflect phenomena that occur in the Greek text itself. The words of Jesus are marked by introductory formulae or other speech formulae in the text of the New Testament, not by red letters. These words should be marked in tranlsation by the equivalent conventions in English.

    A few months ago I translated large portions of an historical chronicle written in Syriac and used quotation marks for direct speech simply because English literary idiom requires quotation marks even though the quotations were clearly not verbatim. The fact that these types of quotations are not verbatim should be put in an introduction to the translation rather shown by omitting quotation marks.

    I agree that there are serious theological problems with red-letter Bibles and have met people who elevate the portions in red letters higher than the rest of the text. "Heresy" is too strong a word but I understand the point.

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  6. What exactly is the point of using a red-letter bible? Why use vernacular in the Liturgy? Why print the Holy Bible in the language of the people to whom it is being presented? In order to facilitate the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth!

    If the Church insisted on using Aramaic, Greek or Latin whenever the words of scripture are written or read, how many more millions of people would remain unsaved and unreachable?

    Jesus Christ is the actual Word of God made flesh. Why would it be inappropriate to highlight the words of The Word Himself? As Christians, we do in fact believe that the entire New Testament is divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, right? I trust the Spirit's work through the disciples, past and present, to record His Words accurately and understandably.

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