A red letter Bible is a Bible wherein the words spoken by Jesus are printed in red ink. In publishing, the term for printing certain texts in red ink is rubricating and the words spoken by the Lord Jesus are sometimes called Dominical words. So red letter Bibles may carry a description saying, "with Dominical words rubricated."
The practice of rubrication began in mediaeval scriptoria as a way to draw attention to certain portions of the text. Headings, leading letters, and certain words were printed in red for emphasis, similar to our use of italics today. However, the idea to print the words of Jesus in red did not occur until 1899. On June 19, 1899, Louis Klopsch, the editor of The Christian Herald magazine, conceived the idea after reading Luke 22:20: "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood." Klopsch thought the red ink would remind the reader of Jesus' shed blood and help the reader more easily identify the spoken words of Christ. He then asked his mentor Rev. Thomas DeWitt Talmage if indeed rubricating Jesus' words would be a good idea. Dr. Talmage encouraged him to pursue this plan, so using the magazine's press, Klopsch published a red letter edition of the New Testament later that same year.
Klopsch desired to show how all of Scripture points to the central figure of Jesus, so he enlisted the help of a number of scholars and theologians to publish a red letter edition of the whole Bible. In this edition Old Testament passages that Jesus later quoted were also in red and cross-referenced; too, Old Testament prophetic references to Jesus were identified with a red star. This whole Bible red letter edition was published in 1901 and became almost instantly popular. As most English language Bibles were at the time, his was a King James Version, but rubricating and italicizing Jesus' words meant his version could leave out the quotation marks and made the passages generally easier to read.
Because of its popularity, other publishing companies soon began offering red letter editions of the Bible as well. There is some variance as to which words are rubricated, whether it is only the words Jesus spoke during His corporeal life on earth or if it includes His words after His ascension spoken to Saul on the road to Damascus in Acts 9 and spoken to John in Revelation 1—3. Either way, rubricating Jesus' words made them easier to identify and often easier to read without clunky quotation marks.
Unfortunately, one unintended consequence of the red letter editions has been that some readers place a special priority on the Dominical words, giving them more authority than other passages of Scripture and sometimes placing Jesus' words in opposition to others. However, the Bible teaches that "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). Therefore, Jesus' spoken words are no more or less important or authoritative than other passages of Scripture. All Scripture has been inspired by God to reveal Himself and His plan to humanity. The Bible is one cohesive whole portraying God's passionate pursuit of His people so no passage of Scripture should be placed in opposition to another, but rather should be understood in light of those other passages.
Today, many translations of the Bible from many different publishing companies are available in red letter editions. It is up to the reader to decide whether using a red letter Bible would be helpful or harmful to his or her study of God's Word. For more information on different English translations of the Bible, please see our articles "Why are there so many Bible translations?" and "What Bible translation should I use?"
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