John 3:16 and Red Letter Bibles

In John 3, where do the words of Jesus end and the words of the John begin?

Red Letter Bibles

Many “red-letter” Bibles will mark the entire section as the words of Jesus. The ESV, for example, marks the whole section red, but drops the quote marks at 3:15 with an explanatory footnote. The NIV2011 drops the red letters starting in 3:16, while many editions of the KJV run the words of Jesus through the end of the section.

It is an editorial decision to print letters in red, the original manuscripts did not mark these words with any specific color and not all modern Bibles have red letters (for example, the pew Bibles in my church do not have red letters at all). In fact, according to Wikipedia, the first red-letter Bible was printed in 1900! For many people, the “red letters” are more important that the “black letters” because they are the words of Jesus.  In fact, I recently spoke to someone who told me they only read the “Red Letters.” I suppose this limits one’s reading in the Old Testament, but I think his point was that he wanted to read the “Real Words of Jesus“ and the color helped him in his Bible reading.

While this tradition of printing the words of Jesus in red is a relatively recent innovation, the tradition of decorating the “special words” in the Bible goes back to medieval manuscripts. For example, the tenth century Codex 565  is considered one of the most beautiful of all texts (currently in  St. Petersburg). In this manuscript, the Gospels are on purple vellum with gold lettering. The 14th century manuscript Codex 16 contains the Gospels in Greek and Latin written in four colors of ink.  The regular text is vermilion, the words of Jesus and the angels, and Jesus’s genealogy are in red, words quoted from the Old Testament and the words of the disciples, Zachariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and John the Baptist are in blue. The words of the Pharisees, the centurion, and Judas are in black.

Most often Bible editors break off from Jesus’s words after 3:15, making 3:16-21 an exposition of Jesus’s words by the author of the gospel. John 3:13-15 are the words of Jesus since uses the title “Son of Man,” a phrase used elsewhere only by Jesus to refer to himself. The beginning of 3:16 is John’s explanation of the preceding words of Jesus (Köstenberger, John, 114). There is a significant range of scholarly opinion on where to end the words of Jesus.  For example: Raymond Brown and Francis Maloney think Jesus’s words continue through verse 21  Ben Witherington starts John’s section a 3:12. Schnackenburg starts John’s section at 3:13.

In addition, the use of μονογενής, “only born son” in 3:16 is an echo from John’s prologue (1:14, 18). The prologue contains the words of the Gospel writer, not Jesus. The light and dark motif in John 3:19-21 is also typical of John theology from the prologue and the epistles of John. That the gospel writer should step in and comment on the words of Jesus is not unusual in John. This sort of commentary occurs again in John 3:31-36 where John expands on the words of John the Baptist.

Does this issue matter?  The fact is that John is recording Jesus’s words in his own language, making it very difficult to sort out when he is offering a commentary on the words of Jesus and when he is reporting Jesus’s teaching. For many, the idea Jesus did not say John 3:16 is a shock, although the content of that verse is found throughout the dialogue with Nicodemus. Some editors have decided that Jesus’s words in in 3:15 for good reasons and communicate that decision with a splash of red-ink.

To me, this is a matter of truth: what did John intend when he wrote John 3?  It appears his intention was to explain Jesus’s words from his own theological perspective. He develops several themes he originally raised in his prologue. The whole chapter is authoritative, whether the words are from Jesus or the inspired author of John.

 

Bibliography:
Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to St. John I-XII (AB 29A; New York: Doubleday, 1966).
Andreas Köstenberger, John, (BENTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2008).
Francis Maloney, The Gospel of John (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1998).
Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John (trans. C. Hastings; 3 vol.; New York: Crossroad, 1990).
Ben Witherington, III,  John’s Wisdom (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990).

14 thoughts on “John 3:16 and Red Letter Bibles

  1. A strange little note. . . a high percentage of men have some degree of color blindness and have issues with reading the red text. I ran into this a lot when I ran a bookstore, but it was near impossible to get a Bible that didn’t have red letters.

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  2. I mentioned the fact that it is hard to find a non-red letter Bible on Sunday night, and several people pointed out their Bible was not, nor were our pew-Bibles. I suspect if you want a nice (leather bound) Bible it is hard to get straight black text. I am a fan of single-column Bibles, but those are rare as hen’s teeth.

    @irishanglican – I agree they are a mistake because they perpetuate the belief that the “English Words on the Page” are somehow the actual words of Jesus, rather than the Spirit-inspired recollections of eyewitnesses, translated from Aramaic to Greek and then to English. Ipssimi Vox!

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    • Yes, Amen! Btw, it used to be somewhat easier to get all black print in Bibles and the NT in Great Britian, as the Trinitarian Bible Society. But they only print the KJV. But I have noted more all black print again, being available with certain Bible Company’s one must look and even ask for it, however. Though I read Greek and Hebrew, I must confess I enjoy reading the Bible in the English Translations (I’m a Brit, my native tongue.. 😉 ) one of my favorite’s is my Black NASB Update, Genuine leather with centre line reference. It is American too (Foundation Publications) Large Print Ultrathin Reference Bible, Black print. And too my ESV Study Bible’s (Crossway), both the regular and the personal size, and both Black print. I have both the Premium Calfskin Leather, Black (reg.) and the Genuine leather black (personal size). The latter I even use in hospital chaplain work. Love it!

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  3. I have to be honest, I was unaware until right now that Jesus did not speak John 3:16, and so it took me by surprise. I don’t actually feel like this matters though in my personal opinion. Even if John is just commenting on what Jesus said, isn’t this still inspired? If Jesus wanted this communicated directly, I feel as if having John write it, or comment it would have been just the right thing to get the message out there. John does some pretty interesting things throughout the book and it distinguishes him from the rest of the gospel writers. This in fact, is one more thing to add to the list. If we read verses 10-15 we can get the clear theme of the chapter, and it is then commented on by John in the following verses. John is using his own language to simplify what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus. If we look at verses 1-15 we can tell that it clearly not the words of John. After reading this much of his book, we can tell that those are the Words of Jesus, which is okay to be highlighted in red. I don’t think that the ESV is bad just because they stop the red-writing at verse fifteen. I think it is smart to do so because there is a clear sign of separate authorship in verse sixteen as opposed to verses one through fifteen. The red-writing within John makes it clear and a very sensible way of demonstrating the different voices found within John. John is the clear author and has his own voice, which should not be confused with the words of Christ throughout the book.

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    • Jordan, I really enjoyed reading your post and what you had to say about how this passage should be interpreted. I agree with you that Jesus did inspire this verse as the verse clearly talks about what Jesus will do for us and our sins. I like how you were able to dig in deeper and go back to get the full context of the passage to better understand how this verse relates to Jesus and his ministry.

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  4. If you ask anyone who has spent even a small amount of time in the Christian church culture, chances are that they know John 3:16 by memory. It is often the verse used to describe our most important belief, in terms of salvation. I was taught this verse as a child, and for as long as I have known it, I have never thought about it not coming out of the mouth of Jesus. I just assumed that this was something He was teaching the people around Him. While that is the case, it doesn’t belittle the meaning behind the verse whether Jesus said it or not.

    If Jesus said this than we know prior to the crucifixion that Jesus is the Son of God coming to provide eternal life. On the other hand, if Jesus did not say this than it does not make that any less true, we simply learn it from the crucifixion itself. Let’s say Jesus never stated the words in John 3:16, it would not cause a problem in the theology that is stated in that verse. Jesus still is the Son of God who was given to provide eternal life. In my eyes, whether Jesus said this or not doesn’t shake the underlying truth of the verse.

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  5. While I did not necessarily grow up in “normal” church-kid culture, I did have to learn John 3:16. For a long time, it was the only Bible verse I had committed to memory. I remember in middle school youth group, we had a whole series called “The Red Stuff”, it focused on Jesus’s words – at least the ones marked read in whatever translation we were using. I am not sure if John 3:16 was considered to be right out of the mouth of Jesus in this series, but I honestly do not think that I ever thought that it was. I always thought of it as commentary or an explanation from the author of the passage.

    Hearing that someone’s heart to Scripture that is not written in red ink is insanely frustrating. But, like you mentioned in the last bit of this post, we know that even if a passage is not written in red ink, it is still the inspired Word of God. So while the idea that John 3:16 was spoken by Jesus is a fresh one for the way I read the passage, the words still hold the same amount of weight and truth for me.

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  6. Yes, this is something that I came across on my own study of this passage. I noticed that my NIV bible and my ESV bible had a different opinon or option as to what words were Jesus’s or John’s. I had always thought that Jesus spoke those words, but then to see that some Bibles did not credit those words to Jesus was bewildering to me. The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t really matter who said that verse. It is still the Word of God and is still authoritative whether John or Jesus said it. This does not change the substance of the conversation, only the conversation itself changes. We have no idea how long this convbersation between Nic and Jesus lasted or what was all said in that conversation. I do still have reason to beleive that Jesus could have more than likley said these words in Verse 16. It seems to me that the conversation would have ended more abruptly without Jesus mentioning verse 16. It could be both ways, but I still think there is pleanty to say that Jesus said verse 16. Later In John 7 it seems to me that Nic allowed what Jesus said in chapter 3 to really work on his heart. In verse 51 Nic asks if their law condem someone without first hearing what he has been up to? It is clear that is exactly what Nic did himself. Interesting thing to note…

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  7. I personally grew up with a red letter Bible and believed everything in red to be the words of Jesus. At that age, I never considered that there was a possibility that it could be the author, and that we weren’t sure where some of Jesus’ dialogue ended and where the author picked up. Frankly, I personally don’t believe it makes a huge difference whether that is the exact words Jesus said or John just summarizing what Jesus said for readers to understand. When looking at Kostenberger, he understands that John 3:16 is John’s exposition of what Jesus said to Nicodemus, and I believe that makes the most sense. While my current Bible (a Zondervan NIV) says it is Jesus speaking all the way to verse 21, it seems to resemble more of John’s writing style than the words Jesus said. His continued use of light and dark are terms that Jesus doesn’t really use in Scripture, but as stated in the post, connect to John’s introduction to the book. Suffice to say, while it has no bearing on what Scripture says or the theological importance of the statement, I believe that John 3:16 is John explaining the words of Jesus.

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  8. All the Bibles I have grown up with have been red letter ones; I love seeing the red letters it helped me as a child and young teen what Jesus actually said. It was until I came to Grace when I got my first Bible that wasn’t in red lettering, which doesn’t make a difference then or now because I know what was being said by Jesus. I didn’t know that there was a huge controversy surrounding this topic though based upon the langue barrier on knowing when Jesus stopped speaking or what his exact words were. Personally, on some points I do think it matters what was exactly said, because of the fact that the Bible is so either straight to the point or metaphorical; in some cases I honestly don’t think it matters at all as long as the main point of what Christ is saying gets across. Like the temple incident, if Jesus’ words weren’t exact I don’t think that affects us today because we know what was trying to be said. I feel as though the red lettering is a lot more powerful in Bibles because its sticks out more and people notice it faster to where it was in black & white not many think twice about the words that Chris spoke. I have multiple Bibles, countless version, and interpretations each one is not word for word the same or red lettering, but it is so fulfilling to read each one with an open mind set on what God is trying to tell me .

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  9. Reading this article really made it clear that Jesus did not speak the words of John 3:16. Is that bad? No, I don’t think so, it is the most well-known Bible verse that people are able to remember and memorize the easiest verse that talks about salvation. It’s so inspirational to people so although Jesus did not speak this verse, he is the one that it is about which through that he is the one that John was able to get this example from. Although I like the red letter in the bible because we are able to see and know that Jesus spoke those words it also brings up a lot of discussion and theories in which did Jesus really say this and meant that. I think that the red letters are necessary, and I think that people tend to think about this too much that Jesus did or didn’t say something that they miss the actual point that the passage was talking about or what Jesus was talking about. As Christians we follow and dive into what Jesus says so why would we want to discredit what Jesus had to say. That just doesn’t make sense to me as we push to know Jesus and God more.

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  10. I was always a little confused with the red letter bibles. While reading this article, it made a little more sense to me how the red letters were not meant to be there. It amazes me that the red letters began to be used in 1900! That is crazy to me of how recent it has been that we started incorporate this change into our bibles. Recently, I heard about how some people have the rule that they only listen too, read and follow the red letters in the bible.
    This breaks my heart…
    God spoke all throughout the old testament.
    He showed us signs and wonders.
    He showed us His faithfulness for us to hold onto and remember.
    “Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the LORD your God in the wilderness.
    From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the LORD.”
    -Deuteronomy 9:7
    When we ignore the old testament and the rest of the bible that does not have red letters, \
    we are missing the wholeness of His Word.
    We need to read and remember the things that God has done for us throughout the whole bible,
    thus we will have a better understanding that His character has never changed.
    “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
    -Hebrews 13:8

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  11. I enjoy my red letter KJV I know that I am probably in the minority, however I also realize that they may not be
    “perfectly rendered” but as a guide I find it useful to help me as I read to separate different speakers, I have even seen Bibles that color code all of the speakers, as a Dyslexic it makes it much easier to follow but again I can not state this with enough vigor the we mustn’t be married to these letters of any color as they are all “God Breathed” and 2 Timothy 3:16-17  All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:  That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

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