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Read it as red

Red Letter Christian Tony Campolo in action.  Photo courtesy of www.tonycampolo.org

There was a time when it was popular to own one of those Bibles where the words that Jesus actually “said” were printed in red while all the other text was printed in black. Even if not directly stated, this implied that there was something special about the words of Jesus that set them apart from the other words contained in the scriptures.

This has been the subject of debate in USA evangelical circles since sociologist and speaker Tony Campolo and political activist and writer Jim Wallis initiated a movement called “Red Letter Christians”.

Mr Wallis and Mr Campolo believed that the Religious Right was spending too much time on abortion and homosexuality and not sufficient time promoting other important social issues such as eliminating poverty and building stronger families.

Mr Campolo said that the Red Letter Christians give the words of Jesus priority over all other passages of Scripture and focus on his teaching particularly in regard to social issues. “We believe that you really cannot rightly interpret the rest of the Bible without first understanding who Jesus is, what he did, and what he said.

“Likewise, we believe the morality in the red letters of Jesus transcends that found in the black letters set down in the Pentateuch.”

Mr Campolo said Jesus himself made this same point in the Sermon on the Mount when he said his teachings about marriage and divorce were to replace what Moses taught. “Don’t you think his red-letter words about loving our enemies and doing good to those who hurt us represent a higher morality than the “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” kind of justice that we find in the Hebrew Testament?”

Pushing the issue even further is the Jesus Seminar, a group of 200 Christians including some leading biblical and theological scholars who have popularised research into the historical Jesus.

They claim there is a distinction between the historical Jesus and the “Christ of faith” and have developed a controversial method of voting with coloured marbles to determine what Jesus as an historical figure may or may not have said and done.

Starting with red marbles, the voters indicate they believed Jesus did say the words quoted or something very much like them, pink, that Jesus probably said something like the word, grey, that Jesus did not say them but they contain Jesus’ ideas, and black, that Jesus did not say the words but they come from later admirers or a different tradition.

The seminar thus treats the Gospels as historical documents which represent more than just Jesus’ actual words and deeds but also include the fabrications of the early Christian community and the gospel authors.

“Understanding and knowing Jesus involves history, tradition, and experience,” said Marcus Borg one of the Jesus Seminar’s more prolific writers who distinguishes between what he calls the “pre-Easter Jesus” and the “post-Easter Jesus”.

Controversially, some Jesus Seminar writers seem indifferent to canonical boundaries and claim the Gospel of Thomas has more authentic material than the Gospel of John. Opponents of the Jesus Seminar have been particularly disparaging of this aspect of their work accusing them of being overly critical of the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) but uncritical of when it comes to the non-canonical Gospels.

Many traditional evangelical Christians reject the work of the Red Letter Christians and particularly the Jesus Seminar because they fail to take seriously the authority of the whole Bible.

Renowned New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop of Durham N. T Wright said most evangelicals take for granted that scripture should have the primary place and that everything else has to be lined up in relation to it. "Most scholars who have written about Jesus—whether they are Jewish, Christian, agnostic or whatever—never signed on to the Jesus Seminar in the first place,” Mr Wright told the satirical magazine The Wittenburg Door last December.

“Most have held aloof, rightly seeing it as a wacky distraction from serious scholarship.”

Critics of the Red Letter Christians believe that Mr Campolo and Mr Wallis are using their “red letters” to justify their more left leaning stance on issues of public policy.

While debate about which words Jesus actually spoke is an interesting discussion, if we are to give the “red letter” words a heightened prominence it will create a radically different Christian agenda than most of the church is currently engaged with.

How we read the red could determine the future of the church.

Photo : Red Letter Christian Tony Campolo in action. Photo courtesy of www.tonycampolo.org