Don’t Be Fooled by ‘Processed’ Scripture: Those Damned Red Letters

The Bible as ‘Word of God’—Fatal Flaw Number 5 (of 5)
I retain an iconic image from my distant youth, that of Billy Graham standing at his TV pulpit, waving the Bible above his head. It’s actually a neat summation of Protestantism: preaching from the Bible. Even if unofficially, preaching ranks as one of the sacraments for those who broke from the Roman church, and the Bible is the primary talisman.

Billy had faced a bit of a struggle himself, especially when his preaching pal, Charles Templeton, gave up on Christianity. But Billy couldn’t give up on the Bible:

“At last the Holy Spirit freed me to say it. ‘Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word’” (as reported by Lee Strobel in The Case for Faith).

But no matter how much you believe that God inspired the Bible—whether literally or figuratively—the book that Billy was waving, or the copy on your church altar or at your bedside, isn’t actually the real thing. The real Bible disappeared a long time ago, never to be retrieved. The Bible you own today isn’t exactly fake, but it is processed.

Maybe some folks assume that an original pristine copy of the Bible is archived somewhere in the Holy Land, or perhaps in the British museum. But there is no original Bible. ALL of the original manuscripts of all of the books of the Bible have disappeared: that once-upon-a-time ‘inspired’ Bible is gone.

So how in the world can you hold a Bible in your hands today? How did that happen? While the original manuscripts did not survive, lots of copies did...eventually. And there our tale begins; it’s actually a detective story. There have been many detectives over the centuries, as well as many handlers, those who created everything we see on the printed page. Believers rarely ask, however, “Should we trust that they did a good job?” And they don’t suspect, at all—any more than Billy Graham did—that their Bible is processed scripture, and that they don’t even have access to the real Bible.

Making Do with What You Have

Here’s a shocker: The first complete manuscripts of the New Testament date from the fourth century. My guess is that most Christian haven’t really given much thought to that, and are not even aware of the problem of the NT text being in the dark that long. That is, what did the text of Mark’s gospel, for example, look like in 100 CE, then in 200 CE and 300 CE—and how many different versions were circulating by then? That’s a three-century blackout period, and those fourth century texts are copies of copies of copies of the originals.

It’s no surprise that there are thousands of mistakes and variances. The scribes who labored away at their task, in what we can be sure was an exercise in devotion, didn’t have the benefit of eyeglasses or electric lighting, and they may not have had good command of Greek. So it’s really hard to tell how closely fourth century copies resemble what the original authors wrote.

All those errors are understandable when you’re copying by hand, but there were even bigger mistakes. Sometimes scribes wrote something in the margin, and the next copyist assumed it should be added to the text, or a line got dropped by mistake—or even on purpose. Bart Ehrman has explored the impact of doctrine, i.e., changes that were made to reflect ‘correct belief.’ (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, 2011.)

There are scholars who spend their entire careers trying to figure out—by comparing as many copies as they can get their hands on—the accurate wording of the original documents, e.g., what Mark’s manuscript looked like when he handed it off to the very first copyist. But they hit that brick wall: three centuries of the earliest manuscripts are missing.

Theological Implications

So, here’s a good question: if God went to all the trouble of inspiring authors to write the New Testament, why did he allow all that neglect? He left his holy book, his vital words for mankind, to float along virtually unprotected for centuries. Was it just poor planning? All this copying by hand would be given up once Johannes Gutenberg came along, about 1,400 years too late.

ORAXX, a commenter on the DC blog, observed that it’s so strange that the “supernatural genius-level intelligence” who supposedly fine-tuned the universe bungled the Bible so badly (as Dan Barker explains). And then went on to bungle its preservation. Any confidence that there is such a thing as ‘sacred text’ or scripture is shattered when we see that the deity didn’t take proper care of the original documents and make sure they were copied with dead accuracy.

So this is Fatal Flaw Number Five: even if there were inspired ancient books, we don’t have them anymore, and we cannot trust the faith claim that the product we hold today is “good enough.”

Then, Along Came the Translators

And Yes, the trust issue comes up again. Once the ‘best’ New Testament manuscripts are identified, then the various Christian brands hire translators to make the text available to ordinary readers. While Protestants have overwhelming favored the King James Version of 1611, Elizabethan English is an imperfect vessel if you’re trying to make the meaning clear today. So Bible translation has become an industry; overwhelmingly, however, translators are people of faith, and that has an impact on how texts are rendered.

One recent translation was published by Yale University Press in 2017, and was done by Christian scholar, David Bentley Hart, esteemed for his criticism of atheism (Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 2009). He warns us about the Bible translation business:

“Over the years, I had become disenchanted with almost all the standard translations available, and especially with modern versions produced by large committees of scholars, many of whom (it seems to me) have been predisposed by inherited theological habits to see things in the text that are not really there, and to fail to notice other things that most definitely are. Committees are bland affairs, and tend to reinforce our expectations; but the world of late antiquity is so remote from our own that it is almost never what we expect.” (, 8 January 2018)

I have added the bold italics. Translators are guided by theology, and want to make the text ‘come out right.’ Consider that infamous text that makes most Christian squirm, Luke 14:26; here are four translations, the first two of which translate the Greek word, miseo, honestly.

• King James: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

• New Revised Standard Version: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

But then…

The Message Bible: “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.

The Passion Bible: “When you follow me as my disciple, you must put aside your father, your mother, your wife, your sisters, your brothers—yes, you will even seem as though you hate your own life. This is the price you’ll pay to be considered one of my followers.”

The translators of the second two are lying. “Hate” is rendered “refuses to let go of” and “must put aside.” In a footnote, The Passion Bible says that ‘hate’ is a metaphor, adding: “In this case, Jesus, the King of love is not saying to hate but to put aside every other relationship into second place.” They suffer from a pre-existing condition: faith brain damage. Their idealized Jesus is the King of Love, but in fact Luke 14:26 helps make the case that Jesus was not the King of Love. Like a mother soothing a toddler, the translators want to make it all better. But is it all that better? Put every other relationship into second place behind Jesus? This helps make the case that Jesus was a cult fanatic—or at least that was Luke’s intention.

See Hector Avalos, The Bad Jesus: the Ethics of New Testament (2015), for his 39-page discussion of Luke 14:26—and why hate in this verse means exactly what it seems to mean.

Do lay readers commonly understand that the ‘best’ translation is the not the one they like the most, or that strikes their fancy? Of course, most Christians don’t know NT Greek, nor do they understand the challenges of rendering the correct sense of a text when translating from one language to another. But they should understand that translating Greek into English means that the word of God has been processed yet again, on top of many centuries of manuscript copying, altering and tampering.

Devout translators have tried so many times to get it right (take a look). Why doesn’t the good Lord put them out of their misery? God could create perfect translations of the Bible and deposit updated versions every 25 years in a Vatican Bank vault. Let the pope, with pomp and fanfare, celebrate the recurring miracle. This could be cited as evidence that, as always, God works in mysterious ways. Just sayin’

The Red Letter Trickery

Anyone who reads straight through the gospel of Mark, then straight through John, senses that something is fishy. Pastors may help lay readers gloss over the differences, but if honesty prevails, it is clear that Mark and John created different protagonists. The curious reader will want to know, after reading Mark, where in the world did John’s author come up with his gigantic Jesus monologues? Well, as was common practice at that time when authors wrote about heroes, John made them up.

But then the question follows, Where did Mark come up with his ‘words of Jesus’? If he wrote some forty years after the death of Jesus, it’s a stretch to argue that Mark somehow captured accurate ‘oral tradition’ or eyewitness accounts—evidence for which is inferred. Devout scholars only hope and wish that this might have been the case. But we can be sure that Jesus of Nazareth was not followed around by a team of stenographers.

Bottom line: we have no way to tell—none whatever—which words attributed to Jesus in the gospels might be the real thing. But the handlers of the translations, as we have seen, are in the business of promoting faith, not casting doubt, or provoking curiosity. So some of them had the bright idea of printing the words of Jesus in red. What more could you want as an authenticator? Many naïve readers are duped. Said one preacher, “When I got to my church where I had to preach every week, it was hell on wheels very quickly. . . . I was really stunned and shocked when a woman said to me, ‘I know what Jesus said in the Bible, because it’s written in red.’” (Reported by Linda LaScola and Daniel Dennett in Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, 2015.)

We truly have no way of knowing “what Jesus said in the Bible”—we know only what the gospel authors report, or more likely, concocted. Hence printing Jesus’ words in red diverts folks from asking hard questions, snuffs out curiosity about where these words really came from.

What Was the Editor Thinking?

There are two standout violations of common sense committed by the guys who authorized the red ink:

• In Mark 13 we find Jesus talking to his disciples about signs of the end times, and this is verse 14: “But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.” Yes, in my New Testament, the words “let the reader understand” are printed in red. At the very least, these words were inserted by a scribe at a later time, or it’s just as likely that Mark himself wished to call attention to his reference to the “desolating sacrilege.” But NO, they cannot be the words of Jesus spoken to his disciples as they sat together on the Mount of Olives. Shame on the translators.

• 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26, Paul wrote this: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Okay, Bible readers, if you’re paying attention, you know that (1) Paul was not at the Last Supper, (2) Paul never met Jesus, (3) He was proud that he never got his information about Jesus from the disciples, whom, in fact he avoided (see Galatians 1:11-12), and (4) Paul could not look up the Last Supper in the gospels, which hadn’t been written yet.

So, how did he know that Jesus said? Paul relates here what he “received from the Lord,”—i.e., these words of Jesus came from his visions (=hallucinations). And yet, they are printed in red—how’s that for a stretch?—as if they came from ‘real life.’ I guess the red-letter guys count on most readers not catching this sleight of hand, which gives you an idea of what translators can get away with. It would make about as much sense to put the ‘real’ words of Satan in purple, the ‘real’ words of demons in green, and the ‘real’ words of angels in gold.

Historians know better, but theologians…not so much.

It’s a very troubled history: how the documents of the New Testament made their way from their original authors to everyone’s bookshelf today. At every step along the way something was lost, transformed, distorted. Billy Graham waved his Bible, and no one was the wiser—especially Billy—that he was holding up word-of-god that has been imperfectly patched together. Because God wasn’t paying attention.

Here are links to the previous articles in this series:

Introduction: Christians Can Figure It Out: The Bible Isn’t God’s Word

Fatal Flaw #1: Revelation, Imagination…or Hallucination?

Fatal Flaw #2: God Gets a Big Fat “F” as an Author

Fatal Flaw #3: Who Gets to Decide What God Meant?

Fatal Flaw #4: The ‘Good Book’ Has Never Lived Up to the Hype

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library can be found here.