What’s in a Red Letter Day and other Curious Things?

Do you know why we call an important day a “red-letter day”?

Sorry secularists, it’s all tied up in Christianity. Ancient Christian calendars marked out high holy days in red ink. The custom carried on into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where it was maintained in the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer, where the modern idiom of “red-letter day” grew from.

Red letter bibles originated in 1900, the habit of coloring Jesus’ words in red based on the association of Christian redemption with the shedding of blood by Jesus on the Cross. It’s a pernicious practice, easily shown to be highly speculative with a reading of the Gospel of John, where it is often difficult to tell where Jesus’ speeches end and the narrator’s voice begins.

Chapter divisions in the Bible developed out of the Jewish habit of reading the Torah (Moses’ first five books of the Bible) on a weekly basis over a year or three years. Some ancient manuscripts (including apparently some Dead Sea Scrolls) have marks separating the weekly readings. Christians adopted these Jewish customs, which found their way into manuscripts of the Latin Bible, the Vulgate. The modern system of chapters is credited to Stephen Langton, who developed them in the early 1200s while teaching at the University of Paris. (Langton later became Archbishop of Canterbury under King John of England and is credited as one of the authors of Magna Charta). Langton’s numbering was adapted into the Latin Vulgate in the century after his time. Rabbi Solomon ben Ishmael adapted Langton’s numbering to the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh, in the mid 1300s as a way to facilitate Jewish/Christian dialogue.

Verse numbers can be traced again to Jewish scribal practice of dividing the Hebrew Scriptures by phrase, section, and paragraph. Santi Pagnini was the first Christian to divide the New Testament into verses circa 1500 (+/-).  But the New Testament verse system now adopted was created by Robert Estienne for his editions of the Greek New Testament and a French New Testament in the 1550s.


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