In Jude verses 22 – 23 we have a situation on which a final answer seems not to be possible. And in reading the different versions we sort of create our own understanding of what we read.
Let us look at a few versions:
King James Version: Jude 1:22 – 23: “And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.”
The preceding verse gives direction in our personal relationship with Jesus Christ towards eternal life. But now we are confronted with something not very clear. It seems as though we have to make a difference, (or should we understand “differentiation”?) Are we to differentiate between two groups of people, leaving some over to their destiny “with compassion” while we save others by pulling them out of the fire? What would “compassion” entail here? Compassion for whom and for what reason? To what end? Is our compassion supposed to make some difference to them in their fate?
And how do you save one with fear. Is that by scaring them into action, like the fire and brimstone preaching of yesteryear? Or should the fear reflect as caution for yourself in order that you yourself not be corrupted?
Revised Standard Version differentiate between three groups to be confronted: “And convince some, who doubt; save some, by snatching them out of the fire; on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.”
You have to convince some, others you have to save, and yet another group you only have to have mercy on!
New International Version makes it more understandable: “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear – hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”
The word translated in the KJV as “difference” is also used to convey the meaning of “doubt”, used in other versions like the NIV. In the manuscripts some versions have “us” while others have “them”. Therefore “those who doubt” has equal grounds as “us making a difference” But here we are also confronted with some confusion. Though we should have mercy on (all) those who doubt, should we snatch some from the fire, and “with mercy” leave some over to their fate? And how do you mix mercy with fear? Though more understandable, there is still a lot of uncertainty and confusion to really understand what Jude is saying.
The Contemporary English Version makes it quite clear: “Be helpful to all who may have doubts. Rescue any who need to be saved, as you would rescue someone from a fire. Then with fear in your own hearts, have mercy on everyone who needs it. But hate even the clothes of those who have been made dirty by their filthy deeds.”
Of course the clothes that should be detested, should be understood figuratively as sin, which could refer to ordinary sin, or to doubt itself.
But why these different versions?
In the manuscripts themselves, no less than fifteen variations are found, and each makes perfect sense.
Two aspects play a role in this conundrum.
Firstly words sometimes have more than one meaning or application. The Greek word “diakrino” can mean doubt or distinct. Also “fobos” may mean fear, or scare, or caution. “Sarks” may mean the physical body or figuratively sin. The same with clothes as sin.
Secondly one should determine which word designates which adverb, participle or adjective.
The problem is that several words in this sentence are found in different places in the manuscripts. That changes the interpretation or meaning of the word or even that of the whole sentence.
Consider the following more prominent variations found in the manuscripts:
“You must have mercy on those that doubt.”
“You must reveal or expose those who are in doubt”
“You must have mercy, but make a distinction.” (A distinction between those in doubt, or concerning the method you employ.)
“But save others by snatching them from the fire”
“But save others by snatching them from the fire, but with caution”
“But with fear, (scaring them) save others by snatching them from the fire”
“To others with fear show mercy, hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”
“To others with fear show mercy, hating even their corrupted sinful flesh.”
“To doubters with caution show mercy, hating their under clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”
“To doubters show mercy, while hating with caution their clothing (representative of their sinful lives.)”
Let us employ three objective criteria to discern how we should choose between the variations and translate this verse.
- External criteria.
The first criterion that we use is to look at which version is found in the oldest manuscripts. The nearer to the original, the more likely that version could be without alterations. Here the United Bible Societies helps us tremendously by providing a summary of all the versions found in manuscripts all over the world in their text critical apparatus at the bottom of each page. They propose a text based on the evaluation of all the manuscripts, but provide the Bible translator with all the variations in order to make his own decision.
In this case, the variations are so evenly represented that they evaluate their own choice which corresponds more or less with the first of the versions above, only a “C” – rating. (…there is a considerable degree of doubt whether the text or the apparatus contains the superior reading…).
By studying the manuscripts available, we therefore cannot make a definite conclusion.
- Internal criteria.
Next we try to discern how the variations could have originated. It is clear that if variation A could have developed to B, but B could not have developed to A, the logical conclusion would be that A would represent the original. But in these verses any of the variations could have developed from any other. Therefore no direct conclusion can be made.
- Intrinsic criteria.
Now we look at the context and meaning of words found in the variations.
Two matters are important.
First the alteration of “eleate” (having mercy) to “elengete” (expose) may be discarded as a writing mistake.
Secondly the position of specific words in the sentence has to be examined.
The word “fobos”, (fear or caution) is found in three different parts of the sentence. No obvious reason can be given, but where it is found it causes a different interpretation, hence a different translation.
Look at the following possibilities:
- “With caution” you should save doubters by snatching them from the fire. Or: “With fear” (scare) you should save doubters by snatching them from the fire.
- You should save doubters by snatching them from the fire “with caution”. Or: You should save doubters by snatching them from the fire “with fear” (scare).
- When “fear” is found in the third part of the sentence, it functions as a caution not the doubters, but to the person(s) acting as saviour(s). They have to take care in detesting the sin.
A last decision the translator has to make, is the interpretation and translation of the undergarment, stained by the flesh. It could indicate a textile garment being tarnished by sweat and dirt. But it would rather figuratively indicate their sinful lifestyle. But it is also possible that it could point to their spiritual sin like doubt itself. The disciple should be careful lest he himself might fall into temptation.
All these variations and interpretations may be found in the Greek. Therefore the Bible translator is forced to make a choice on how he understands and interprets the variations, trying to render the best possible version that would correspond with the original autograph. We would like to have the Word of God as the Holy Spirit had inspired Jude!
In these two verses any of the variations could render the original. Possibly is would be the best to follow the United Bible Societies’ choice based on the best manuscripts. But even then the translator has to decide how to interpret and translate that text!
The easiest might be to stick to that version one is used to, but is that the most responsible way to follow?
With great respect I lift my hat to every Bible translator who has to make these decisions! It is such a responsibility before God when handling his Word!
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