Translation commentary on Jude 1:22 – 1:23

There is a textual problem in verse 22: some manuscripts have “convince,” while others have “have mercy.” The two verbs are quite similar in the Greek, both in form and in sound, and this obviously gave rise to the textual problem.

In addition to this variation, an early papyrus indicates a shorter version of verses 22-23a that can be translated thus: “Snatch some from the fire, and have mercy with fear on those who doubt….” This seems to be the text translated by Moffatt: “Snatch some from the fire, and have mercy on the waverers, trembling as you touch them.” Some commentators are of the opinion that this text is the original text written by Jude.

Most modern translations, with the exception of Revised Standard Version, translate the text used by Good News Translation. This is also the text that is in the UBS Greek New Testament, although the rating for this text is “C,” which means there is a considerable degree of doubt as to what the original text is. At any rate, the verb “have mercy” primarily means “have pity,” “have compassion,” “be kind,” or “having a loving heart toward.”

This mercy is directed toward fellow Christians who doubt. The word used here already appears in verse 9, but there it has the meaning “dispute.” Some scholars take the position that it also has the same meaning here, referring to members of the Christian community who argue against other Christians, and who justify their ungodly behavior by means of the heretical teachings of the godless. This goes well with the verb “convince” or “refute” and produces the following translation: “refute those who dispute the Christian faith.”

However, the word here is in the form of a passive participle, and in the passive the verb frequently means “to be doubtful,” “to waver,” “to hesitate,” and this is the meaning reflected in Revised Standard Version and Good News Translation, and in many other translations. These are the Christians who begin to have doubts about the truth of the Christian faith and of particular Christian doctrines because of the influence of those who are giving false teaching. Perhaps we can say “those who are uncertain about what they believe.”

A third possible meaning of this word is “to be under judgment” and refers to people who have been reproved or perhaps separated from the Christian community because of their stubborn and unrepentant attitude. While this is possible, and it fits the context quite well, no translation examined for this Handbook follows this interpretation.

Save in the next clause primarily means “rescue” or “keep from.” Fire, on the other hand, can refer to two things:

1. It can be a reference to the fires of the final judgment (as in verse 7), during which time the wicked will receive the punishment they deserve. This is in keeping with the tone of urgency about the future found in the letter. Most commentaries prefer this first possibility.

2. On the other hand, fire can refer to the trials and difficulties that the Christians were experiencing at that time. This also is appropriate, since Jude describes a community of believers that is beset by many problems arising from the presence of godless people among them.

Both options are equally valid. A literal translation does not offer any clue as to which meaning is preferred.

Who are the people who should be saved? Some commentators suggest that it is the same people spoken of in verse 22, that is, those who doubt. Others identify this group with the people mentioned in the next clause. Still others, however, are of the opinion that there are three groups mentioned in verses 22-23, one group in verse 22 and two other groups in verse 23. This is the position taken by both Revised Standard Version and Good News Translation.

The expression snatching them out of the fire is an allusion to Zech 3.1-5, especially verses 3-4. The word for snatching can also mean “take by force,” “carry off.” If fire is taken to refer to the final judgment (as in the first possibility above), then the whole act of snatching people out of the fire is keeping them from going to hell or from eternal destruction at the end of the age. However, if fire refers to difficulties experienced in the present, then snatching people out of the fire means taking them out of their difficult situations, or making sure that these difficult situations cease and no longer affect the believers in a negative way.

It is clear from both Revised Standard Version and Good News Translation that snatching them out of the fire is the means by which saving these people is achieved. This relationship needs to be expressed clearly in the translation. In some languages it is much more natural to express save as the purpose or result of the act of snatching, as for example “Snatch them out of the fire in order to save them” or “… and, as a result, save them.” In this context the word for snatch does not seem to indicate “force.” If that is true, perhaps we may translate “Help them to get out of.” Keeping in mind the two possible interpretations for the meaning of fire, it is possible to translate this clause as: (1) “Rescue other people by snatching them from the fire of judgment,” or (2) “Rescue other people by saving (or, snatching) them from the trials and difficulties that are like a fire.”

Quoted with permission from Arichea, Daniel C. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on The Letter from Jude. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1993. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Jude now mentions a third group and exhorts his readers to have mercy with fear toward this group. The word for mercy is the same word used with reference to the first group. But what does have mercy with fear mean? A literal translation will be misleading, since it will have the meaning “mercy characterized by fear” or “fearful mercy.” But here Jude is talking about two attitudes: being merciful and being fearful. And fear here can mean two things. Firstly, it may be fear of being contaminated by the sins of these people. In this sense Jude is saying that, while they should have mercy and compassion on these people, they should also be aware of the danger of their sins and should guard themselves against being influenced by them. So this fear has in it the elements of carefulness and caution. See, for example, Jerusalem Bible, “there are others to whom you must be kind with great caution.” On the other hand, fear can mean “fear of God.” In this sense Jude is exhorting his readers to continue to have awe and reverence for God. And since they know that God will punish those who sin against him, their fear of God will prevent them from being influenced by these evil people within their fellowship.

While both of these interpretations can be justified by the text, the first one seems to be preferred because it fits the context much better, especially the words that follow.

The expression hating even the garment spotted by the flesh seems to explain further what fear means. In this case Jude exhorts his readers to be very cautious in dealing with these people, in order to avoid contamination of any kind. The word translated garment is the piece of clothing that is worn next to the skin. This is sometimes known as the inner garment, in contrast to the coat or robe that is known as the outer garment. This inner garment is described as spotted by the flesh. Flesh is the same word used in Jude 1.8; here it refers either to sinful human nature or to actual sinful acts, primarily sexual immorality. The whole expression the garment spotted by the flesh can be understood literally; that is, their clothes are dirty and soiled as a result of their sinful acts. Or it may be expressing the primitive belief that spiritual and demonic powers can reside in and be communicated through a person’s clothes (see Mark 5.27-30; Acts 19.11-12). It is more likely, however, that here we have a figure of speech known as hyperbole, or exaggeration. The idea seems to be that these people are so sinful and so evil that even the very clothes they wear are affected and defiled.

What does Jude mean by exhorting his readers in this manner? Some commentators suggest that here he is advising his readers not to have any contact with these sinners—a position that finds support elsewhere in the New Testament. To hate even their garments then means that any contacts with these people, however casual or slight, should be avoided at any cost. However, it seems more likely that Jude’s intention is not for his readers to avoid contact with such people, but to exercise caution and care in dealing with them. The object of their hate is not the sinners but their garments; the sinners on the other hand should be the object of their mercy and compassion, with the aim in view of leading them out of their errors and sinful ways. If this is the case, we may translate “as if their clothes have been stained by their sinful evil lusts” or “as if their sinful evil lusts have made their garments filthy.”

An alternative translation model for these verses is:

• Show compassion (or, Have a loving heart) toward those people who are uncertain about what they believe; rescue others by snatching them from the fire of judgment. And there are other people to whom you must be kind, but at the same time be very cautious. You must hate their very clothes, as if their sinful lusts have made these garments filthy.

Quoted with permission from Arichea, Daniel C. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on The Letter from Jude. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1993. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .