How to Win a Debate
Why this story matters
(commentary on Jude 1:9)
(Page 1 of 4)
Most Christians are unaware of this story. It's only mentioned once in the Bible in a single sentence in the short epistle of Jude. And it doesn't appear to be a very popular subject for Sunday sermons. This may be because it’s a little difficult to explain. Albert Barnes, in his Notes on the New Testament acknowledged that, “This verse has given more perplexity to expositors than any other part of the epistle; and in fact the difficulties in regard to it have been so great that some have been led to regard the epistle as spurious.” Indeed. At first glance, the story seems a little strange and fanciful. It reads more like a Jewish fable than historical fact. But, for those who preach that the Bible is the inspired word of God and everything in it is true, this has to be treated as if it actually happened. Jude certainly relays the story as if both he and his audience believed it happened. Mind you, Jude was writing to a pretty superstitious audience and it's doubtful they applied much critical thought to the story. So let's do that now.
The passage in Jude
Jude begins his epistle by remonstrating against those in the community who are acting immorally. He reminds them that punishment from God always follows such behavior. People who act this way, Jude says, “reject all authority and insult angels” (1:8). According to Jude, the prohibition against insulting angels even includes Satan. As an example of refusing to insult angels, he reminds us, “But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, "The Lord rebuke you!” (1:9 NASB). Jude is alluding to a story that his audience would have been familiar with. Therefore, he doesn't go into any detail about this cosmic dispute. Fortunately for us, though, some extra-biblical sources have survived, and they give us a good idea of what people thought took place. Once we have established that, it’s then up to the reader to decide if this story is historical fact, or Jewish mythology.
Who was Jude?
First we need to establish Jude’s credentials. The name Jude is a short form of the name Judas, and Judas was one of Jesus’ brothers. The Bible identifies four brothers of Jesus: “Isn't he the carpenter, the son of Mary? Aren't James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon his brothers? Don't his sisters still live here in our town?” (Mark 6:3 CEV). However, it needs to be pointed out that the relationship between Jesus and his brothers has been a matter of contention for a long time. This is mainly due to the issue of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Christians who believe Mary remained a virgin throughout her life dispute that Jesus had brothers in the strict sense. They look for arguments that suggest these were not really Jesus' biological brothers. For example, concerning Jude, they argue that, in the introduction to this epistle, he describes himself as merely a servant of Jesus and the brother of James. If he was the brother of Jesus, why wouldn’t he say so? However, those who are not committed to Mary’s virginity counter that humility would have prevented him from ascribing such honor to himself, and since he was writing his letter to churches in Palestine, his relation to James, who was the head of the church in Jerusalem, would be sufficient to claim authority in his writing. Either way, Jude speaks with authority within the early church.
Furthermore, in the book, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church, New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham explains that there are three traditional schools of thought regarding the brothers of Jesus: (1) they were children of Joseph from a previous marriage (2) they were first cousins (3) they were really Jesus’ brothers, the biological offspring of Mary and Joseph. After his exhaustive study, Bauckham concludes that the majority of scholars today, even including some Catholic scholars, believe the answer is number three. They were the biological offspring of Mary and Joseph (T & T Clark, 1990, p. 19). So it is generally accepted that the author of this epistle was Jude, one of Jesus’ brothers, as quoted in Mark 6:3 above.
Despite this, some leaders of the early church were unsure if Jude’s letter should be included in the Bible. For example, Church historian Eusebius, after he studied the issue of canonical and non-canonical writings in depth, wrote that Jude’s epistle was a matter of dispute. (Barclay’s Guide to the Bible, Westminster 2008, p.289). The main reason for the dispute is that Jude cites a couple of non-canonical works as if they were scripture. For example, he quotes from a book called the book of Enoch as if Enoch correctly prophesied the future:
Enoch was the seventh person after Adam, and he was talking about these people when he said: Look! The Lord is coming with thousands and thousands of holy angels to judge everyone. He will punish all those ungodly people for all the evil things they have done. The Lord will surely punish those ungodly sinners for every evil thing they have ever said about him” (Jude 1:14-15 CEV).
A copy of the book of Enoch was discovered in 1773 by explorer James Bruce, so we know Jude's quote is a pretty accurate paraphrasing of Enoch 1:9. Enoch 1:9 reads:
And behold! He cometh with ten thousands [of His] holy ones
To execute judgement upon all,
And to destroy [all] the ungodly: And to convict all flesh
Of all the works [of their ungodliness] which they have ungodly committed,
And of all the hard things which ungodly sinners [have spoken] against Him. (Ethiopic copy)
Enoch was an important figure early in the Bible because of his piety and because he was the great grandfather of Noah. In fact, Enoch was so holy that he went to heaven without dying. Two quotes confirm this: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away” (Genesis 5:24); And, "By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God" (Hebrews 11:5).
The book of Enoch was popular among early Christians. It was considered part of scripture and was often referenced by Church Fathers such as Tertullian. Nevertheless, it did not make it into the Bible. Therefore, as Richard Bauckham notes in Jude and the Relatives of Jesus, “Since the third century, readers of Jude have been puzzled or offended by his quotation from a non-canonical work” (p. 225). The reason they would be offended is because the book of Enoch contains ideas far outside orthodox Christianity. But the thing that causes the problem is that Jude's words are part of the Bible and he quotes from the Book of Enoch as if it's part of Christian scripture. If the Bible is the inspired word of God, and Jude is in the Bible, then Jude is part of the inspired word of God. So why would God inspire Jude to quote from Enoch if Enoch contains heresy? It's a bit of a conundrum. And it gets worse for Jude because, as stated above, Enoch isn’t the only non-canonical work that Jude cites.
The second work concerns the story illustrated here about the quarrel over Moses’ body. In this case, Jude doesn’t mention the source book, but we know which book he was alluding to thanks to the writings of early church leaders. It is variously known as the Assumption of Moses, the Ascension of Moses, or the Testament of Moses, and it purportedly gave us more detail concerning the events of Moses’ death. This includes more information about the supposed argument between Michael and the devil.