How to Win a Debate
Why this story matters
(commentary on Jude 1:9)
(Page 3 of 4)
The Assumption of Moses
As mentioned already, it's not clear what the correct title of the work was. Scholars, like R.H. Charles and Richard Bauckham suggest that there were originally two separate works. A manuscript of the Assumption/Testament of Moses, known as the Milan manuscript, was discovered in 1861 by Antonio Ceriani. It did not contain the argument over Moses’ body, but this would not be surprising since several sections were missing, including the ending. So, unfortunately, we cannot look to the Assumption/Testament of Moses, itself, for the missing details of the story. However, all is not lost. There are other extra-biblical sources that allowed scholars to piece together what happened. One of the foremost authorities on this is Richard Bauckham.
Richard Bauckham and piecing together the story
Richard Bauckham is former Professor of New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. His book Jude and the Relations of Jesus in the Early Church, includes one of the most authoritative treatments of this subject.
Bauckham identified 15 extra-Biblical texts from which we can piece together some details of the story of Michael's dispute with the Devil. It gets a little complicated here so bare with me. Bauckham argues that these texts can be divided into two separate traditions, one from an original source called the Assumption of Moses and the other from a source called the Testament of Moses. He assigns four of the texts to the tradition of the Testament of Moses. These include, for example, the Palaea Historica, a Byzantine collection of biblical legends and the Slavonic Life of Moses, a fifteenth-century version of the medieval Hebrew Chronicle of Moses. The other eleven texts fall under the tradition of the work known as the Assumption of Moses. The story, as illustrated, follows the tradition of the Testament of Moses. Bauckham constructs the story like this:
Joshua accompanied Moses up Mount Nebo, where God showed Moses the land of promise. Moses then sent Joshua back, saying, ‘Go down to the people and tell them that Moses is dead.” When Joshua had gone down to the people, Moses died. God sent the archangel Michael to remove the body of Moses to another place and to bury it there, but Samma’el, the devil, opposed him, disputing Moses’ right to honourable burial. (The text may also have said that the devil wished to take the body down to the people, so that they would make it an object of worship). Michael and the devil engaged in a dispute over the body. The devil slandered Moses, charging him with murder, because he slew the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand. But Michael, not tolerating the slander against Moses said, ‘May the Lord rebuke you, Satan!’ At that the devil took flight, and Michael removed the body to a place commanded by God. Thus no one saw the burial-place of Moses (T & T Clark, 1990, p.239).
Satan’s charge of murder refers to Exodus 2:11-12, where Moses kills an Egyptian. This is where the idea of a quarrel comes in. Satan is arguing that Moses should not be honored in death because he was a murderer and because he dishonored God during the incident at Merebah. The accusation of murder is treated as slander because, from Michael’s perspective, Moses was defending a Hebrew slave who was being beaten by the Egyptian.
There are two main differences in the second tradition, the one called the Assumption of Moses. In this tradition, the devil contends that the body is his because he is “the Master of matter.” The idea here is that the devil wants to use Moses’ body to tempt the Israelites into idol worship. This is why the Bible says that Moses body was buried in a place that was never discovered. And the second difference is that, in this tradition, Joshua actually witnesses the assumption of Moses’ spirit to heaven where, according to Clement of Alexandria, he was given a new name, Melchi: “And he had a third name in heaven, after his ascension, as the mystics say— Melchi” (Stromata 1.23).