What’s This “Disputing about the Body of Moses” Business?

Jude is a tiny book at the back of your Bible, second to the last, right before the book of Revelation, and immediately after 3 John.

Even at 25 verses, though, Jude isn’t the smallest book in the Bible. That distinction goes to 2 John. Then 3 John.

Jude is a workhorse, however, despite its small size. Inside those 25 verses is enough to keep a theologian busy for a year or two.

For starters you have a saint, brother of James, writing a letter to a circuit of churches. He wanted to encourage the believers about the common blessing they had in salvation.

You feel if that letter was written it would have been friendly, calm and patient. Instead you get a combative and impassioned letter. One that feels almost rushed. Like a first century .

One of the Most Bizarre Statements in Jude

Jude had some stiff words for false teachers like calling them “wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.”

Yet for these sinners our response to them amounts to seeking the Lord’s intervening power against them. Michael, God’s chief angel, did just that when contending with the devil over the body of Moses.

And this is where you should do a screeching halt.

The exact text rendered in the :

But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.”

Disputing about the body of Moses. Hmm.

The reason this is such a head scratcher is that this struggle is not mentioned anywhere in Scripture. There is a Hebrew text outside of the canon that mentions a fight between the two found in Yalcut Rubeni, fol. 43, 3:

At the time in which Isaac was bound there was a contention between Michael and Satan. Michael brought a ram, that Isaac might be liberated; but Satan endeavored to carry off the ram, that Isaac might be slain.

But nothing in the canon.

There is a situation where Michael is to do the bidding of the Lord in . His duty there is to make sure Jews would be free to return to their land.

But nothing on Moses or contending with devil.

Why Satan Wanted Moses’ Body

Moses died on Mt. Nebo.

Mt. Nebo overlooks the promised land, land Moses didn’t get to enter. This means this contention with the body of Moses happened on Mt. Nebo.

Or close by.

And Jude suggests that Michael was sent to protect the body from Satan.

But what exactly did Satan want to do with it? Josephus [] suggested that Satan would’ve used it as an idol or object of worship. Prop the stiff corpse up, and the people fall down at its feet.

Think of the golden calf. Or in more recent times, the .

Another theologian, Clark, suggests that the body was already buried and Michael was sent to keep it buried because Satan wanted to dig it up, you know, and show it to the people.

Allegorical Interpretations of “Body of Moses”

Still other theologians think that “the body of Moses” doesn’t refer to an actual physical body–but a collection of things.

Kind of like Paul in where he uses the phrase σωμα της ἁμαρτιας–the body of death.

This is not so far-fetched since among the Hebrews גוף guph, body, is often used this way.  So when גוף של משה guph shel Mosheh, the body of Moses is used, it could mean his laws.

The body of Moses’ laws.

If this is the case, then we have an angel and the devil disputing over these laws…but what’s not clear is who wanted to do what with them.

In keeping with a Christ-centered interpretation theologians who favor this view say that the laws were abolished and buried by Christ. And the devil wanted to keep them alive.

This is allegorical interpretation at it’s best.

Not good.

Better to stick with the literal meaning of the text.

Jude’s Troubling Source for This Text

However, the meaning of the text is small potatoes compared to Jude’s sources for this story.

As I mentioned above, this tale is not found in the biblical canon. And theologians aren’t one hundred percent sure of the source.

Some argue, starting with , that the source was an apocryphal book called “The Assumption of Moses.”

Whether this is true or not here’s what we know: Jude is using a non-canonical book to make a point.

Is that okay?

One theologian argued that Jude used the story from an apocryphal book because his readers were familiar with it…and he wanted to appeal to sources that they valued.

The only problem with this concept is that Jude uses this fable like he believes it actually happened. Perhaps no different from if he used the story of Moses smiting the rock or the parting of the Red Sea.

So what do we do with this?

Some have argued that due to Jude’s use of an apocryphal book Jude should be thrown out of the canon.

Others think that’s harsh, and point to several arguments to back their case:

  • Due to the references to apostles, the repetition of Jewish tradition (the same tradition that Paul came by the names of Jannes and Jambres), the recognition and warning of early forms of apostasy like Docetism, Marcionism, and Gnosticism and Jude’s competent Greek writing style the book should be dated between 66 and 90 A.D., and not at some later date that would mark it as suspect.
  • Jude was quickly adapted by early church fathers like Tertullian and Clement of Alexandrian.
  • The epithets in Jude are thought to be some of the best in the Bible, and the closing doxology is considered supreme in quality. (I guess the argument being heretical books use shoddy rhetorical tricks and cheap songs.)
  • Jude, by quoting “The Assumption of Moses,” a pagan source, did no differently than Paul who quoted a , a and a in his own letters.
  • Finally, these theologians who support canonical Jude point out that the point of the letter is biblical as all get out:  live a faithful and holy life, resist the lust of the flesh and do not deny God.

With those arguments squarely in our pockets, I think it is safe to say that this book was not written by man, but God speaking through a man who was carried along by the Holy Spirit–no matter how quirky that bit about Michael disputing with the body of Moses.

What do you think?

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18 thoughts on “What’s This “Disputing about the Body of Moses” Business?

  1. Rob

    Thanks for making me read Jude today. Seems apropos to American church life today. But I guess that’s the point ‘eh?

  2. Anonymous

    Could it be the dispute was about whether or not Moses would have to forfeit resurrection, just as entry to the physical Promised Land was denied him? After all, this is during the time of Law. That seems the simplest explanation to me, Demian.

    1. DemianFarnworth

      So as the devil trying to keep him from being resurrected? I did come across that theory in my study, and it is a interesting one. Just nothing in the text to say definitively…at least I can’t see it. ????

  3. Anonymous

    Okay, I just got through telling you that I don’t have the time right now to dig into your blog but . . . well, darn it, Demian, your home page just BEGS “Dig into this . . . NOW!” I promised myself I’d just take a quick peek and then I saw this post off your front page. I did a study on Moses’ tomb a while back () and something I didn’t see in your original post was that Deuteronomy states that it was God Himself who actually buried Moses! Calculated move if you ask me. Anyway, love this post. Will dig back into this later and the rest of the blog. I’m so thrilled you are back, brother!

    1. DemianFarnworth

      That’s awesome Joe. And good to hear. It means I’m creating something people care about…and that’s vitally important. Sorry you got carried away. (Not really.)

  4. J

    I lean toward the assumption that Moses’s body refers to the people of Israel so that Michael and Satan are disputing about the people of Israel.

  5. abey

    The body of Moses refers to the people of Moses, like saying the body of Christ is to the people of Christ or Christians. Moses & Elijah who appeared in the Mount of Transfiguration representing the law & the Prophets which appearance was to the “handing over” the people of Moses to Christ. So the Jews who believed Christ became the Body of Christ , but them the other Body of Moses who rejected Christ led by the Pharisees is what satan contended for as the Body of Moses to which St.Michael did not argue but simply said “The Lord rebuke you” This is to know as to under whom the Jews of today are, to the words of St.Paul- “The god of this world” the state today until such time as in the Prophecy at the end time “When Michael will stand up for the people”, which is to bring the Jews to Chris but will be at a heavy cost.

    1. Bonnie Foster

      I have to add that I disagree with on of the last statements made in the above article. Lucifer was a beautiful angle that was cast out of heaven. Lucifer, devil and Satan all refer to the fallen angle which is our tempter and enemy.

  6. david

    This situation is found in zechariah chap.3. The Body of Moses were the people that were led out of Egypt by Moses [the law]. Joshua was accused by Satan but entered the promised land by faith.

  7. Maxwell

    This scripture looks out of place but it is very powerful and alive it unlocks the mystery of the transfiguration.

    Why contest for the body of Moses. Why did the Angels wanted the body.

    Whilst I was reading the scripture I got to the transfiguration,during the transfiguration it is said

    Matthew17 vs 3 “And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.”

  8. Travis Bryan iii

    Satan and his ministers preach law to believers today. 2 Cor 11:13-15. It is no wonder Satan wanted the body of the one who more than anyone represented the law. An angel, not God, handed down the law to Moses and loved Moses. Satan is an angel. Was he the angel who Moses thought was God. Gal 3:19-20; Acts 7:38, 53; Heb 2:2

  9. Tony Richardson

    Just recently ran across this article,it’s a good question and worth conversation.I believe that the body of Moses was simply the nation of Israel.How so? let’s look at the biblical comparison.Christ was like unto Moses or Moses was a type of Christ(Deu.18:15-18,Acts 3:19-22).Both were sheperds(Ex’3:1,john10:11),both were mediators(Deu.5:5,9:13-29,Heb.8:6,9:15,12:24),both were rejected by their own people.(Acts7:35,John 1:11).AND BOTH HAD PEOPLE BAPTIZED UNTO THEM(Ex.14.21-22,1Cor.10:1-2,Gal.3:27,1Cor.12:13,Rom.12:4-5,Eph.5:25-32).It should also be noted that Israel was the church or assembly in the wilderness(Acts7:36-38).just as the church are those who are baptized into Christ body,the church in the wilderness i.e. Israel was baptized unto Moses(who is a type of Christ) in the cloud in the sea.


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