A Question I Was Asked:

Why the Dispute About the Body of Moses in Jude 9?

The Question:

Why the dispute about the body of Moses in Jude 9?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Okay, Jude 9 states the following:

But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, "The Lord rebuke you!" (Jude 9).

To be perfectly frank, nobody can give a complete explanation of this verse although various suggestions have been made.

The JFB commentary says a number of things about this, including the following:

"....about the body of Moses - his literal body. Satan, as having the power of death, opposed the raising of it again, on the ground of Moses' sin at Meribah, and his murder of the Egyptian. That Moses' body was raised, appears from his presence with Elijah and Jesus (who were in the body) at the Transfiguration: the sample and earnest of the coming resurrection kingdom, to be ushered in by Michael's standing up for God's people. Thus in each dispensation a sample and pledge of the future resurrection was given: Enoch in the patriarchal dispensation, Moses in the Levitical, Elijah in the prophetical..... But the literal body is evidently here meant......[Additionally] Josephus [Antiquities,4.8], states that God hid Moses' body, lest, if it had been exposed to view, it would have been made an idol of. Jude, in this account, either adopts it from the apocryphal 'assumption of Moses' (as Origen [Concerning Principalities, 3.2] thinks), or else from the ancient tradition on which that work was founded. Jude, as inspired, could distinguish how much of the tradition was true, how much false. We have no such means of distinguishing, and therefore can be sure of no tradition, save that which is in the written word."

JFB say even more than this but much appears misleading and confusing so I have confined his comments to the main point here.

Barnes states this:

"...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. The difficulty has arisen from these two circumstances:
(1) Ignorance of the origin of what is said here of Michael the archangel, nothing of this kind being found in the Old Testament; and,
(2) the improbability of the story itself, which looks like a mere Jewish fable.

[Peter seems to have] made a general reference to angels as not bringing railing accusations against others before the Lord; but Jude refers to a particular case - the case of Michael when contending about the body of Moses. The methods proposed of reconciling the passage with the proper ideas of inspiration have been various, though perhaps no one of them relieves it of all difficulty. It would be inconsistent with the design of these notes to go into an extended examination of this passage.....

It has [also] been supposed that the apostle quotes an apocryphal book existing in his time, containing this account, and that he means to admit that the account is true. Origen mentions such a book, called 'the Assumption of Moses,' as extant in his time, containing this very account of the contest between Michael and the devil about the body of Moses. That was a Jewish Greek book, and Origen supposed that this was the source of the account here. That book is now lost. There is still extant a book in Hebrew, called 'the Death of Moses,' which some have supposed to be the book referred to by Origen. That book contains many fabulous stories about the death of Moses, and is evidently the work of some Jew drawing wholly upon his imagination. An account of it may be seen in Michaelis, Introduction iv. p. 381ff. There is no reason to suppose that this is the same book referred to by Origen under the name of 'the Assumption of Moses;' and there is a moral certainty that an inspired writer could not have quoted it as of authority. Further, there can be no reasonable doubt that such a book as Origen refers to, under the title of 'the Assumption of Moses,' was extant in his time, but that does not prove by any means that it was extant in the time of Jude, or that he quoted it. There is, indeed, no positive proof that it was not extant in the time of Jude, but there is none that it was, and all the facts in the case will be met by the supposition that it was written afterward, and that the tradition on the subject here referred to by Jude was incorporated into it.

....The remaining supposition is, that Jude here refers to a prevalent tradition among the Jews, and that he has adopted it as containing an important truth, and one which bore on the subject under discussion....

The nature of this controversy is wholly unknown, and conjecture is useless. It is not said, however, that there was a strife which should get the body, or a contention about burying it, or any physical contention about it whatever. That there may have been, no one indeed can disprove; but all that the apostle says would be met by a supposition that there was any debate of any kind respecting that body, in which Michael, though provoked by the opposition of the worst being in the universe, still restrained himself from any outbreaking of passion, and used only the language of mild but firm rebuke."

I fear that, on this occasion, my comments - and indeed the comments of Barnes and the JFB - have not really clarified too much on this question. Several commentaries do indeed refer to this but - at the end of the day - we cannot be really sure what Jude meant, although the foregoing comments suggest one or two possibilities.
Robin A. Brace. August 20th, 2011.