This question is about one of the most obscure references in the New Testament.
Jude 9 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.”
To answer this question in every detail would require pages, but in order to keep the subject in proportion (it is after all only 1 verse), here are 2 thumbnail answers.
1. The explanation of Origen (c. 185–254)
According to Origen, a major Greek Christian writer of the early 3rd C, and a major advocate of belief in fallen angels, Jude is quoting a Jewish myth:
“And in the first place, in the book of Genesis the serpent is described as having seduced Eve; regarding whom, in the work entitled The Assumption of Moses, a little treatise, of which the Apostle Jude makes mention in his Epistle, the archangel Michael, when disputing with the devil regarding the body of Moses, says that the serpent, being inspired by the devil, was the cause of Adam and Eve’s transgression. ” (Origen, De principiis, III,2,1)
Origen names this work the Assumption of Moses (Analepsis Mouseos, Ανάληψις Μωυσέως) which may or may not be the same as the Ascension of Moses (Anabasis Mouseos, Ανάβασις Μωυσέως) mentioned by Athanasius (c. 293 – 373). To complicate matters further, Nicephorus (c. 758 – 828) lists among apocryphal texts found in the libraries of Constantinople both a Testament of Moses and an Assumption of Moses.
The actual text to which Origen refers is lost. But Origen being able to cite something as specific as the serpent being inspired by the devil bears the hallmark of a genuine Jewish myth – since in Jewish mythology the serpent and devil were seen as two separate enemies. This is particularly clear in the Apocalypse of Moses, a Greek text which unlike the Assumption of Moses does contain the material Origen describes: Michael, when disputing with the devil regarding a body, says that the serpent, being inspired by the devil, was the cause of Adam and Eve’s transgression (Apocalypse of Moses is the Greek version of the Latin and Slavonic Life of Adam and Eve).
The only problem with Origen’s testimony is that the burial incident in the Apocalypse of Moses isn’t about Michael, the devil and the body of Moses, but concerns the body of Adam. Is it possible that Origen got confused between two apocryphal Jewish texts: the Assumption of Moses (Analepsis Mouseos) and the Apocalypse of Moses (Apokalypsis Mouseous)?
The other problem is that Origen has something of a history of looking for, and, not surprisingly, finding evidence for fallen angels. For example Origen is the originator of the reading of Isaiah 14:12 as “Lucifer” a fallen angel. Prior to Origen this passage was read as referring to a “man” Is.14:16, the human king of Babylon. Origen was also a promoter of the idea that the “sons of God” in Gen.6:2 were 200 fallen angels who married women (despite Christ saying the opposite in Matt.22:30, Mark 12:25 and Luke 20:35-36).
2. An explanation with more than one source
An alternative explanation is that Jude’s quote is a juxtaposition of two or more competing sources of authority.
Source 1 – Jewish myths and traditions teaching fallen angels:
- Myths about Michael having chained 200 fallen angels in Tartarus (1 Enoch)
- Myths about Michael as gravedigger for the soul of Adam (Apocalypse of Moses)
- Myths about the lost grave of Moses on Sinai. (many rabbinical myths re. De.34:6)
Source 2 – Old Testament teaching where man, not angels, is the problem:
- The origin of the supposed words of “Enoch the Seventh from Adam” (a section heading in 1Enoch) in Jude 14 actually being a midrash (found in 1En.1:9 c.200 BCE, Dead Sea Scrolls) of the genuine words of Moses in De.33:2.
- The origin of the “body of Moses” being found in Zech.3:1-10 where the soul (or body?) of the recently deceased Jeshua the High Priest is portrayed by Zechariah in a highly political vision-parable exposing intermarriage and financial corruption by the serving High Priests Eliashib and Jehoiada (Neh.13:28), grandson and great-grandson respectively of the late Jeshua.
- The origin of the “Lord rebuke thee” “plucked from the fire” and “dirty clothes” found in Jude all 3 references being taken from Zechariah 3.
In other words Source 1 is what the false teachers and “dreamers” whom Jude is contradicting are teaching, whereas Source 2 is what Jude is expecting those in Pontus to know from the Old Testament and from previous letters of Peter. Jude 1:18 quotes 2 Peter 3:3 changing the tenses to suggest that Peter is already dead, and that his warnings about false teachers (2 Peter 2:1) have come true.
So which explanation?
On the face of it Origen’s explanation is simpler. Particularly if someone wants to believe in literal fallen angels. Not only does a literal reading of the bare statement by Jude (without asking whether it is something Jude teaches himself, or is something Jude is replying to) lends credence to the idea of fallen angels. Secondly, perhaps more importantly, the idea that Jude would favourably cite a lost Jewish legend gives license to supplement the Bible account (which contains verses like Heb.1:14 saying “all” angels are ministering spirits) with legends of fallen angels — from Apocyrpha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Pseudepigrapha, rabbinical legends, etc.; in fact all the sources which Paul tells Titus to avoid (Titus 1:14).
However Origen’s idea isn’t really simpler. If a literal fallen angel literally arguing with Michael for the literal body of Moses is true then that raises much more questions than it answers.
In reality Jude’s explanation is simpler. Although it is troublesome for the modern reader since it requires first fully digesting and understanding some Old Testament passages – in particular De.33:2 (the root of the so-called Enoch quote in Jude 14), and Zech.3:1-3 (which Jude cites 3 times, Zech 3:2 in the mouth of Michael to the devil, Jude 9). Nevertheless it is not asking too much for readers today to make the effort to look at Old Testament context with the same or more enthusiasm as shown for legends outside the Bible.
The purpose of Jude
Jude was written to bring believers back to the Bible:
Jude 3 Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. 4 For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
He then cites examples from Numbers (v.5), from 2 Peter 2 (v.6), and Genesis (v.7)
5 Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.
6 And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—
7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
Now it might be objected here that Jude 6 is not a direct quote from 2 Peter 2:4 since, in particular, Peter uses the unusual Greek verb “send to Tartarus” (tartaro) which refers to the imprisoning of 200 angels by Michael in Tartarus in Jewish myth, (Greek text of 1Enoch) but Jude simply says “kept”. This could simply be Jude varying the text for no specific reason, or to avoid a clearly pagan word, but it could also be Jude wanting to emphasize Peter’s argument that “if” the angels are chained “then” they are no threat to anyone. In which case “kept” says the same thing as Peter in different words.
Jude then turns, again following the example of Peter in 2 Peter 2, to turn the legends on the teachers who teach them:
8 Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. 9 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.” 10 But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. 11 Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. 12 These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; 13 wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.
To understand the above passage, and why it is related to the dispute between the archangel and the devil for the body of the high priest in Zechariah 3, the meaning of Zechariah 3 has to be understood. If Zechariah 3 is read with no reference to the meaning of the vision-parable rooted in Nehemiah 13 then equating the body of Jeshua to “the body of Moses” makes no sense. There’s no short cut here unfortunately; the modern reader has to invest time to be as familiar with Zechariah and Nehemiah as Jude’s readers were.
Then comes the famous quotation from 1Enoch 1:9 — in fact the words a rabbinical expansion of the words of Moses in Deut.33:2 — where Enoch the Seventh From Adam (not from Genesis, a section heading in 1En.60:8) prophesies to the false teachers who Peter and Jude are warning against:
Jude 14 It was also about these (Greek “to these”) that Enoch the Seventh From Adam (1En.60:8) prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, 15 to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” 16 These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.
Then finally the other references back to the “body of Moses” dispute in Zechariah 3:
Jude 17 But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. 18 They [plural, not just Peter] said [past tense] to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” (2 Peter 3:3) 19 It is these (2 Peter 2:1) who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. 20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. 22 And have mercy on those who doubt; 23 save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.
This is not an easy question. So neither of the answers are going to be easy. The reader has a choice; either believe Origen = go the route of a lost Jewish myth, or follow the Old Testament route, which is a juxtaposition of Source 1 = several Jewish legends entering 1stC church vs. Source 2 = Zechariah 3 and Nehemiah 13. The advantage of the Old Testament route, however, is that Zechariah 3 also helps unlock the most important NT devil verses — those of the wilderness temptations.