Searching for the Source

Chelica Hiltunen

But Michael the archangel, when contending with the Devil, debating concerning the body of Moses, did not dare to pronounce an irreverent judgment, but he said, “May the Lord reprove you” (Jude 9, AUTHOR’S TRANSLATION).


But doesn’t the Old Testament say that only the Lord was with Moses when he died on Mount Nebo, just outside the promised land of Canaan? “And [the Lord] buried [Moses] in the valley, in the land of Moab … but no one knows the place of his burial to this day” (Deut 34:6 ESV). There is no mention of Satan, Michael, or an epic battle. Who (or what) is Jude’s source?

New Testament source material usually came from the Old Testament, but not always. Sometimes New Testament writers drew upon non-biblical documents. 1 For example, Paul cites the Greek poets Aratus and Cleanthes to support his claim that the God of Israel is responsible for the entire created order (Acts 17:28).

Getting into the sources of the first-century AD can be difficult. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson’s Commentary of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament is a good starting point. Beale and Carson provide lists of potential non-biblical sources the New Testament writers may have utilized. But Jude 9 is unusual: There is no manuscript that preserves the entire story that he references.

For Jude’s description of the battle over Moses’ body, Beale and Carson direct us to Zech 3:2. Like Jude 9, Zech 3:2 in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, also contains the phrase “May the Lord reprove you.” In Zech 3, as in Jude, the Devil (Satan) stands as an accuser. This time he’s accusing Joshua, the high priest after the exile of the Israelites. The LORD silences Satan and proceeds to symbolically cleanse Joshua in preparation for his role as high priest. This passage likely provided a backdrop for Jude 9.

The tradition of Michael fighting Satan is expanded in Rev 12. Michael is victorious over Satan—casting him down from the heavenly realms. This chapter and Zech 3 provide us with the biblical sources for Jude 9, but they don’t explain the reference to Moses’ body. What about non-biblical sources?

The Ancient Christian Commentary on Jude tells us that Clement of Alexandria (ca. 2nd century AD), wrote about Moses ascending to heaven. In the fragments of Clement’s exposition on Jude, Clement states that Jude 9 agrees with this tradition.

Jude may have also been using the Testament of Moses. This document (ca. 2nd century BC), recounts a conversation right before Moses’ death. Speaking to Joshua, the future leader of Israel, Moses predicts the rise and fall of Israel’s kingdom as well as their subsequent exile and return. Sadly, the one manuscript of this book breaks off before Moses’ death.

Jude 9 shows us that biblical citations are anything but simple. But by searching for Jude’s source in reference works, we have learned that there are roadmaps for navigating out-there, New-Testament references. Jude’s discussion of Moses’ body is odd, but he wasn’t writing science fiction—he was drawing upon a commonly held belief to make a point.

His point: Reject false teachers, because they are deceivers like Satan. Follow the example of Michael instead; he knew his place (Jude 8–9). Jude reminds us to defer to godly, spiritual authority. That is the only way we can “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3 ESV).

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 2 No. 4

1 For more on this, see Michael S. Heiser, “When Angels Do Time”