Jude’s initial intent in writing his letter was to convey a positive message about “our common salvation” (v. 3a). But his focus abruptly switches to the urgency of his readers to “contend earnestly for the faith” in view of the intrusion of ungodly men who had secretly “crept in” among them (vv. 3b-4).1 In v. 8 he describes these intruders as “dreamers” [void of spiritual substance] who “defile the flesh, reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries.” To reinforce and illustrate the indictment, he writes in v. 9, “Yet Michael the archangel, in contending with the devil, when he disputed about the body of Moses, dared not bring against him a reviling accusation, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” The point Jude makes is that evil men ignorantly reject and ridicule authority, while in so doing reveal their own corruption (v. 10).
The question is, what’s this about the dispute between Michael the archangel and the devil over the body of Moses? This is the only biblical passage that speaks of this incident. It is commonly alleged that Jude’s account is based on a pseudepigraphical work, namely the Assumption of Moses (a.k.a. the Testament of Moses). However, Jude does not attribute his information to any particular source. The Assumption of Moses is of uncertain date and authorship, and the only extant portion of it is a sixth-century AD fragmentary Latin manuscript. Since no surviving portion of this work contains the passage in question, and since similar words are found in Zechariah 3:1-2, the element of divine revelation notwithstanding, it is just as likely that the material came from a common source or tradition rather than having been the result of literary dependency.2
Seeing that Jude provides no further details, no definitive conclusions can be reached, although various suggestions have been made. Nothing is said about the timing of the event. One proposal is that the contention concerned baby Moses (Ex. 1:16) and maybe the devil wanted to destroy or corrupt this future leader of God’s people. Another possibility is that “the body of Moses” is to be understood in a corporate sense as the OT parallel of “the body of Christ”; i.e., the collectivity [body] of people following Moses whom the devil was against (see Zech. 3:2; cp. Acts 15:21; 1 Cor. 3:15).
The most popular suggestion is that Moses’ corpse was the center of the dispute (Deut. 34:6). Perhaps the devil questioned his right to a proper burial, or wanted to desecrate the body or reveal the burial site to tempt people to idolize the tomb or the remains and draw honor away from God.
The bottom line is, we don’t know. And seeing that no further details are revealed in scripture, this is apparently something we don’t need to know. The point Jude makes is clear enough without having to satisfy our curiosity.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Scripture quotations are from the NKJV.
2 See K. L. Moore, “Jude’s Alleged Use of Pseudonymous Sources,” <Link>.
Related Posts: K. L. Moore, “The NT Epistle of Judas,” <Link>.