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The Epistle of Jude: Against Gnosticism

Jesus' brother, Jude, wrote a letter to the Jewish Christian congregations in the first century, warning them about Gnosticism and also urging them to stand firm in faith against their Jewish critics.

Category - Bible Commentaries

Chapter 6

Michael Disputes with the Devil

After Jude warns against the immorality of Sodom and Gomorrah and speaks of their judgment by fire, he continues in Jude 8,

8 Yet in the same manner these men, also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority and revile angelic majesties.

By “these men,” Jude was referring to the “certain persons” in verse 4, Gnostics who had infiltrated the Church in the first century. Gnostic immorality, adopted from other mystery religions, had caused them to “defile the flesh” in a similar manner that had been seen in Sodom and Gomorrah. Whether Jude was referring specifically to homosexual behavior or more broadly to all forms of fornication is not stated, but the latter is probably the case.

By “dreaming,” Jude was using the Greek term enypnion in the sense of one’s imagination or visualization of immoral acts, which would lead them invariably to carry out their dreams and “defile the flesh.”

Jesus Himself taught that one’s imagination was the cause of the outward act of sin. Anger is the same as murder (Matt. 5:22), and visualizing adultery is the same as the act of adultery (Matt. 5:28).

The descent into lawlessness, of course, was a violation of the covenant and a departure from the nature of God—evidence that “these men” were neither filled with nor led by the Holy Spirit.

Instead, such lawlessness is evidence that they “reject authority,” presumptuously thinking that they were their own authority. By failing to submit to divine authority and to recognize His law above their own conscience or religious views, they also “revile angelic majesties.”

Michael’s Dispute with the Devil

Jude 9 says,

9 But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.”

This is widely understood to be a reference to an apocryphal book known as The Assumption of Moses. This was a book written in the early first century shortly after the death of Herod. By its internal evidence, scholars date its publication from 3-30 A.D. Today we possess only a fragment of it, but originally it was written in two sections:

Book 1: The Testament of Moses

Book 2: The Assumption of Moses

It is quoted by various early Church writers of the first few centuries, giving us some idea of its contents, but the story of Michael’s dispute is not found in the quotation (“fragment”) that we have today. By piecing together the comments of those who quoted from it many years ago, we can say with some certainty that the book claims that Michael was commissioned to bury Moses and that Satan opposed his burial on the grounds that he was the lord of matter and that Moses was guilty of murder.

In regard to the first assertion, Michael refutes the devil by reminding him that God Himself created matter. The idea that the devil is the lord of matter assumes the Greek idea that the demiurge (devil) was the one who created matter and therefore owns it by right of creation.

On the second assertion that Moses was a murderer, we are not told how Michael refuted this charge. This was probably a reference to the time when Moses killed an Egyptian in defense of the Israelites (Exodus 2:12). If we assume the story itself to be true and in need of a response, we should note that God had already brought judgment upon Moses by exiling him for 40 years. Exile can be a lawful judgment for murder, for when Cain killed Abel, Cain too was exiled. Exile was a merciful alternative to the death penalty.

Hence, the devil could not use it against Moses, for he had served his sentence and received mercy, grace, and forgiveness by the time God came to him at the burning bush.

Other writers quoting The Assumption of Moses also tell us that Michael then accused the devil of inspiring the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve. The final outcome of the dispute, according to the author, was that in the presence of Caleb and Joshua, Moses’ spirit ascended to heaven (Hence, the Assumption of Moses), while his body was buried in an unknown part of the mountain by the One who created matter.

The Bible itself says nothing of such a dispute, but apparently, Jude took this account seriously.

The Question of Inspiration

Does Jude’s quotation imply that The Assumption of Moses was “inspired” and perhaps ought to be treated as Scripture? I do not believe so. First, if it were Scripture, how is it that God would cause part of His Word to be lost to us? We only have small fragments of this old book, and even this fragment was only recently discovered and published in 1861. If it were inspired Scripture, why would we no longer possess a full copy. Did God lose it?

Second, the New Testament books were written by the apostles or under their direction, with the exception of Luke, who was Paul’s companion and scribe. In the late fourth century, a high standard was set in determining the inspiration of Scripture. Internal evidence shows that The Assumption of Moses could not have been written after 30 A.D. Its author could not have been one of the apostles but was believed to be a Quietist Pharisee, that is, a branch of Phariseeism that believed that Jews should submit to the rule of the Romans.

Thirdly, the book also contains errors, even in the small fragment that we possess today. It has Moses prophesy that the Kingdom would be established 1,750 years after his death, which, by my reckoning would have been about 343-344 A.D. This was more than 300 years after Christ’s ministry on earth, and the date fell far short of Christ’s second appearance. Hence, this was an example of failed prophecy.

Likewise, the book prophesies about King Herod (not mentioning him by name, of course), telling us that the reign of his sons would be shorter than his own, whereas this was true only for Archelaus, in whose day the book was written. Philip and Antipas reigned longer than their father Herod. So this proved to be a false prophecy as well.

Hence, we know from today’s perspective that the book contained errors in prophecy. As time passed, the early Christians recognized this, and so few, if any, would have considered the book to be on par with the gospels and epistles. Jude, too, would have known this.

Paul himself quoted Aratus, a Greek philosopher, when he spoke at Mars Hill in Acts 17:28,

28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, “For we also are His offspring.”

This was a quotation from Aratus’ book called Phenomena. Paul acknowledged the truth of that statement and one might even attribute some level of inspiration to it, but that does not mean we should include it in Scripture—especially since the rest of Aratus’ book certainly contained teachings that were inconsistent with Scripture.

The same is true with The Assumption of Moses. Just because Jude quotes from it does not mean that the book itself is inspired Scripture. At most, we might say is that this particular portion of the book (i.e., the dispute) actually occurred. We believe, of course, that Jude was inspired to write what he did, and so we may have confidence that a dispute did occur. But even then, Jude was not led to give us any further details from the book, so we need not take it further than he did. In other words, we need not treat either the whole book or any portion of it as inspired, other than what Jude actually acknowledged.

It is the same with Paul’s quotation from Aratus. We need not treat as inspired anything beyond what Paul himself quoted.

Jude’s Warning

Jude’s warning was to those who might “revile angelic majesties,” that is, those who might disrespect the authority of angels. Jude 10 concludes,

10 But these men revile the things which they do not understand; and the things which they know by instinct, like unreasoning animals, by these things they are destroyed.

The lesson is that we ought not to be like “unreasoning animals.” We should be reasonable, then, which specifically means that we ought to be discerning and not simply to be driven by instinct, lest we be “destroyed.”