The testament and assumption of Moses.

Counted among the pseudepigrapha.


Attributed author(s).
Anonymous?

Text(s) available.
On site: Fragments (present page).
Wesley Noncanonical: Testament of Moses (English only, Milan manuscript).
OT Pseudepigrapha: Testament of Moses (English only, Milan manuscript).
Pseudepigrapha: Testament of Moses (English only, Milan manuscript).
Online Critical Pseudepigrapha.

Useful links.
Apocalyptic literature in the Jewish Encyclopedia.
Apocrypha in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
EJW (Peter Kirby).

Jewish background texts (Jim Davila).

The testament of Moses is counted as one of the pseudepigrapha, as is the assumption of Moses. Many think that these texts are one and the same. Of the two, the only surviving text besides patristic quotations is the single Latin manuscript (called the Milan manuscript) published in 1861 by Antonio Ceriani.

The Milan manuscript has been versified, and at 1.14 occurs a saying by Moses to Joshua to the effect that Moses was prepared before the foundation of the world to be the mediator of the covenant. This line is the basis of the identification of the text of the Milan manuscript with the Ascension (or Assumption) of Moses, since Gelasius of Cyzicus (century V) writes at 2.17.17 of his History of the Church as follows:

...ως γεγραπται εν βιβλω αναληψεως Μωσεως, προσκαλεσαμενος Ιησουν υιον Ναυη και διαλεγομενος προς αυτον εφη· Και προεθεασατο με ο θεος προ καταβολης κοσμου ειναι με της διαθηκης αυτου μεσιτην.

...as it is written in the book of the ascension of Moses, when he had called forth Joshua son of Nave and was disputing with him, he said: And God foresaw me before the foundation of the world, that I should be the mediator of his covenant.

It is also possible that the Milan manuscript actually represents the Testament of Moses, the attribution to the Assumption being either a mistake or the result of overlapping content between the texts. Such is the position of Richard Bauckham, who launches his discussion of the issue with a probe into the source(s) for the notice in Jude [1.]8-9, which reads:

Ομοιως μεντοι και ουτοι ενυπνιαζομενοι σαρκα μεν μιαινουσιν, κυριοτητα δε αθετουσιν, δοξας δε βλασφημουσιν. ο δε Μιχαηλ ο αρχαγγελος, οτε τω διαβολω διακρινομενος διελεγετο περι του Μωυσεως σωματος, ουκ ετολμησεν κρισιν επενεγκειν βλασφημιας, αλλα ειπεν· Επιτιμησαι σοι κυριος.

Likewise, these men dream and defile the flesh, and lordship they set aside, and they blaspheme glories. But Michael the archangel, when contending he disputed with the devil concerning the body of Moses, did not dare to bring up a judgment of blasphemy, but rather said: The Lord rebuke you!

The Alexandrian fathers attribute this Mosaic episode to the text known as the Assumption (or Ascension) of Moses. There is a Latin fragment extant from Clement of Alexandria commenting on Jude [1.]9:

Hic confirmat assumptionem Moysi.

This confirms the assumption of Moses.

Origen agrees with this attribution in On First Things 3.2:

Et primo quidem in genesi serpens Evam seduxisse perscribitur, de quo in ascensione Moysi, cuius libelli meminit in epistola sua apostolus Iudas, Michahel archangelus cum diabolo disputans de corpore Moysi ait a diabolo inspiratum serpentem causam extitisse praevaricationis Adae et Evae.

And at first, moreover, in Genesis the serpent is written up as having seduced Eve, concerning which in the Ascension of Moses, of which little book the apostle Jude makes mention in his epistle, Michael the archangel when he was disputing with the devil concerning the body of Moses says that the serpent, inspired by the devil, was the cause of the prevarication of Adam and Eve.

Didymus the blind also agrees with the attribution in his commentary on the epistle of Jude:

Adversarii huius contemplationis praescribunt praesenti epistolae et Moyseos assumptioni propter eum locum ubi significatur verbum archangeli de corpore Moyseos ad diabolum factum.

Adversaries of this consideration object to the present epistle and to the Assumption of Moses on account of that place where the word made by the archangel to the devil concerning the body of Moses is signified.

This triple Alexandrian attribution of the story that Jude knew to the Assumption of Moses seems formidable, but Richard Bauckham, in chapter 5 (pages 235-280) of his masterpiece Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church, argues that two very different texts described such an encounter between Michael and the devil, that the Alexandrians knew only the one (the Assumption or Ascension), but that Jude was actually drawing upon the other (the Testament of Moses).

The story that Bauckham assigns to the Assumption of Moses is represented in several patristic catenae, histories, and commentaries. According to this version of the tale, at the death of Moses the archangel Michael was sent to bury his body, but the devil laid claim to the body on the grounds that he was the lord of matter. Michael replied that it is God who is the lord of matter, citing a psalm or two to underscore the point. Michael then cried out: May the Lord rebuke you! At which time the story points out that the Lord is the Lord of spirits and of all flesh, citing the LXX version of Numbers 16.22; 27.16.

A catena assembled in 1844 by Cramer contains the following comment which gives us the diabolic claim and half of the angelic response:

Ο γαρ διαβολος αντειχε θελων απατησαι οτι, Εμον το σωμα, ως της υλης δεσποζοντι· και ηκουσε παρα του αγγελου το· Επιτιμησαι σοι κυριος, τουτεστι ο κυριος των πνευματων και πασης σαρκος.

For the devil, wishing to deceive, resisted [and said]: The body is mine, since I am the master of matter. And he heard from the angel: The Lord rebuke you, that is, the Lord of spirits and of all flesh.*

* Numbers 16.22; 27.16 (LXX).

Gelasius Cyzicenus gives us the other half of the angelic response in his History of the Church 2.21.7:

Εν βιβλω δε αναληψεως Μωσεως Μιχαηλ ο αρχαγγελος διαλεγομενος τω διαβολω λεγει· Απο γαρ πνευματος αγιου αυτου παντες εκτισθημεν, και παλιν λεγει· Απο προσωπου του θεου εξηλθε το πνευμα αυτου, και κοσμος εγενετο.

But, in the book of the assumption of Moses, Michael the archangel, disputing with the devil, says: For from his holy spirit we were all created,1 and again he says: From the face of God his spirit went out, and the world came into being.2

1 Psalm 104.30 (LXX 103.30).
2 Psalm 33.6 (LXX 32.6); confer Judith 16.14.

In this account, which Bauckham assigns to the Assumption, the devil serves as sort of a gnostic demiurge, claiming controlling interest in the material world. The scriptural response from the archangel restores the traditional Jewish way of viewing things, with God as master both of the spiritual and of the material worlds, and the devil as a pretender or usurper.

The account that Bauckham assigns to the Testament of Moses has the same characters in similar roles, but with a different basis for the dispute. It is related in the Byzantine collection known as the Palaea Historica as follows:

Περι της τελευτης Μωυσεως.

Concerning the death of Moses.

Και ειπεν Μωυσης προς Ιησουν του Ναυι· Ανελθωμεν εν τω ορει. και ανελθοντων αυτων ειδεν Μωυσης την γην επαγγελιας και ειπεν προς αυτον· Κατελθε προς τον λαον και αναγγειλον αυτοις οτι Μωυσης ετελευτησεν. και κατηλθεν Ιησους προς τον λαον, ο δε Μωυσης τα τελη του βιου εκτησατο.

And Moses said toward Joshua* of Nave: Let us go up on the mountain. And when they had gone up Moses saw the land of promise and said toward him: Go down toward the people and announce to them that Moses has died. And Joshua went down toward the people, but Moses came to the end of his life.

* Or Jesus.

Και επειρατο Σαμουηλ ως αν καταβαση το σκυνωμα αυτου τω λαω ινα θεοποιηθωσιν αυτον, Μιχαηλ δε ο αρχιστρατηγος προσταξει θεου ηλθεν λαβειν αυτο{ν} και συνστειλαι, και ανθιστατο αυτω Σαμουηλ, και διεμαχοντο. αγανακτησας ουν ο αρχιστρατηγος εμετιμησεν αυτον, ειπων· Επιτιμα σε κυριος, διαβολε. και ουτως ηττηθη ο αντικειμενος και φυγην εχρησατο, ο δε αρχαγγελος Μιχαηλ συνεστειλεν το σκυνωμα Μωυση οπου προσεταχθη παρα θεου του Χριστου ημων [και ουδεις ειδεν την ταφην Μωσεως].

And Samuel tried to bring his corpse down to the people so that they might make him a god, but Michael the archcaptain by the order of God came to take it and remove it, and Samuel resisted him, and they made war. The archcaptain therefore became angry and rebuked him, saying: The Lord rebuke you, devil. And thus the adversary was defeated and fled, and the archangel Michael removed the corpse of Moses to where he was ordered by Christ our God, [and no one saw the burial of Moses].

Bauckham also cites the Slavonic Life of Moses in this connection:

But at the end of the same year, in the twelfth month, on the seventh day, that is, in March, Moses the servant of God died and was buried on the fourth of the month September on a certain mountain by the archcaptain Michael. For the devil contended with the angel, and he would not permit his body to be buried, saying: Moses is a murderer; he slew a man in Egypt and hid him in the sand. Then Michael prayed to God and there was thunder and lightning and suddenly the devil disappeared; but Michael buried him with his [own] hands.

Bauckham notes that this text preserves the charge of the devil against Moses (that he killed the Egyptian) without the response from Michael (may the Lord rebuke you), while the previous text preserves the response without the charge.

Bauckham also points to (pseudo-)Oecumenius, commentary on Jude [1.]9:

Λεγεται τον Μιχαηλ τον αρχαγγελον τη του Μωυσεως ταφη δεδιηκονηκεται. του γαρ διαβολου τουτο μη καταδεχομενου, αλλ επιφεροντος εγκλημα δια τον του Αιγυπτιου φονου αυτου* οντος του Μωυσεως, και τουτο μη συγχωρεισθαι αυτω τυχειν της εντιμου ταφης.

* Bauckham, following Hilgenfeld, corrects this to αιτιου.

It is said that Michael the archangel ministered over the burial of Moses. For the devil would not accept this, but rather bore forth an accusation on account of the murder of the Egyptian, since Moses was to blame for it, and thus would not leave room for him to get an honorable burial.

Finally, another entry from the 1844 catena assembled by Cramer supports this overall picture:

Τελευτησαντος εν τω ορει Μωυσεως, ο Μιχαηλ αποστελλεται μεταθησων το σωμα· ειτα του διαβολου κατα του Μωυσεως βλασφημουντος και φονεα αναγορευοντος δια το παταξαι τον Αιγυπτιον, ουκ ενεγκων την κατ αυτου βλασφημιαν ο αγγελος· Επιτιμησαι σοι ο θεος, προς τον διαβολον εφη.

When Moses died on the mountain, Michael is sent to change the place of the body; then when the devil blasphemed against Moses and proclaimed him a murderer on account of his striking the Egyptian, the angel, not bearing the blasphemy against him, said toward the devil: God rebuke you.

Thus Bauckham distinguishes between two different versions of the death of Moses. To the Assumption of Moses he assigns the version in which the basis of the diabolical claim is that the devil himself is master of the material world. To the Testament of Moses he assigns the version in which the basis of the diabolical claim is the slaying of the Egyptian. The Alexandrian fathers, according to Bauckham, knew only the former and thus quite naturally assumed that Jude had used it. But Bauckham goes so far as to suggest that the Assumption was written on the basis of Jude [1.]9 itself! He writes on page 268:

This raises the possibility that the author of the Assumption of Moses knew no more about the dispute over the body of Moses than he read in Jude 9. Our two reconstructed versions of the debate have in common only what is also in Jude 9. There seems no reason, therefore, to suppose that the author of the Assumption of Moses knew Jude's source, the Testament of Moses, and rewrote its account of Moses' burial. He need only have been spinning a plausible story out of Jude 9....

The debate over which of the ancient texts about the patriarchs and other Jewish saints are Christian, and which are genuinely Jewish and date to before Christ, may find some measure of satisfaction at this point. If this scenario as Bauckham constructs it is accurate, then the Testament of Moses would most likely be a genuinely Jewish work that predates the epistle of Jude, while the Assumption of Moses would be purely Christian, and would in fact postdate that epistle.

Bauckham also reviews the possibility that the author of the Assumption worked over the Testament after all. But we may never know for certain.

All of the above texts are to be found in Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church, along with several more and a sterling discussion of the most relevant aspects. I highly recommend this book for this chapter alone... and it is not even my favorite chapter in the book! (Chapter 7 on the Lucan genealogy would have to take that prize.)


Peter Kirby (Early Jewish Writings).

Peter Kirby surveys scholars writing on the testament of Moses:

John J. Collins writes: "In 1861 Antonio Ceriani published a fragmentary Latin manuscript which he had found in the Ambrosian Library in Milan and which he identified as the Assumption of Moses. The identification was based on chapter 1 verse 14, which corresponds to a quotation from the Assumption of Moses by Gelasius (Ecclesiastical History II.17.17). Gelasius elsehwere (II.21.7) refers to the dispute between Michael and the Devil in the Assumption of Moses. This episode is not found in the manuscript published by Ceriani, but is often referred to in patristic sources and even already in the New Testament in Jude, verse 9. (The allusion is not identified in Jude but is specified in Clement, Origen and other patristic sources.) The Latin manuscript does not refer to the death of Moses or his subsequent assumption at all and, since it is primarily a prophecy delivered before death, it is more properly described as a testament. In fact the Stichometry of Nicephorus and other lists mention a Testament (Diatheke) of Moses immediately before the Assumption, and the dominant opinion of scholars is that Ceriani's text corresponds to the Testament rather than the Assumption. In view of the citations in Gelasius, some have suggested that the Testament and the Assumption were combined in a single book. The surviving Latin text is incomplete, and may have concluded with an account of the assumption of Moses. Origen (De Principiis III.2.1) uses the title 'Ascension of Moses' for the document which contains the dispute between Michael and the Devil, i.e. the Assumption of Moses." (Outside the Old Testament, p. 145)

Raymond F. Surburg writes: "The book purports to give an address delivered by Moses to Joshua. In it there is a description of how Moses, when he is about to die, delivers to Joshua the sacred writings. Moses reveals to his successor prophecies which he is instructed to record but to hide until the appointed time concerning the Hebrew nation. A panorama of the history of the Jews up to the author's time is described. He tells how one tribe shall say to another: 'Lo, is not this that which Moses did once declare unto us in prophecies? Yea, he declared and called heaven and earth to witness against us that we should not transgress the commandments of the Lord, of which he was the mediator to us.' There are references to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., the persecution of Antiochus, the rule of the Hasmoneans, the divisions between Pharisees and Sadducees, and the reign of Herod. The book ends on an optimistic note, for the promise of a happy future is given." (Introduction to the Intertestamental Period, p. 139)

Emil Schürer writes: "Opinion is very much divided regarding the date of the composition of this book. Ewald, Wieseler, Drummond and Dillman refer it to the first decade after the death of Herod; Hilgenfeld calculates that it may have been written in the course of the year 44-45 A.D.; Schmidt and Merx say some time between 54 and 64 A.D.; Fritzsche and Lucius trace it to the sixth decade of the first century A.D.; Langen thinks it must have been shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus (chap. viii. being erroneously interpreted as referring to this event); Hausrath prefers the reign of Domitian; Philippi, the second century of our era (the latter fixing on this date solely with the object of his being able to ascribe the authorship to a Christian, and of reversing the relation in which our book and ver. 9 of the Epistle of Jude stand to each other; see in particular, pp. 177, 182); while Volkmar (in accordance with his well-known predilection for the time of Barcocheba) thinks the date would be some time in the course of the year 137-138 A.D. Almost the whole of the critics just mentioned base their calculation upon the well-nigh illegible fragments of numbers in chap. vii. But surely one may fairly question the propriety of trying to found anything whatever upon lines so mutilated as those are; and if we had no other data but these to help us to fix the date in question, we would have nothing for it but to abandon the attempt altogether. Still I cannot help thinking that there are two such data at our disposal. (1) Toward the end of chap. vi. it is plainly stated that the sons of Herod are to reign for a shorter period (breviora tempora) than their father. Now it is well known that Philip and Antipas reigned longer than their father; and one cannot help seeing the embarrassment to which those words have led in the case of all those critics who refer the composition of our book to a latish date. They are capable of being explained solely on the assumption that the work was written toward the commencement of the reign of the last-mentioned princes. (2) It is as good as universally admitted that the concluding sentences of chap. vi. refer to the war of Varus in the year 4 B.C. When therefore chap. vii. goes on to say: Ex quo facto finientur tempora, surely there can hardly be room for any other inference than this, that the author wrote subsequent to the war of Varus. In that case the enigmatical numbers that follow in this same chapter cannot be supposed to be a continuation of the narrative, but are to be regarded as a calculation added by way of supplement after the narrative has been brought down to the date at which the author was writing. Only, considering how mutilated those numbers are, every attempt to explain them must prove a failure. Consequently the view of Ewald, Wieseler, Drummond and Dillmann with regard to the date of the composition of our book is substantially correct." (The Literature of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus, pp. 78-79)

Martin McNamara writes: "The original form of this work probably originated about the same time as the Book of Daniel. It was once thought that the date to be assigned to the composition was A.D. 7-30 since chapter 6 clearly speaks of Herod and his sons. It is highly probable, however, that this section is interpolated and was inserted when a second edition, so to speak, of The Testament of Moses was brought out in the first half of the first century A.D. The Testament of Moses is based on Deut 31-34 and contains Moses' parting words to Israel together with an account of his death." (Intertestamental Literature, p. 96)

James C. VanderKam writes: "The fact that the predictions extend well into the first century CE means that the Testament of Moses as we have it was not written before that time. It has been suggested, however, that a book, dating from early Maccabean times, was later supplemented by splicing chapters 6-7 into the predictive survey in order to bring it up to date. The strongest argument for this thesis is that these two chapters seem to destroy the sequence of the survey. Yet it is possible to read the book as it stands as an orderly account and to understand chapters 7-9 as stereotypical depictions of the great evil at the end. These depictions draw on themes from the Maccabean crisis but are not meant to be descriptions of it. If so, then the entire book, which does not (in the surviving form of the text) claim to be revealed by an angel, can be read as an apocalypse from the first century BCE. It was written under the impress of events in Herod's time and immediately after; its purpose was to reassure the readers that God foreknew everything that would happen, that he is faithful to the covenant, and that he will have compassion on his people. No less an authority than Moses himself stands behind the message." (An Introduction to Early Judaism, pp. 114-115)

James Charlesworth writes: "The date of the composition has been a subject of considerable controversy. Most critics today correctly place the original sometime in the opening decades of the first century A.D. (cf. J. J. Collins, no. 1151); but J. Licht ('Taxo, or the Apocalyptic Doctrine of Vengeance,' JJS 12 [1961] 95-103) and G. W. E. Nichelsburg, Jr. (no. 471, pp. 28-31, 43-45, 97; no. 1168; cf. 1169, p. 6) have argued for a date during the early stages of the Maccabean revolt, allowing for interpolations and re-editing in the Herodian period. Given the incomplete, often illegible state of the extant text and our fragmentary knowledge of early Judaism it has been impossible to reach a scholarly consensus regarding the text's provenance or relationship to a Jewish sect, if any. Scholars have generally concluded that the original language is Hebrew (Charles, APOT 2, p. 410; Ferrar, Assumption of Moses, p. 8; D. H. Wallace, 'The Semitic Origin of the Assumption of Moses,' TZ 11 [1955] 321-28; cf. idem, no. 1182)." (The Pseudepigrapha and Modern Research, pp. 163-164)

Leonhard Rost writes: "As early as 1868, M. Schmidt and A. Merx described the author as an Essene, but they were unable to gain acceptance of their hypothesis. The discovery of the Qumran manuscripts proved them correct to the extent of confirming that the author belonged to the Qumran milieu (R. Meyer, O. Eissfeldt). There are particularly close connections with the Damascus Document and the War Scroll. The association with Qumran means that the work was composed in Palestine. Since the Temple appears to be still standing, whereas Herod is dead and his sons appear to be ruling, the date must fall in the first third of the first century C.E." (Judaism Outside the Hebrew Canon, p. 148)

John J. Collins writes: "In its present form the Testament of Moses must be dated around the turn of the era, since there is a clear allusion to the partial destruction of the temple in the campaign of Varus in 4 BC (TMos 6:8-9). The document shows no awareness of the final destruction of AD 70. Scholarly opinion is divided as to whether chapters 5-6, which develop the course of history through the first century BC were part of the original document or a later insertion. These chapters clearly refer to the Hasmoneans, Herod and the campaign of Varus. Yet the final persecution, in chapter 8, is strongly reminiscent of the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes. R. H. Charles attempted to resolve this anomaly by re-arranging the chapters so that 8-9 stood before 5-6. This proposal is unacceptable since the logic of the book demands that the divine intervention in chapter 10 should follow directly on the most sever persecution and especially on the episode of Taxo and his sons. The specificity of the account of the persecution in chapter 8 suggests that this is an account of the author's time, rather than a stereotyped eschatological scenario. In this case we must assume that chapters 5-6 were inserted to update the book. The account of the persecution then becomes an eschatological scenario in the revised document. Support for the theory of a second redaction can be found in 10:8 where the phrase 'the wings of the eagle' is an addition, and may allude to the pulling down of the golden eagle over the temple gate shortly before the campaign of Varus (Josephus, Ant. XVII.6.3 (155-7))." (Outside the Old Testament, p. 148)