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The Apocryphal Old Testament Collection of the most important non-canonical Old Testament books designed for general use.

The Assumption of Moses - Introduction

The Assumption is preserved only in an incomplete Latin version, which has survived as the underwriting on a single quire of a 6th or 7th cent. palimpsest in the Ambrosian library at Milan (Cod. C73 Inf.). This palimpsest contains on other quires the Latin fragments of Jubilees and also fragments of an anonymous heretical commentary on St. Luke. The text was published by Ceriani in 1861 in the first fascicle of his Monumenta Sacra et Profana. Although the first three lines of the Assumption are unfortunately wanting, it seems that the work started at the beginning of the quire. But at the end the text breaks off in mid-sentence, and there are no means of knowing how much has been lost.

The MS itself gives the work no title. The common title, ‘The Assumption of Moses’, was inferred by Ceriani from the fact that Gelasius of Cyzicus, in his Collection of the Acts of the Council of Nicaea, quotes i. 14 and explicitly attributes it to the Assumption, 1 Gelasius, Hist. Conc. Nic, II.xvii. 17. a work independently proved to have been known in the early Church from references in other patristic writers and from the ancient lists of apocryphal books.

Nevertheless, the identification is not certain. The lists mention a ‘Testament’ of Moses as well as an ‘Assumption’; and ‘Testament’ is a description that fits the contents of our fragment very well. Moreover, the lists all place the Testament before the Assumption. A variety of possibilities is therefore opened up. Three of them may be stated: (1) that our fragment is indeed the Assumption, as Ceriani inferred, and that the Testament either has been lost or is Jubilees under another name (this last hypothesis will explain why the fragments of Jubilees were found in such close proximity to our fragment in the same palimpsest); (2) that our fragment is the Testament and not the Assumption, and that Gelasius's ascription of i. 14 to the Assumption is due to confusion on his part between the two (in this case it is the Assumption which has been lost); and (3) that the Testament and the Assumption, originally two distinct works, were at an early date combined and subsequently circulated as the ‘Assumption’, and that it is the opening of this combined work which has been preserved in our fragment (this was Charles's view).

But whatever the true solution may be it is worth observing that Gelasius attributes two further quotations to the Assumption, and that neither of them is found in our fragment. Both concern a dispute between the archangel Michael and the Devil:

‘In the Book of the Assumption of Moses’, Gelasius writes, ‘Michael the archangel, disputing with the Devil, says, For from his Holy Spirit we all were created. And again he says, From God's presence went forth his Spirit, and the world came into being’. 2 Gelas. Hist. Conc. Nic. II.xxi. 7.

More details about this dispute may be gleaned from other Fathers, some of whom explicitly name the Assumption as their source. The earliest reference to the legend is to be found in the Epistle of Jude in the New Testament. There we are told that the dispute was ‘about the body of Moses’, and Michael is quoted as having said to the Devil ‘May the Lord rebuke you!’; but there is no mention of any source. 3 Jude 9.

Problems of date and origin, though by no means simple, are not intractable. Ostensibly the Assumption supplies details which are lacking in Moses's final charge to Joshua as recorded in Deut. xxxi. In fact it is an apocalypse, which sketches the history of Israel from the time of Moses's death to the final consummation (i. 18). In vi. 2 ff. Moses predicts the succession of ‘an insolent king…who will not be of priestly stock…and he will treat them ruthlessly…for thirty-four years’. This king is clearly Herod the Great, who succeeded the Maccabaean priest-kings in 37 BC and reigned till 4 BC. Moses goes on to predict that this king will have sons, ‘who will succeed him and rule for shorter periods’: ‘a powerful king of the west’ will come and ‘take them captive and burn a part of their temple with fire, and crucify some of them round their city’; and then the End will come (vii.i).

Charles argued that this reflects a situation soon after Herod's death and before any of his sons had reigned as long as their father – i.e. the period between 3 BC and AD 30. According to this view, the ‘powerful king of the west’ is Varus, the Roman governor of Syria, who in 4 BC suppressed a Jewish rebellion and crucified two thousand Jews after the troops of his lieutenant Sabinus had set fire to the roof of the Temple. And this view has been very generally accepted.

Another, very different, view has been proposed by J. Licht and adopted and developed by G. W. E. Nickelsburg. According to this view the Assumption was originally written during the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes, near the beginning of the fourth decade of the second century BC (that is, roughly about the same time as the apocalyptic parts of Daniel – perhaps even earlier), and it was subsequently interpolated and updated in Herodian times. In this case, there are two distinct strata in the text as we have it, and we have to deal both with an original author and with at least one editor.

At the other extreme, G. Hölscher and others, accepting the unity of the work, have connected it with the second-century AD revolt in Hadrian's time. Hölscher himself identified the ‘powerful king of the west’ with Titus, and explained what this king is said to do against the background of the events of AD 70; and he suggested AD 130 as the date at which the author wrote – just before the Second Revolt began. On the other hand, K. Haacker, who attributed the work to a Samaritan, would date it after the Second Revolt – at any time between AD 135 and the end of the century.

In any event the author was not a revolutionary. Charles described him as ‘a Pharisaic Quietist’; though it must be admitted that there is no sound reason for connecting him so unambiguously with the Pharisees. Nor do there seem any sound reasons for connecting him with any other Jewish sect or party of which we have any definite knowledge – least of all with the Zealots, as Schürer proposed! But there can be no doubt whatever about his belief that the passive obedience exhibited by the Hasidim, rather than the militancy displayed by the Maccabees, was the attitude that would earn God's final vindication (ix. 6–x. 10). And in this connection we should note that the figure of the Levite Taxo, who is to appear at the end (ix. 1) and exhort his seven sons to retire to a cave and die rather than transgress the commandments, is manifestly modelled on elements in the stories of the scribe Eliezer and the seven sons of a mother, who die rather than eat pork in 2 Macc. vi. 18–vii. 42 , and of the faithful who were cut to pieces in their hiding-places rather than profane the Sabbath in 1 Macc. ii. 29–38 and 2 Macc. vi. 11 .

There are no discernible traces of Christian influence anywhere.

The text of the fragment is very corrupt and its Latin debased. It is clearly a version translated from Greek, for a number of Greek words have been transliterated, and many of the curiosities in the Latin may be explained as Greek phrases and idioms that have been translated over-literally. Also, the patristic evidence strongly supports the existence at one time of a Greek version. And behind the Greek, in all probability, lay a Semitic original, though whether that original was in Hebrew or Aramaic is an open question.

The translation which follows is a revision of Charles's translation: a number of his emendations have been dispensed with, however, when the text can be made to yield a tolerable sense as it stands.


1 Gelasius, Hist. Conc. Nic, II.xvii. 17.

2 Gelas. Hist. Conc. Nic. II.xxi. 7.

3 Jude 9.

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