Cc: GPG, Synoptic
In Response To: Dan Lusthaus
On: Ascension of Moses
DAN: There is a rather extensive body of post-exilic, extra-canonical and
rabbinic literature that contains a wealth of legendary (aggadic) material.
You seem to be quoting one of those passages dubiously attributed to
Josephus -- rather surprising given your fastidiousness about interpolations
and stratifications in other literature.
BRUCE: The extracanonical growth of the Moses legend is exactly the subject
under discussion; it doesn't turn solely on Josephus. As for textual
problems in Josephus, one or both of his references to Jesus have long been
suspected to be later Christianizing interpolations; my own sense of it is
that the suspicions on the whole are well founded (though there are still
some defenders). I haven't heard of similar doubts about his treatment of
Moses. Reference always welcome.
DAN: The prevailing myth concerning Moses' tomb is that he (or God) keeps it
hidden, so that anyone searching for it cannot find it. If you spy it from a
distance, once you get there, it appears to be somewhere else. Even Freud
devoted some attention to that myth.
BRUCE: Freud is interested in general terms; he is also concerned to
restructure religion as a delusion, and explain it on the same terms as he
explains other delusions. That sort of analysis is outside of history; it
invokes universal forces. I am not sure that this is the way to go at the
historical question: What myth existed at what time?
DAN: See Deut. 34:6.
BRUCE: Glad to. " So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land
of Moab, according to the word of the Lord,  and he buried him in the
valley, in the land of Moab opposite Bethpeor, but no man knows the place of
his burial to this day."
It is the last clause that either leaves the door open to later myth, or
acknowledges alternative versions in contemporary myth. In Josephus we had:
"although he wrote in the holy books that he died, which was done out of
fear, lest they should venture to say that, because of his extraordinary
virtue, he went to God."
This too seems to recognize an ambiguity about the physical end of Moses:
Scripture (precisely Deuteronomy) and legend (one version of which has Moses
"going to God." I am not interested in which of these options might have
been true of the Historic Moses, but rather in the existence of a Legendary
Moses in the 1st century.
BRUCE: Thanks for the reference [Brian M Britt, Rewriting Moses]; I hadn't
come across it. Nor had I come across the 8th century Palaea Historica,
cited by Britt, which mentions the dispute over the body of Moses between
God and Satan. As Britt notes, a version of that conflict also occurs in
Jude 9, which puts us back in the 1st century. The reference in Jude 9,
"But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about
the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgement upon
him, but said, The Lord rebuke you."
It seems to have been understood, in the legend here referred to by the
author of Jude, that Moses's spirit was in Heaven; the point of dispute was
about what would become of his body. This text is identified by some
commentators as "a Jewish apocalypse called the Assumption of Moses"
(Moffatt 1928, following Origen) or "The Ascension of Moses" (Barnett 1957)
or "The Testament of Moses" (Watson 1998); the text has been reconstructed
by Charles 1897 (not seen). It apparently featured a dispute over honorable
vs dishonorable burial; this is another way the tradition was divided in the
1st century. The interesting thing about the author of Jude is that he does
not take a position on Moses (that question belonged to a much earlier
stratum of Christian belief, and, I suspect, was meaningless at "Jude's"
much later period), but rather refers to this story obliquely, in order to
compare the audacious heretics of his own day with Satan, who in the story
presumed to argue with the Archangel Michael. What it documents, it seems to
me, is that the question of the end of Moses was live for Judaism at the end
of the 1c. I think that helps the general picture.
Moses was a father figure, a constitutive figure, for the nation of Israel.
He is just the kind of person, or persona, who would tend to be exalted in a
legendary way by an Israel under foreign domination. The evidence, such as
it is, tends to show that just this sort of legendary development, perhaps
already implied in Deuteronomy, was in full flower in the 1st century (and
seemingly later as well, as Britt points out).
Where does Mark fit into all of this? That is the question of relevance for
the study of early Christian beliefs. As I read the (stratified) evidence of
Mark, the Assumption Christians, who seem to have been one of the very
earliest modes of Christian belief, felt that their theory of Jesus was
paralleled not only by the canonically sound precedent of Elijah (who, NB,
is mentioned first in Mk 9:4, a point which puzzles the commentators), but
also by the less canonical but still current precedent of Moses. "And there
appeared to them Elijah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus."
The traces of this belief have been overlaid by later text, written in
support of later beliefs, chiefly the eventually victorious Resurrection
Christianity. Victory doesn't interest me, as such; only the historical
[E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst]