I was reading in the Bible from the letter of St. Jude last night and came up short at verse 9:
But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses…
I’ve read the Old Testament several times through and never ran into this story, due to the simple fact that it’s not in there. No, it comes from a Jewish legend called The Assumption of Moses. What is even more amazing is the fact that the extant version of this work is cut off before Moses’ death, so the way we know that this reference is from that work is because the Church Fathers tell us. (For another possible take on this passage from a Catholic perspective, check out this blog post.)
I kept reading and then St. Jude surprised me again by quoting from the Jewish apocryphal work 1 Enoch. Huh? Add to these legendary and apocryphal references the fact that we don’t know which Jude, exactly, wrote this letter. We can rule out Judas Iscariot of course, and it doesn’t seem likely it was St. Jude the Apostle. There were other Judes, and the one most think wrote it was the Jude mentioned in Matthew 13:55 as a kinsman of Jesus. So his brother was likely the James who became a patriarch of Jerusalem in the early Church.
Given these dubious elements of the letter, is it surprising then that the canonical status of Jude was disputed for centuries in the early Church?
In the Catholic Church its canonicity was not definitively confirmed until the 4th and 5th centuries. In Syriac Christianity, doubts remained about the letter until the Middle Ages. And none other than Martin Luther himself dismissed Jude, along with three other New Testament books, in pejorative terms from the first edition of his Bible translation. Luther knew that it was strongly disputed in the early Church for many centuries and felt that was reason enough to remove it from the canon.
What we can conclude from the inclusion of Jude in the Bible? A few things:
1. Christians who claim that they simply accept as inspired what the Church “knew” or “received” as Scripture “from the beginning” are not holding to an historically plausible position.
Jude, along with many other books, deflate this attempt to circumvent the agency of the Church in discerning the canon in the first four hundred years of Christianity. The idea is attractive, that the early Church just passively “received” the twenty-seven NT books and knew they were inspired by universal acclaim in the 1st or 2nd century, which would offer decent footing, so it would seem, for accepting the canon while rejecting the belief that God guided the Church in discerning other matters of the faith. But unfortunately as Jude shows and Martin Luther confirms, this idea doesn’t work.
2. Christians who seek to craft their own criteria for choosing books for the canon sometimes claim that they can exclude, say, 1 Clement, because St. Clement references a legendary phoenix creature in his letter.
But, even ignoring the fantastical creatures and legendary references in other books of the Bible, here in Jude we have references to a legendary battle between St. Michael and the Devil over Moses’ body and then a lengthy, direct quotation from an apocryphal work (1 Enoch), without any kind of qualifier making clear that this quote should not be construed as lending credence to 1 Enoch in general. Sure, someone who crafts their own canonical criteria up can make up their own qualifiers for why Jude should be accepted and 1 Clement should not be, but it’s just that: their own made up criteria and interpretation.
So how can we know that the twenty-seven books of the NT are the exact ones that God inspired? Simple. God guided His Church’s discernment of those books over the centuries, leading the Church into all truth, so that all people throughout all ages (including us) would have the deposit of faith preserved uncorrupted, that we might then know Christ in truth and find salvation in Him.