What is the “Testament of Moses”?

This book is called The Assumption of Moses in Charles, although the Testament and the Assumption may be two separate books. The only extant copy of the Testament of Moses is a Latin palimpsest dating to the sixth century A.D.  This manuscript is missing a section and in other places it is illegible (OTP 1:919-920). Most Christian interest is due to the allusion in Jude to this book.

Image result for Testamentof MosesThe book may have been written in Greek since there are a few words which are simply transliteration of Greek words.  Priest notes, however, that the consensus opinion is that the book was originally written in Hebrew (OTP 1:920). Dates range from the time of the Maccabean revolt to the second century A.D.   There seem to be clear references to the Herodians in chapter 6, although this may be the result of a revision of a Maccabean text.  Some have tried to connect the book to the Qumran community, although there is no exact representative of the sort of Judaism found in the book even at Qumran (OTP 1:921). Knibb argues that the history of Israel ends in 6:8-9 with an allusion to Varus, just after the death of Herod.  He therefore dates the book “fairly precisely to just after 4 B.C.E.”

The Testament of Moses comes from another pietist group of anti-Hasmoneans but is more focused on Herod, “an insolent king” who mistreats the people for thirty-four years (6:2-5). The reign of Herod is a terrible time, but one which was foreseen by God from the beginning of creation to the smallest detail (12:4).  This view of “fate” corresponds to Josephus’ description of the view ascribed to the Essenes and Pharisees.  There is less to work with in the Testament of Moses so we cannot know if the writer also held some sort of view of free will.  Like the Psalms of Solomon, there is an expectation of a final consummation, although the details are confused.

According to this book, a Levite named Taxo will arise and lead his sons to a cave where they will die rather than break the commands of God. A similar attitude is demonstrated by 1 Mac 2:29-38, the martyrs who refused to fight on the Sabbath. While this event took place nearly 200 years before Testament of Moses was written, the Maccabean martyrs were revered as patriots even in the first century. According to John Collins, R. H. Charles identified him as Taxo as Daniel “for no good reason,” Tromp thought he was Ezra, and S. Mowinckel took the name to mean “orderer”, as in “one who is over them” ((The Apocalyptic Imagination, 130 notes 54 and 55).

There may be material missing which explains why Taxo does this, but the point is very much in line with the various stories we have encountered of pietist groups willing to die for the cause (Pharisees and Sicarii for example.)  In the later chapters of the book, God is described as appearing to punish the Gentiles and to exalt Israel “in heaven above the stars.” (N. T. Wright thinks this passage is dependent on Daniel 12:1-3, Resurrection of the Son of God, 157, so also Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 131). This is not an end of the world, but rather a defeat of Israel’s enemies parallel to their exaltation.  There are now details of this exaltation, however (a re-gathering of the nation, a messiah, a new temple, etc.)


Bibliography. M. Knibb, “The Exile in the Intertestamental Period,” Heythrop Journal 17 (1976): 253-72, reprinted in M. Knibb, Essays in the Book of Enoch and Other Early Jewish Texts and Traditions (SVTP 22; Leiden: Brill, 2009), 191-212; 200 n. 33.

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