The article of the month

Is That in the Bible? by Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p.

Tomb Raiders

Grave robbery is not usually the first temptation that tests modern man’s moral resolve; yet grave robbery is the source of such wonderful treasures: the Sarpedon Krater, for instance. It was the anonymous plundering of ancient Etruscan tombs sometime in the 1970s that brought to the world’s attention (and, dubiously, into the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) this most luscious of all ancient Greek vases. Painted and signed by a master named Euphronios, it vividly depicts, ironically enough, a grave robbery scene. In fact, it depicts a grave robbery so irresistible and alluring that it starts before the dead man’s body ever reaches the grave.

The episode appears in the Iliad of Homer. The great warrior and son of Zeus, Sarpedon, falls in battle and his body lies exposed on the earth. Both sides, Trojans and Argives, engage in a tug-of-war over the hero’s corpse: the Greeks managing to strip off its armor, the Trojans hoping to have the body itself to do it dishonor. Zeus, unable to watch any longer, intervenes and sends down some gods to snatch away the body. They wash it, then give it due funeral rites. So was Sarpedon (for whom the vase is named) spared the greatest indignity of the ancient world: to die unburied.

The presence of this same Sarpedon motif on an extraordinary number of ancient Greek vessels makes it something like a mass media image in the classical world—and thus helpful cultural background for appreciating a rather strange New Testament verse. In the Letter of Jude we read that the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed about the body of Moses (1:9). Nothing like this appears in the Old Testament. In fact, Deuteronomy 34:6 records that Moses was buried in a valley in the land of Moab…but no one knows his burial place to this day. As Jewish tradition searched to explain Moses’ mysterious death, it built up a story, recorded in a pseudepigraphal text revealingly called the Assumption of Moses. It is there, according to the ancient testimony of Origen and others, that we find the tug-of-war over Moses to which Jude refers.

Instead of Greeks and Trojans, there was an angelic contest over the fallen Hebrew hero. Michael, interestingly, had for various reasons acquired the job of gravedigger for the righteous in the popular Judaism of the day. He was thus in charge of ensuring that good people were not abandoned to indignity at the time of their death, and so he was the natural opponent of the devil, whose interest was to dishonor and desecrate the man of God. Like Sarpedon, however, Moses was carried away—but not simply to be safely interred. According to the tradition, he ascended on high. This posthumous ascension into heaven was modeled on Moses’ earlier ascent up Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, which was understood to be an anticipation of the journey to heaven.

The Sinai connection also illuminates Michael’s strange words in Jude 1:9: The Lord rebuke you, Satan. The citation is actually lifted from Zechariah 3, when the Angel of the Lord defends the high priest against Satan’s attacks. The pseudepigraphal literature, however, understood Moses’ ascension up Sinai and into the heavenly temple to imply a kind of priestly ordination. Who else goes into temples? In this way Moses became identified with Zechariah’s high priest. Israel’s greatest prophet was fused with Israel’s high priest and he left behind an empty tomb: clearly a Christ-shaped pattern. For empty tombs tend to mean only one of two possible things: either grave robbery (think Mt 28:13) or a resurrection—God’s own version of robbing the grave. You will not leave my soul among the dead, nor let your beloved know corruption (Ps 16:10).


Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.