Archive for the ‘Tobit’ Category

What a Tangled Web is Woven to Defend Tobit!

January 23, 2013

Over at the “National Catholic Register,” Mark Shea provided a piece responding to a reader’s concerns about the apocryphal book of Tobit, which is included within the canon of Scripture by the Council of Trent. I’m afraid the reader of Shea’s response has been seriously disserviced by Shea’s misleading answer.

Mark Shea wrote: “I’m of the opinion (perfectly acceptable, though not, of course, mandatory for Catholics) that Tobit is a work of fiction.”  I suppose people may differ over what is “perfectly acceptable.” In Denzinger’s “Sources of Catholic Dogma” the “Decree of Damasus” supposedly from a Council of Rome of 382 lists the book (consistently referred to as Tobias in Denzinger) within the list of “histories” together with Job, Esther, Esdras A & B, Judith, and 1 & 2 Maccabees. (p. 34)  Likewise in a letter to Exuperius, Innocent I categories the book within the “histories” category, additionally including 1 & 2 Chronicles in the same category. (p. 42) Trent, Session IV, does not explicitly state whether Tobit is historical, but places it amongst the historical works, after Nehemiah, but before Judith, Esther, and Job.

Likewise John Paul II refers to it as historical:

1. The Liturgy of Lauds has gathered among its Canticles a fragment of a hymn, that is placed as a seal on the history narrated in the biblical Book of Tobit: to which we listened a few moments ago. The rather long and solemn hymn is an expression typical of Judaic prayer and spirituality, which draws on other texts in the Bible.

(General Audience, August 13, 2003)

Where is any tradition that it is fiction?

Yes, the version of the Bible approved by the U.S. Council of Bishops (NABRE) in its notes does identify the book as historical fiction, but then again it also says the same thing about Judith and Esther: “The inspired author of the book used the literary form of religious novel (as in Esther and Judith) for the purpose of instruction and edification. The seemingly historical data, names of kings, cities, etc., are used as vivid details not only to create interest and charm, but also to illustrate the negative side of the theory of retribution: the wicked are indeed punished.” (source) But who before the 20th century believed such a thing?

Luther himself was on the fence about the matter (as quoted by Fitzmyer in Tobit (Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature), p. 31).  Who before Luther appreciated that the book might be fiction?

Mark Shea stated: “The clues in the text strongly suggest this, as when Tobit is named as the uncle of Ahiqar, a figure out of ancient mideast folklore.” On the one hand, we may believe that Ahiqar (and the work, “The Story of Ahiqar”) is fictional. On the other hand, it is not clear that the author of Tobit or that author’s immediate audience were aware of the fact that Ahiqar was fictional.

Indeed, Roman Catholic historian Joseph A. Fitzmyer, in his commentary on Tobit, asserts that Ahiqar “may well have been a historical figure” (p. 37).  So, while Shea may be right that the person is a character in middle eastern folklore, folklore grows up around historical figures (the cherry tree story about George Washington comes to mind – or the story of the Assumption of Mary).

Mark Shea continued: “If you want to get a feel for how that sounded to the original audience, imagine telling a tale to an English speaker that announces its hero as the uncle of Jack the Giant Killer. Your audience instantly knows from such a cue what sort of story it is hearing and interprets it accordingly.”  What is missing is any documentation at all from Mr. Shea that anyone at all had that perception of the Story of Ahiqar during the inter-testamental period when Tobit was written. While the Story of Ahiqar (as it has come down to us in various fragments) may have epic qualities, it’s not like “Jack and the Beanstalk” in terms of making reference to magic, for example.  Indeed, clearly Fitzmyer (who is an actual historian) doesn’t think that Ahiqar is a virtual Jack the Giant slayer.

Mark Shea continued:

That said, I guess I see no reason why God could not inspire a folk tale that begins “Once upon a time”. Jesus told fictional stories all the time. There was not really a Prodigal Son. There was not really an unjust judge, or a man who found a pearl of great price, or Good Samaritan. What’s wrong with an Old Testament author doing likewise and obeying the conventions of a good “entertaining angels unaware’ yarn in order to show virtue triumphing over evil through patient endurance?

One obvious difference between Tobit and Jesus’ parables is that Jesus’ parables are – you know – described as parables. Tobit, on the other hand, is provided with lots of supposedly historical details that are actually garbled and erroneous (not just claiming that the main character is a relative of fictional Ahiqar, but a number of other issues).

Mark Shea again: “Not, I repeat, that you have to think Tobit is fiction. Lots of people in antiquity took it for a factual story. I don’t think it matters.”  First, if it’s a “factual story” then it matters if one of the main characters claims to be related to a fictional character or if the book is riddled with (other) historical inaccuracies (and it is).  As Fitzmyer concedes, “the vast majority of modern commentators” acknowledge it is not historical, even though there were some attempts to defend its historicity at the beginning of the 20th century (p. 31).  The reason that they acknowledge it, is that the book has so many historical blunders (depending on which recension you follow).

Second, who in antiquity did not take it for a factual story? Can Shea name even one?  Even the authors who allegorized it did not argue that it was allegory as distinct from history.

Mark Shea yet again: “And the people who took it for a factual story don’t seem to have spent a lot of time worrying about it.” This might be significant if anyone at all had “worried” about it. Shea doesn’t (probably because he cannot) point to any author before the Reformation who “worried” about whether Tobit was a purportedly historical work or whether it was an historical novel.

Rather, as noted above, the few “sources of Catholic dogma” that address the matter unanimously describe it as historical.  And we could add to that the writings of people like Origen who treated the work as historical in his Letter to Africanus, at section 13 (link).

Mark Shea once more: “The Fathers of the Church who comment on Tobit are not, as is their custom, super-concerned with whether it is factual.” What “Fathers” does Shea have in mind? Who besides Bede the Venerable (who died in the 8th century) provided a commentary on Tobit?  Who before the 15th century took any serious in the book besides Bede and Ambrose?

As Geoffrey David Miller explains in “Marriage in the Book of Tobit” (p. 14):

Christians have read the Book of Tobit for centuries, but scholarly interest in the book is a relatively recent phenomenon. Ambrose of Milan (339-97) wrote a commentary on Tobit in the fourth century entitled De Tobia, but it was a condemnation of usury rather than an analysis of the story. The eighth-century commentary of Bede (673-735) focused on the actual story of Tobit but only in a superficial manner, offering a mere summary of the book while Christologizing it (For example, Tobiah’s victory over the fish in 6:3-4 represents Christ’s victory over Satan). 

Mark Shea again: “What they are interested in is what God is saying to us through the story and so they mine it for its moral teaching (primarily) and (secondarily) for its allegorical meaning concerning Christ.”  Which, as far as it goes, is true, with Ambrose being an example of the former, and Bede being an example of the latter.

After a quotation from Reardon (who uses the term “historical” in describing the work, repeatedly, without ever acknowledging that Tobit is historically inaccurate, either in that article or the follow-up) that we can pass over for now, Shea concludes:

As to why the Pope keeps it in the Bible, it’s not the Pope’s Bible to fiddle with.  The Pope is bound by apostolic tradition.  The apostles accepted and used the canon of books found in the Septuagint (including Tobit).  So the Pope accepted it as Scripture because the apostles taught him to.  Once the canon of Scripture is defined, the Pope has no authority to contradict what the Holy Spirit has spoken through Holy Church.  Nor do we.  Scripture is not there to affirm our aesthetic choices, but to reveal divine truth to us on God’s terms, not ours.  The healthy approach to Tobit is therefore to let it challenge you, rather than for you to ignore it.  Why not try a decent commentary on Tobit that draws on the Catholic tradition to see what the great saints and thinkers of the Church have mined from it?

First, the “canon of the Septuagint” depends on what century you look at.  Suffice to observe that Trent did not adopt Septuagint Esdras A (see discussion here) or a variety of other “Septuagint” books, such as 3 and 4 Maccabees or 1 Enoch.

Second, the idea that the Apostles used Tobit (as Scripture) is not historically supportable.  The historical evidence is that the Jews of the 1st century did not view Tobit as Scripture, just as the Jews of the patristic era did not(see Origen’s letter to Africanus, linked above, for evidence of that from the first half of the 3rd century), and just as modern Jews do not.  We have Josephus’ testimony regarding what 1st century Jews accepted as authoritative.

Third, the same “tradition” that supposedly passed down to Trent that Tobit is canonical also passed down that it was historical (as shown above).  Moreover, Trent did not depart from the arrangement of Florence and left Tobit and Judith amongst the historical works.

Finally, if Tobit were inspired Scripture, Mark Shea’s last few lines might make some sense.  The problem is that Tobit is not Scripture.  It’s an uninspired work of historical fiction that was passed off for centuries as though it were an historical work.  While it may have some useful teachings, so may the Story of Ahiqar – so may many other uninspired writings.

– TurretinFan

P.S. It’s interesting to note that a statistically insignificant sample of readers at Catholic Answers Forums voted by a simple majority (14 out of 27) that Tobit is entirely true (link).

Tobit – One Reason to Reject its Alleged Canonicity

June 18, 2012

The book of Tobit is told from a first person perspective by a man called “Tobit.” The book begins: “The book of the words of Tobit, son of Tobiel, the son of Ananiel, the son of Aduel, the son of Gabael, of the seed of Asael, of the tribe of Nephthali …” (Tobit 1:1). One reason to reject the canonicity of the book of Tobit is that Tobit seems to have a very foreshortened view of Israel’s history, even when it comes to his own autobiography.

“Tobit” continues the self-description above with this: “Who in the time of Enemessar king of the Assyrians was led captive out of Thisbe, which is at the right hand of that city, which is called properly Nephthali in Galilee above Aser.” (Tobit 1:2)

The very first issue is trying to identify this supposed king of the Assyrians. The Assyrians don’t have one by exactly this name, but the best guess we have about who the author of Tobit was trying to identify is this event:

2 Kings 17:1-12

1 In the twelfth year of Ahaz king of Judah began Hoshea the son of Elah to reign in Samaria over Israel nine years. 2 And he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, but not as the kings of Israel that were before him. 3 Against him came up Shalmaneser king of Assyria; and Hoshea became his servant, and gave him presents. 4 And the king of Assyria found conspiracy in Hoshea: for he had sent messengers to So king of Egypt, and brought no present to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year: therefore the king of Assyria shut him up, and bound him in prison.

5 Then the king of Assyria came up throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria, and besieged it three years. 6 In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.

7 For so it was, that the children of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, which had brought them up out of the land of Egypt, from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods, 8 And walked in the statutes of the heathen, whom the Lord cast out from before the children of Israel, and of the kings of Israel, which they had made. 9 And the children of Israel did secretly those things that were not right against the Lord their God, and they built them high places in all their cities, from the tower of the watchmen to the fenced city. 10 And they set them up images and groves in every high hill, and under every green tree: 11 And there they burnt incense in all the high places, as did the heathen whom the Lord carried away before them; and wrought wicked things to provoke the Lord to anger: 12 For they served idols, whereof the Lord had said unto them, Ye shall not do this thing.

The twelfth year of Ahaz corresponds to about 728 B.C.

On the other hand, the Scriptures tell us that people of Naphtali were carried off by Tiglathpileser:

2 Kings 15:29

In the days of Pekah king of Israel came Tiglathpileser king of Assyria, and took Ijon, and Abelbethmaachah, and Janoah, and Kedesh, and Hazor, and Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria.

(approximately 758–737 BC)

Notice that the captivity mentioned there includes Galilee, which is the region that Tobit claims to have haled from.

Even if we somehow blend out these seeming inconsistencies, we are left with a man who was around in the 8th century B.C.

Moreover, Tobit claims that it was in his youth that Naphtali fell out with all the tribes from worshiping God in Jerusalem.

Tobit 1:4-5

4 And when I was in mine own country, in the land of Israel being but young, all the tribe of Nephthali my father fell from the house of Jerusalem, which was chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, that all the tribes should sacrifice there, where the temple of the habitation of the most High was consecrated and built for all ages. 5 Now all the tribes which together revolted, and the house of my father Nephthali, sacrificed unto the heifer Baal.

There are a couple of problems with this. Primarily, the problem is that this is an event that took place in the time of Rehoboam, son of Solomon. That date is roughly 961 B.C. Secondarily, the problem is that although the people of Naphtali sacrificed to the calf and to Baal, those are really two different things (as can be seen in 2 Kings 17, above).

As you can see, this would imply that Tobit was about 200 years old.

But Tobit tells us his total age.

Tobit 14:1-11

1 So Tobit made an end of praising God. 2 And he was eight and fifty years old when he lost his sight, which was restored to him after eight years: and he gave alms, and he increased in the fear of the Lord God, and praised him. 3 And when he was very aged he called his son, and the sons of his son, and said to him, My son, take thy children; for, behold, I am aged, and am ready to depart out of this life. 4 Go into Media my son, for I surely believe those things which Jonas the prophet spake of Nineve, that it shall be overthrown; and that for a time peace shall rather be in Media; and that our brethren shall lie scattered in the earth from that good land: and Jerusalem shall be desolate, and the house of God in it shall be burned, and shall be desolate for a time; 5 And that again God will have mercy on them, and bring them again into the land, where they shall build a temple, but not like to the first, until the time of that age be fulfilled; and afterward they shall return from all places of their captivity, and build up Jerusalem gloriously, and the house of God shall be built in it for ever with a glorious building, as the prophets have spoken thereof. 6 And all nations shall turn, and fear the Lord God truly, and shall bury their idols. 7 So shall all nations praise the Lord, and his people shall confess God, and the Lord shall exalt his people; and all those which love the Lord God in truth and justice shall rejoice, shewing mercy to our brethren. 8 And now, my son, depart out of Nineve, because that those things which the prophet Jonas spake shall surely come to pass. 9 But keep thou the law and the commandments, and shew thyself merciful and just, that it may go well with thee. 10 And bury me decently, and thy mother with me; but tarry no longer at Nineve. Remember, my son, how Aman handled Achiacharus that brought him up, how out of light he brought him into darkness, and how he rewarded him again: yet Achiacharus was saved, but the other had his reward: for he went down into darkness. Manasses gave alms, and escaped the snares of death which they had set for him: but Aman fell into the snare, and perished. 11 Wherefore now, my son, consider what alms doeth, and how righteousness doth deliver. When he had said these things, he gave up the ghost in the bed, being an hundred and eight and fifty years old; and he buried him honourably.

So, Tobit was 158 when he died. Moreover, Tobit was only 85 when he went blind. But Tobit went blind after the captivity. Tobit 2 explains, Tobit 2:1-10:

1 Now when I was come home again, and my wife Anna was restored unto me, with my son Tobias, in the feast of Pentecost, which is the holy feast of the seven weeks, there was a good dinner prepared me, in the which I sat down to eat. 2 And when I saw abundance of meat, I said to my son, Go and bring what poor man soever thou shalt find out of our brethren, who is mindful of the Lord; and, lo, I tarry for thee. 3 But he came again, and said, Father, one of our nation is strangled, and is cast out in the marketplace. 4 Then before I had tasted of any meat, I started up, and took him up into a room until the going down of the sun. 5 Then I returned, and washed myself, and ate my meat in heaviness, 6 Remembering that prophecy of Amos, as he said, Your feasts shall be turned into mourning, and all your mirth into lamentation. 7 Therefore I wept: and after the going down of the sun I went and made a grave, and buried him. 8 But my neighbours mocked me, and said, This man is not yet afraid to be put to death for this matter: who fled away; and yet, lo, he burieth the dead again. 9 The same night also I returned from the burial, and slept by the wall of my courtyard, being polluted and my face was uncovered: 10 And I knew not that there were sparrows in the wall, and mine eyes being open, the sparrows muted warm dung into mine eyes, and a whiteness came in mine eyes: and I went to the physicians, but they helped me not: moreover Achiacharus did nourish me, until I went into Elymais.

Note as well that he refers in this passage to remembering the prophecy of Amos, but Amos prophesied during the reigns of Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel:

Amos 1:1 1 The words of Amos, who was among the herdmen of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake.

This is in a window from about 808-770 B.C. So, this window begins more than 100 years after division of the kingdoms, making it impossible for a man who was 85 to have been around at the time of the division of the kingdoms.

There are more issues with Tobit’s history than this (for example, Senacharib seems to be inaccurately described), but this is one glaring issue.


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