The Wide World of Tobit
The Apocrypha’s Tobit & Literary Tradition
by Patrick Henry Reardon
Tobit is a short book. Indeed, Jerome tells us that translating it into Latin cost him only “the labor of one day.”1 It should be remarked, however, that this small book belongs in a big world, with a rich and very wide cultural setting.
I like to think of the Book of Tobit as a kind of universal essay, in the sense that its author makes considerable effort to place his brief, rather simple narrative within a literary, historical, and moral universe of surprising breadth and diversity, extending through the Fertile Crescent and out both sides. To find comparable dimensions of such large cultural exposure among biblical authors, one would have to go to Ezekiel, Luke, or the narrator of Job.
It is the intention of the present article to indicate and outline several aspects of the Book of Tobit that join the work to other streams of literary history. These aspects, which include a fairly wide range of themes, images, and historical references, will serve to link Tobit to three bodies of literature in particular: the Bible; the larger world of Near and Middle Eastern religious philosophy, history, and literature; and the tradition of Christian exegesis down through the Latin Middle Ages.
Tobit & the Bible
The world of Tobit is, first of all, the world of biblical literature and history. Not only does the book provide an elaborate description of the religious deterioration of the Northern Kingdom in the eighth century, and then the deportation and consequent social conditions2 of those tribes after 722, but it explicitly quotes a prophet of that century, Amos, and makes reference (14:4) to the preaching of Jonah at Nineveh.3 Tobit thus presupposes the history narrated in Kings, Chronicles, and the eighth-century prophets.
Tobit’s explicit reference to Jonah is of considerable interest in the light of certain affinities between the two books. First and second, both stories take place about the same time (the eighth century) and both in Mesopotamia. Third, both accounts involve a journey. Fourth, the distressed Tobit, like Jonah, prays to die. Fifth and most strikingly, his son Tobias encounters a fish that attempts—with less success than Jonah’s fish—to swallow him! Finally, in each book the fish serves as a special instrument of Divine Providence.
Besides Jonah, Tobit shows several remarkable affinities to the Book of Job, some of which were noted rather early in Christian exegesis. For example, the title characters of both works shared a zeal for purity of life, almsgiving, and other deeds of charity (Job 1 and 31; Tobit 1–2), patient endurance of trials sent by God,4 a deep weariness of life itself (Job 7:15; Tobit 3:6), a final vindication by the Lord at the end of each book, and perhaps even a common hope of the resurrection.5 As early as Cyprian in the third century, it was also noted that both men were similarly mocked by wives unable to appreciate their virtue and faith in God.6
Moreover, the book’s description of long-suffering Sarah, whose seven husbands all died on their wedding night, carries on another major theme of Holy Scripture: the barren woman, of which the elder Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth are better known examples. Indeed, the mockery that the younger Sarah receives from her maids in this regard readily puts one in mind of Hagar’s attitude toward the older Sarah, as well as Peninnah’s unkind treatment of Hannah at the beginning of First Samuel.7
The moral teaching of Tobit is also of a piece with the covenantal ethics of the Bible generally. For example, its prohibition against marrying outsiders in 4:12f. reflects the strict view of Ezra and Nehemiah (and, down the road, 1 Corinthians 7).8 Then, in the very next verse is found the mandate about prompt payment of the laborer’s salary, which is clearly based on Leviticus 19:13 and Deuteronomy 24:14f. And so forth. The moral teaching of Tobit shows endless parallels with both the Torah and Israel’s Wisdom tradition, and its solicitude for social justice and service is at one with the teaching of the eighth-century prophets. No matter what is to be said relative to its canonical status, the setting, imagery, and moral doctrine of Tobit is of a piece with the rest of our biblical literature.
The Larger World
Even when the Book of Tobit most closely touches the other biblical literature, however, it sometimes does so along lines reminiscent of, and running parallel to, more extensive traditions outside the Bible.
An obvious and rather large example is the “Golden Rule” in Tobit 4:15, “Do not do to anyone what you yourself hate.” Not only does this prohibition substantially contain the biblical command to love one’s neighbor as oneself;9 not only, furthermore, does it stand in canonical continuity with the more positive formulation of the same Golden Rule preserved in the Gospels;10 it is also the equivalent to an ideal found in other ethical philosophies. These latter include Greek authors like Herodotus and Isocrates11 and even classical Confucianism.12 This use of the Golden Rule thus assured Tobit a featured place in the entire history of religion and moral philosophy.13
A similar assessment is true, I believe, concerning the way that Tobit develops the religious symbolism of the journey. Obviously that motif had long been part of the Bible, particularly in those sections associated with the Exodus wandering and the return from Babylon,14 but it was a topic not limited to the Bible. Back near the beginning of the second millennium B.C., the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic had inchoatively explored the religious symbolism of the journey, and that exploration would continue down through some of our greatest literature: the Odyssey, of course, diverse accounts of Jason and the Argonauts, the Aeneid, etc., and eventually the Divine Comedy, itself inspired by all of them. In a more secular form the journey imagery continued with such works as the Endymion of Keats,15 even after it had been assumed within the ascetical literature of the Church as xeneteia, conceived as both exile and pilgrimage. A classical example of the latter use is found in Step 3 of The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John of Mount Sinai.
The resemblance of Tobit to the Odyssey in particular was not lost on that great student of literature, Jerome, as is evident in a single detail of his Latin translation of Tobit in the Vulgate. Intrigued by the literary merit of Tobit, but rejecting its canonicity, the jocose and sometimes prankish Jerome felt free to insert into his version an item straight out of the Odyssey—namely, the wagging of the dog’s tail on arriving home with Tobias in 11:9—Tunc praecucurrit canis, qui simul fuerat in via, et quasi nuntius adveniens blandimento suae caudae gaudebat—“Then the dog, which had been with them in the way, ran before, and coming as if it had brought the news, showed his joy by his fawning and wagging his tail.”16 No other ancient version of Tobit mentions either the tail or the wagging, but Jerome, ever the classicist, was confident his readers would remember the faithful but feeble old hound Argus, as the final act of his life, greeting the return of Odysseus to the home of his father: “he endeavored to wag his tail” (Odyssey 17.302). And to think that we owe this delightful gem to Jerome’s rejection of Tobit’s canonicity!
Thus, when young Tobias made his trip to Ecbatana and then, like Odysseus, journeyed back to the home of his father, he traveled with a vast company of classical pilgrims. He was neither the first nor the last to decide: “I will arise and return to my father.” On that trip, moreover, Tobias enjoyed the fellowship of an angel and a dog, symbolically representing the two worlds of spirits and beasts, both associated with Paradise and both mysteriously joined together in the human being that they accompany.17
Furthermore, some readers have found in Tobit similarities to still other pagan themes, such as the legend of Admetus.18 More convincing, I believe, however, are points of contact with classical Greek theater. Martin Luther observed similarities between Tobit and Greek comedy,19 but one is even more impressed by resemblances that the Book of Tobit bears to a work of Greek tragedy—the Antigone of Sophocles. In both stories the moral stature of the heroes is chiefly exemplified in their bravely burying the dead in the face of official prohibition and at the risk of official punishment. In both cases a venerable moral tradition is maintained against a political tyranny destructive of piety. That same Greek drama, moreover, provides a further parallel to the blindness of Tobit in the character of blind Teiresias, himself also a man of an inner moral vision important to the theme of the play.
Bearing just as obvious a connection with non-biblical literature, I believe, is the demon Asmodeus (Tobit 3:8), who is doubtless to be identified, on purely morphological grounds, with Aeshma Daeva, a figure well known in ancient Iranian religion.20 Moreover, Tobit’s nephew Ahikar (1:22) is certainly identical with a literary character of the same name, time, place, and circumstances, found in the Elephantine papyri from the late fifth century B.C.21 In short, whatever may be the case relative to questions of historical dependency, Tobit’s cultural contacts with the ancient world of religion, philosophy, and literature are numerous and varied.
The History of Exegesis
And this consideration brings me to what I suggest is a major question of the Book of Tobit: How does a loyal servant of God live in this very big and complex world? How does one spiritually survive, and even thrive, in this world, without being of this world? The preoccupation of Tobit is, I submit, moral and ascetical. It is a book about how the loyal servant of God must live.
In this respect, it is instructive to observe that early Christian exegesis of the Book of Tobit was of a predominantly moral and ascetical interest. With very few exceptions, patristic interpretation of Tobit was straightforward and literal, with relatively little, and hardly any sustained, appeal to hidden symbolisms. The longest extant patristic work devoted to Tobit, that of Ambrose of Milan, exemplifies this approach convincingly. After drawing attention to the major moral features of Tobit’s character, Ambrose devotes the rest of his discourse to a robust condemnation of avarice and usury.22 That is to say, Ambrose went to Tobit almost exclusively for moral teaching.
To be sure, a modest measure of patristic exegesis of Tobit was allegorical, in the sense of finding hidden references to the mysteries of the Christian faith. For example, attention was sometimes drawn to Tobias’s fish, whose various body parts were used to remedy the problems of the family. Given the common and widespread Christological symbolism of the fish (ichthys) among believers, it was virtually inevitable that Tobias’s fish, too, who quite literally gave his life for the family, should be regarded as a foreshadowing of the Savior. This symbolism is found in the fourth century, first in the mural iconography of the Roman catacombs23 and then in a few literary references.24
Similarly, Isidore of Seville believed that young Tobias, inasmuch as he healed his parent’s blindness, “had an image of Christ.”25 Nonetheless, such recourse to allegorical symbolism to interpret the Book of Tobit was relatively rare among earlier Christian writers.
This assessment, however, does not hold true for the Latin writers of the Middle Ages. The highly detailed commentary of Venerable Bede26 is the example that comes first to mind. To leave Ambrose’s fairly sober, subdued, and straightforward remarks on Tobit and then turn to Bede’s elaborate interpretation of the same book is something on the order of moving to another planet. In Bede’s commentary, not even the most minute item in the Tobit narrative is without its hidden doctrinal significance, to be ferreted out by a rich imagination.
Bede’s approach was followed by other medieval exegetes who turned their very creative fancies loose on the book: Walafrid Strabo, Hugh of St. Victor, and Isaac of Stella.27 At their hands, the Book of Tobit became a rich mother-lode of hidden Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, sacramentology, and so forth.
These medieval interpreters certainly present us with a whole new hermeneutic world. One may legitimately question, however, whether it is any longer the world of Tobit. Indeed, in these medieval works the overwhelmingly moral interest of Tobit’s universe is hardly touched at all, so that the major preoccupation of the book—how does the servant of God live in this world?—becomes almost entirely lost. This is my chief objection to the approach taken to the Book of Tobit among medieval Latin exegetes.
Since his Glossa Ordinaria became a link between Bede and later medieval writers, Walafrid Strabo may be particularly cited by way of illustration. Strabo begins his interpretation of Tobit by observing, correctly enough, that the book “abounds in the greatest examples and exhortations of the moral life,”28 but then he goes on to explain the book in great detail without a single scrap of moral or ascetical teaching. Tobit’s principal message and concern thus become hopelessly dispersed in considerations alien to the book.
It is my persuasion that the message of Tobit should begin with a proper analysis of its moral message exactly as it appears at the literary level, without recourse to hidden symbolisms that its author himself could scarcely have suspected and that float, in fact, without sufficient grounding in ancient patristic and liturgical texts.
This is not to say that Tobit should be interpreted apart from the biblical canon (whatever one holds about its canonical status) or from the context of Christian theology. Indeed, I maintain the very opposite thesis—namely, that Tobit (and, for that matter, all other biblical literature handed down in the Tradition of the Church) should be read and understood within that double interpretive context of Canon and Christology. I believe, nonetheless, that this approach is best made on the basis of Tobit’s literal meaning, the meaning it has as moral literature, not fanciful symbolisms unsustained in either biblical, patristic, or liturgical testimonies.
Having now placed Tobit within literary history, I propose, in a subsequent article to be published in these pages, to explore further the book’s great moral message and its importance in the Christian life.
1. Jerome, Praefatio in Librum Tobiae (PL 29.26A). Among Latin writers Jerome stands very much alone, and even eccentric, in his denial of canonicity to the Book of Tobit. It was cited somewhat less often by the Greek Fathers than by the Latins, however, the question of its canonicity being more complex and protracted in the East. This questioned canonicity of Tobit also accounts for the unparalleled freedom that copyists took in the transmission of the text. We have received Tobit in two major manuscript traditions so disparate that Rahlfs’s standard edition of the Septuagint prints them separately. Because I will frequently refer to them, I take this occasion to identify the two earliest extant manuscripts, both of them from early fourth-century Egypt: the Codex Vaticanus (hereafter B) and the Codex Sinaiticus (hereafter S). Because of its importance to Latin writers, I will also refer often to Tobit’s Vulgate text, translated by Jerome from both Greek and Aramaic sources.
2. Origen early recognized Tobit’s value as a source of historical and sociological information on the period; cf. Epistola ad Africanum 12 (Bibliotheke Hellenon Pateron [hereafter BHP, followed by volume and page numbers] 16.359f.).
3. Thus in B and Vulgate; also see Jerome, In Jonam (PL 25.1119A). S here says Nahum.
4. Job and Tobit were thus compared by Augustine, De Divinis Scripturis 28 (Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum [hereafter CSEL with volume and page numbers] 12.436); Ambrosiaster, Quaestiones Veteris et Novi Testamenti 99.2 (CSEL 50.191); in the Latin Middle Ages, Bernard of Clairvaux, Sententiae 2.25 (Opera, Vol. 6/2, Rome: Editiones Cistercienses, 1972, p. 31); and still later, John of the Cross, Llama de Amor Viva 2.28 (Obras Completas, Madrid: BAC, 1991, pp. 960f.).
5. Job 19:23–27; Tobit 2:18 in the Vulgate. Paulinus of Nola commented that Tobit’s burial of the dead manifested “a holy and sanctified hope”; Epistolae 13.4 (PL 61.209–210).
6. Cyprian, De Mortalitate 10 (PL 4.588); among the Greeks, Asterios Sophistes, In Psalmos 4.4 (BHP 37.170); among medieval Latins, Peter Comestor, Historia Libri Tobiae 1 (PL 198.1433C); and Peter Damien, Sermones 4.5 (Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis [hereafter CCM with volume and page numbers] 57.20).
7. This resemblance was likewise remarked by Cyprian, Testimoniorum Libri 1.20 (PL 4.688–689).
8. Again, cf. Cyprian, Testimoniorum Libri 3.62 (PL 4.767–768).
9. Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 5:43; 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 6:27; Romans 12:17–19; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8.
10. Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31.
11. Herodotus, Histories 3.142; Isocrates, Niklokles 61.
12. Cf. Ku Hung Ming, The Conduct of Life: A Translation of the Doctrine of the Mean, London: John Murray, 1906, p. 26.
13. Tobit’s form of the Golden Rule was maintained, not only in the apocryphal (e.g., Ps.-Aristeas, Epistle to Philocrates 207) and rabbinical traditions (e.g., Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a; Targum Yerushalmi I of Leviticus 19:18), but also in Christian sources as diverse as the Didache 1.2 (BHP 2.215); the Coptic Gospel of Thomas 6; the Apostolic Constitutions 1 (BHP 2.6); Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 2.22 (BHP 7.359); Didymus the Blind, De Spiritu Sancto 39 (PG 39.1068); John Chrysostom, Homiliae de Statuis 13.3 (PG 49.140); Augustine, Sermones in Vetus Testamentum 9.14f. (Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina [hereafter CCL with volume and page numbers] 41.135f.); Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job 6.35.54 (CCL 143.323); 10.6.6 (539); and, from the Latin Middle Ages, Peter Damien, Sermones 14.9 (CCM 57.69); Stephen of Grandmont, Regula 28 (CCM 8.83); and Isaac of Stella, Sermones 3.3 (PL 194.1698A); 31.6 (1791B). Among later ascetical writers in the East, there is Paisy Velichkovsky, Field Flowers 23 (Little Russian Philokalia, Vol. 4, The Brotherhood of St. Herman of Alaska, 1994, p. 87.). Sometimes Christians have spontaneously juxtaposed Tobit’s negative form with the positive form from the Gospels; e.g., Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, Letters 687 (Correspondance, Solesmes, 1971, p. 442); and the anonymous eleventh-century Mont-Saint-Michel manuscript, Expositio ad Galatas 5.14 (CCM 151.202).
14. In the New Testament, the journey motif will play a structural role, not only in Luke-Acts, but also in Mark 8–10.
15. Cf. Andrès Rodríguez, The Book of the Heart: The Poetics, Letters, and Life of John Keats, Hudson, N.Y.: Lindisfarne Press, 1993, pp. 44ff.
16. Douay-Challoner translation of the Vulgate.
17. Angels and beasts are also the companions of Jesus in the desert; see Mark 1:13 along with the comment of Euthymius Zigabenus, In Marcum (PG 129.776C). Particularly in our hagiography, this motif of angelic and animal companionship is ubiquitous. Cf. Joanne Stephanatos, Animals and Man: A State of Blessedness, Minneapolis: Light and Life, 1992.
18. I confess that this one is lost on me, having gone over my Apollodorus (3.9.15) repeatedly without discerning any really convincing similarity to Tobit.
19. Indeed, he even speculated that the Greeks borrowed from the Jews in this respect; cf. Luther’s Works, Volume 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), p. 345.
20. Cf. Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977, pp. 215, 217.
21. A translation of “The Words of Ahiqar” is found in J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton, 1969, pp. 427–430. The story itself appears to go back to Mesopotamia at least a century earlier. I hazard passing remarks here on two curious features: (1) this text is narrated, like the opening chapters of Tobit, in the first person; (2) the plan to kill a eunuch slave in place of Ahikar, so that the latter could later be restored to favor (p. 428, left column), most certainly does bear comparison to the Admetus legend.
22. Ambrose, De Tobia (PL 14.759–794). Not one paragraph in ten of this work is allegorical. See also Ambrose’s simple remarks on Tobit in Epistolae 19.5 (PL 16.984A), later echoed by Salvian of Marseilles, Adversus Avaritiam 2.4 (PL 53.193B).
23. Cf. Henri Leclercq, “Tobie,” Dictionnaire d’Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgie, Vol. 15, Paris: Letouzey, 1953, cols. 2418–2420.
24. Optatus of Mileve in Numedia, De Schismate Donatistarum 3.2 (PL 11.991); and the anonymous De Promissionibus et Praedictionibus Dei 2.39 (PL 51.816).
25. “Christi imaginem habuit”—Allegoriae Quaedam Scripturae Sacrae 123 (PL 83.116A).
26. Venerable Bede, Interpretatio in Librum Tobiae (PL 91.923–938). Cf. the analysis of Bede’s exegesis of Tobit by Johann Gamberoni, Die Auslegung des Buches Tobias, Munich: Kösel, 1969, pp. 107–123.
27. Walafrid Strabo, Glossa Ordinaria (PL 113.725–732); Hugh of St. Victor, Allegoriae in Vetus Testamentum 9.2 (PL 175.737–744); Isaac of Stella, Sermones 7.11–14 (PL 194.1715). I cite only those writers that I know first-hand. For other examples, see Gamberoni, op. cit., pp. 124–146.
28. Strabo, op. cit. (PL 113.725B).
The substance of this article appeared in Epiphany in 1996.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Wide World of Tobit” first appeared in the March/April 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.