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A dispute about how to understand Tobit

03/05/2012 Comments (113)

A reader writes:

Hello, I read your article supporting the catholic books of the bible that the protestants do not recognize . You made some excellent points however you said something very offensive and wrong during one of your answers. I am a Roman Catholic and I take the book of Tobit literally, Tobit did exist the angel raphael did come to the rescue and defeat the demon Asmodeus and for you to say every catholic treats this has a historical novel is absolutely untrue. I talked to my priest about this and you are 100% wrong catholics may take the bible completely literally, partially literally or bare minimum literally. Even the pope agrees with me if you want to take Tobit as a historical novel that’s your business and problem but I am a confirmed Catholic and you are trying to ruin peoples faith. Tobit is my favorite book of the bible have some respect for it, I also take Job literally if you have problems with people taking books of the bible literally become a unitarian you don’t even have to believe in God.

I’m sorry you are offended.  You are entitled to take the book of Tobit literally (I think you mean “as a historical document about something that actually happened”) if you like.  However, you are not entitled to tell other Catholics they are “wrong” if they do not regard the book as a historical account.  The Church allows liberty to either position.  That said, as I point out, there are a number of clues in the text of Tobit which communicate to the reader that the author does not intend us to read the book as a historical chronicle, but as a work of fiction.  I never say that “every catholic treats this as a historical novel”.  I merely point out that this is the most sensible reading of Tobit and that doing so clears up difficulties that arise if we do try to treat it as a work of history, while introducing no difficulties if we don’t read it that way.  (By the way, the fact that Tobit is a work of fiction by no means implies that Raphael is therefore fictional.  A favorite fantasy author of mine, Tim Powers, typically writes works of fiction in which real historical figures are worked into the story.  The inclusion of Raphael in the book of Tobit simply shows that Jews at the time Tobit was written believed in the angel Raphael, not that Raphael does not exist.)

I’m not sure what you mean about my being “100% wrong” since the way I read Tobit is one of the ways Catholics may, in fact, read Tobit.  Nor am I persuaded that anybody, Catholic or not, reads the Bible “completely literally”.  Certainly, Catholics don’t typically read Scripture “completely literally”.  I, for one, know of nobody who believes that Jesus “literally” has a sword coming out of his mouth as it says in Revelation, nor believes that the Lord is literally a shepherd or a Rock, nor that there was literally a man who had two sons and one became a Prodigal, nor that Jesus is literally a door or a vine.  Catholics who take Jesus literally about cutting off hands, gouging out eyes and dealing with other body parts that are occasions of sin are called “heretics” or perhaps “mentally ill”, not good Catholics.

So no.  I am not trying to ruin anybody’s faith.  And I have plenty of respect for Tobit.  That’s why I wrote to defend including it in the canon of Scripture and argue that it is the inspired word of God.  I merely point out that God can inspire works of fiction as much as he can inspire historical accounts and that this text has all the earmarks of a work of fiction.  It is fundamentalism, not Catholic faith, that insists everything in the Bible must be literal fact in order to be true.  The Church has never read its Bible that way.

The same applies to Job, by the way.  I have no beef with reading Job as a historical account if that’s what you like.  But it makes essentially no difference if we read it as what it much more obviously is: a profound poetic and philosophical meditation on the meaning of suffering.  Thinking so does not, in the slightest, take away from my faith in all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims, including all that the trinitarian creeds say about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  So your rather brutal consignment of me (and a great many other faithful Catholics) to the ranks of unitarians or even atheists is pretty premature.  Nothing in Catholic teaching requires me or anybody else to believe Job or Tobit are works of history.  Nor does taking them as fiction reduce all the rest of Scripture to fiction, any more than the fact that Jesus told the (fictional) parables means that everything else in the gospels is also fiction.

If you want to familiarize yourself with the way in which the Church has historically read its Bible, I recommend checking out my book Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did.  The Church has a rich legacy of Scriptural interpretation and it pays to familiarize ourselves with it.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.