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Question Regarding Tobit

Monday, January 21, 2013 12:59 AM Comments (71)

A reader writes:

For the last ten years or so,I have really been wrestling with the Book of Tobit. I consider myself a conservative Catholic and attended a Catholic school-elementry and high school (and graduated from it). I remember reading about Tobias in my freshman year. I didn't really think too much of it, but as the years passed I found myself wondering why it is in our Bible. You say we shouldn't take it literally and I have to agree, I have even seen a footnote in a  recent Catholic Bible- with the "Imprimatur" saying that he book should be considered as allegorical.  My question is, why do they allow this Arabian Night fairy tale to even be in our Bible? The Greek Orthodox also allows it, more than likely because, before the Schism,  both the Eastern and Western Empires agreed it should be in there. I was told that Satan has NO power over life and cannot kill anyone. Satan can entice someone to kill another, but cannot directly kill anyone - he has no real power over life and death, yet here we have a "demon" killing a woman's husbands on their wedding night and then here comes Tobit with some "magical" charms retrieved by him and his angel companion from a fish. Tobit then "destroys" the demon with this magical potion. Hard to believe a Pope would give his blessing to such tripe! Of course I could always be wrong about the power allotted  to Satan but the magical potion reads right out of something that should begin with: "Once upon a time...."  P.S. after having said this, I'll probably have believers in this book sticking a doll rep of me  with pins.

I'm of the opinion (perfectly acceptable, though not, of course, mandatory for Catholics) that Tobit is a work of fiction. 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. 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. 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? 

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.  And the people who took it for a factual story don't seem to have spent a lot of time worrying about it. The Fathers of the Church who comment on Tobit are not, as is their custom, super-concerned with whether it is factual.  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. As Patrick Reardon notes:

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.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 catacombs and then in a few literary references.

Similarly, Isidore of Seville believed that young Tobias, inasmuch as he healed his parent’s blindness, “had an image of Christ.”Nonetheless, such recourse to allegorical symbolism to interpret the Book of Tobit was relatively rare among earlier Christian writers.

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?

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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.