A Defense of the Book of Tobit

If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, Contra Faustum 9:5


The attacks against the Book of Tobit are on a double front; historical and theological. As such, I am dividing this post into two main sections, the first to deal with the historical objections against the book and the second to deal with theological objections.

Some Catholic apologists take the route of defending the Book of Tobit as unhistorical, though inspired. Jimmy Akin, for example, suggests in an article for Catholic Answers that it “may be a roman à clef or an extended parable.” As much as I like Jimmy Akin, I disagree. I take the route that the book is historical, as I do with the Book of Judith, though I find it necessary to go into more detail about Tobit. The assumption among early Christians appears to be that the book is indeed historical. In his letter to Africanus, Origen of Alexandria defends his use of Daniel 13, the Deuterocanonical portion about Susana. In doing so, he quotes Tobit as proof that there were Jewish exiles who “were rich and well to do.” (To Africanus 15). Since he defends Susanna on a historical matter, Origen’s understanding is that Tobit is indeed historical.

Seeing that Origen defends a Deuterocanonical portion of Daniel with a Deuterocanonical book, it’s pretty bizarre and somewhat laughable that many protestants reference him as someone who rejected the so-called “apocrypha.”

As for doctrinal matters, the Church Fathers cite the book favorably. Saint Augustine quotes Tobit 12:19 (City of God 22:13). Saint Polycarp cites Tobit 12:9 on the giving of alms (Epistle to the Philippians 2:10). Saint Cyprian of Carthage makes use of Tobit 12:8 on fasting and prayer (On the Lord’s Prayer 32) as does Saint Clement of Alexandria who also goes so far as to call it Scripture (Stromata 6:12). The twelfth chapter of Tobit would appear to be a real favorite.

As the Christians from the earliest centuries held to both the historicity and theological truth of the Book of Tobit, so do I. There is no good reason to wave the white flag of surrender since this position can be defended on both fronts against protestant assaults.

Historical Matters

In his book Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics, Ron Rhodes quotes John Ankerberg and John Walton as saying:

Tobit contains certain historical and geographical errors such as the assumption that Sennacherib was the son of Shalmaneser (1:15) instead of Sargon II, and that Nineveh was captured by Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus (14:5) instead of by Nabopolassar and Cyaxares . . .

Rhodes goes on to quote Josh McDowell:

Tobit was supposedly alive when Jeroboam staged his revolt in 931 B.C. and was still living at the time of the Assyrian captivity (722 B.C.), and yet the Book of Tobit says he lived only 158 years (Tobit 1:3-5; 14:11)

The Conquerors of Nineveh?

The claim that Tobit wrongly attributes the fall of Nineveh to Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus instead of to Nabopolassar and Cyaraxes seems to be based on the Revised Standard Version:

But before he died he heard of the destruction of Nineveh, which Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus had captured. Before his death he rejoiced over Nineveh. (Tobit 14:15)

However, interestingly, the reading in the New American Bible Revised Edition is as follows:

But before he died, he saw and heard of the destruction of Nineveh. He saw the inhabitants of the city being led captive into Media by Cyaxares, the king of Media. Tobiah blessed God for all that he had done against the Ninevites and Assyrians. Before dying he rejoiced over Nineveh, and he blessed the Lord God forever and ever.

You’ll notice that one version of the quoted passage above is not only divergent, but also shorter than the other. In fact, there are three Greek manuscript families of Tobit. First, there is GrI in which the Codex Vaticanus is included, along with the Codex Alexandrinus and Venetus. The Codex Sinaiticus, however, is part of GrII. The third family, the GrIII, is not relevant for our discussion. (Otzen, pg. 62) The Revised Standard follows the GrI variant; more precisely, the Codex Vaticanus with the relevant text “Ναβουχοδονοσορ καὶ Ασυηρος”. Newer translations follow GrII, or rather, the Codex Sinaiticus, thus the reading “Αχιαχαρος ὁ βασιλεὺς τῆς Μηδίας”.

Many scholars in the 19th Century preferred GrI, however it was pointed out that GrII was marked by more “semitisms.” With the publication of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments of Tobit -four Aramaic scrolls and one in Hebrew- which more resemble GrII, the version of Tobit in the Sinaitucus would consequently appear to be closer to the original (Otzen, 63; Moore, 57)

This does not mean, however, that the Qumran texts never resemble GrI. A notable example would be Tobit 14:2 in which it says that Tobit lost his sight at the age of fifty-eight whereas GrII says it was at age sixty-two. Interestingly the proceeding verse (Tobit 14:1) follows more closely GrII which speaks of the death of Tobit saying he “died in peace” whereas GrI saves that detail for later in 14:11 with a somewhat different wording describing his death as being “in bed.”

Before moving on, I feel obligated to say a word about the peculiar spelling GrII gives for the name Cyaxares. As seen above, the spelling in the Codex Sinaiticus is given as Αχιαχαρος whereas Herodotus gives it as Κυαξάρης. In his commentary on Tobit, Carey A. Moore believes it to refer to a King Ahiqar, but points out there is no known king of the Medes with that name. (Moore, 296-7) He gives no arguments for this, but looking at the spelling given for Ahiqar, the relative of Tobit and Tobiah, as given in the Codex Vaticanus, I can see why such a conclusion can be drawn. However, Robert J. Littman, in his commentary, points out that the peculiar spelling makes sense when one considers that the Codex Sinaiticus is using a transliteration from Hebrew or Aramaic:

The Akkadian form of his name is Umakištar, and in Old Persian Uvachištar. The form of the name Αχιαχαρος is easily explained if we understand that the Greek represents a transliteration from a Hebrew or Aramaic form. While a Hebrew/Aramaic citation of the name does not exist, we can assume that the Hebrew would have put an initial aleph before the word either to indicate the sound of the Persian or to mark it as a Persian word. We see this in the transliteration of the Persian khšayarša which becomes אחשורוש in Hebrew. When the Hebrew is transliterated to the Greek it becomes Ασυηρος. When the Persian is transliterated directly into Greek, it becomes ξέρξης. Similarly, the word אחשדרפנים satraps, is a Hebrew rendering (occurring only in the plural) of the Persian khšaçapavan, and in Greek σατράπης. Even in Greek, sometimes there is an initial vowel, such as the form ἐξατράπης. Hence, Αχιαχαρος both linguistically and historically appears to be Cyaxares. (Tobit: The Book of Tobit in Codex Sinaiticus, pages 159, 60)

As Littman points out, there are no surviving Hebrew/Aramaic citations of the name Cyaxares. It’s a shame that the relevant passage didn’t survive in the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts of Tobit; we might actually have had one. What Moore fails to take into account is that we cannot expect the same name to appear the same when it is transliterated from different languages. The source of the transliteration used by Herodotus would have differed from that used by those who translated Tobit into Greek from Aramaic.

Joseph Fitzmyer agrees that Αχιαχαρος is an attempt to spell Cyaxares, and that in spite of the spelling, it has nothing to do with Ahiqar. He adds about the insertion of the names of Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus in GrI, that, “Greek copyists have substituted the names of better known kings who affected Israelite history.” (Fitzmyer, page 337)

In the end, since GrII is said to reflect more semitisms and would appear to be closer to the original and that it is in more conformity with what we have from the Dead Sea Scrolls, I dare argue that the Catholic apologist is well within his right to assume that the text usually translated as “Cyaxares” is therefore also closer to the original. There is therefore no reason to assume the author erred. Perhaps it is because of sincere ignorance, but what the Anti-Catholic is doing here is picking out the worst possible manuscript reading, and accusing the inspired author of error while not taking into account the wider manuscript evidence.

 The “son” of Shalmaneser

As for this next alleged historical error that Sennacherib V is called the son of Shalmaneser instead of the son of Sargon II, it reminds me very much of how atheists attack the historicity of the Book of Daniel because Nebuchadnezzar is called the “father” of Belshazzar even though we know that Nabonidus was his father. — Protestant Biblical scholar Gleason Archer defends Daniel as such:

Nevertheless it is still objected that Belshazzar is referred to in chapter 5 as a son of Nebuchadnezzar, whereas his father was actually Nabonidus (Nabuna’id) who reigned until the fall of Babylon in 539. It is alleged that only a later author would have supposed that he was Nebuchadnezzar’s son. This argument, however, overlooks the fact that by ancient usage the term son often referred to a successor in the same office whether or not there was a blood relationship. Thus in the Egyptian story, “King Cheops and the Magicians” (preserved in the Papyrus Westcar from the Hyksos Period), Prince Kephren says to King Khufu (Cheops), “I relate to thy Majesty a wonder that came to pass in the time of thy father, King Neb-ka.” Actually Neb-ka belonged to the Third Dynasty, a full century before the time of Khufu in the Fourth Dynasty. In Assyria a similar practice was reflected in the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, which refers to King Jehu (the exterminator of the whole dynasty of Omri) as “the son of Omri.” Moreover, it is a distinct possibility that in this case there was an actual genetic relationship between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. If Nabonidus married a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar in order to legitimize his usurpation of the throne back in 556 B.C., it would follow that his son by her would be the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar. The word for “father” (‘ab or ‘abba’) could also mean grandfather (see Gen 28:13; 32:10; in 1 Kings 15:13 it means “great grandfather”). (A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, page 365)

For the record, based on Baruch 1:1-12, I am compelled to believe Belshazzar was indeed related to Nebuchadnezzar, and that he was older than what Archer seems to think. However, my point here is that he makes an affective argument in favor of Daniel that in the Ancient Near Eastern usage, it was perfectly appropriate for Belshazzar to be called the son of Nebuchadnezzar even though Nabonidus was his direct father.

Also very relevant is that Archer cites Assyrian usage of this practice, given that the supposed “historical error” in Tobit is in relation to Assyrian monarchs. Because an Assyrian king has no issue calling Jehu, the Israelite king “the son of Omri,” in spite of Jehu not being his biological son, the term is clearly being used to denote a successor. As such, there should be no problem with Tobit referring to Sennacherib V as the son of Shalmaneser, as the former was indeed a successor to the latter.

If it is good enough for Belshazzar son of Nebuchadnezzar and Jehu son of Omri, then it is certainly good enough for Sennacherib son of Shalmaneser.

The Age of Tobit

Much like the names of the conquerors of Nineveh, the ages of Tobit and even Tobiah depend on the manuscript family. GrI gives Tobit’s age at the time of his death as 158 while GrII gives it as 112. On it’s part, the Latin Vulgate gives his age as 102. The apparent chronological error comes in when Tobit 1:4,5 seems to say that Tobit was a young man during the rebellion of Jeroboam I which would make him much older:

When I lived as a young man in my own country, in the land of Israel, the entire tribe of my ancestor Naphtali broke away from the house of David, my ancestor, and from Jerusalem, the city that had been singled out of all Israel’s tribes that all Israel might offer sacrifice there. It was the place where the temple, God’s dwelling, had been built and consecrated for all generations to come. All my kindred, as well as the house of Naphtali, my ancestor, used to offer sacrifice on every hilltop in Galilee to the calf that Jeroboam, king of Israel, had made in Dan (Tobit 1: 4,5)

Carey Moore points out a peculiar reading from the Latin Vulgate from Tobit 1:4 where most texts say that Tobit was young at the time of Jeroboam’s rebellion:

The Vulgate alone has a gratuitous comment: “And although Tobit was younger than any of the tribe of Naphtali, yet he did no childish thing in his work.” Possibly this was part of the Aramaic text used by Jerome rather than his own aside. (Moore, page 107)

He goes on to say that “this puzzling Latin comment” can avoid giving the impression that Tobit was around during the time of Jeroboam I. Earlier, Moore says “the Vulgate is a secondary witness and so of limited value.” (Ibid, 62) And yet since he suggests that the curious comment the Vulgate gives in Tobit 1:4 may have had come from an Aramaic text used by St. Jerome, that implies that readings from the Vulgate should not be dismissed off-hand.

Yet, I must emphasize that we must not be too eager to accept this particular explanation. As Pope Leo XIII said:

It is true, no doubt, that copyists have made mistakes in the text of the Bible; this question, when it arises, should be carefully considered on its merits, and the fact not too easily admitted, but only in those passages where the proof is clear. (Providentissimus Deus 20)

And though I personally find Moore’s suggestion interesting – it certainly would clear things up if he turned out to be correct – the evidence is lacking. Frustratingly, Tobit 1:4 has not survived among the Dead Sea Scroll fragments, and we do not have access to Aramaic copy of the Book which Saint Jerome would have used. As an unfortunate result, Moore’s conjecture cannot be tested. We also have to bear in mind that though the Vulgate varies from the two main Greek textual traditions, that the divergence may be either St. Jerome himself, or it may be the one who orally translated it for him from Aramaic to Hebrew as he transmitted it into Latin. As such. I find Pope Leo XIII’s words instructive.

Perhaps there’s another way to deal with this, that is, by anchoring the 112 years of Tobit’s life and searching for certain events in Israelite history that from Tobit’s perspective could possibly match. As mentioned, the Dead Sea Scroll fragments of Tobit 14:2 are cited as confirming that he was 58 years of age when lost his sight according to Joseph Fitzmyer’s reconstruction (Fitzmyer 318). Tobit 2: 1-10 affirms that this happened during the reign of Esarhaddon of Assyria which was from 681 to 669 B.C. It should be mentioned that though Fitzmyer’s reconstruction gets all the attention in the scholarly community, that not everyone seems to agree with it. Wilfred Watson, in his translation and reconstruction of the Qumran fragments gives a different age: eighty-five. (Martinez, 294, 299). Though I favor Fitzmyer’s view, I will allow for Watson’s as a maximum point and Fitzmyer’s as a minimum.

Knowing the approximate time of Tobit’s blindness, lets assume it occurred in the first year of Esarhaddon, in 681 B.C. Allowing for both reconstructions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this would place Tobit’s birth between 766 and 739 B.C., that is, during or very shortly after the reign of Jeroboam II (783 to 741 B.C.). Yes, we very often forget there was another king Jeroboam of Israel, distinct from Jeroboam I, son of Nebat. So, what happened during and after the reign of this second Jeroboam?

In the fifteenth year of Amaziah, son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam, son of Joash, king of Israel, became king in Samaria for forty-one years. He did evil in the LORD’s sight; he did not desist from any of the sins that Jeroboam, son of Nebat, had caused Israel to commit. He restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo-hamath to the sea of the Arabah, as the LORD, the God of Israel, had foretold through his servant, the prophet Jonah, son of Amittai, from Gath-hepher. For the LORD saw the very bitter affliction of Israel, where there was neither bond nor free, no one at all to help Israel. Since the LORD had not resolved to wipe out the name of Israel from under the heavens, he saved them through Jeroboam, son of Joash (2 Kings 14:23-27)

The southern kingdom of Judah was still it’s own kingdom, maintaining the Davidic dynasty. The Sea of the Arabah mentioned above is another term for the Dead Sea, establishing the northern kingdom’s southern border. However, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in this period under Jeroboam II and king Uzziah of Judah:

” . . . the two kingdoms cooperated to achieve a period of prosperity, tranquillity, and imperial sway unequalled since Solomon’s reign. The threat of the rising Assyrian Empire under Tiglath-Pileser III soon reversed this situation.”

So Israel and Judah worked together with “imperial sway unequalled since Solomon’s reign.” Focusing on this, to an extent it could be said that it was like the good old days, back when Israel was . . . united. With this sort of cooperation described above between Israel and Judah, and with the obvious knowledge that it didn’t last forever, the end of this relationship could have been seen as the north being separated from the south . . . again.

Perhaps helpful is a curious reading in 2 Kings 14:28 shared by the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, but that many Bible translations alter in one way or another, that Jeroboam II “restored Damascus and Hamath to Judah in Israel.” There have been several suggested interpretations. One, for example, is that Judah was subservient to Israel at this time. (Bolen, page 103). I would be cautious of such an interpretation because Uzziah of Judah was a great king in his own right (2 Chronicles 26: 1-15). But then are these necessarily mutually exclusive? After all, Herod the Great, though not in terms of morality, was certainly great in terms of accomplishments, yet subservient to Rome.

Sometime after the death of Jeroboam II, Menahem, a later northern Israelite king paid Tiglath-Pilessar III so that he could maintain his kingdom (2 Kings 15: 17-21) However, it was this same Assyrian monarch who deported the tribes of Ruben and Gad, and half the tribe of Menasseh (1 Chronicles 5:26). And showing how the relations between the northern and southern kingdoms soured since the death of Jeroboam II, Pekah of the northern kingdom along with the king Rezin of Aram attacked Jerusalem. Ahaz, the king of Judah, then asked Tiglath-Pilessar for aid, who then granted it. ( 2 Kings 16: 1-10)

These would have been events that Tobit would have known about. If this historical reconstruction is correct, and assuming the reconstruction of 58 years from the Dead Sea Scrolls is accurate, Tobit could have been born into the later stages of a certain environment, one where Israel and Judah had amicable relations – a sort of unity- which was then followed by an unfortunate breakdown. Amicable relations followed by hostility, a sort of unity followed by separation. So my proposal is that rather than being a reference to the separation of the northern ten tribes under Jeroboam son of Nebat shortly after the death of Solomon, Tobit 1:4 refers to the break-down of relations after Jeroboam II.

However, if this is the case, why the reference to the idolatrous calf of the first Jeroboam in the following verse? Perhaps for the same reason that it is referenced elsewhere in Scripture. 2 Kings 14:24 points out that Jeroboam II continued on the same sinful path as Jeroboam son of Nebat. Other references of Jeroboam I are given in the case of King Zechariah (2 Kings 15:9) of King Menahem (2 Kings 15:18) of king Pekah (2 Kings 15:28) and king Jehu (2 Kings 10:29), all of which persisted in the same error. Whether my proposal is right or wrong, if in Tobit 1:5 he simply means that his kin and tribe followed in the footsteps of the son of Nebat, it would make sense either way.

A possible response could be “Assuming you’re right that we are missing context and that Tobit doesn’t actually mean to claim he was alive during the split immediately after Solomon’s death, why doesn’t he at least hint at it?” I would argue that he, in fact, does; the hint is Tobit’s age of 112.

I freely confess that my proposal is not the easiest way to read Tobit, and the protestant may understandably base his objection to my proposal on that fact alone. However, it is fair to point out that atheists base their objections to even the books of the protestant canon on the easiest reading of Scripture. A famous example is the often cited case of the apparent inconsistency between the nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke. Skeptics often accuse the Bible of self-contradiction because Luke says Jesus was born during a census, mentioning Quirinius (Luke 2:1-7) while Matthew says he was born during the reign of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1). The historian Josephus mentions a census under Quirinius in 6 A.D., but makes it clear that it was years after the death of Herod in 4 B.C. Hence the skeptic accuses the Bible of contradiction based on . . . the easiest reading of the text. If the simplest reading was necessarily the correct understanding, then by the same logic protestants would have to throw out at least one of the Gospels.

In response, protestants defend the nativity accounts from these skeptical assaults with various explanations, some more likely than others. I agree with them that the Gospel accounts, in spite of the easiest reading, do not contradict each other. But why do they defend the chronology of Matthew and Luke while attacking the chronology of Tobit? In a nutshell: They like the Gospels, but they just don’t like Tobit.

Theological Matters

The Worship of Angels?

Rhodes lists a bunch of passages from the Deuterocanonical books which he claims contain unbiblical doctrine. Among them is Tobit 12:12 which he claims teaches “the worship of angels,” citing it in contrast to Colossians 2:18 (Rhodes, page 38). It is relevant that he never actually quotes this passage:

“I shall now tell you the whole truth and conceal nothing at all from you. I have already said to you, ‘A king’s secret should be kept secret, but one must declare the works of God with due honor.’ Now when you, Tobit, and Sarah prayed, it was I who presented the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord; and likewise whenever you used to bury the dead. When you did not hesitate to get up and leave your dinner in order to go and bury that dead man, I was sent to put you to the test. At the same time, however, God sent me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah. (Tobit 12: 11, 14)

This passage is indeed proof of the intercession of the saints. But if you read it carefully, strictly nobody is performing latria or even dulia towards St. Raphael at this particular moment. He is simply speaking to them, explaining that he offered the prayers of Tobit and Sarah to God who then sent him.

If St. Raphael’s offering of prayers to God constitutes “the worship of angels,” then protestants have another problem, because the same occurs in the Book of Revelation:

Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given a great quantity of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the holy ones, on the gold altar that was before the throne. The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel. (Revelation 8: 3, 4)

Like St. Raphael the archangel, angels in Revelation are also depicted as offering the prayers of the holy ones up to God. If in Tobit this is to be understood as “the worship of angels,” and therefore a justification to remove it from the canon as uninspired, then logically the same would also hold true for Revelation.

The Charge of Magic

Some protestants accuse the book of Tobit of promoting magic:

Then the young man asked the angel this question: “Brother Azariah, what medicine is in the fish’s heart, liver, and gall?” He answered: “As for the fish’s heart and liver, if you burn them to make smoke in the presence of a man or a woman who is afflicted by a demon or evil spirit, any affliction will flee and never return. As for the gall, if you apply it to the eyes of one who has white scales, blowing right into them, sight will be restored.” (Tobit 6: 7, 9)

Matt Slick, in one article, rages, “Is it true that the smoke from a fish’s heart, when burned, drives away evil spirits?  Of course not.  Such a superstitious teaching has no place in the word of God.” On it’s face, the charge that Tobit makes use of magic is ridiculous. You have to remember that it is the angel St. Raphael who is giving Tobiah these instructions. Add to that the fact that the book is very clear that he was sent by God to cure both Tobit and Sarah (Tobit 2:17; 12:14). Ergo, the prescription for these cures was ultimately given by God himself.

If in arguing against the Deuterocanon, protestants insist on the charge of magic, then the Biblical canon they themselves hold contains episodes that they otherwise would label as magic. An example is found in the book of Genesis:

Jacob, however, got some fresh shoots of poplar, almond and plane trees, and he peeled white stripes in them by laying bare the white core of the shoots. The shoots that he had peeled he then set upright in the watering troughs where the animals came to drink, so that they would be in front of them. When the animals were in heat as they came to drink, the goats mated by the shoots, and so they gave birth to streaked, speckled and spotted young. (Genesis 30: 37, 39)

The context for the passage above was that Jacob and Laban were agreeing on the type of wages that Jacob should be paid. Jacob asked for the sheep that were streaked, speckled and spotted. The implication is that the method described is related to animals producing such offspring. If what Tobiah did is to be considered magic, the same conclusion could be made from what Jacob did. What’s more, the text doesn’t say that God or an angel gave him such instructions.

The Gospels have their own share:

As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed, and came back able to see. (John 9:1-7)

I would ask the protestant if placing mud on a blind man’s eyes and washing it off will make him see. Of course he may reply that it was Jesus himself performing a miracle. Yes, but that is the point. Washing mud off a blind man’s eyes will heal him, provided that it is God’s will. Likewise, the smoke from burning the heart and liver from a fish can exercise a demon if God wills it.

As pointed out earlier, the the Book of Tobit was cited favorably by several early Christians. If this book was showing an acceptance of magic, then it is quite odd that nobody seems to have taken notice until protestants decided to contrive this objection.

Did Saint Raphael Lie?

A common accusation is that the Archangel St. Raphael lied to Tobit about his identity:

Tobit asked him, “Brother, tell me, please, from what family and tribe are you?” He replied, “Why? What need do you have for a tribe? Aren’t you looking for a hired man?” Tobit replied, “I only want to know, brother, whose son you truly are and what your name is.” He answered, “I am Azariah, son of the great Hananiah, one of your own kindred.” (Tobit 5: 11-13)

On the surface, the accusation is understandable. Certain things, however, have to be taken into account. On some occasions, angels had shown a reluctance to reveal their identities. When the patriarch Jacob asked the name of an angel, the angel replied, “Why do you ask for my name?” (Genesis 33: 30) A similar response is given to Manoah, the father of Samson (Judges 13:18)

The common response which I do hold to is that the name he gives to Tobit isn’t a lie, but rather a code for his mission. Translated, “Azariah” means “Yahweh has helped,” and “Hananiah” means “Yahweh is merciful.” God sent the angel to help Tobit and Sarah because of his mercy. It is when the mission has been accomplished that he makes known his true name Raphael, meaning “God heals,” an appropriate time to reveal it after God healed Tobit and Sarah.

Interestingly, the archangel’s words to Tobit mirror his true name. When Tobit complains of his blindness, St. Raphael replies, “Take courage! God’s healing is near; so take courage!” (Tobit 5:10)

Azariah and Hananiah were pretty common names. When Tobit responds, “I knew Hananiah and Nathan, the two sons of the great Shemeliah,” (5:14) he is assuming. Notice that he is the one who adds the names Nathan and Shemeliah; St. Raphael himself doesn’t mention them. One could argue that even if it’s not a verbal lie, that it was still misleading. This criticism assumes, though, that Tobit was actually entitled to know who St. Raphael was.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2488 The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.

2489 Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it

One has to consider what the reaction could have been if St. Raphael had just come out and revealed he was an angel. Incredulity certainly comes to mind as a possibility which certainly wouldn’t have helped matters. If that were the case, he would have probably been seen as dishonest or insane; either way, unreliable as a traveling companion for Tobiah. However in Biblical history, there was a fear of death associated with having seen an angel. (Judges 6: 22, 23; Judges 13: 21-23) A fear of seeing angels survived into New Testament times, and can be seen in the Gospels. In fact, when St. Raphael finally reveals his identity to Tobit and Tobiah, it says, “Greatly shaken, the two of them fell prostrate in fear. But Raphael said ‘Do not fear; peace be with you!” (Tobit 12: 16, 17)

Having stated all the above, the angel does claim kinship to Tobit. When Tobiah first encounters Saint Raphael, the angel tells him, “I am an Israelite, one of your kindred.” (Tobit 5:5) The accusation now would seem inescapable, but not necessarily. Scripture indeed teaches that God does not lie (Numbers 23:19). However, the protestant overlooks that Tobit is clear that the archangel was sent by God himself, thus he was acting on his instructions. As such, it can be charitably concluded that he also spoke the words that God instructed him to use, and that they were indeed true in a way known first by God himself. It wouldn’t have been in a physical manner because angels do not become human beings; St. Raphael even said that though Tobiah saw him eating and drinking, it was a vision (Tobit 12:19) God’s ways and thoughts are far beyond ours (Isaiah 55: 8, 9), and our failure to grasp the truth in a statement from a messenger of God does not therefore make it false.

Teaching Earned Salvation?

And now we hit upon the all too common accusation that the Catholic Church of teaches earned salvation;

Prayer with fasting is good. Almsgiving with righteousness is better than wealth with wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold, for almsgiving saves from death, and purges all sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life. . . (Tobit 12: 8, 9)

The above passage is often cited by protestants as an objection to the book. However, contrary to their caricature, the Church does not teach that we earn our salvation. In the words of Ludwig Ott, “Catholic Theology distinguishes sharply between a natural and a supernatural religion and morality.” Later he points out that, “Grace cannot be merited by natural works either de condigno or de congruo.” (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, pages 251, 254) Likewise, the Council of Trent says:

If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 1)

Many protestants make no such distinction, hence they conflate salutary works with natural works and consequently conclude that Catholics believe they can earn their way into heaven. Some call our teaching Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian; an irrational accusation because both positions are condemned as heresy by the Church. However, a thorough discussion on the differences between the Catholic and protestant doctrines of justification is beyond my present scope.

As it turns out, like most other supposed reasons protestants dismiss this book, this one also has equivalents in their Biblical canon:

The Lord said to him, “Oh you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you. (Luke 11: 39-41)

As Jesus says, the interior of the Pharisees were full of “plunder and evil.” What is that if not sin? If the giving of alms were to cleans them, then I see no issue with what St. Raphael says. Furthermore, there is the story of the rich young ruler:

Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. (Matthew 19; 16-22)

The answer stems from the question “what must I do to gain eternal life?” The rich young ruler had kept all the commandments, he just lacked this one thing. This same episode also appears in Mark 10: 17-22 and in Luke 18: 18-23 (Luke leaves out the detail of the ruler leaving.) If Saint Raphael’s statement on alms is to be considered a valid justification to remove it from the canon of Scripture, then we are also faced with the awkward position of Jesus himself, in the three Synoptic Gospels, making statements that are in complete harmony with him.


Admittedly, not every possible objection to the Book of Tobit has been tackled here, but I think that is hardly necessary. Most of them have equivalents within the Biblical canon which protestants themselves also accept, both historical and theological, to the point that the objections appear disingenuous. When protestants defend Daniel over calling Belshazzar the son of Nebuchadnezzar and yet attack Tobit for calling Sennacherib the son of Shalmaneser when they can both be historically harmonized by using the same methodology, then I highly suspect their rejection of this, as well other Deuterocanonical books, is more motivated by simply not wanting them in the Canon of Scripture.

References and Resources:

A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, by Geason L. Archer

Tobit and Judith, by Benedikt Otzen

Just how many versions of Tobit are there? (Part 01),” (Also see Part 02) from Sacrificium Laudis.

Tobit: The Book of Tobit in Codex Sinaiticus, by Robert J. Littman; A PDF available here

Tobit (Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature), by Joseph A. Fitzmyer

Tobit (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), by Carey A Moore

The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English, Florentino Garcia Martinez

The Reign of Jeroboam II: A Historical and Archeological Interpretation, by Todd Bolen


  1. I enjoyed your post. As far as St. Raphael stating to Tobiah that he was an Israelite and a kinsman. As an angel, he would certainly be a “kinsman” in the sense that as a rational being, he too is a child of God just as Tobiah was. As for being an Israelite, Jacob was given the name Israel after wrestling an angel.*Gen. 32:28). One of the meanings of the word is “one who sees God.” As an angel, St. Raphael is certainly one who sees God or an Israelite.



    • Christ also includes kinship as those who do the will of his Father in Matthew 12:50. Tobit did strive to do God’s will, and St. Raphael was certainly acting under God’s orders. So there is that too.


    • Thank you for translating my post. It has to be mentioned that I have revised the original, particularly on the topics on Tobit’s age and on me defense of St. Raphael.

      However I hope my defense of Tobit is useful to you and others.


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