Damien F. Mackey
The popular Book of Tobit corrects some of our historical misconceptions.
Copied and re-copied, it exerted a profound influence upon ancient literature,
including that of the ancient Greeks.
With the benefit of the Book of Tobit it becomes possible, I believe,
(i) to realise the true succession of the late C8th BC neo-Assyrian kings:
Book of Tobit and the Neo-Assyrian Kings
(ii) to identify the famous sage, Ahikar (var. Achior), with a leading character, “Achior”, in the Book of Judith; and
(iii) to correct the false view (an impediment to canonicity) that the Book of Judith’s Achior was ethnically a Moabite;
and further, with assistance from the Book of Judith,
(iv) to determine what exactly happened to Sennacherib’s 185,000-strong army, and
(v) who was its commander, named “Holofernes” in the Book of Judith. See e.g. my:
“Nadin” (Nadab) of Tobit is the “Holofernes” of Judith
Moreover, I have found that the Book of Tobit is, when in combination with the Book of Job (Tobias = Job), the key to some aspects of the best of Greek literature:
Similarities to The Odyssey of the Books of Job and Tobit
This, I would suggest, is merely
The Book of Tobit is grounded in real history, unlike the entertaining Greek fables that drew their inspiration from it, whilst also distorting and paganising the original version.
Book of Tobit
“a universal essay”
“The resemblance of Tobit to the Odyssey in particular was not lost on
that great student of literature, Jerome …”.
Ancient biblical scholar, Saint Jerome (c. 400 AD), had noted, according to Orthodox pastor, Patrick H. Reardon (The Wide World of Tobit. Apocrypha’s Tobit and Literary Tradition), the resemblance of Tobit to Homer’s The Odyssey. The example that pastor Reardon gives, though, so typical of the biblical commentator’s tendency to infer pagan influence upon Hebrew literature – which is the opposite approach to mine in “Similarities to the Odyssey” – whilst demonstrating a definite similarity between Tobit and the Greek literature, imagines the author of Tobit to have appropriated a colourful episode from The Odyssey and inserted it into Tobit 11:9: http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=12-02-036-f#ixzz2f1eu
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!
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The Book of Tobit, however, is rooted in history, I believe, with the events narrated therein said to have occurred during the reigns of a succession of known neo-Assyrian kings. Moreover, I have argued that Tobit, his son Tobias (= Job), and their Israelite (Naphtalian) relations, had attained to the highest offices in the Assyrian kingdom.
Reardon, who – unlike the author – does not accept the Book of Tobit as being a canonical part of the Bible, has described it as “a kind of universal essay” (op. cit.):
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 and 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.
Not surprisingly, given my identification of Tobit’s son, Tobias, with the prophet Job, Reardon will find similarities between the books of Tobit and Job. See e.g. my Odyssey article above.
Thus Reardon writes:
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 Book of Job has long been praised as a masterpiece of literature.
Consider these quotes:
“Tomorrow, if all literature was to be destroyed and it was left to me to retain one work only, I should save Job.” (Victor Hugo)
“… the greatest poem, whether of ancient or modern literature.”
“The Book of Job taken as a mere work of literary genius, is one of the most wonderful productions of any age or of any language.”
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. ….
Reardon, continuing his theme of the dependence of Tobit, in part, upon, as he calls it here, “pagan themes”, finds further commonality with Greek literature, especially Antigone:
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.
And the influence goes beyond the Greek world, Reardon tells, even to Iran – not surprising, I would suggest, given that Tobit and his family had dwelt in Mesopotamia:
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.
Not surprising, either, that tales of Tobit’s famous nephew, Ahikar, the “immensely popular” sage, should have exerted enormous influence upon ancient literature
The Story of Ahikar, folktale of Babylonian or Persian origin, about a wise and moral man who supposedly served as one of the chief counselors of Sennacherib, king of Assyria (704–681 bc). Like the biblical Job, Ahikar was a prototype of the just man whose righteousness was sorely tested and ultimately rewarded by God. Betrayed by his power-hungry adopted son, Ahikar was condemned to death, suffered severely, but was finally restored to his former position.
The work is classified as pseudepigraphal; i.e., it is a noncanonical book that in style and content resembles authentic biblical works. A considerable number of translations (among them Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Old Turkic, Greek, and Slavonic) indicate that the story of Ahikar was immensely popular in antiquity. The writing follows the memoir style used by official state writers rather than the “wisdom” genre of literature. Nevertheless, the story of Ahikar and his proverbial wisdom influenced the development of Jewish wisdom literature early in the Hellenistic period (3rd century bc to 3rd century ad), as is shown by similar ethical doctrines in the Old Testament books of Psalms and Ecclesiastes and in the apocryphal books of Tobit and Ecclesiasticus. ….
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