Defending the Book of Tobit as History

Tobias and St Raphael the Archangel
Mark Shea has recently defended his position that the biblical book of Tobit is fiction, nevertheless inspired fiction and worthy of being included in the canon of Sacred Scripture.
Describing Tobit as historical fiction is a common way for modern Catholics to defend the canonicity of Tobit against Protestant naysayers. The book of Tobit, they grant, has so many factual errors and ridiculous accounts (blindness from bird feces in the eyes) that the story cannot possibly be historically true. Protestants have made this argument for 500 years.

Yet the modern Catholic apologist responds to the Protestant naysayer with these words: “Aha, the book of Tobit is fictional…but that doesn’t mean it’s not both inspired and canonical!” So the modern Catholic apologist today grants the Protestant’s objection, but turns it around so as to create room for a book to be inspired fiction acting as if it were history.

These well-meaning Catholics claim that Tobit is inspired fiction just as Christ’s parables are inspired fiction. In fact, they claim that both Tobit and Judith (and sometimes Jonah) contain so many obvious historical errors that the errors were placed there by God in order to tip off the reader to the books’ fictional quality.
There is one problem with this kind of defense regarding “Tobit as inspired fiction.” The Church Fathers did not believe in the fictional nature of the book of Tobit. They believed and taught that Tobit was historical person and that the book bearing his name told a true and historical story.
St. Polycarp, St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Athanasius, St. Cyprian, St Ephrem, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine refer to the characters and narrative of Tobit as historical. As late as 1822, the Holy See had a book put on the Index of Forbidden Books because it asserted by the book of Tobit was not historical but poetical (the book was Joahnn Jahn’s Introductio in libros sacros).
Did St Augustine or even St Thomas Aquinas miss something important when they taught that Tobit was historical and factual? Whenever I am asked to side with someone against both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, I get a bit nervous. In fact, it is a pretty safe rule of thumb to always side against a position when both Augustine and Thomas agree with the opposite position. Moreover, the Pontifical Biblical Commision decreed that we are to hold the historical books of Scripture historically (Biblical Commission, June 23, 1905)…and Tobit is a historical book.
It is the historical consensus of the Catholic Church that Tobit is not only inspired and inerrant, but that it is also historical. Nevertheless, there had better be some pretty good reasons for defending the historicity of Tobit. Granted, there are some problems. I’ll cite the old Catholic Encyclopedia on this subject of historical problems and then their common answers as they address them much more precisely than I can.
A word of warning: the manuscript tradition of Tobit is messy with the Vulgate, Old Latin, Aramaic, Alexandrian, Vatican, Sinaticus texts having similarities and variations.
Below, A refers to the text of the Alexandrian codex (fifth century), and B refers to Vatican codex (fourth century) of the Greek Septuagint; Aleph or A alone refers to Codex Sinaticus (fourth century) of the Septuagint.
  1. Objection: It was Theglathphalasar III who led Nephthali (IV Kings, xv, 29) into captivity (734 B.C.). But Tobit wrongly says that it was (i, 2), Salmanasar.
    Answer to Objection: This reading of the Vulgate, Old Latin, and Aramaic is to be corrected by the name Enemesar of AB and A. This latter reading would be equivalent to the Hebrew `NM SR, a transliteration of the Assyrian kenum ≈°ar. As the appellative ≈°ar, “king”, may precede or follow a personal name, kenum ≈° ar is ≈°ar kenum, that is Sargon (≈°arru-kenu II, B.C. 722). It can readily be that, twelve years after Theglathphalasar III began the deportation of Israel out of Samaria, Sargon’s scouts completed the work and routed some of the tribe of Nephthali from their fastnesses. 
  2. Objection: Tobit wrongly states that Sennacherib was the son of Salmanasar (i, 19) whereas he was in verified history the son of Sargon.
    Answer to the Objection: The Vulgate reading here, as in i, 2, should be that of AB and A, to wit, Enemesar; and this stands for Sargon. 
  3. Objection: In B, xiv, 15, Ninive is said to have been captured by Ahasuerus (Asueros) and Nabuchodonosor.
    Answer to the Objection: A reads that Achiacharos took Ninive and adds that “he praised God for all He had done against the children of Ninive and Assyria”. The word for Assyria is Athoureias Hebrew ‘asshur, Aramaic ahur; this Greek word misled the scribe to write `Lsueros for the name of the king, Achiacharos, i.e. the Median King Cyaxares. According to Berossus, Cyaxares was, in his campaign against Ninive, allied to the Babylonian King Nabopalassar, the father of Nabuchodonosor; the scribe of B has written the name of the son for that of the father, as Nabopalassar was unknown to him. 
  4. Objection: Rages is a Seleucid town and hence an anachronism.
    Answer to Objection: This is not at all a historical error since it is an ancient Median town, which the Seleucids restored. Also there are two towns called Rages. Ecbatana was also called Rages.
I also read the defense by Cornelius a Lapide for the historicity of Tobit. It is quite convincing. It’s available online in Latin. Regrettably, I don’t have the time to reproduce it all in English.
I would like to close by saying that there is a place for inspired fiction. Christ our Lord’s parable of seeds and the soil or His parable about the lost coin are in fact inspired fiction.

I think we draw the line, however, when books that present themselves as inspired history are taken as inspired fiction. The parables of Christ are generic stories (“A man did such an such”, “A woman…”, “A Samaritan…”, or “A king…”). However, Tobit is specific and lists historical times and places. To interpret Tobit as inspired fiction seems to fall out of line with Pope Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu which holds that we study Scripture mindful of the genre of a book. Tobit, by all accounts, is a historical book.

No offense toward Mark Shea nor to his good work, blog posts, and helpful writings; however, the consensus of the Church Fathers and Thomas Aquinas regarding the nature of Tobit have great merit and a long legacy.

ad Jesum per Mariam,
Taylor Marshall, Ph.D.

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  • Marilyn

    1. Hi , I am trying to defend the canonicity of the book of Tobit, but i find it hard t understand your explanation. Are you saying that the translation, the latin translation had the wrong name , and the name should be corrected to NMSR ? Please explain in clear English so that I can have a reason why Tobit has the names wrong or the historicity wrong…Thanks

  • Alessandro Arsuffi

    I’d like to contribute to this post in some way, answering some other objections.
    First of all, the first chapter of Tobias doesn’t say that Tobit lived at the time of the Kingdom Division, as some people imply. The Jeroboam mentioned there may be Jeroboam II, who erected a new golden calf in Dan, causing the indignation of the prophets. It was under him and his immediate successors that this idolatry spread in the Northern Tribes, c.750-712 BC, when Tobit was born. I think the main character was born in 739 BC (he was 62 in Esarhaddon’s fourth year, 681 BC) and died c.627 BC, a few years before Nineveh’s fall. Tobias, on the contrary, died in 606 BC when Assyria fell and was born in 723 BC, when Tobi was 16 (marriage was possible at 12 at the time!).

    Secondly, the geographical errors are easily explained. Ecbatana and Rhages aren’t meant to be their later counterparts. Ecbatana is to be identified with Bit-Sagbat south of Lakes Van and Urmia, where Media originally was in Assyrian times. Rhages may be another city such Kur-Nargal (-rg-), corrupted into a more familiar name by the translators to rationalize the text. Similarly, the city of Kaserin “before Nineveh” i.e. in front of it on the east side of the Assyrian capital must be Dur-Sharrukin, the fortress-city Sargon left uncompleted: the consonants for Kaserin (K-Sh-R-N) and Sharrukin (Sh-K-R-N) are the same but K is moved earlier in the word.

  • mhausam

    Hello. Do you have any further resources you might suggest regarding the defense of the historical accuracy of the Deuterocanonicals and responses to charges of factual errors, etc.? Thanks!