The Book of Tobit

The Book of Tobit (or 3rd or early 2-nd century BCE) is a Jewish work that outlines God’s test of faithful, how He responds to prayers and how He guards the covenant group (i.e. Israeltes). It tells the story of two Jewish families: that of the blind Tobit in Nineveh as well as the abandoned Sarah in Ecbatana. ( Tobit’s son Tobias is given by Raphael to retrieve the ten silver talents Tobit left behind in Rages the town that is located in Media. Tobias is brought to Ecbatana where Tobias is introduced to Sarah. A demon named Asmodeus has been in love with Sarah and has killed anyone she wants to marry, but through the aid of Raphael the demon is removed and Tobias and Sarah get married, and then they return to Nineveh where Tobit is cured of his blindness.

Book of Tobit
Book of Tobit

It is mentioned in both the Orthodox and Catholic canons. It is not listed in the Jewish. According to Protestant traditions, it is included in the Apocrypha. Anabaptists Lutherans Anglicans, Methodists, Anabaptists Lutherans and Anglicans acknowledge it as part of Scripture and can use it in liturgy or edification purposes, although it’s non-canonical. It is a novel with historical referencesthat majority of scholars believe in.

Summary and structure

The book is comprised of 14 chaptersthat form three major narrative sections with a prologue and epilogue:

  • Prologue (1:1-2)
  • Situation in Nineveh and Ecbatana (1:3-3:17)
  • Tobias’s story (4.1-12.22).
  • Tobit’s praise song to death (13.1-14.2)
  • Epilogue (14:3-15)
  • (Summarised by Benedikt Olzen “Tobit and Judith”).

The prologue informs the reader that this is the tale of Tobit from the Naphtali tribe, who was exiled from Tishbe in Galilee to Nineveh by the Assyrians. He was a faithful follower of the laws of Moses and made offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem prior to the Assyrian conquest. His wedding to Anna is the focus of the story, and they had the name of a son Tobias.

Tobit is a religious man who is known for his burial of dead Jews. But one night when he’s asleep, he is blinded when birds feces in his eyes of Tobit. He becomes dependent on his wife, but accuses her of stealing and prays for death. In the meantime, Sarah, his relative lives in Ecbatana and prays for her death. Asmodeus, a demon is responsible for killing her lovers at their wedding nights.

God is able to answer their prayers and Raphael, the archangel sent by God to help them is assigned. Tobias is sent to recover money from a relative and Raphael, in human disguise, offers to accompany Tobias. On the way they capture a fish on the Tigris, and Raphael advises Tobias that a burned liver and heart can rid the demons of the world and the gall cures blindness. They arrive at Ecbatana and meet Sarah who, just as Raphael has predicted the demon is slain.

Tobias and Sarah are married. Tobias is rich and they go home to Nineveh, Assyria, where Tobit (and Anna) await Anna and Tobit. Tobit is healed from blindness and Raphael departs, telling Tobit and Tobias to thank God, declare his deeds before the community (the Jews), and to pray and fast and to offer alms. Tobit sings praises to God who has sent his people into exile, but will give them mercy and rebuild their Temple in the event that they return to God.

Tobit informs Tobias in the final epilogue that Nineveh will be soon destroyed as an example of wickedness. Israel will also be empty, and the Temple destroyed. However, Israel as well as the Temple can be restored. Tobias should therefore leave Nineveh and remain in righteousness with his family.


Tobit is an original work of fiction with historical references. It includes prayers, moral exhortation, adventure, and humour, as also elements of folklore. It gave guidance to diaspora Jews living in exile on how to maintain Jewish identity.

The Latin Rite uses readings from the book. It is often used by the Latin Rite to read the book at weddings. The book is mentioned for its teaching concerning the intercessions of angels, filial piety almsgiving and tithing, as well as reverence for the dead. In the chapter 5 of 1 Meqabyan (a book that is considered to be canonical in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church), Tobit is also mentioned.

Manuscripts and composition

Leaf taken from a manuscript on Vellum, c. 1240.

The Book of Tobit’s story is set in 8th century BC. But the text was composed between 215 BC and 175 BC. There is no consensus about the location of composition (almost all areas of the ancient world are considered to be possible candidates”); a Mesopotamian basis is likely since the tale is set in Assyria, Persia, and is a reference to the Persian demon “aeshma Daeva”, which is “Asmodeus”. But this book is full of geographic errors (such as the distance between Ecbatana and Rhages and their topography) and arguments in favor or against Judean or Egyptian composition.

Tobit is available in two Greek versions: Sinaiticus (longer) and Alexandrinus (shorter). Aramaic and Hebrew fragments of Tobit (four Aramaic, one Hebrew – it is not clear which was the original language) found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran tend to align more closely with the longer or Sinaiticus version, which has formed the basis of most English translations in recent times.

Tobit and Judith are named in the Vulgate as books of the historical named after Nehemiah. Some manuscripts in the Greek version put them following the wisdom writings.

Status Canonical

The Jewish books found in the Septuagint but not included in the standard Masoretic canon of the Jewish Bible are called the deuterocanon which translates to “second canon”. Protestants do not follow the Masoretic Canon, so they do not include Tobit in the standard Masoretic Canon. They do however recognize it in the category of deuterocanonical books known as the apocrypha.

The Council of Rome (A.D. 382) includes the Book of Tobit as a canonical work. This includes the Council of Hippo (393), Council of Carthage (397), and Council of Carthage (419) as well as the Council of Florence (1422) and, finally the Council of Trent (1546). It is a part of the canon of Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Catholics refer to it as deuterocanonical.

Augustine (c. A.D. 397) and Augustine (c. AD 397) and Innocent I (A.D. 405) confirmed Tobit as a part of the Old Testament Canon. Athanasius (A.D.367) stated that Tobit was not part of the Canon however, other works, such as the book of Tobit were “appointed by the Fathers for being read”.

Rufinus of Aquileia (c. A.D.400) stated that the book of Tobit and other works of the deuterocanon, were not Canonical but Ecclesiastical.

The book of Tobit is typically located in the intertestamental area called Apocrypha in accordance with Protestant traditions. Anabaptism uses the book of Tobit in the liturgy used at Amish weddings. The “book of Tobit” is often used to provide the basis for the wedding sermon. Tobit is mentioned in the Luther Bible as part of the “Apocrypha”, which refers to books that do not conform to sacred Scriptures but are nevertheless useful to study. Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England defines it as an article from the “Apocrypha”. The first Methodist liturgical work, The Sunday Service of the Methodists includes passages taken from Tobit within the Eucharistic service. The Scripture readings from the Apocrypha are included in the Lectionary of the Lutheran Churches and Anglican Churches, as well as other denominations using the Revised Common Lectionary, though alternate Old Testament readings are provided. The Anglican, Methodist and Catholic churches provide Holy Matrimony with a Scripture reading from the Book of Tobit.

Tobit offers some interesting evidence of early evolution of the Jewish canon. This is in reference to two, not three divisions, the Law of Moses, (i.e. the torah) and the prophets. The text is not included in the Hebrew Bible for unknown reasons. Possible explanations are its age (now considered as unlikely), Samaritan origin or an infraction to the law of ritual in that it portrays the marriage contract between Tobias and his bride that was written by her father and not her husband. It is nevertheless found in the Septuagint Greek Jewish writings. This Septuagint was used to adopt it into the Christian canon towards the end of the fourth century.


Tobit’s role within the Christian canon has allowed it to influence culture, art, and theology in Europe. The early Church fathers often mentioned it, and its theme of Tobias with the fish (the fish is the symbol of Christ) was extremely well-known in theology and art. Particularly interesting is the works of Rembrandt who, despite belonging to the Dutch Reformed Church, was the creator of a set of drawings and paintings depicting stories from the book.