Tobit and the Jewishness of the New Testament

I am developing a series of articles here on Messianic Musings about the writings of Second Temple Judaism that we call the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha. These writings, which date from after the time of the Hebrew Bible and until the end of the New Testament period, are a window into Jewish life and thought of the period.

If you want to read past articles about these Second Temple Jewish writings, you can look at “An Apocryphal Prayer” here and “Psalm 151: A Lesson for Israel Then and Now” here.

Today’s topic is the book of Tobit. No one can say exactly when it was written, though many think it was before the time of the Maccabees, so before 170 B.C.E.

Tobit is an unusual book, a sort of romance or extended fairy tale, about a Jewish man living in times of compromise with the Gentile world. Tobit is not a historical figure. The writer makes massive historical errors, such as having Tobit alive before the secession of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 922 B.C.E. and yet still alive during the reign of Tiglath Pileser of Assyria in 740 B.C.E. We readers are asked to simply swallow these details in order to enjoy a heartwarming story that encourages Jewish values of righteousness in an unrighteous age.

I won’t attempt to summarize the whole story, but I will point out the two streams of the story that sort of run side by side. One stream is what I think of as the fairy tale and the other is the Jewish tale. The fairy tale side of the story is interesting:

1. There is a bride whose husbands always die on the wedding night because the demon Asmodeus kills them.
2. By the time Tobit’s son Tobias comes along, guess how many would-be grooms have died . . . that’s right, seven.
3. There is a story of a fish attacking Tobit’s son as he camps beside the Tigris river, a giant fish.
4. There is a man who is really an angel, who helps Tobias, and not just any angel, but Raphael, one of the seven angels of God’s presence!
5. There is a sort of magic, when Raphael, pretending to be a man, tells Tobias to burn the fish’s heart and liver on incense to drive away the demon Asmodeus and survive the wedding night with the dangerous bride.
6. There is still a Jewish sense of propriety in the “magic,” since the truth is that Raphael drives the demon away and the magic is simply a ruse to give Tobias confidence.
7. Yet the magic comes back as Tobias uses the gall of the fish to anoint his father Tobit’s eyes and remove the blindness (blindness caused by sparrows dropping excrement in his eyes!).

It’s not hard to see why Tobit does not belong in the Bible. But it is also not hard to see why Tobit has long been considered a book worthy of reading for Christians and Jews. Alongside the fairy tale part of the story, there is a tale of Jewish faithfulness:

1. Tobit lives during the separation of the Northern and Southern kingdoms in 922 B.C.E.
2. Tobit refuses to worship at the false temple of Jeroboam, but goes down to Jerusalem.
3. Tobit faithfully brings all three tithes to God as commanded in the Torah and keeps the dietary law.
4. Tobit highly values caring for the dead, burying Jews even when the Assyrian king decrees that Jewish bodies should not be buried (this theme has a complex history I don’t have time to get into).
5. Tobit highly values giving alms to the poor, primarily the righteous poor.
6. The tale develops the angelology and demonology that will be standard fare by the time of the New Testament.
7. Tobit has a high view of marriage indicated by this prayer of Tobias:

“Blessed are you, O God of our fathers; praised be your name forever and ever. Let the heavens and all your creation praise you forever. You made Adam and you gave him his wife Eve to be his help and support; and from these two the human race descended. You said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; let us make him a partner like himself.’ Now, Lord, you know that I take this wife of mine not because of lust, but for a noble purpose. Call down your mercy on me and on her, and allow us to live together to a happy old age.”

Tobit is part of the stream of Jewish thought that influenced the New Testament. God was not silent during the time between the Testaments. He was at work in Judaism. God put his stamp of approval on many of the ideas of Second Temple Judaism. Here are a few examples:

1. Though the Hebrew Bible says little about angels and demons (Daniel has the most), there is a developed theology of angels and demons by the New Testament. It formed in the time between Ezra and Yeshua.
2. Tobit says there are seven angels who are in God’s presence. This should sound familiar, as Revelation uses the same idea: the seven spirits of God (note: these are not the “seven-fold Spirit of God” as some interpretations suggest, but seven angels).
3. Tobit says that demons can harass people, which the New Testament agrees with (even if Tobit’s version is a bit far-fetched).
4. Tobit places a high value on almsgiving, an overlooked theme of the New Testament.

It is this last stream that I want to close with. Almsgiving is something Protestant Christians have fairly well eliminated. Almsgiving is more than giving to charity. It is also the idea that giving to the poor is an aid to prayer. I can hear many Protestants now, saying this is heretical. Yet, consider the book of Acts, where the stance on almsgiving is the same as that of Tobit:

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. (Acts 10:1-2).
Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. (Acts 9:36)

I’d say that we need to recover some of these Jewish values in Messianic Judaism and in Christianity. The literature of the Second Temple period can help us who believe in Yeshua better understand the way he thought and lived. After all, wasn’t it Yeshua who said, “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”?

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Second Temple Lit.. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Tobit and the Jewishness of the New Testament

  1. Your friend says:

    I was looking forward to your sabbath blog tonight!
    They always inspire me
    May you and your family be blessed this sabbath

  2. Steve says:

    The biggest issue one has is blind ignorance. I’m reminded of Mark Twain – In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing. – Autobiography of Mark Twain

    At times I see you charging forward into glorious battle like Gideon , at other moments, well, “Seekers of Smooth Things” glazing over some important background…. You need to charge in here regarding these ancient scriptures and liturgy of this period, and lay it out in detail.

    In discussing these ancient works then do them properly in a Judean context of the period, and which sects of Judaism held these works, Pharisees, Sadducee’s, and Zadok-Essenes retained them.

    An example with the King James Bible, and the Masoretic text later developed in comparison to the earlier Greek placed along side the Dead Sea scrolls, the Greek is over 70% more in line with the ancient Codex’s. While at the same time Masoretic is only 30% except with with Isaiah. So Christianity had it right all along within the Roman, Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox canons. I’m talking canons not dogma.

    Immediately following the temple period the Pharisees Council of Jamnia tried to purge much which pointed to end times, and Yeshua as the Messiah, and the series of persecutions by both the Pharisees and Romans ending up with Constantine. The Ethiopian EOTC Church is a good example of discussion related to this period.

    You should also discuss the Damascus document (CD) Cairo, or perhaps the Temple Scroll, and the new wine feast. Its mentioned in Acts as background filler.

    Suggestion a topic regarding Jewish calendars, the ancient Enochen in comparison to this later Hillel II version? After all much attention being given to this in light of the Temple Scroll and the Gospel accounts.

    Maccabees (1, 2, 3) Why are they important? Must folks are ignorant…. They provide background to the Jewish Revolt and its quasi independence from the Greek Seleucid rulers, while we are talking Seleucid you have Hanukkah, Maccabees 2 deals with some very interesting and obscure passages related to the Ark, but with recent research on the Cooper Scroll this is being reexamined very closely again. Maccabees 3 deals not with Maccabees revolt, rather with the Jews living in Egypt during this period. Why is this important, because Yeshua and the Holy family fled to Egypt, and gives background to the size and makeup of the Jewish population of the period.

    Desposyni, James the Just, Jude, there is more than just Paul – this also should be discussed.

    Enoch (1), the Assumption of Moses also needs to be discussed.

  3. healtheland says:

    Hello: This is off topic, but there is an concerted attempt to scrub articles relating to Messianic Judaism from Wikipedia. These four:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Messianic_Jewish_organizations
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messianic_Jewish_Rabbinical_Council
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hashivenu
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbi_Dr._Stuart_Dauermann

    Were challenged (all by the same people, with “Yeshivist” being the ringleader), all but the first were deleted. I will point out that though the motivation for instigating the coordinate the campaign to delete them was clearly religious bigotry on the part of those who reject the deity and Messiah – ship of Christ Jesus and hence were deleted while a multitude of far worse articles remain, the poor quality of the entries gave Satan an opening, as it can honestly be claimed that the deletion of the entries was a simple editing decision. I did restore http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messianic_Jewish_Rabbinical_Council relying heavily on the information on their website to the best of my ability. But the other links on this list need to be restored, as do the several broken links on
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Messianic_Jewish_organizations. (It appears that their strategy was to challenge and have deleted all of the links on
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Messianic_Jewish_organizations so that they could then turn around and demand that
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Messianic_Jewish_organizations be deleted also because “it contains too many bad links).

    In addition, their Messianic Judaism articles in general (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Messianic_Judaism_stubs) are stubs, meaning that they do not contain enough information to be considered a full entry (yes, there is also an effort to either have the Messianic Jewish entries declared to be stubs or merged with other entries whose deletion they are also agitating for). I will do what I can, but I am not a Messianic Jew, so my ability to write informative, accurate, God – honoring entries (as well as those capable of withstanding the coordinated deletion campaigns) is limited. So, I ask of you: please help, either with writing and strengthening these entries yourselves, or by way of contacting others who can! Please note: there is also a WikiProject on Messianic Judaism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Messianic_Judaism Wikipedia entries are always #1 or #2 on Google search results, so this is VERY IMPORTANT for publicizing the cause of Jesus Christ in these last days! Thank you.

  4. Pingback: Apocryphal Reading List « Messianic Jewish Musings

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