Diachronic Analyses of Tobit

In diachronic analysis, the main concern revolves around how a partic-ular text has developed through time. This type of analysis involves separating the text to its constituent parts and positing certain stages of growth or periods of development in the history of the text. The inter-est of diachronic analysis is the origin, formation and evolution of the text. Moreover, by examining the text as a historical object, diachronic analysis attempts to uncover the concealed history that lies behind the text.50 Using this type of analysis, a number of scholars have posited various layers of composition in the Tobit narrative.

Józef T. Milik

Diachronic Analyses of Tobit
Book of Tobit

Following the findings at Qumran, Józef Tadeusz Milik proposed a double stage composition for Tobit. The first redaction was done in the northern region of Palestine in Samaria and the second in Jerusalem.51 Milik starts by noticing the topographic indications in Tob 1:2, which states that Tobit is a native evk Qisbhj h[ evstin evk dexiw/n Kudiwj th/j Nefqalim upera,nw Asshr ovpi,sw odou/ dusmw/n h`li,ou evx avristerw/n Fogwr. Referencing the location notices made by the Anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux and by Eusebius in his Onomasticon, Milik identifies Qisbhj as the present-day Tubas, a small Palestinian village that lies southwest of Teyasir (Asshr) and Wadi al-Far’a in the upper hills of Samaria and some twenty kilometers northeast of Nablus. After the first redaction, Thisbe was considered the original homeland of Tobit. That Tobit comes from the village of Thisbe reflects the hagiotopographic link of the prophet Toba to Tubas and Teyasir, which is equivalent to Aser, Villa Tob of the Anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux.

In Judg 11:3, 5, 34, Mizpah, which is located in the West Bank, is identified as the land of Tob. In 2 Sam 10:6-8, the retelling of the in-volvement of the people of Tob with the affairs of the Ammonites im-agines the land of Tob to denote the regions of Shechem and Bethshan. However, excavations have revealed that the urban center had moved to the Transjordan territory of ‘Iraq al-Amir and it is this region to which the biblical stories concerning the land of Tob may in fact refer. This territory of course became the place of origin and sphere of influ-ence of the aristocratic Tobiad family52 that flourished in the Persian and the Ptolemaic empires. Milik maintains that some events the family of Tobit experiences in the story echo the traditions regarding the Tobiads, the civil rulers of the area who also exerted an extensive influ-ence in Jerusalem.

In light of this, the initial narrative was a court story produced in Samaria during the late Persian or Hellenistic period to enhance the prestige and piety of the national and aristocratic Tobiad family before an Aramean-speaking people. Later, due to the success of this simple and edifying story written for the Samaritan Diaspora, a Judean re-dactor revised the narrative and produced a more orthodox version, adding details oriented towards the Jerusalem cult.53 A winning Samaritan story was adapted into a Judean milieu.

Paul Deselaers

Paul Deselaers proposes a more complex redactional history for the Book of Tobit. Employing literary criticism as a means for source anal-ysis, Deselaers believes that the narrative tension, incoherence, contra-diction, repetitions, syntactical and stylistic differences are signs of an editorial hand. According to him, the basic narrative about Jewish family life in the Diaspora, originally composed in Greek of the GI type54 in Alexandria in the mid-third century BCE, underwent a literary evolution consisting of three successive stages.

The first redaction involved the addition of the sapiential instruc-tions in Tob 4:3-19 and 12:6b-10 and the hymn in 13:1-9a, to which the following were likewise inserted later: 2:11-14; 3:6; 5:1-2, 18-23; 6:7-10, 13, 15b, 16b-18a; 7:10b-11, 15-17; 8:6, 16, 17b; 8:20–10:7; 10:12-13, 14b; 11:7-9; 12:3, 6b-14; 12:19–20, 22 and 14:1-2. Most likely edited in a Wis-dom school heavily steeped in the Torah and the Prophets, the purpose of the first redaction was to emphasize the figure of Tobit as sage and medium of revelation.

The second stage of literary development introduced the figure of Ahiqar in a Greek form of the Sinaiticus type in 195 BCE. The redactor’s raison d’être for referencing the popular story of Ahiqar is to accentuate the need for acts of solidarity, a constant theological theme in the story.

The final redaction, dating from 185 BCE, appended texts that con-tained references to Jerusalem, as well as eschatological and apocalyp-tic materials such as 13:10b-18. In all likelihood, the Jerusalem priestly circle was responsible for the insertion of materials with apocalyptic eschatology in the hope that they would serve as propaganda for the Jews in the Diaspora against the Hellenistic tendencies of the Seleucid kings. The adjustments were intended either as a voice of warning be-fore the religious conflict or as an encouragement to live authentic Ju-daism as a form of living resistance against every human rule.55

Merten Rabenau

Irene Nowell rightly points out that a key defect of Deselaers’s source analysis lies in his questionable assumption that the Vorlage of the text of Tobit is Greek, when overwhelming evidence seems to indicate that the book was originally Semitic.56 Cognizant of this flaw, Merten Rabe-nau has proposed a history of the development of Tobit based on GII since it reflects better the Semitic Vorlage.57 Using literary criticism, Rabenau argues that a coherent core story of Tobit exists, consisting of angelic direction and guidance based on patriarchal stories and biblical prototypes.58 The events of the narrative converge to reveal a story of guidance, or Führungsgeschichte59, in which God keeps and directs his pious ones in marvelous ways. Rabenau follows Milik’s suggestion by arguing that the kernel of the narrative, anchored in Jewish life in the Diaspora, was most likely originally written in Aramaic in Samaritan Palestine in the third century BCE.60

This basic story has undergone three editorial expansions, most likely undertaken in Jewish circles. The first redaction, with its ethiciz-ing tendency and emphases on burying the dead and doing deeds of charity for the poor, along with its transformation of Tobit into a Gali-lean devotee of the Jerusalem cult and Temple, reflects the time of the Maccabees, and can thus be dated between 147 and 141 BCE. The second revision includes references to Ahiqar, an emphasis on the cen-trality of family, and a juxtaposition of Anna’s faintheartedness against Tobit’s misfortune. The inner Jewish tensions evident in the second ex-pansion make it datable to 140 BCE.61 The final redaction, focusing on law and piety, adds insertions such as 1:3-8 and 13:6, 9-18, as well as various glosses on the text. This last stage of literary development dates to the last third of the second century BCE.62

Critical Problems with Diachronic Analysis

The aforementioned studies employed diachronic methods to analyze the narrative composition of Tobit. However, two chief problems lie at the heart of such tradition-critical analysis. First, if indeed the Urtext of Tobit is Semitic, then the Greek recensions cannot serve as the basis for diachronic analysis. As Beate Ego has warned, sound conclusions based on stylistic differences or diverse tendencies using source critical analysis can only be made using the original text.63 In the case of Tobit, the Semitic textual evidence is unfortunately very fragmentary.

The second problem with diachronic methodology applied to narrative texts is its heavy dependence on the assumption that a narra-tive is absolutely consistent.64 Seemingly straying themes or varying threads of ideas are taken as obvious indications of redactions. How-ever, given a variety of themes in a narrative text, using the criterion of coherence of themes in a complex work is a weak, if not useless, means for detecting various editorial layers.65 As Lester L. Grabbe adds, “the general acceptance that the text has a long history behind it does not mean that that history can easily be sorted out now.”66

Furthermore, tensions in the flow of the story do not logically imply later expansion or insertion. Themes that cohere do not neces-sarily entail compositional layers or stages.67 When applied to ancient narratives the method has limitations, for it is based on contemporary and biased notions of consistency and narrative flow.68 Perhaps ancient authors are not as academically tidy as modern biblical scholars are. Therefore, examining a story as complex as Tobit via source analysis can be shaky and doubtful. Synthesis has to complement such analysis. At best, the method can yield illuminating insights on certain details. In the end, however, the entire Tobit narrative can find its beauty, sense and meaning when viewed as an intricately woven fabric of a story from a variety of colorful threads.


45 Cf. for instance STUCKENBRUCK, Angel Veneration and Christology, 164-167; IDEM, The Book of Tobit and the Problem of Magic, 258-269 and EGO, Textual Variants as a Result of Enculturation, 371-378.

46 Cf. PFEIFFER, History of New Testament Times, 276: “All that can be said of the origi-nal work, now beyond recovery, is that it probably did not differ substantially from the story told in Codex Sinaiticus.”

47 In his analysis of the differences between 4Q200, S and BA of Tob 13:18–14:2, Doran concludes that the difference is typical of an oral culture in which some details of the story vary in the retelling. DORAN, Serious George, or the Wise Apocalypticist, 259. Nicklas and Wagner also make this observation: “Ist die Textgeschichte des (litera-rischen) Tobit-Buches einzig anhand von Parametern schriftlicher Tradierung zu er-fassen oder wirken Phänomene mündlicher Überliefierung – unter Umständen auch in Form einer „second orality” – in der literarischen Prozess der Textuberlieferung mit hinein?” NICKLAS /WAGNER, Thesen zur textlichen Vielfalt im Tobitbuch, 158.

48 Cf. ERBT, Tobit, 4:5117. Cf. also NICKLAS/WAGNER, Thesen zur textlichen Vielfalt im Tobitbuch, 151.
49 Cf. WEEKS, Some Neglected Texts of Tobit, 24.

50 Cf. HOLLADAY, Contemporary Methods of Reading the Bible, 1:128-136.
51 Cf. MILIK, La patrie de Tobie, 522-530. However, as Doran rightly points out, Milik “alludes to the teasing problem that Tobit is a northerner and the obvious similarity to the Tobiads, but he does not provide a satisfactory analysis of the whole work.” DORAN, Narrative Literature, 298.

52 Cf. MAZAR, The Tobiads, 137-145; 229-238; JI, A New Look at the Tobiads in ‘Iraq al-Amir, 417-440. Cf. also TCHERIKOVER, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, 126-142.

53 Nickelsburg criticizes and dismisses Milik’s hypothesis as problematic. While the names Tobit and Tobias can be related to the Tobiad family, the story is self-con-tained and is meaningful in itself. Further, Tobit’s gaze upon Jerusalem is in keeping with his character, not a prior lack or defect that needs to be addressed by a later hand. NICKELSBURG, Tobit and Enoch, 68. Dimant also finds Milik’s analysis unpersuasive, stating that the lack of references to any Samaritan locality implies the absence of anti-Samaritan polemics as Milik has suggested. DIMANT, Tobit in Galilee, n.7, 349.

54 Deselaers argues that Greek is the original language of Tobit and Vaticanus is the best available text of the Greek recensions. Written in Egypt, Tobit has no Semitic Vorlage. The said recension is the basis of his source analysis. DESELAERS, Das Buch Tobit, 335. For this reason, Fitzmyer rejects Deselaers’s effort and dismisses his theory as some-thing “spun out of whole cloth by someone who had not seen the Semitic texts of To-bit.” FITZMYER, The Aramaic and Hebrew Fragments, 671. In his commentary for Geistliche Schriftlesung, Deselaers continues to hold on to his original view. DESELAERS, Das Buch Tobit, 9.

55 Cf. DESELAERS, Das Buch Tobit, 374-500.
56 Cf. NOWELL, Review of Das Buch Tobit, 306-307. Besides being highly speculative, Deselaers’s study involves “inevitable problems of subjectivity and circular reason-ing in determining the basic layer.” For further comments, cf. IDEM, Narrative Tech-nique and Theology, 37-39. Reiterating Nowell’s point, Ego has also stated that the analysis of Deselaers is problematic by virtue of treating GII as secondary. EGO, Buch Tobit, 890. Cf. also. GRABBE, Tobit, 737.

57 If source analysis has to use the original text in order to reach valid conclusions, then Rabenau’s project, although based on GII considered closest to a Semitic Urtext, is equally questionable as Deselaers’s.

58 Cf. RABENAU, Studien zum Buch Tobit, 100-104. While both Deselaers and Rabenau argue for a four level redaction, Otto Kaiser claims that Tobit underwent at the very least a three level expansion beginning with a core narrative followed by an Ahiqar recension and then a final retouching in Jerusalem. KAISER, The Old Testament Apocrypha, 35.

59 Cf. RABENAU, Studien zum Buch Tobit, 94: “Wir haben durch den literarkritischen Durchgang in der Tat eine Grundschicht mit einer kohärenten Erzählung gewonnen. Sie ist spannend, besitzt einen durchlaufenden Faden, ist in sich schlüssig und in al-len ihren Teilen aufeinander bezogen.”

60 Rabenau agrees with Milik’s proposal that Tobit’s original hometown was Thisbe. A Judean redactor transformed him into a member of the tribe of Naphtali, a region that later subscribed to the Jerusalem temple. RABENAU, Studien zum Buch Tobit, 149.

61 This second redactional layer of the Tobit narrative is interesting from the point of view of feminist exegesis because of the enhanced interest in the narrative role of women. SCHÜNGEL-STRAUMANN, Review of Studien zum Buch Tobit, 388.

62 Cf. RABENAU, Studien zum Buch Tobit, 148-190. According to the author, the first expansion consisted of 1:16-17; 4:14b-19, 21; 12:11-14; 13:1-8 and 14:8-9, 10, 15. The second redaction included 1:15, 18, 19-21, 22a; 2:1, 8, 11-14; 3:6; 5:18–6:1; 6:13*, 14-16, 18; 7:7; 8:21; 10:4-7, 12 and 14:11. The third edition inserted 1:3, 4-8, 10-12, 18; 21b, 22b; 2:6, 10b; 3:17; 5:3, 14; 7:11, 12; 8:3b, 11, 18; 12:19-20; 13:9-18 and 14:3b-7. The au-thor also provides a German translation with different typesets that indicate the various expansions.

63 Cf. EGO, Buch Tobit, 890: “Da literarkritische Untersuchungen zunächst einmal bei dem semitischsprachigen Original anzusetzen haben, dieser aber nur sehr fragmen-tarisch auf uns gekommen ist, steht eine definitive Lösung des Problems noch aus.”

64 DORAN, Narrative Literature, 297. Cf. also GUNN/FEWELL, Narrative in the Hebrew Bible, 8: “Significant expression of ideological tensions or factual contradictions within a single work was deemed unlikely, if not impossible … In short, underlying most source criticism has been an aesthetic preference for rationalistic, literal reading of literature.”
65 Cf. LUST, Review of Das Buch Tobit, 134: “One wonders whether an artful composi-tion like the book of Tobit may not have assembled many more disparate materials in its original draft.” The statement implies a process of editing that trims the text.
66 GRABBE, Tobit, 737.
67 Nickelsburg poses these questions: “The first question involves the issue of simplic-ity versus complexity. Need we reduce the heart of a book to a single theme or set of themes, or can an author’s composition embrace a number of related and sometimes disparate matters? The second question has often been raised since the development of biblical source criticism. Can we impose modern standards of coherence and nar-rative flow on ancient texts? And if we wish to do so, does the alleged carelessness of the editor not suggest that an author, too, can be careless?.” NICKELSBURG, Review of Studien zum Buch Tobit, 349.

Originally posted 2020-02-10 04:10:36.