Saving Judith and Tobit

By Jimmy Akin

Why are Catholic Bibles different from Protestant Bibles? It’s a perennial question in apologetics that focuses on the seven deuterocanonial books Protestants exclude from their Bibles. (They call them the "Apocrypha," though the term has a different meaning in Catholic circles.)

Many charges are made in Protestant circles regarding these books, and when I was in the process of becoming Catholic, I had to work through them. What I found was that they were no different than the criticisms made by others against the Bible in general.

Many non-Christians and skeptics have charged the Bible with error or contradiction at various points, but the alleged discrepancies have solutions. Indeed, there are whole books devoted to solving them, such as Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, John Haley’s Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, or Norman Geisler’s When Critics Ask 

As I worked through the charges against the deuterocanonicals, I found that they had solutions, just like the charges made against the protocanonical books of the Bible. The difference was that, while Protestant authors were willing to exert themselves to find solutions to the problems with the latter, they were uninterested in doing the same for the former.

Two of the books that come in for the most criticism are Judith and Tobit. Let’s look at them and at some of the solutions to charges made against them.


Judith tells the story of a Jewish heroine who saves the nation from invasion. It was written in a Semitic language (Hebrew or Aramaic) by an unknown Jewish author who lived in Israel some time after the Babylonian exile. Jerome used an Aramaic copy of it to make his Vulgate translation of the work. Today it survives only in Greek and Latin copies.

Judith is often charged with making historical errors, which raises the question: What style of literature is it? Is it meant to be an ordinary historical document or something else?

One of the most intriguing possibilities is that Judith is a roman à clef (a real historical person who is written about under alternate names). This literary form, in both the ancient and the modern world, has often been used when someone rich and powerful is being discussed. For example, the 1941 movie Citizen Kane is a roman à clef about newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who recognized the unflattering portrait of himself in the movie and used his media empire in an (unsuccessful) attempt to squelch its box office success.

If Judith is a roman à clef, the original Jewish audience could have figured out the real names of its characters, just as filmgoers in ’41 figured out that the movie character Charles Foster Kane was really Hearst. Unfortunately, at this late date it is difficult for us to do so with the book of Judith.

It is also possible that Judith is an extended parable intended to teach that God will always deliver his people if they are faithful to him (this is the key lesson of the book even if it is not an extended parable).

Whether the book is a roman à clef or an extended parable, this must be communicated to the audience of the book in some way so that they would know they were not reading a piece of ordinary historical writing. If the audience could not have reasonably been expected to know that the work was not ordinary history, then the divine veracity or inspiration of the book could be called into question. It is no surprise then that we find clues in the work that would have told the original readers that it was either a roman à clef or an extended parable. It is these very clues that lead to the charge that Judith contains historical errors.

For example, in 1:1, Nebuchadnezzar is said to be the king of the Assyrians. "How can we take Judith seriously," the opponent may ask, "when everybody knows that Nebuchadnezzar was king of the Babylonians, not the Assyrians?"

"That is precisely the point," one may reply. "Everyone, and certainly every literate Jew of the period, knew which nation Nebuchadnezzar ruled. The reason he is presented as king of Assyria in the very first verse of the book is that the author wants to telegraph to his audience, right from the beginning, that they are not reading ordinary historical writing."

Consider the situation: The book of Judith is about a devout woman named Judith, a name that means the Jewish woman or Lady Jew. She battles a general sent by Nebuchadnezzar—the greatest individual who was an enemy of Israel. He is pictured as the leader of the Assyrians—the nation that was the other great enemy of the people of Israel.

Let’s transpose this into a twentieth-century American context. Judith—Lady Jew—is a female personification of her nation, rather like Lady Liberty might be regarded today. Nebuchadnezzar, the greatest evil individual who fought the nation, would correspond in the twentieth century to someone like Adolph Hitler. The Assyrians, the other great enemy, would correspond to the Soviet Union (which, after the Nazis in World War II, was regarded later in the Cold War as the other great enemy of America).

Now suppose you picked up a book about a conflict between Lady Liberty and a general sent by Adolph Hitler, the premier of the Soviet Union. You would know instantly that what you were reading was not intended to be a historical account but a parable—or at least a cloaked retelling of a historical event.

In the same way, any Jew in the ancient world who read Judith would have known instantly that he was reading a parabolic rather than a historical work. Every ancient Jew knew that Nebuchadnezzar was the king of the Babylonians, not the Assyrians, just as every American today knows that Adolph Hitler was the chancellor of Germany, not the premier of the Soviet Union.

Thus the charge of historical error is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the book’s genre. The supposed "errors" are actually cues to the ancient audience to tell them what kind of literature they were reading.

In addition to the charge of historical error, opponents of the deuterocanonicals also charge the character Judith with the moral fault that she lied to the general Holofernes (cf. 11:5–19) in order to kill him (cf. 13:8).

This is also easy to solve, since it is no different than the other instances in Scripture in which a woman lies in order to save lives. Examples include when the Hebrew midwives lie to Pharaoh to save the baby boys (cf. Ex. 1:15–21), when Rahab lies to save the Hebrew spies (cf. Josh. 2:1–14), or when Jael lies to Sisera in order to save the Israelites by nailing his head to the ground (cf. Judg. 4:17–22).

The same solutions that solve these problems in the protocanonical books will solve any parallels in the deuterocanonical books (see the books mentioned above for examples). 


This book (sometimes called Tobias) tells the story of a pious father who has fallen on hard times and how God rescues him and his family, which includes a son named after him.

The author of Tobit, like the author of most Old Testament books, is not known. He was a Jew, most likely living in Palestine around 200 B.C. Like Judith, the book of Tobit was written in a Semitic language (Hebrew or Aramaic), and Jerome used an Aramaic copy to make his Vulgate translation. Both Hebrew and Aramaic fragments of it have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, though the majority of the text is known via translations, of which there are many.

The text of the book suffers from an unusual number of manuscript difficulties. These variants are responsible for some of the alleged "errors" of the book, just as manuscript difficulties are responsible for alleged "errors" in the protocanonical books.

As a result, any proposed error resting on a manuscript variant must be rejected, just as proposed errors in the protocanonical are rejected if they rest on uncertain manuscript variants. One can charge only that the book itself is in error if one knows that the original version of the book said the thing in question. Nobody claims that all subsequent copies of a book (protocanonical or deuterocanonical) will be preserved from manuscript errors. (Even King James Only-ists acknowledge that there are many biblical manuscripts that haven’t been preserved perfectly.)

Still, manuscript problems may not provide the solution to all of the historical questions that can be raised about Tobit, which brings us to the subject of its genre.

The precise genre of Tobit is difficult to determine. Like the book of Judith, Tobit may be a roman à clef or an extended parable. It may be an inspired, parabolic retelling of a popular folktale. The genre does not matter as long as the original readers could identify what kind of work they were reading, thus protecting the divine truthfulness of the book.

If the audience knows that what it is reading is not ordinary historical narrative but one composed partly or wholly out of symbols, it is not deceived; this is the same principle under which the prophetic books of Scripture—which may be composed partly or wholly of symbols—are judged non-deceptive. In their cases, too, the audience knew it was not reading straight historical narrative that was to be taken literally.

This outlines a general approach to many criticisms of the book, but let’s look at some specific charges.

Opponents of Tobit assert that the book makes a number of historical errors: Tobit is said to be the uncle of the legendary figure Ahikar (cf. 1:21–22, 2:10; 11:18; 14:10). Tobit is said to have lived to be 158 years old in some manuscripts (cf. 14:11). And there are a number of name substitutions in the book—e.g., Shalmaneser is used instead of Tiglath-pileser (cf. 1:2, 13; 2 Kgs. 15:29), and Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus are used instead of Nabopolassar and Cyaxares (cf. 14:15).

The presence of Ahikar in the story and the advanced age ascribed to Tobit in some manuscripts may be taken as cues to the readers that the work is not a straight history but another kind of literature. (Imagine picking up a modern work about someone who lived to be 158 and was a relative of the legendary American figures Paul Bunyan or Rip van Winkle).

The name substitutions may also be cues. They may be due also to manuscript problems, as are name discrepancies elsewhere in the book. For example, depending on which manuscripts you read, the town mentioned in 3:7 is called Rages or Ecbatana, and the prophet mentioned in 14:4 is Jonah or Nahum. For both passages, the latter readings are correct.

This is especially the case in 14:15, for even non-Catholic historians sometimes identify Ahasuerus, the father of Darius the Mede (cf. Dan. 9:1), with Cyaxares, and Cyaxares did have a son named Nebuchadnezzar, making scribal errors more likely in the chain of manuscript transmission.

The charges of historical error aren’t the only ones made against the book. Some critics object to the fact that the angel Raphael disguises himself and gives a supposedly false name for himself.

This is a complicated subject, since human names can never express the true names of angels but only an aspect of their celestial identity. In Tobit, the angel identifies himself as Raphael ("God Heals," the most fundamental name he presents) and Azariah ("the Help of the Lord"). Both of these reflect an.aspect of his mission and therefore can correctly be said to be names for him. We also know from other Scripture passages that angels do travel incognito (cf. Heb. 13:2). Even Jesus did so (cf. Luke 24:13–29).

Since in any protracted stay with someone—even overnight—the angels would have had to identify themselves as someone, they would have used human names (which would have included a lineage, given the patriarchal society of the Bible). They also would have given points of origin for themselves, as any traveler in the biblical world was certain to be asked, "Who are you, and where are you from?"

We also know that the group of angels to which Raphael belongs—the seven who stand before God (cf. 12:15)—is a real group of angels, for it is mentioned in Revelation 8:2.

What is done or implied elsewhere in Scripture about angels in disguise cannot be used to attack this example of it, especially since the angel does finally reveal his identity and mission to the characters (just as Jesus finally revealed his identity to the disciples on the road to Emmaus).

A final charge made against the book is that some critics find difficulty with Raphael’s use of the fish’s heart, liver, and gall (cf. 6:3–8) to perform two miracles, the driving away of the demon Asmodeus (cf. 8:1–4) and the healing of Tobit (cf. 11:8–14).

Regarding these miracles, natural objects were often used in Scripture to accomplish miracles, even if they had no natural power to do so. The use of the fish’s heart and liver to drive away the demon is no more strange than the use of sticks Jacob made in a sheep-breeding miracle (cf. Gen. 30:37–43), especially since prayer to God is involved (cf. Tob. 8:4), and Raphael himself binds the demon (cf. 8:3).

The use of fish gall in the healing of eyes is also no surprise. Jesus himself used intermediaries in performing eye cures (cf. John 9:6–8). Healings were also performed with materials that had slight medicinal value and were used in the ancient world as medicine (cf. Mark 6:13;Luke 10:34). Such was the case with fish gall, which was regarded as useful in curing eye diseases and irritations (cf. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 32:24).

One concludes therefore, that Tobit—like Judith and the other deuterocanonicals—is no different than the protocanonical books of Scripture in having difficulties that admit of solutions. The question is whether one is willing to find the solutions and accept them when they are presented.