Early Adventism and the Apocrypha, Part 1: The Book of Tobit

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Early Adventism and the Apocrypha, Part 1: The Book of Tobit

Since the 1987 publication of Ronald Graybill’s original and groundbreaking article which resurrected the forgotten history of Adventism’s early acceptance and embrace of the Apocrypha as Scripture,[1] an increasing awareness of the Apocrypha and its connection to Adventist identity has begun to emerge thanks to the continued work of recent scholars such as Denis Fortin, Donald Casebolt, and myself.[2] In my article for Spectrum last year, taken from my larger unpublished thesis, a revised and updated account of the history of Adventism’s relationship with the Apocrypha as a whole was published, bringing Graybill’s initial study up to speed with the current knowledge that we have.[3]

Related Article: How to Pick the Right Bible for Yourself

While certainly the historical implications alone are of interest, there are spiritual imperatives that greet this study as well. Ellen White, one of the founders of Seventh-day Adventism, readily read and promoted the Apocrypha in her lifetime. In her first vision, published initially in the Day-Star newspaper, she alluded and quoted from a number of apocryphal books alongside canonical scripture. Between 1849 and 1850, she was, during visionary experiences, admonishing Adventists that “the wise of these last days should understand” the Apocrypha and imploring her fellow Adventists to “bind it to the heart” and “let not its pages be closed.”[4] However, when she passed away, much of the interest within Adventism toward these works died. As such, the prophetic endorsement that Mrs. White has given these works, though largely ignored, deserves attention.

While the past historical studies that have been undertaken before have proven helpful in the broad overview that they provide, they do not explore in any depth the individual contributions that specific books of the Apocrypha had for Adventism. Given that many curious Adventists will desire to go from a broad overview to a more specialized study, a need has been perceived to produce a closer study of some of these works and the role that they both held in early Adventism, as well as the role that they can potentially still have for modern Adventists who wish to read these ancient works as Mrs. White once admonished that the church should do.

Related Article: The Apocrypha

In this article, the first of a series exploring various books contained in early Adventist editions of the Apocrypha, the Book of Tobit will be introduced, explored, and reflected on with regard to the role that it had within early Adventism. While certain books such as 2 Esdras/4 Ezra (to be explored in a future article) carried the most weight spiritually in certain Adventist communities, other works such as Tobit were also studied, commented on, and even preached about by early Adventist pioneers. Their contributions to Adventism, while smaller than others, are no less important and certainly deserve attention.

The Book of Tobit

The Book of Tobit was written sometime during the Second Temple period of Judaism, “between 250 and 175 B.C.E.”[5] This was the period of Judah’s rebuilding following the period of the Persian restoration under Ezra and Nehemiah. The book tells the story of an Israelite from the tribe of Naphtali who was taken into Exile by the Assyrians with the northern tribes to the city of Nineveh. Unlike the majority of his tribesman who apostatized in their new environment, Tobit remains true to his convictions, partly due to his direct ancestry to unnamed prophets from Israel’s past. Tobit does many good deeds for those less fortunate, but rather unfortunately for him, he becomes blind in the process of doing one. With his wife now working to make ends meet and Tobit feeling hopeless, the patriarch prays like Job that God will bring death and end the suffering.

At the same time, a related kinsman of Tobit, a young woman by the name of Sarah, is also praying for death to come. She has also been struggling with unfortunate circumstances that surpass average expectations. In the seven times that she has been given in marriage by her father to a potential suitor, her husband to-be has died before consummating the marriage, prompting rumors from their servants and others that perhaps she is a murderer. Unbeknownst to her or her family, their household is cursed by a demon who is determined to cause strife.

Related Article: Prophecy and the Seduction of Fortune-tellers

So how does such a strange set-up become resolved? Tobit, fearing that God will soon grant him death, calls his son Tobias to inform him of their inheritance in a faraway city that needs to be recovered. Aside from the instructions, Tobit also delivers a series of ethical instructions, including a desire for him to marry someone godly. When Tobit sends Tobias to go on his journey, a young man approaches them to offer his help with the travel. Unbeknownst to either of them, it is one of the seven archangels in disguise. The narrator reveals that God has heard both Sarah and Tobit’s cries, but rather than give them death, has sent the angel Raphael in disguise to implement a plan that saves both of their lives. With Tobit’s blessing, Tobias heads off with the other man.

Eventually, as they travel, Raphael reveals to Tobias that they are soon approaching Sarah’s house. Moreover he informs him that she is single and as chance has it, he has the legal right to marry her at that moment. Tobias, having heard the stories of murdered husbands, is understandably hesitant. Raphael, however, assures him that God will protect them and that Tobias will save his bride from the power of the Devil that has captured her family in a curse. So Tobias meets with the family, agrees to a marriage, and on their wedding night follows the instructions of Raphael who had told him that the only way to break the curse involved the sacrifice and offering of a fish’s blood combined with the united prayer by him and his newly wed wife. As it happens, it worked and the curse was broken leading to Tobias successfully marrying Sarah, recovering his father’s inheritance, and then returning home to his father. In a final surprise, Tobit’s father miraculously regains his sight and the angel Raphael reveals his true identity and announces that God’s eye is always on his servants.

Tobit in Judaism and Early Christianity

The Book of Tobit was a popular story for the Jewish people at the time of Jesus. For one thing, it was considered scripture by a number of Jews. The community at Qumran that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls, retained multiple copies of the work in Aramaic and Hebrew, more than many other canonical works, valuing the work as holy.[6] Various Greek-speaking Jewish groups also cherished the work, such as those who added it to the Old Testament in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint. While some scholars debate whether the Apocrypha was added to the Septuagint by Christians or earlier Jews (since all our copies of the Septuagint are Christian), Tobit remains one of the only apocryphal works that is found in every edition of the Septuagint, suggesting that it was originally part of the translation. Copies of Tobit also continued to be circulated in later post-Christian centuries, attesting to the work’s continued status in Judaism.[7]

Related Article: Apocrypha in the Writings of Ellen White

Tobit was also incredibly popular among early Christians, for whom the work appeared to have a prophetic quality. It is one of the only apocryphal works, alongside sometimes the book of Judith, that always appears in Christian canon lists (without the level of dispute that other works retained). For many early Christians, the story sounded like an allegory of Jesus, prophetically told hundreds of years in advance (an idea strengthened by Tobit’s claim to descend from the prophets). As they read it, the story of Tobit was the tale of


“a Father who sends his only Son into the World to retrieve His inheritance, who saves his divinely destined Bride from the bondage of the Devil, by the power of blood, in the symbol of a Fish, and who upon his return to his Father with his bride, witnesses the blind regain their sight and angels reveal their glory.”


When seen through that interpretive lens, it’s no wonder so many Christians preserved the work. So obvious were some of these features that most modern scholars believed that the work was a Christian creation until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls finally proved the work existed prior to the birth of Jesus.

Unsurprisingly, for a work that was so popular, it is quoted and alluded to numerous times within the New Testament and more specifically, the Gospels. In the book of Revelation, the claim that prayers rise before God and that the prayers are received by an angel is drawn directly from the description of these things by Raphael to Tobit and Tobias (cf. Rev. 8:3-4 and Tob. 12:12), likewise the reference to the seven spirits of God surrounding the throne is a reference to the seven archangels which Raphael reveals he is part of (cf. Rev. 4:5 and Tob. 12:15). Revelation’s description of the New Jerusalem being made of precious metals and gems appears inspired by Tobit’s earlier prophecy (cf. Rev. 21:19-27 and Tob. 13:16-17), as does the description of singing there (cf. Rev. 19:1 and Tob. 13:17-18). Less prophetically, Paul also alludes to the work, deriving some of his ethical instructions from it (cf. 2 Cor. 9:7 and Tob. 4:7, 16; also see Gal. 6:8-9, 1 Tim. 6:18-19 and Tob. 4:6-10).

The Gospel of Matthew’s account of the magi and star of Bethlehem appears to draw on Tob. 13:11’s prophecy that “A bright light will shine to all the ends of the earth; many nations will come to you from far away, the inhabitants of the remotest parts of the earth to your holy name, bearing gifts in their hands for the King of heaven” (NRSV). This observation is strengthened by the fact that Matthew alludes purposefully to Tobit almost exclusively among the gospels. In Matt. 7:12 Jesus gives his famous Golden Rule, which is itself is a positive rephrasing of Tobit 4:15, which gave it first in Judaism.


“Do to no one what you would not want done to yourself.” Tobit 4:15 (NJB)


“Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12 (NAB)


Matthew’s unique addition to the statement that this rule is somehow found in the Scriptures (i.e. the law and the prophets) is intriguing in that some of Jesus’ audience did believe Tobit to be scripture and the book not only contained the same rule, but was the first to do so. Elsewhere, Matthew tells the story of how some Sadducees questioned the doctrine of the resurrection, retelling Tobit’s story of Sarah and her seven dead husbands to question who would have marriage rights (Matt. 22:23-28). In response, Jesus responds that they do not know and are ignorant of the scriptures, an answer that could imply again that Matthew’s community understood Tobit to be part of their sacred collection like some other Jewish groups did. In contrast to Matthew, the Gospel of Luke avoids references to Tobit and removes the very sorts of statements that Matthew included that could indicate a status for it (both in the Golden Rule, as well as the confrontation with the Sadducees), pointing to the idea that even the earliest Christians, like the Jewish groups before them, had various views on which books were in and out of the still-developing canon.

Related Article: How to Think Critically as a Christian

Tobit During the Protestant Reformation

These debates remained later even at the time of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther is often, quite incorrectly, remembered or imagined for having rejected the Apocrypha due to his decision to move the works to their own section within his German translation of the Bible. The truth, however, is that he accepted several of the works as already or potentially canonical. Luther writes in his works that he believed that 1 Maccabees was canonical and espoused the view that Tobit was possibly an inspired and holy work.[8] His decision to move such books to their own section was driven by his hope that Protestants would come to decide the merits of each book eventually, something that ultimately never came to pass. Tobit, however, remained very influential and popular among the early reformers and growing protestants and was the subject of numerous spiritual plays.[9]

Tobit and Early Adventism

For Early Adventism, the book of Tobit occasionally appeared in the context of ethical exhortations. In 1868, S. E. Lindsley cited Tobit 4:8 as a proof text in a short exhortation in the Review and Herald for why Christians should do good works in order to lay up treasure in heaven.[10] In 1869, D. M. Canright cited Tobit in support of the mortality of the soul in an article examining the Apocrypha.[11] Likewise, in 1884, R. S. Webber cited Tobit as a historical resource regarding the topic of tithing.[12] Similarly, A. T. Jones did the same in 1902.[13] The most famous example of Adventism’s positive use of this book is of J. N. Andrews, for whom the denomination’s seminary is named after, who published in May of 1871 a short sermon of his on the text of Tobit 4:8-9, extoling the virtue of charity.[14] It was later reprinted alongside a scripture lesson from Esther in 1882.[15]


The following is from the Apocrypha: “If thou hast abundance, give alms accordingly: if thou have but a little, be not afraid to give according to that little; for thou layest up a good treasure for thyself against the day of necessity.” Tobit 4:8, 9.

This seems to me to be admirable instruction. If you have abundance, give according to that abundance. But how often do we hear men who have much means at their command excuse themselves for giving a trifling sum, by saying that this time only, the widow’s mite must be expected from them. They forget that small as was the sum which the widow gave, it was her earthly all. The widow’s mite is the greatest offering of earthly substance that can be made. Perhaps there has not been since the days of Christ, on an average, one rich man in a hundred years who has come up to the poor widow’s standard of giving. We cannot insist that they should; but we do say that if they have abundance, they should give abundantly, and we enter solemn protest when such persons give in the cause of Christ some trifling amount, and call it the widow’s mite.

There is sound advice [in the book of Tobit] also to the poor. Be not afraid to give of thy little. Many think that poverty excuses them from giving at all. Give something. Keep the spirit of sacrifice alive. God measures the gift according to the ability and the heart. 2 Cor. 8:12. The poor may lay up treasure in Heaven, as well as the rich. Do what you can. The day of God will show what every one could have done, and what they have done.


However, not all of the evaluations for Tobit were positive. A minority were negative and appeared in the latter part of the 19th century. In 1885, an individual named Kirwan is printed in the Present Truth mocking the book of Tobit for what he considered the ridiculous imagery of a fish’s blood causing the Devil to flee.[16] It is clear that he did not interpret the imagery allegorically as others before him had. The same publication later in 1894 reprinted an article from a non-Adventist in which in a side-comment the writer wrote that “many of the details are impossible, and others anachronisms.”[17] R. S. Webber who valued the Apocrypha as a historical source was one of those who at the time denied its inspiration, citing several verses from Tobit which he thought absurd, such as the imagery of the fish but also objecting to the very idea of angels disguising themselves as humans.[18]

While Ellen White is not known to have specifically alluded to any text within Tobit, her early endorsements of the entire collection stand as an implicit affirmation of the need for Adventists to read and study the work. Likewise, James White felt that it was vitally important that all Adventists have available to them the entire collection of the Apocrypha, including the book of Tobit. He compared the need for having an Adventist printing of the Apocrypha to the same importance as publishing a second edition of Mrs. White’s writings.[19] Regardless of whether Adventists today are willing to share James White’s enthusiasm or affirm Mrs. White’s younger affirmation that the Apocrypha is part of the Word of God, as she repeatedly claimed in her 1849 vision, surely many Adventists can begin today to once again agree with her that these works are worth our time and study for both historical and spiritual edification.[20] The Apocrypha, and specifically Tobit, are part of our Adventist background. How appropriate that the Seminary at Andrews University offers a masters degree focused on the intertestamental period, the period that produced works such as Tobit. J. N. Andrews, it seems, would have heartily approved of such a development.

Click here to read the rest of this series on early Adventism and the Apocrypha



[1] Ronald Graybill, “Under the Triple Eagle: Early Adventist Use of the Apocrypha,” Adventist Heritage 12 (Winter 1987): 25-32.

[2] Dennis Fortin, “Sixty-six Books or Eighty-one? Did Ellen White Recommend the Apocrypha?” Adventist Review 179.13 (2002): 12; Donald E. Casebolt, “’It Was Not Taught Me by Men’: Ellen White & 2 Esdras,” Spectrum 46.1 (2018): 70; Matthew J. Korpman, “Adventism’s Hidden Book: A Brief History of the Apocrypha,” Spectrum 46.1 (2018): 56-65.

[3] Much of that updated research was accomplished thanks to the work that Bert Haloviak spearheaded in helping to have the Adventist archives digitized.

[4] See Ellen White, “Remarks in Vision,” Manuscript 5, 1849, and Ellen White, “A Copy of E. G. White’s Vision, Which She Had at Oswego, N. Y., January 26, 1850,” Manuscript 4, 1850.

[5] Carey A. Moore, Tobit: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AYBC 40A; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 40.

[6] Lee Martin McDonald, Forgotten Scriptures: The Selection and Rejection of Early Religious Writings (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 60.

[7] Martin Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture: Its Prehistory and the Problem of Its Canon (trans. M. Biddle; OTS; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002) 46.

[8] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, vols. 1-55 (Philadelphia, PA; Saint

Louis, MI: Fortress Press and Concordia Publishing House, 1955-1986): 35:353, 345, 347. His remark that what he said of Judith is true for Tobit means that just as he said Judith should ‘properly be in the Bible’ (as canonical) given certain circumstances, so too should Tobit.

[9] Ronald W. Vince, A Companion to the Medieval Theatre (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1989), 314.

[10] S. E. Lindsley, “I Want To Be Rich,” Review and Herald 33.1 (1868): 6.

[11] D. M. Canright, “The Nature of Man and Punishment of the Wicked, As Taught in the Apocrypha,” Review and Herald 34.5 (1869): 33.

[12] R. S. Webber, “Historical Facts About Tithing,” Review and Herald 61.2 (1884): 19.

[13] A. T. Jones, “The Second Tithe,” Pacific Union Recorder 9.2 (1902): 5.

[14] J. N. Andrews, “Excellent Advice Concerning Giving,” Review and Herald 37:20 (1871): 156.

[15] J. N. Andrews, “Excellent Advice Concerning Giving,” Review and Herald 8.12 (1882): 138.

[16] Kirwan, “What To Preach,” The Present Truth 1.12 (1885): 180.

[17] SundaySchoolTimes, “Were Ten of the Tribes Lost? (Continued),” The Present Truth 8.8 (1892): 115.

[18] R. S. Webber, “The Apocryphal Books,” Review and Herald 71.30 (1894): 466.

[19] James White, Review and Herald 33:6 (1869): 48.

[20] In more recent times, I myself have attempted to resurrect such engagement with the text, preaching on Tobit for a dorm worship at La Sierra University several years back, and again at the University Church back in 2016 (using Jesus’ engagement with Tobit to springboard into a discussion of it).

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About the author

Matthew Korpman

Matthew J. Korpman is a student at Yale Divinity School, pursuing his Master of Arts in Religion. He is a graduate of La Sierra University, where he worked at the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School as a Teaching Assistant. He is the upcoming author of the book “Saying No to God,” due to be released in December 2019.