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Some of the Apocrypha: Tobit, Judith, and Additions to Esther

Yesterday I answered briefly a question about the Old Testament Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books.  I’ve decided to go ahead and describe each of the ten.   This will take several posts.   These are very interesting books, well worth reading, and canonical Scripture for some parts of the Christian church.

My summaries here are taken from my Introduction to the Bible.





Tobit is a work of historical fiction—by which I mean it is a fictional tale set within a real historical context. Originally the book was written in Aramaic, either in the late third century b.c.e. or the early second.

The narrative is set in the eighth century b.c.e. in the city of Nineveh, where the hero of the story, Tobit, has been exiled from his town in Galilee during the conquests of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser. In other words, the account is allegedly taking place after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel. The story involves two subplots that eventually come to be woven together.

The first is about Tobit himself, who is very righteous and does great works of Jewish piety but runs into serious misfortune as he is blinded, in a rather unusual way, when bird droppings …

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More Books of the Apocrypha: Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, and Baruch
What Is the Apocrypha (of the Old Testament)?



  1. Avatar
    WLFobe  October 16, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, could you make a few comments on the two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic? I have heard several times that Hebrew was earlier and was replaced by Aramaic. Why?
    And would this have lead to an increase in late Hebrew forgeries – late writings using the earlier language to lend a veneer of authenticity?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 17, 2018

      They are both Semitic languages; Hebrew was spoken in ancient Israel and Aramaic came into the Levant through Persia. They are different languages, but related to each other. Aramaic became widespread in part because of the influence of Persia, as Hebrew died out.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 17, 2018

      As a native Hebrew speaker myself, who also knows a little Aramaic, an analogy I often give people is that Hebrew is to Aramaic what Portuguese is to Spanish. They’re closely related enough to be almost mutually intelligible — for instance, “I” in Hebrew is “ani” and in Aramaic is “anah” — but just different enough to be considered different languages. Hebrew was the language of Israel, i.e. the land that stretched from Beer Sheva in the south to Dan in the north. Aramaic, on the other hand, was the language of Aram, which stretched from Damascus to the Euphrates. So Israel bordered Aram in the north, and Aram bordered Assyria in the north.

      Hebrew and Phoenician (i.e. Canaanite), on the other hand, are close enough to be considered dialects of the same language. In fact, the original Hebrew alphabet — the alphabet we see in ancient Israelite inscriptions, such as, for example, the Hezekiah Inscription — was pretty much the Phoenician alphabet, while the current Hebrew alphabet — that is, the one we find in the Hebrew Bible — is actually adapted from the Aramaic alphabet. Moreover, several modern Hebrew words actually come from Aramaic — for instance the Hebrew “abba” for father and “ima” for mother both come from Aramaic.

      As to why Aramaic replaced Hebrew in Palestine, that’s because Aramaic is itself closely related to another Semitic language, Assyrian. And Assyrian is related to Akkadian. And, as we know, Akkad and Assyria were major empires, so one would expect their languages to be important administrative languages. Meanwhile, in Babylon, there was the language of the Chaldeans, which was also a Semitic language. So when the Iranians (Medes, Persians, et al.) — whose native languages were NOT Semitic, but rather were Indo-Iranian languages — took over the former Semitic empires of the Assyrians and Babylonians, for the sake of convenience, they kept the administrative language of those cultures, which was, by that time, Aramaic.

      Eventually, Aramaic became a lingua franca throughout the Persian Empire, to the point where it started to replace native languages, such as Hebrew in Judea. We see this happening in the Bible itself. As post-exilic Jews, such as Ezra and Nehemiah, returned to Judea speaking the Aramaic of Persia they gradually set aside Hebrew as the language of scripture and made Aramaic the daily vernacular.

      I hope that gives you an idea of the relationship.

      • Avatar
        Ciucciface  October 23, 2018

        I have often wondered about the language issue. It is generally accepted that Jesus spoke Aramaic. Did he also understand/speak Hebrew? When he read the Torah in the synagogue I assume that would have been in Hebrew? And also, Evangelicals often argue that Greek was the lingua Franca of Palestine at that time and that the disciples (and Jesus) would have understood and spoken some Greek. Do we know anything about this? Thanks a lot!

  2. Avatar
    caesar  October 16, 2018

    You used the phrase ‘historical fiction.’ Does that mean the audience knew that these books were fiction? Or were these authors trying to fool their audience into believing they were ancient writings? If it’s the former, could ‘Daniel’ fit into the category of writing historical fiction, not really trying to fool anyone?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 17, 2018

      My sense is that they thought the stories were historical. But yes, I would include the six first chapters of Daniel as historical fictions.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  October 16, 2018

    It’s interesting that of all the works of Jewish historical fiction, only two — Esther and Ruth — made it into the Hebrew canon. Though I would also place Daniel within the same category, simply because it sets itself within the same romanticized Babylonian period.

    Dr. Ehrman, is there any research into what may have possibly inspired this flourishing of Jewish historical literature? Are there any analogs or antecedents in neighboring cultures that may have inspired these Jewish authors?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 17, 2018

      That’s a *great* question, and I dont’ know the answer. I guess in some ways the stories of the Patriarchs and Moses are also historical fictions, but they are based on long periods of oral transmission; my sense is that these other stories are written compositions. But I’m not sure how one would find out — or determine what social/cultural forces led to the creation of such things. There’s probably scholarship on it, but I’m not familiar with it.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 17, 2018

        Interesting. I would distinguish the stories of the Patriarchs in the Bible from these later works. Namely, I would call the stories about Abraham and his children folk legends, while I would call stories like Esther and Tobit folk tales. The difference is that the former seemed to function like etiological myths, while the latter were more like campfire stories. Therefore, I think there’s some kernel of truth to the Patriarch legends (maybe there actually was a Moses), but the story of Esther was entirely fabricated for the sake of entertainment.

  4. Avatar
    Stylites  October 16, 2018

    There are numerous things that make your Bible textbook outstanding. Inclusion of the Apocrypha is one of them.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 16, 2018

    Today, we have “fiction” and “non-fiction” sections in the library which make it easy to distinguish between these two types of books. Do you think ancient people considered “Tobit” and “Judith” to be fiction? If so, why would some ancient people want fiction to be included in the Bible? Do you think ancient people considered the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, and Jonah and the Whale to be fiction? Again, If so, why would ancient people want fiction to be in the Bible? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  October 17, 2018

      My sense is that people read the apocryphal tales as historical accounts of things that actually happened. What their *authors* thought about them is anyone’s guess. So too the biblical stories themselves were almost always taken as literal descriptions of events in the past, whever their authors thought (in that case, they were stories that had been circulated orally for centuries, so they had the weight of tradition behind them)

  6. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  October 16, 2018

    What translation of the OT is preferred by evangelicals and fundamentalists?
    Would it be subject to changes, additions and deletions as you have made clear in the Apocrypha (here) and in the NT (in your most helpful trade books)?
    If so, how do evangelicals and fundamentals countenance such changes in their OT of choice?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 17, 2018

      The most popular translation of the Bible for evangelicals is the New International Version. They often claim that the Bible is inspired not in any translation, but in the “original” manuscripts (no longer surviving).

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  October 17, 2018

        Thank you. Wouldn’t that rule out translations (regardless of quality) as the literalWord of God?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 19, 2018

          Yes, it should do, and normally (but not always) does (one exception: those who vie for the King James “only”)

  7. Avatar
    brenmcg  October 16, 2018

    When modern scholars say these apocryphal books were part of “the” septuagint does it just mean they were found in the likes of vaticanus/sinaiticus? Or is there a different way to define the septuagint?

    that is, in saying the septuagint was read by greek speaking jews in the diaspora and saying these books belonged to “the” septuagint would imply these jews thought of these books as scripture – which wasnt the case? or was it?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 17, 2018

      Yes, these books occur in the great Greek manuscripts of the Bible, such as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. It’s probalby a misnomer to speak of “the” Septuagint, since the different books were probably translated at different times and by different authors. When scholars refer to “the” septuagint, they tend to mean simply the dominant Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. But Jews in the Diaspora did consider the Greek translation Scripture, at least until Christians championed them — then many Jews began to insist on the primacy of the Hebrew.

  8. Avatar
    Pattylt  October 16, 2018

    As someone who had to play Esther more times than I wished (I think I was the only one willing to learn lines and get on stage) thank goodness I didn’t have to perform a longer version! The year I dreaded Purim is the year I told the Rabbi No More! I actually have some fond memories of our Purim plays and who doesn’t want to twirl an obnoxious noise maker during a play!

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