At 2:30 p.m. on March 17, 2004, Professor Gabriele Fassbeck of our own Department delivered a public lecture as part of the Religion in Culture Series. Her lecture was entitled “Endogamy Saves, or How to Keep the Demon out of Your Wedding Bed: The Book of Tobit as an Early Jewish Test Case.”

As part of her approach to the New Testament, Dr. Fassbeck studies the canonical scriptures with regard to all available contemporary historical sources (both literary and nonliterary). Given her interest in turn-of-the-era Judaism and the historically earliest forms of Christianity, she has a special interest in the study of non-canonical Jewish and Christian texts (in other words, those ancient texts not included in the Bible, collections of which are known as the Apocrypha [a collection of early Jewish writings not included in the Hebrew Bible] and the Pseudepigrapha [a collection of ancient texts, from between 200 BCE and 200 CE, that were not included in Biblical collections]). It is therefore no accident that she started her major research project with an evaluation of a non-canonical text, namely the second century BCE book of Tobit — which was the topic of her Religion in Culture lecture.

Although the Book of Tobit (read the Revised Standard Version’s translation of this text) was not included in the composition of the Hebrew Bible, it was added to its Greek translations, and is today included among what are known as the Deuterocanonical writings of the Roman Catholic Bible (writings outside the Bible that eventually were recognized as having canonical status). The Book of Tobit probably dates to sometime around 200 BCE, but it is not clear where in the ancient world it was written, by whom, and for what purpose.

The Book of Tobit recounts the story of a righteous Israelite named Tobit and his family, who were exiled to the ancient city of Nineveh (in what is today northern Syria) after the Assyrian conquest of Judah in the late 8th century BCE. Although at first the family lived a prosperous life there, the book recounts how they soon lost all their possessions while Tobit himself became blind. Following these tragedies, Tobit’s son, Tobiah, is sent to seek out a relative in the east to regain some of his father’s possessions. Tobiah accomplishes the task, with the help of the angel named Raphael, who, during the course of the journey, instructs him in the magical and medicinal properties of fish entrails. This enables Tobiah not only to exorcise a demon from the daughter of close relatives–thereby gaining her as his wife–but, upon returning home, he also cures his father’s blindness.

In her lecture–which was accompanied by a number of 17th C artistic depictions of the story of Tobit by such painters as Rembrandt)–Dr. Fassbeck explored the story’s strong emphasis on family and its tendency to restrict religious behavior to those aspects affecting domestic life. However, despite outward appearances, the book does not easily yield concrete information about the actual practice of religion within the ancient Jewish family because the book’s characters are idealized. For example, the character of Tobit represents the exilic fate of the people of Israel as a whole rather than simply providing an example for the religious conduct of a family patriarch in early Hellenistic times. She concluded that the purpose of the book is not to mirror the religious life of families from this ancient period but to deliver a message of hope for Israel’s final restoration.

Dr. Fassbeck has a long and distinguished career in several of the great German universities. In 1985 she received her first degree, or Zwischenprüfung, in history, Judaic studies and Protestant theology from the Cologne University. In 1991 she passed the Erstes Kirchliches Examen from the Protestant Church of the Rhineland (based on her study of Protestant theology at the universities of Marburg, Bonn, and Heidelberg). In 1996 she received the degree Doctor of Theology in New Testament Studies from the University of Heidelberg (magna cum laude). And in 1998 she passed the Zweites Kirchliches Examen from the Protestant Church of the Rhineland (based on her Vikariat — or internship — in Berlin and at the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology Jerusalem.

She is the author of numerous articles and book reviews. In addition to editing one book she is also the author of Der Tempel der Christen: Traditionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zur Aufnahme des Tempelkonzepts im frühen Christentum (2000) [trans. The Christian Temple: A Tradition-history Study of the Reception of the Temple Concept in Early Christianity].
As with all recent Religion in Culture Lectures, Prof. Fassbeck’s lecture was made possible by funds from the College of Arts & Sciences’ Anonymous Lecture Fund for the Humanities.