Tobias Days, Sex, and the
Purpose of Marriage
By George Desnoyers
One very interesting and important alteration that Jerome is known to have made while interpreting scripture was in the apocryphal Book of Tobit (Tobias). Sarah had married seven husbands. Each one of the seven had died on his wedding night after going in to Sarah. Then Sarah was given by marriage contract to Tobias, the nearest kinsman to the other husbands and also a relative of Sarah’s. After the door to their bedroom was closed, Tobias and Sarah prayed and then fell asleep without making love. Unlike the previous seven husbands, Tobias didn’t die. [Sarah’s father had prepared a grave for Tobias, but was pleasantly surprised when the door to the bedroom was opened and Tobias and Sarah were both found to be alive.]
Jerome changed this story quite a lot. He made it three nights before Tobias and Sarah consummated their marriage. And when Tobias did finally approach Sarah romantically after three days of prayer, Jerome put these words into the mouth of Tobias: “And now, Lord, you know that I am not taking this sister of mine out of lust, but only out of love for offspring.” In recent years the Catholic Church has recognized the tampering that was done by Jerome, and has changed its Church-recognized translations to reflect the original pre-Jerome version of the story. [The Book of Tobit is in the Roman Catholic Church’s Canon of Scripture.]
But Jerome’s version was very important throughout much of Roman Catholic Church history. Along with other influences (some of the same ones that likely caused Jerome to tamper with the passage) the story was used to support the Roman Catholic Church’s position that the purpose of sex is procreation, and not pleasure. For centuries the Church taught that newlyweds should wait three days before consummating their marriage. This would demonstrate to God that the man and woman were in control of their passions, and that they were only going to have marital relations for the purpose of having children.
For any of you out there who are guessing that this Church teaching could not possibly have been effective in controlling marital behavior, you are wrong. The three days of abstention (known as “Tobias days”) became a practice that was regularly followed by newlywed couples. Tobias Days were honored by some newly married folk right into the 19th century. Fortunately, however, for some of those unable to obey them, several bishops and pastors granted dispensations from the requirement in return for a donation to the Church.
By the way, the Roman Catholic Church did not totally remove from Canon Law the idea that procreation is a necessary purpose of marriage until 1977. During the time when the Church had accepted the idea that procreation was a necessary purpose of marriage, it had sometimes forbidden marriage to people who were unable to have children. And it punished and condemned to hell people who had relations during a less fruitful portion of the woman’s cycle. The assumption was made that those who had marital relations during that portion of the cycle must be doing so for pleasure rather than procreation. The Church also taught that, if a child did result from a union during the forbidden portion of the woman’s cycle, the child would be stillborn, leprous, epileptic, or possessed by the Devil. Jerome himself wrote, “When a man has intercourse with his wife at this time, the children born from this union are leprous and hydrocephalic; and the corrupted blood causes the plague-ridden bodies of both sexes to be either too small or too large” (Jerome’s Commentary on Ezekiel 18:6).
Christians through the centuries have generally had a very high opinion of Jerome. But, as the above-mentioned alterations in the Book of Tobias show, we cannot exactly regard Jerome’s version of Scripture as the word of God. Although the example I have given involves an apocryphal book, there is no reason to think that Jerome's willingness to make changes would not extend to any or all of the Books of the Bible.
It is interesting that the Latin Vulgate did become the basis for a few portions of the Textus Receptus. In some places where the Greek versions used by Erasmus were too variable and unclear, and in some places where the Vulgate had text that was omitted in his Greek texts, Erasmus relied on the Vulgate. He was criticized for this reliance, and Erasmus himself admitted that it was poor scholarship on his part. But he had been under great pressure to hurry his work, pressure applied by his publisher who was anxious to produce the first complete printed Greek text. Some of Erasmus’ reliance on the Vulgate is still recognizable in versions of the Bible commonly used today. For example, 1 John 5:7 (KJV) was in the version of the Vulgate that Erasmus used (it must have been produced after the eighth century).
[The source for much of what I have written above regarding “Tobias Days” is a really wonderful little book called, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven – Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church. The book, by Uta Ranke-Heinemann, has been condemned by at least one very high official in the RC Church. That is a shame because it is a very scholarly book on an interesting and important topic. And it is a fact that the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of women has been influential in the shaping of policies and practices in many, if not most, Christian churches.]