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An Introduction to the Apocrypha-Part Six



by Jared L. Olar

God instituted the autumn pilgrim feasts of the Hebrew liturgical year to instruct Israel in the ways of holiness and righteousness. One of the main original themes of the harvest festival of Tabernacles was a commemoration of the 40 years that Israel wandered in the wilderness in order to expiate their sins. Through this festival, God wanted Israel to learn the limits of mortal man during his earthly pilgrimage, to learn the necessity of repentance and faith and perseverance, and-most of all-to inculcate the virtue of joy in God's holy presence. Many of those same themes are explored in the Book of Tobit (also called the Book of Tobias), a popular ancient Jewish story that is the subject of the latest installment in our study of the Old Testament Apocrypha.

A Tortuous Textual History

Leaving aside for now issues such as the question of who wrote this book, let us briefly consider the history of the book's text. Because of its great popularity among both Jews and Christians, the Book of Tobit has one of the most complicated textual histories of any ancient work of Hebrew literature. The story exists in numerous versions and recensions, all telling essentially the same story, but each with unique characteristics.

It was apparently originally written in Hebrew, but an Aramaic translation was also prepared around 200 years before the birth of Christ. This is known from the Hebrew and Aramaic fragments of Tobit-about a fifth of the whole book-which were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1955. It's not entirely clear whether the three Greek recensions of Tobit were translated from the Hebrew or the Aramaic. In any event, the Dead Sea Scrolls fragments of Tobit indicate that the long recension in the Codex Sinaiticus is closest to the lost original. Medieval Jewish manuscripts also contain Hebrew and Aramaic versions which show influence from the Greek versions.

There are also three Old Latin versions of Tobit, which resemble the Sinaiticus text. The Old Latin versions probably influenced the Latin Vulgate version of St. Jerome, who boasted of having prepared his translation in a single day. At the time St. Jerome knew Hebrew but not Aramaic, so he had a Jewish rabbi read an Aramaic version of Tobit to him and give him the sense in Hebrew, which he rendered into Latin while the rabbi spoke. These remarkable circumstances probably account for many unique features of the Vulgate, such as the absence of Tobit's nephew Ahikar.

Like some of the later Hebrew and Aramaic versions, St. Jerome's translation tells the story in the third person from the beginning to end. However, in earlier versions, including the Greek Septuagint recensions that were originally favored by Christians, Tobit speaks in the first person until ch. 3:6. For Western Christians, St. Jerome's version supplanted the old Septuagint versions, but since the discovery of the Tobit fragments in 1955, the Sinaiticus long recension is now the basis for modern translations of this book.

The Structure of the Book

The Book of Tobit takes its name from one of the two main characters of the story, Tobit, an Israelite of the Tribe of Naphtali from Tishbe in Galilee who was carried into captivity to Nineveh by the Assyrians during the last days of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The other main character of the story is Tobit's son Tobiah. The earliest manuscript evidence gives the father's name as Tobi, a diminutive of Tobiyahu or Tobiah. In the Latin Vulgate both father and son are confusingly named ``Tobias.'' Tobiyahu means ``Yahveh is good,'' whereas tobith is the Hebrew word for ``goodness.'' Fittingly, the lives of Tobit and Tobiah as recounted in this book serve as practical demonstrations of the goodness of God.

The story of Tobit and Tobiah is told in fourteen chapters, which can conveniently be grouped into three parts. The first three chapters tell the stories of the faithfulness and piety of Tobit and his future daughter-in-law Sarah. The next nine chapters relate how God showed His own faithfulness to Tobit, Tobiah, and Sarah by sending an angel to help them. The last two chapters are an epilogue consisting of Tobit's prayer of thanksgiving and praise, and the subsequent history of Tobit and Tobiah.

The very first verse of Tobit provides the complete title: ``the book of the words of Tobit, the son of Tobiel, the son of Hananiel, the son of Aduel, the son of Gabael, of the seed of Jahziel, of the tribe of Naphtali'' (ch. 1:1; cf. Gen. 46:24; Num. 26:48; I Chron. 7:13). From the third verse of the book until the end of the sixth verse of chapter three, the character of Tobit tells the story of his life.

Although the Tribe of Naphtali had joined Jeroboam's rebellion against the God of Israel and the Dynasty of David, Tobit refused to participate in the apostasy of his tribesmen (ch 1:3-8). He faithfully made the three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the annual festivals-and often he would make the pilgrimages alone. Tobit also faithfully set aside the three tithes prescribed in the Law of Moses-one tithe for the priests and Levites, a second tithe to spend during the festivals, and a third tithe every third year as alms for widows, orphans, and the poor. Tobit's father Tobiel had died and left him an orphan, so Tobiel's mother Deborah made sure Tobit understood the importance of setting aside the third tithe for orphans.

Tobit married a Naphtalite woman named Hannah, and they had an only son named Tobiah. After Tobit and his tribe were deported to Assyria, all of Tobit's kin defiled themselves by eating unclean food. However, because Tobit maintained his observance of the laws of clean and unclean meats, God blessed him for his faithfulness (ch. 1:9-15; cf. the story of Daniel). The King of Assyria gave him an important post in the government which required him to make purchases in Media. On a visit to Rages in Media, Tobit deposited ten silver talents of his own money with his kinsman Gabael, son of Gabri (cf. II Kings 18:11). But after the death of the King of Assyria and the accession of the king's son Sennacherib, the roads to Media became unsafe and Tobit could no longer visit Gabael.

Tobit would perform many acts of charity for his fellow exiled Israelites in Assyria, giving his food to the hungry and his clothes to the naked. When God annihilated King Sennacherib's army before the walls of Jerusalem (cf. II Kings 19:32-36), Sennacherib returned to Nineveh and avenged his humiliation by persecuting the Israelites who lived in Nineveh (ch. 1:16-22). Tobit took it on himself to secretly bury the Israelites whom Sennacherib slew, to prevent the desecration of their bodies. At last Sennacherib learned of Tobit's activities and confiscated all of his possessions. Tobit fled from Nineveh and went into hiding. However, not even 40 days later Sennacherib was assassinated by two of his sons, and his son Esarhaddon succeeded him (cf. II Kings 19:37). Tobit's nephew Ahikar, the chief cupbearer, interceded on his behalf before Esarhaddon and enabled him to reunite with his wife and son in Nineveh.

Soon after, while Tobit and his family were privately observing the Feast of Pentecost, their celebrations were interrupted when his son Tobiah found another dead body of an Israelite. Tobit willingly defiled himself in order to bury the corpse, and then because of his defilement ate and slept outdoors apart from his family (ch. 2:1-14). This act of mercy inadvertently caused Tobit harm, because that night a bird's droppings landed in his eyes while he slept, causing an infection that led to the total loss of his eyesight at the age of 62 (ch. 14:2). Tobit was blind for four years, having to live on the income of his wife Hannah and the charity of his nephew Ahikar. Overcome with his humiliating poverty and blindness, and the strain it placed on his marriage, Tobit prayed to God to allow him to die (ch. 3:1-6).

Coincidentally, on the same day that Tobit prayed for death, his kinswoman Sarah also prayed that God would let her die (ch. 3:7-17). Sarah was the only daughter of Tobit's relatives Reuel and Edna, exiled Israelites who lived in Ecbatana, the ancient capital of Media. Seven times she had been betrothed, and each time the planned marriage ended in grief, with the death of the bridegroom before the marriage could be consummated. One of Reuel's maidservants accused Sarah of strangling her husbands, but in fact a demon named Ashmodai had killed them. In desperation and shame Sarah decided to hang herself, but realized that her father would die of grief if she committed suicide. So she asked God to take her life if He would not save her.

Tobit and Sarah both finished their prayers at the same moment, and their prayers reached God's presence simultaneously. God answered their prayers by sending His angel Raphael (``God heals'') to help them.

No longer desiring to live, Tobit took thought for the well-being of his son Tobiah after his death (ch. 4:1-21). He told Tobiah to travel to Rages in Media to get the ten silver talents that their kinsman Gabael was holding for them in bond. Before Tobiah's departure, Tobit offered his son many words of wisdom and fatherly advice, including the Golden Rule: ``See thou never do to another what thou wouldst hate to have done to thee by another'' (ch. 4:15). Tobit also told his son to follow the example of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in choosing a wife from his own tribe.

As he prepared to depart for Rages, Tobiah sought a guide who knew the roads to Media (ch. 5:1-22). As soon as Tobiah got out the door, he found the angel Raphael standing before him in the form of an Israelite man. Tobiah introduced Raphael to Tobit, who asked him his name and lineage. Raphael identified himself as one of their kinsmen, and truthfully-though cryptically-gave his name as Azariah, ``Yahveh helps,'' son of Hananiah the Elder, ``Great Yahveh is merciful'' (i.e., Raphael was God's help for Tobit's family, and was the offspring of the great mercy of God). Tobit assumed he meant his kinsman Hananiah, brother of Nathaniah, sons of Shemaiah the Elder, who were among the few Naphtalites who would make pilgrimages to Jerusalem with Tobit. Tobit sent them on their way with a blessing, overjoyed that his son would be traveling with a godly kinsman. But Hannah was frightened that she would never see her son again, and only stopped crying when Tobit reminded her that God would send an angel to accompany their son.

On the way to Rages in Media, Tobiah and ``Azariah'' camped on the banks of the River Tigris (ch. 6:1-18). While washing his feet in the river, Tobiah was attacked by a large fish. Raphael told Tobiah to catch the fish and save its heart, liver, and gall for their medicinal value. Tobiah ate some of the fish that night and salted the rest to keep as food for the journey. When they got to Ecbatana, Raphael brought Tobiah to his kinsman Reuel and reminded Tobiah that he was Sarah's closest living male relative, the man with the best claim to Sarah's hand in marriage. Tobiah objected that Sarah's betrothed husbands always dropped dead as soon as they tried to consummate the marriage-and he'd heard a rumor that a demon was responsible for their deaths. But Raphael encouraged Tobiah to ask for Sarah's hand, advising him in how to use the fish's heart and liver in an exorcism ritual, and reminding him to pray to God for deliverance from evil.

The same day they arrived at the house of Reuel, Tobiah asked for Sarah's hand in marriage (ch. 7:1-17; 8:1-21). Undeterred by Reuel's warnings of the demon who had been killing Sarah's husbands, Tobiah had a marriage contract immediately drawn up, and the marriage was celebrated that night. Unwilling to undergo further shame if Tobiah were to die, Reuel had his servants dig a secret grave. When Tobiah entered Sarah's bedroom, he followed Raphael's instructions and burned the fish's heart and liver as incense. Repelled by the odor, Ashmodai fled to Upper Egypt. Raphael pursued Ashmodai to Egypt, where he bound him hand and foot, and then instantaneously returned to Ecbatana. Instead of consummating their marriage, Tobiah asked Sarah to pray with him for deliverance from evil and for a blessing on their marriage before they retired to bed. When Reuel learned that Tobiah was still alive, he had the grave filled back in. Reuel and Edna then held a fourteen-day marriage supper for Sarah and Tobiah.

While Tobiah and Sarah celebrated their marriage, Raphael went to Rages and obtained Tobit's money from Gabael, who then joined the celebration in Ecbatana (ch. 9:1-6; 10:1-14; 11:1-18). Afterwards Tobiah told Reuel and Edna that he had to return to his father. On the way back to Nineveh, Raphael told Tobiah how to use the fish's gall to cure his father's blindness. After the joyful reunion of Tobiah and his parents, Tobiah smeared the gall on Tobit's eyes and then peeled the scales off the corneas, restoring his vision. Tobit and Hannah rejoiced that God had poured out His blessings on them, and they held a week-long marriage supper for Tobiah and Sarah.

Tobiah told his father that he wanted to give half of their money to ``Azariah'' as payment for all the assistance he had given them (ch. 12:1-22). Tobit agreed that it would be only be fair for ``Azariah'' to receive half of what he'd brought back from Rages. But when they tried to pay him, Raphael revealed his true identity as one of the seven angels who serve in the presence of the Shekinah of the Lord. He refused their payment, because everything he'd done for them was out of obedience to God's will. Before ascending to heaven, Raphael reminded them to maintain their prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness, and instructed them to write down for posterity everything that God had done for them. Tobit then composed a hymn of thanksgiving and praise (ch. 13:1-18).

Tobit lived to the age of 112 and died in Nineveh (ch. 14:1-15). Before his death, he summoned Tobiah and his seven grandsons and advised them to leave Nineveh and go to Media, reminding them of Nahum's prophecy of Nineveh's destruction. Tobit then prophesied that God would punish all of Israel for their sins-the Temple would be destroyed and Judah would be carried into captivity. But Tobit also foresaw the time when the exiles would return, Jerusalem and the Temple would be rebuilt, and the Gentiles would give up their false religions and begin to worship the God of Israel. After the death of Tobit and Hannah, Tobiah and his family joined Reuel and Edna in Ecbatana. Tobiah lived to see the destruction of Nineveh by Cyaxares, King of Media, and then died at the age of 117.

Historical and Geographical Difficulties in Tobit

With the Book of Tobit, the questions of authorship and literary genre are intimately connected to the question of several apparent historical and geographical difficulties in the story. Until modern times most Christians and Jews accepted the Book of Tobit as an authentic account of historical persons and events, but most modern scholars tend to view Tobit as a historical novel or romance like Judith-spiritually edifying, perhaps, but not literally true.

The first historical difficulty in Tobit is found in ch. 1:2. In most versions of this book, that verse says Tobit, a Naphtalite of Tishbe in Galilee, was carried into captivity during the reign of ``Shalmaneser,'' King of Assyria. In II Kings 15:29 it says that the territories of Naphtali and Galilee were siezed by Shalmaneser's father Tiglath-pileser III, who deported the inhabitants of those territories to Assyria. However, this is not necessarily a contradiction, because we do not know that every last Naphtalite was deported by Tiglath-pileser III. A few Naphtalite stragglers could have hung on for a few more years, and Tobit could have been one of them.

Then in ch. 1:4, certain translations make it sound like Tobit claimed to have been a young man when the northern tribes rebelled against Rehoboam and accepted Jeroboam as their king. Clearly it is impossible for a man who only lived to the age of 112 to have a lifespan stretching from the days of Solomon (who died circa 930 B.C.) until the reign of Esarhaddon (who became king in 681 B.C.). But this difficulty is a mirage created by a mistranslation. Tobit did not claim to have been a youth at the time of Jeroboam's rebellion. Rather, he said, ``When I lived as a young man in my own country Israel, the entire tribe of my forefather Naphtali had broken away from the House of David and from Jerusalem'' (emphasis added).

In most versions of Tobit, a clear historical error exists in ch. 1:15, which identifies Sennacherib as the son of Shalmaneser. In fact Sennacherib was the son of Sargon II (cf. Isa. 20:1), who was probably a younger brother of Shalmaneser. If this textual reading is authentic, then it would be impossible to accept the Book of Tobit as genuine history. However, the best texts of Tobit do not mention ``Shalmaneser'' at all. Instead, they refer to an Assyrian king named Enemessar, which is thought to be a bizarre misspelling of Salamanasar. But it's possible that ``Enemessar'' actually came from the Assyrian Kenum Sar, which is an alternate way of pronouncing the royal name Sarru Kenu or Sargon.

This solution would also resolve the abovementioned problem of ch. 1:2, which mentions a deportation during the reign of ``Enemessar.'' Shalmaneser conquered Samaria in 721 B.C., but apparently died very soon after that, because his successor Sargon became king that very year. It is doubtful that Shalmaneser lived long enough to deport any Israelites, but Sargon claimed credit both for the conquest of Samaria and for the deportation of thousands of Israelites.

A further difficulty is found in ch. 1:18-21, which seems to place the death of Sennacherib about 40 days after his humiliated return from Jerusalem. Sennacherib's assault on Jerusalem took place in 711 or 701 B.C., and he was assassinated in 681 B.C. However, a close reading of the text shows that Tobit was referring to the length of time that he lived in hiding outside of Jerusalem, not the length of time from Sennacherib's return until his death. This is confirmed from ch. 1:14, ch. 2:10, and ch. 5:3, which together show that a considerable period of time (at least 20 years) must have elapsed from the time of Enemessar's death to the time that Tobit's eyesight was restored.

In ch. 5:6 we encounter an apparent geographical error. Rages is said to be ``a good two days' travel'' from Ecbatana. Alexander the Great's army took 11 days in forced marches to go from Ecbatana to Rages, a distance of 180 miles. On the other hand, even with forced marches, no army can travel as quickly as two unencumbered men. In addition, the expression ``a good two days'' indicates the least amount of time that they could expect to travel. It is best not to press the literal meaning of this expression-assuming this textual reading is even authentic.

Other scholars have claimed that the demon Ashmodai is a suppositious Zoroastrian Aeshma daeva, ``demon of wrath,'' thus indicating that the Book of Tobit was written after the return from the Babylonian Exile. Along the same lines, Raphael's reference to seven angels who appear before the Shekinah of the Lord is said to be a borrowing from the Amesha Spentas of Zoroastrianism. However, the name Ashmodai more likely came from the Aramaic word ashmeday, which is the equivalent of the Hebrew hashmed, ``destruction'' (cf. Rev. 9:11). As for the Amesha Spentas, Zoroastrianism refers to six angelic spirits who are subordinate to Ahura Mazda, the good god, whereas Raphael mentioned seven angels in God's Presence. There is no proof that Zoroastrianism had anything to do with the story of Tobit.

Others have objected to the coincidences in the story as a sign that Tobit is a work of fiction. However, even stranger coincidences can be documented from authenticated history. One could also point to the coincidence of Christ's death during Passover in order to fulfill the allegorical type of the Passover Lamb of God. Coincidences in Tobit are not enough to classify the book as fictional. And neither can we regard the banishing of Ashmodai using the stench of burning fish guts as necessarily impossible, for it can be compared to Christ's use of mud made from His own spit to cure a blind man (John 9:6-7), or the resurrection of a man whose corpse came in contact with the bones of Elisha the Prophet (II Kings 13:21), or St. Paul's use of cloth to heal the sick or exorcise demons (Acts 19:11-12).

It has also been alleged that Tobit's nephew Ahikar is a purely unhistorical, albeit famous, character of ancient Near Eastern folklore. Supposedly Tobit was made the uncle of Ahikar in order to enhance Tobit's status, or to tickle the fancies of an audience familiar with Ahikar. However, no one knows how the stories and legends of Ahikar arose. There is simply no proof that Ahikar is legendary and unhistorical. For all we know, he really was an Israelite who attained to a position in the Assyrian government during the late 700s and early 600s B.C.

Finally, certain Greek versions of Tobit wrongly state that Nineveh was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus. In fact Nineveh fell in 612 B.C. to the combined armies of Cyaxares, King of Media, and Nabopolassar, King of Babylon, who was Nebuchadnezzar's father. However, an examination of the different versions shows that the reference to Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus arose from scribal errors. ``Ahasuerus,'' for example, arose from a misreading of ``Assyria.'' The best manuscripts mention only Cyaxares, King of Media, and do not refer to his Babylonian ally at all.

Genre, Authorship, and Time of Composition

We see, then, that point by point, each of the reasons that might be adduced for regarding this book as a work of historical fiction are capable of plausible or likely explanation. That does not prove that the events recounted in Tobit are historical. Indeed, it's quite possible that the Book of Tobit is fictional but was based on genuinely historical events. Or perhaps it really is just an ancient Jewish folktale. All the same, the case for accepting Tobit as what it claims to be-a genuine history written by Tobit and his family at the behest of an angel (ch. 12:20)-is stronger than it might seem at first.

As for genre, this book contains more than one. Besides simple narrative, Tobit also includes Hebrew poetry and hymns, as well as prophecy and examples of Jewish Wisdom literature. More generally, how one classifies the Book of Tobit depends on whether one accepts it as authentic biography or regards it as pious Jewish folklore. If it is a history, then it could have been written by someone in Tobit's family as early as 600 B.C.-and the first three chapters could come from Tobit himself. If it is historical fiction, the author could have been a Jew who lived anywhere from the 500s to the 200s B.C. It certainly already existed in both Hebrew and Aramaic versions by the second century B.C.

Tobit in Judaism and Christianity

Although the rabbis ultimately excluded the Book of Tobit from the Hebrew canon of scripture, the story of Tobit remained popular among the Jews at least until the late Middle Ages. Like the Christians, most older Jewish writers took Tobit's historicity for granted.  An Aramaic version of Tobit is included in a medieval Aramaic commentary on Genesis which dates from the 1400s, the Midrash Rabba of Rabba (also known as the Midrash Bereshith Rabba, which is also the name of another, better known Jewish commentary on Genesis).  In that midrash, the story of Tobit serves as a haggadah on Jacob's vow to give tithes to God (Gen. 28:22; cf. Tobit 1:6-8). There are also four Hebrew versions of the story of Tobit, one written in the 400s A.D., another from the 1100s A.D., a third from the 1200s A.D., and a fourth of unknown date which came from a Jewish midrash on the Torah.

Tobit was included in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, which was the early Church's most popular Bible version. It is therefore unsurprising that Christians have regarded it as inspired scripture from the earliest times. Around 110 A.D. St. Polycarp of Smyrna, disciple of the Apostle John, quoted from Tobit 4:10 and 12:9 in his Letter to the Philippians. Tobit 12:8-9 also informed the author of a homily from the mid-second century that was later mistakenly attributed to St. Clement of Rome. Around 200 A.D., Clement of Alexandria quoted from Tobit as inspired scripture, as did St. Cyprian of Carthage around 250 A.D. Though Origen in the third century and St. Athanasius in the fourth century were aware of Tobit's exclusion from the Jews' developing biblical canon, nevertheless they both quoted from Tobit as inspired scripture.

As pointed out in the introduction, the story of Tobit explores many of the same themes that are the focus of the fall festivals of the Hebrew liturgical calendar. Tobit's approximately 40 days in hiding remind us of Israel penal sentence of 40 years in the Wilderness of Sinai which were later remembered through the Feast of Tabernacles. Those 40 years also anticipated Israel's exile from the Holy Land and subsequent return, both of which receive prominent mention in Tobit.

Some Christians have also seen the story of Tobit as an allegorical foreshadowing of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Tobiah's marriage to Sarah can be taken as an allegory of Christ's mystical marriage to His Bride the Church. Just as Tobiah's marriage was made possible by the exorcism of a demon, Christ's marriage to the Church was made possible through the defeat of the Devil. Just as Christ's resurrection from the dead took place at the conclusion of the seventh day of the week-i.e., the ``eighth'' day-so Tobiah was the eighth husband of Sarah.

Christians who were used to symbolising Jesus as a fish1 would naturally see the fish of the Book of Tobit as a type of Christ. Just as Christ healed the sick and cast out demons, so it was the miraculous medicinal powers of the fish's organs that made possible the exorcism of Ashmodai and the healing of Tobit's blindness. The blindness and poverty of Tobit would represent Adam's bondage to sin and death, so Tobiah's healing of his father is like Christ's spiritual healing of his father Adam. Hannah's grief at the departure of her only son Tobiah also reminds us of Mary's grief at the suffering and death of her son Jesus (Luke 2:34-35).

Serious objections to the book's place in the Christian canon of scripture were not raised until the time of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformers who taught justification by faith alone objected to the doctrine that almsgiving can expiate any sin (ch. 12:9), a doctrine that also appears in The Wisdom of Ben-Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). They also opposed the invocation of the prayers of angels and saints, which can be implicitly supported by Tobit 3:16-17 and 12:12-15.

On the other hand, Jesus Christ's Sermon on the Mount emphasises many of the same themes and teaches many of the same doctrines that can be found in Tobit. Furthermore, Rev. 1:16, 20 is apparently a reference to Tobit 12:15, while St. Paul probably had Raphael in mind in Heb. 13:2. In addition, the Book of Tobit describes many popular Jewish customs-particular marriage customs-that shed light on numerous passages of the New Testament. Again, the Sadducees' rhetorical example of a woman with seven husbands (Matt. 22:23-28) might be an oblique reference to Sarah, daughter of Reuel. Finally, the Book of Tobit is the earliest appearance of the Golden Rule anywhere in Jewish literature.

For all these reasons, and many others, the Book of Tobit is simply indispensable, even for Christians who do not accept it as canonical scripture.


1The Greek acronym of Iesous Christos Theou Huios Soter-``Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior''-spells ichthys, the Greek word for ``fish.''

Apocrypha Series



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