What is the Book of Judith?

Judith is a novella written shortly after the Maccabean revolt, probably 150-100 B.C. Carey Moore suggested Judith is reminiscent of the general spirit of the days of Judas Maccabeus” (“Judith, Book of,” ABD 3:1123). The book appears in the Apocrypha and tells the story of a threat to the Israelite village Bethulia. Judith is a beautiful widow who acts bravely and saves both her village and all of Israel from the Assyrian threat. The story is reminiscent of other Jewish women in the Hebrew Bible, including Rahab, Jael, Ruth, and Esther.

Judith 4:12 may allude to Antiochus’s desecration of the Temple in 167 B.C., “the sanctuary to be profaned and desecrated to the malicious joy of the Gentiles.” The defeat of Nicanor in 1 Maccabees 7:43-50 is remarkably similar to Judith’s assassination of Holofernes. Nebuchadnezzar demands to be worshiped as a god, recalling Daniel 3. Some place names which can be identified in the book suggest a date after 107 BC, after Alexander Janneus destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. Judith is only known in Greek although Jerome was familiarity with Aramaic version of the book. It does not appear in the Qumran library and is not mentioned in rabbinic literature.

Even if Judith was rarely considered canonical, the book important for both Christians and Jews. The book was included in the Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate and the Syriac Peshitta, and appears in many early and important Greek Bible (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus). Although it was never considered part of the Jewish canon, it is considered canonical in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox traditions.

Moore suggests a major problem for Jewish acceptance of the book is the conversion of Achior, an Ammonite. Deuteronomy 23:2 specifically states, “no Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord, even to the tenth generation.” Achior is a gentile convert to Judaism who submitted to circumcision but is not baptized. Later Halakah required both for a Gentile to become a Jew (Moore, “Judith, Book of,” ABD 3:1124).

In his recent commentary on Judith, Lawrence Wills suggests Judith may have been known by the authors of Greek Esther and Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities (Wills, Judith, 2), but there are no citations or clear allusions to Judith. He suggests the reason Judith was never canonized may be as simple as the language, since it was not written in Hebrew it was considered secondary from the beginning.

Some early readers may have found the character Judith to be too brazen (Toni Craven, Artistry and Faith in the Book of Judith, 117). Yet her actions are not too different than Ruth or Esther. She was not too brazen to keep the book out of the western Christian canon.

Both Clement of Alexandria and the council of Nicaea considered Judith canonical, as did most of the western church fathers. Luther questioned the canonicity of the book but treated it allegorically as a “passion play.” For modern Protestants, the historical anachronisms are enough to reject the book. The historical and geographical errors are a problem for anyone who holds to biblical inerrancy. However, modern studies of Judith treat these obvious errors as a sign to the reader that the story is fictional. For conservatives like Geisler and Nix, Judith is “subbiblical and, at times, even immoral,” citing God’s assistance and approval of Judith’s lies (9:10-13; A General Introduction to the Bible, Rev. ed.; [Moody, 1986], 271). It may be the case Geisler and Nix forgot about the prostitute Rahab’s lies (Joshua 2:4-7).

Even though the story of Judith is fiction, it reflects what some Jews thought about the struggle between Hellenism and Judaism. In Daniel, the four young men resisted the imposition of the empire and were willing to die rather than compromise. In Judith, resistance to the empire takes a more violent turn as Judith assassinates the Assyrian general Holofernes, forcing the invading foreigners back to their own territory.

Does story of Judith support to the Hasmoneans? Perhaps, but it may be the case the readers of Judith looked back to Judas Maccabees as the ideal defender of Israel rather than the later Hasmonaean kings.

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