Is Judith Historically Inaccurate?

There are several obvious errors in the book of Judith. Perhaps it does not even matter if Judith is historically inaccurate. The obvious historical blunders may be ironic. “The storyteller, speculated Torrey, might even have given his listeners “a solemn wink” as he delivered his opening sentence” (Moore, “Judith, Book of,” ABD 3:1121). As David deSilva suggested, any attempt to defend the historicity of Judith is doomed to failure (Introducing the Apocrypha, 94).

There are many historical Inaccuracies in the book, I list just a few here:

  • The book begins in the twelfth year of Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of Assyria and the great city of Nineveh. Nebuchadnezzar was a Babylonian king (not Assyrian) and Holofernes was a Greek (not Assyrian).
  • Holofernes marches his massive army from Nineveh to Cilicia in three days, over 300 miles (2:21). Two verses later the army is fighting in Put and Lud, in North Africa, then remarkably they are back in Cilicia in the next verse.
  • The place names may have been created by the author. Bethulia, for example, did not exist. But the name means “young woman” and may be a hint of Judith’s victory later in the book. As Otzen says, “The topography of the book of Judith is also bewildering” (81).
  • The book claims Jerusalem can only be reached by a narrow pass, which anyone reading the book would know was geographically false.
  • The king of the Medes, Arphxad, is also fictional, the name is (probably) drawn from Genesis 10:22, one of the sons of Seth.
  • The book constantly refers to people living in Judea as the Israelites, a historical anachronism since Israel ceased to exist in 722 B.C.

How could any intelligent Jewish writer living about 150 B.C. make such a historical error as Nebuchadnezzar was king of Assyria, after the Jews returned from the exile? They only solution that makes sense is these anachronisms are intentional. As Lawrence Wills puts it, “The book of Judith telescopes multiple historical epics into one imaginary frame” (Wills, Judith, 9). There is a little Assyrian assault on Jerusalem (2 Kings 18), Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian Exile, and Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

I agree with Wills: “the author was intentionally playing with a fanciful story line that would have been obvious to the audience” (Judith, 9). But what is the point if intentional historical errors? Should the reader look for a real historical figure behind the un-historical references to Nebuchadnezzar or Holofernes?

Wills offers the example of the Christian writer Sulpicius Severus (c. A.D. 403, Sacred History 2.16) who identified Nebuchadnezzar with Artaxerxes III Ochus of Persia (358-338 BC). It is also common for commentaries to take the reference to Nebuchadnezzar as a reference to the Assyria king Ashurbanipal (668–626 B.C.), although this does not solve the problem of the claim the Jews have only recently return from exile after 539 B.C.) Since Otzen says there are at least twenty suggested historical solutions, perhaps these historical errors are not substitutions for actual historical facts.

Although Judith is entirely fictional story, I suggest the author drew on stories of heroic women from the Hebrew Bible and well-known historical threats to the Jewish people to create a story which encourages readers to resist the empire, whatever empire happens to be oppressing at the time. Looking back at Jewish history, threats from Assyria, Babylon, Persian and the Salticid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes are bended together.

If the book is written just after the Maccabean revolt, perhaps the writer wanted to encourage readers to consider violence as a possible solution to threats and oppression. While Daniel encouraged passive resistance and a willingness to die rather than compromise, Judith describes a woman who does what is necessary to end the threat by assassinating an Assyrian general. The historical details are fuzzy because the Jewish people are always under a threat from a Gentile empire.

Do the books of Daniel and Judith represent two different approaches for Jews living in the exile?

 

Bibliography: Benedikt Otzen, Tobit and Judith (Sheffield Academic, 2002); Lawrence M. Wills, Judith (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2019).

 

7 thoughts on “Is Judith Historically Inaccurate?

  1. I agree with DeSilva and yourself that this is not a work of history. But what the original intent was, I’m not sure. I haven’t spent enough time in this book to really form an opinion but it’s on my TODO list.

      • I don’t think it’s you. I find the comment function after the new update to be problematic. Something funny happening with WP right now.

      • I noticed the spam filter has been more aggressive lately, so I have been wading through that cesspool once a week or so checking for lost comments. I usually find one or two.

  2. I am sorry, guy, but I after some personal further research on the subject I think these arguments usually given againts the histority of Judith can be resolved with several genuine explanations:

    1- The Nebuchadnezzar in Judith may be explained as a pseudonym for the historical Assyriam king Ashurbanipal. This is likely as Ashurbanipal is never referred to by name in the HB, except perhaps for the corrupted form “Osnaper” in Ezra 4:10 or the anonymous title “The King of Assyria” in 2 Kings. This means that apparently his name could never have been recorded by the ancient israelites and therefore would have been unknown to the author of the book, something which would justify his choosing to present him instead under the pseudonym of a king who was regarded in national cultural memory as their invasor and destructor of the Temple.

    2- The events recorded in Jud. 2:23 are not to be regarded as an inmediate continuation of those of Jud. 2:21, but are simply part of a general description of his campaings among an irregular period of time.

    3- Bethulia is explained as a pseudonym of the historical city of Shechem as can be deduced for its geographical description (see the Jewish Encyclopedia on that). The reason for the pseudonym may be that, because of the feeling of the Jews toward the Samaritans, the name “Shechem” could not be repeatedly used in a popular tale of this character for the city whose people wrought deliverance for Jerusalem and for the sanctuary of the Jews; so he prefered to present it in that way.

    4- The book’s claim that Jerusalem can only be reached by a narrow pass is simply to be taken as an idiomatic expression, rather than a literal statement.

    5- Arphxad may be also a pseudonym for Phraortes, an historical king of Mede. The Arphxad of Genesis was regarded in antiquity to had been the founder of the Chaldeans (see Josephus in Antiquities, Book 1, Chapter 6), so it was a perfect pseudonym for him. Phraortes is registered to have dead in Assyriam records during a battle againts Ashurbanipal, something which correlates Jud. 1:15.

    6- That the book refers to the inhabitants of Judea as Israelites is completely irrelevant; it only tells us that when the book was written at a time when the Israelite nation was unified and therefore they could be refered with that term.

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