Is Judith Historically Inaccurate?

There are several historical errors in the book. Or are these obvious historical blunders 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 problems 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 Should the reader look for a real historical figure behind the un-historical references to Nebuchadnezzar or Holofernes?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).

 

5 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.

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