What is the Book of Judith?

I have mentioned previously that one of my favourite books of the Apocrypha is Tobit. The same cannot be said about the next book, which is Judith. I understand that Judith has been influential in literature and art, but it does not do much for me.

The book of Judith is a work of historical fiction, with more emphasis on the fiction than history. The author does not even seem to try to be historically accurate, putting Nebuchadnezzar as king of the Assyrians, reigning in Nineveh. Perhaps this is the author’s attempt to signal a timeless message.

The setting is a familiar one from the Old Testament. The Assyrians are threatening God’s people and the leaders are preparing to give up in the face of their danger. From this situation arises a godly and beautiful widow named Judith. The name Judith means “Jewess,” which also suggests the idea of the timeless message.

In the story, after much prayer and supplication, Judith dresses herself up to be as beautiful as possible. She uses her beauty to get close to Holofernes, the head of the Assyrian army. She basically seduces (with looks not actual sex) Holofernes, gets him drunk and then cuts off his head. She escapes from the Assyrian camp and returns to her people. When the Assyrians discover their headless commander, they panic. The Jews then attack the fleeing Assyrian army and destroy them.

Most scholars date this Judith to the Hasmonean dynasty (165-37 BC) and it may have been inspired by the Maccabean rebellion against the Syrians.

One of the significant things about this book is that it is a good example of an ancient novel. I still hear people describe the Gospels as being novels. It is helpful to compare the Gospels to Judith and see how they differ. Not only are the Gospels written during the lifetime of the people described, they are much more interested in getting history right than novels such as Judith.

Why don’t I like this book? While it does provide a strong female character, I much prefer the biblical Deborah from Judges 4, who comes across much more honourable.  But to each their own.

You can find the text for Judith online but I’m using the one found in the The New Oxford Annotated Bible.

If you want to learn more about the Apocrypha, I recommend that you listen to this podcast episode.


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