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Book of Judith

Old Testament book, part of the deuterocanon

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Judith, BOOK OF.—HISTORY.—Nabuchodonosor, King of Ninive, sends his general Holofernes to subdue the Jews. The latter besieges them in Bethulia, a city on the southern verge of the Plain of Esdrelon. Achior the Ammonite, who speaks in defense of the Jews, is maltreated by him and sent into the besieged city to await his punishment when Holofernes shall have taken it. Famine undermines the courage of the besieged and they contemplate surrender, but Judith, a widow, upbraids them and says that she will deliver the city. She goes into the camp of the Assyrians and captivates Holofernes by her beauty, and finally takes advantage of the general’s intoxication to cut off his head. She returns inviolate to the city with his head as a trophy, and a sally on the part of the Jews results in the rout of the Assyrians. The book closes with a hymn to the Almighty by Judith to celebrate her victory.

THE TEXT.—The book exists in distinct Greek and Latin versions, of which the former contains at least eighty-four verses more than the latter. St. Jerome (Praef. in Lib.) says that he translated it from the Chaldaic in one night, “magis sensum e sensu, quam ex verbo verbum transferens” (aiming at giving sense for sense rather than adhering closely to the wording). He adds that his codices differed much, and that he expresses in Latin only what he could clearly understand of the Chaldaic.

Two Hebrew versions are known at present, a long one practically identical with the Greek text, and a short one which is entirely different: we shall return to this latter when discussing the origin of the book. The Chaldaic, from which St. Jerome made our present Vulgate version, is not recoverable unless indeed it be identified with the longer Hebrew version mentioned above. If this be the case we can gauge the value of St. Jerome’s work by comparing the Vulgate with the Greek text. We at once find that St. Jerome did not exaggerate when he said that he made his translation hurriedly. Thus a comparison between vi, 11, and viii, 9, shows us a certain confusion relative to the names of the elders of Bethulia—a confusion which does not exist in the Septuagint, where also x, 6, should be compared. Again in iv, 5, the high priest is Eliachim, which name is later changed into Joachim (xv, 9)—an allowable change but somewhat misleading; the Septuagint is consistent in using the form Joachim. Some of the historical statements in the Septuagint directly conflict with those of the Vulgate; for example, the thirteenth year (Vulg.) of Nabuchodonosor becomes the eighteenth in the Septuagint, which also adds a long address of the king to Holofernes. St. Jerome has also frequently condensed the original—always on the supposition that the Septuagint and the longer Hebrew version do really represent the original. To give but one instance:—

Septuagint (ii, 27). “And he came down into the plain of Damascus at the time of the wheat-harvest, and he burnt up all their fields, their flocks and their herds he delivered to destruction, their cities he ravaged, and the fruits of their fertile plains he scattered like chaff, and he struck all their young men with the edge of the sword.”

Vulgate (ii, 17). “And after these things he went down into the plains of Damascus in the days of the harvest, and he set all the corn on fire, and he caused all the trees and vineyards to be cut down.”

With regard to the Septuagint version of the Book of Judith it should be noted that it has come down to us in two recensions: Codex B or Vaticanus on the one hand, and Codex Alexandrinus (A) with Codex Sinaiticus (#h A) on the other.

HISTORICITY.—Catholics with very few exceptions accept the Book of Judith as a narrative of facts, not as an allegory. Even Jahn considers that the genealogy of Judith is inexplicable on the hypothesis that the story is a mere fiction (“Introductio”, Vienna, 1814, p. 461). Why carry out the genealogy of a fictitious person through fifteen generations? The Fathers have ever looked upon the book as historical. St. Jerome, who excluded Judith from the Canon, none the less accepted the person of the valiant woman as historical (Ep. lxv, 1).

Against this traditional view there are, it must be confessed, very serious difficulties, due, as Calmet insists, to the doubtful and disputed condition of the text. The historical and geographical statements in the book, as we now have it, are difficult to understand: thus (i) Nabuchodonosor was apparently never King of Ninive, for he came to the throne in 605, whereas Ninive was destroyed certainly not later than 606, and after that the Assyrians ceased to exist as a people; (ii) the allusion in i, 6, to Erioch, King of the Ehcians, is suspicious; we are reminded of the Arioch of Gen., xiv, i. The Septuagint makes him King of the Elumaeans, presumably the Elamites, (iii) the character of Nabuchodonosor is hardly that portrayed for us on the monuments: in the India House Inscription, for example, his sentiments are remarkable for the modesty of their tone. On the other hand, we must remember that, as Sayce says, the “Assyrian kings were most brazen-faced liars on their monuments”; (iv) the name Vagao, or the Septuagint Bagoas, for the eunuch of Holofernes is suggestive of the Bagoses, who, according to Josephus (Antiquities, XI, vii, 1), polluted the temple and to whom apparently we have a reference in the recently discovered papyri from Assuan; (v) the mixture of Babylonian, Greek, and Persian names in the book should be noted; (vi) the genealogy of Judith as given in the Vulgate is a medley: that given in the three principal Greek codices is perhaps better but varies in every one. Still it is an historical genealogy, though ill-conserved; (vii) a geographical puzzle is presented by the Vulgate of ii, 12-16; the Septuagint is much superior, and it should be noted that throughout this version, especially in Codex B, we have the most interesting details furnished us (cf. particularly i, 9; ii, 13, 28-9). The Septuagint also gives us information about Achior which is wanting in the Vulgate: it is apparently hinted in vi, 2, 5, that he was an Ephraimite and a mercenary hired by Moab; (viii) Bethulia itself is a mystery: according to the Septuagint it was large, had streets and towers (vii, 22, 32), and withstood a long siege at the hands of a vast army. Its position, too, is stated with minuteness; it stood on the edge of the Plain of Esdrelon and guarded the pass to Jerusalem; yet no trace of the existence of such a place is to be found (unless we accept the theory of Conder, “Handbook”, 5th ed., p. 239); (ix) the names, Judith (Jewess), Achior (brother of light), and Bethulia (?Bethel, i.e. ?Jerusalem, or perhaps from the Hebrew BTVLH ” a virgin”—in the shorter Hebrew version Judith is called not “the widow” but “the virgin”, i.e. Bethula), sound rather like symbolic names than those of historical places or persons; (x) in Judith’s speech to Holofernes there is (xi, 12, 15) some apparent confusion between Bethulia and Jerusalem; (xi) while the events are referred to the time of Nabuchodonosor, and therefore to the close of the Hebrew monarchy, we seem to have in v, 22, and viii, 18-19, an allusion to the time subsequent to the Restoration; (xii) there is no king in Palestine (iv, 5), but only a high priest, Joachim or Eliachim; and in iv, 8; xi, 14; xv, 8 (September), the Sanhedrin is apparently mentioned; (xiii) the book has a Persian and even a Greek coloring, as is evidenced by the recurrence of such names as Bagoas and Holofernes.

These are serious difficulties, and a Catholic student must be prepared to meet them. There are two ways of doing so. (a) According to what we may term “conservative” criticism, these apparent difficulties can every one be harmonized with the view that the book is perfectly historical and deals with facts which actually took place. Thus, the geographical errors may be ascribed to the translators of the original text or to copyists living long after the book was composed, and consequently ignorant of the details referred to. Calmet insists that the Biblical Nabuchodonosor is meant, while in Arphaxadhe sees Phraortes whose name, as Vigouroux (Les Livres Saints et La Critique Rationaliste, iv, 4th ed.) shows, could easily have been thus perverted.

Vigouroux, however, in accordance with recent Assyrian discoveries, identifies Nabuchodonosor with Assur-bani-pal, the contemporary of Phraortes. This enables him to refer the events to the time of the captivity of Manasses under Assur-bani-pal (II Par., xxxiii, 11; cf. Sayce, “Higher Criticism and the Verdict of the Monuments”, 4th ed., p. 458). It is further maintained that the campaign conducted by Holofernes is well illustrated in the records of Assur-bani-pal which have come down to us. And these facts will undoubtedly afford an explanation of the apparent allusion to the captivity; it was indeed a Restoration, but that of Manasses, not that under Esdras. The reference, too, to the Sanhedrin is doubtful; the term Greek: gerousia is used of the “ancients” in Lev., ix, 3, etc. Lastly, Conder’s identification of Bethulia with Mithilia (loc. cit. supra) is highly probable. Moreover, the writer who described the strategical position in iv, 1-6, knew the geography of Palestine thoroughly. And we are given details about the death of Judith’s husband which (viii, 2-4) can hardly be attributed to art, but are rather indications that Judith represents a really existing heroine. With regard to the state of the text it should be noted that the extraordinary variants presented in the various versions are themselves a proof that the versions were derived from a copy dating from a period long antecedent to the time of its translators (cf. Calmet, “Introd. in Lib. Judith”).

(b) Some few Catholic writers are not satisfied with Calmet’s solution of the difficulties of the Book of Judith; they deem the errors of translators and of scribes to be no sufficient explanation in this matter. These few Catholics, together with the non-Catholics that do not care to throw the book over entirely into the realm of fiction, assure us that the Book of Judith has a solid historical foundation. Judith is no mythical personage, she and her heroic deed lived in the memory of the people; but the difficulties enumerated above seem to show that the story as we now have it was committed to writing at a period long subsequent to the facts. The history, so it is maintained, is vague; the style of composition, the speeches, etc., remind us of the Books of Machabees. A remarkable knowledge of the Psalter is evinced (cf. vii, 19, and Ps. cv, 6; vii, 21, and Ps. lxxviii, 10, cxiii, 2; ix, 6, 9, and Ps. xix, 8; ix, 16, and Ps. cxlvi, 10; xiii, 21, and Ps. cv, 1). Some of these psalms must almost certainly be referred to the period of the Second Temple. Again, the High Priest Joachim must presumably be identified with the father of Eliashib, and must therefore have lived in the time of Artaxerxes the Great (464-424 B.C. Cf. Josephus, “Antiquities”, XI, vi-vii). We referred above to a shorter Hebrew version of the book; Dr. Gaster, its discoverer, assigns this manuscript to the tenth or eleventh century A.D. (Proceedings of Soc. of Bibl. Archwol., XVI, pp. 156 sqq.). It is exceedingly brief, some forty lines, and gives us only the gist of the story. Yet it seems to offer a solution of many of the difficulties suggested above. Thus Holofernes, Bethulia, and Achior, all disappear; there is a very natural explanation of the purification in xii, 7; and, most noticeable of all, the enemy is no longer an Assyrian, but Seleucus, and his attack is on Jerusalem, not on Bethulia.

If it could be maintained that we have in this manuscript the story in its original form, and that our canonical book is an amplification of it, we should then be in a position to explain the existence of the numerous divergent versions. The mention of Seleucus brings us down to Machabean times, the title of Judith, now no longer the “widow” but the “virgin” (BTVLH), may explain the mysterious city; the Machabean coloring of the story becomes intelligible, and the theme is the efficacy of prayer (cf. vi, 14-21; vii, 4; II Mach., xv, 12-16).

CANONICITY.—The Book of Judith does not exist in the Hebrew Bible, and is consequently excluded from the Protestant Canon of Holy Scripture. But the Church has always maintained its canonicity.

St. Jerome, while rejecting in theory those books which he did not find in his Hebrew manuscript, yet consented to translate Judith because “the Synod of Nicaea, is said to have accounted it as Sacred Scripture” (Praef. in Lib.). It is true that no such declaration is to be found in the Canons of Nicaea, and it is uncertain whether St. Jerome is referring to the use made of the book in the discussions of the council, or whether he was misled by some spurious canons attributed to that council, but it is certain that the Fathers of the earliest times have reckoned Judith among the canonical books; thus St. Paul seems to quote the Greek text of Judith, viii, 14, in I Cor., ii, 10 (cf. also I Cor., x, 10, with Judith, viii, 25). In the early Christian Church we find it quoted as part of Scripture in the writings of St. Clement of Rome (First Epistle to the Corinthians, lv), Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian.


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