corner graphic

Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Judith, Book of

Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

An Apocryphal book in sixteen chapters. The book receives its title from the name of its principal character, Judith ( = "Jewess" in the Greek transliteration, Ἰ ο υ δ ε ί θ ), a name found also in Genesis 26:34 (comp. the corresponding masculine proper name in Jeremiah 36:14,21 , 23).

The Book of Judith is a story written for house-hold reading, While it may properly be classed as didactic, yet it is one of those popular tales in which the chief concern of the writer is with the telling of the story rather than with the pointing of a moral, and in which the wish to interest takes precedence even of the desire to instruct. What gained for the book its high esteem in early times, in both the Jewish and the Christian world, was its intrinsic merit as a story, rather than its religious teaching or its patriotism.

General Character and Contents.
It is, furthermore, a historical novel that is, its scenes are definitely located as to place and time and connected with important personages of history, with the purpose of adding life to the narrative. This feature it has in common with such stories as those of Ruth, Esther, Daniel, and especially with the Book of Tobit, the work most nearly akin to it. But in Judith the names of persons and localities are introduced in such profusion and with such minuteness of detail as have no parallel in the other old Jewish compositions of this class.

The events of the narrative are represented as taking place on the occasion of the hostile advance of an "Assyrian" army into Palestine. The inhabitants of a certain Jewish city called "Bethulia," (properly "Betylua") can check the advance of the enemy, because their city occupies the narrow and important pass through which is the entrance into Judea (Judith 4:7 et seq. , 8:21-24). But the Assyrians, instead of attempting to force the pass, blockade the city and cut off its water-supply. In the distress which follows, Judith, a woman of Bethulia, works deliverance for her city— and thus for all Judea and Jerusalem— by bewitching the Assyrian captain, Holofernes, and cutting off his head.

Historical Setting.
The book begins with a date, "the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar," and everything moves with the air of a precise account of actual events. But the way in which the narrative at once makes open sport of chronology and history is very striking. Nebuchadnezzar is the king of Assyria, and reigns in Nineveh(!). The Jews, who have "newly returned from the captivity" (iv:3, 5:19), are in no sense his subjects indeed, his chief captain has apparently never heard of them (v:3). Yet the writer of this story was a well-informed man, familiar with foreign geography (i:6-10, 2:21-28), and well acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures (i:1 2:23 5:6-19 8:1,26 9:2 et seq. ). It must therefore be concluded either that the principal names of the story are a mere disguise, or that they were chosen with a purely literary purpose, and with the intent to disclaim at the outset any historical verity for the tale. The former supposition is not rendered plausible by any consideration, and fails utterly to account for the peculiarities of the narrative the latter, on the contrary, gives a satisfactory explanation of all the facts. That is, with the very first words of the tale, "In the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who reigned over the Assyrians in Nineveh," the narrator gives his hearers a solemn wink. They are to understand that this is fiction, not history. It did not take place in this or that definite period of Jewish history, but simply "once upon a time," the real vagueness of the date being transparently disguised in the manner which has become familiar in the folk-tales of other parts of the world.

The City Bethulia.
Both the name and the site of the city in which the scene of the story is laid have been the subject of much debate. It is beyond all question that the narrator in describing Bethulia is describing a real place with which he is personally familiar. The plain requirements of the description are these: a large city in the hill-country of Samaria, on the direct road from Jezreel to Jerusalem, lying in the path of the enemy, at the head of an important pass, a few hours (vi:11, 7:1-3) south of Geba. This Geba is the of the Talmud, the modern Jeba' , two or three hours northeast of Samaria, at the point where the ascent into the mountainous country begins. Between this point and the plain of Jezreel there is nothing resembling a pass. Holofernes, with the division of his army which had just chastised the coast cities (iii:6 et seq. ), was in the van. A considerable body now joined him from the east (Moab, Ammon, Edom, etc. 5:2, 7:8). The statement that his vast army "encamped between Geba and Seythopolis" (iii:10) suits all the conditions perfectly.

Identity of Bethulia.
As Torrey first pointed out, in the "Journal of the American Oriental Society," 20:160-172, there is one city, and only one, which perfectly satisfies all the above-mentioned requirements, namely, Shechem. A great army, with its baggage-trains, breaking camp at Geba in the morning (vii:1), would arrive in the afternoon at the springs in the broad valley (ib. 3) just under Shechem. This, moreover, is the city which occupies the all-important pass on this route, the pass by which "was the entrance into Judea" (iv:7). Furthermore, each one of the details of topography, which the writer introduces in great number, finds its unmistakable counterpart in the surroundings of Shechem. The valley below the city is on the west side (vii:18 comp. ib. verses 13,20). The "fountain of water in the camp" (xii:7) is the modern Bait al-Ma, fifteen minutes from Shechem. The ascent to the city was through a narrowing valley (xiii:10 comp. 10:10). Whether the words "for two men at the most" (iv:7) are an exaggeration for the sake of the story, or whether they truly describe the old fortifications of the city, it is impossible to say with certainty. At the head of this ascent, a short distance back from the brow of the bill, stood the city (xiv:11). Rising above it and overlooking it were mountains (vii:13,18 15:3). The "fountain" from which came the water-supply of the city (vii:12 et seq. ) is the great spring Ras el-' Ain, in the valley (ἐ ν τ ῷ α ὐ λ ῶ ν ι , ib. 17) just above Shechem, "at the foot" of Mount Gerizim. The abundant water-supply of the modern city is probably due to a system of ancient underground conduits from this one spring see Robinson, "Physical Geography of the Holy Land," p. 247, and Gué rin, "Samarie," 1:401 et seq. Further corroborative evidence is given by the account of the blockade of Bethulia in 7:13-20. "Ekrebel" is ' Aḳ rabah, three hours southeast of Shechem, on the road to the Jordan "Chusi" is Ḳ uza (so G. A. Smith and others), two hours south, on the road to Jerusalem. The identity of Bethulia with Shechem is thus beyond all question.

The reason for the pseudonym is obvious. 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. The original form of "Betylua" (Greek, Β α ι τ ο υ λ ο υ α , etc. Latin, "Bethulia," whence the modern usage) is quite uncertain. The favorite = "House of God," is not improbable.

Literary and Religious Importance.
Judith is certainly one of the very best extant specimens of old Jewish story-telling, and forms a worthy companion-piece to Tobit, which it surpasses in vividness of style. Its author introduces a considerable variety of material, but all in due proportion everything is subordinated to the main action, and the interest never flags. The principal scenes are painted very vigorously, and a striking picture is often sketched in a few words (comp. 10:10,18 13:13 14:6). The poem in the closing chapter is a fine composition, plainly the work of no ordinary writer.

The book has a distinctly religious trend, and is well calculated to inspire both patriotism and piety. For the history of the Jewish religion, however, it contributes little of importance. Views and doctrines which have nothing to do with the progress of the story are not introduced.

Original Language Versions.
As most students of the book have recognized, it was originally written in Hebrew. The standard Greek version bears the unmistakable marks of a translation from this language. The idioms are those of classical Hebrew and yet the dialect in which the book is composed is plainly a living one. The diction is fresh and vigorous, and not noticeably reminiscent of the canonical Old Testament.

The wide-spread popularity of the story is attested, as in the case of Tobit, by the existence of a number of separate recensions these do not, however, diverge very widely from one another. Three Greek forms have been preserved: (1) the standard text, found in most manuscripts (including the principal uncials) and given in all the printed editions in all probability the recension which most nearly represents the original form of the story (2) a somewhat corrected and "improved" recension, represented by Codex 58 (Holmes and Parsons) and by the Old Latin and Syriac versions and (3) a text closely related to the preceding, found in Codices 19,108. The Old Latin translation exists in several divergent forms. The Vulgate version was made by Jerome (according to his own testimony hastily and with considerable freedom) from an Aramaic text. It gives the narrative in a form which is both much abridged and plainly secondary.

The several Hebrew versions of Judith are all comparatively recent, and are quite worthless for the criticism of the book. Two of these are given in Jellinek, "B. H." 1:130-141, 2:12-22 another is published by Gaster in "Proc. Soc. Bibl. Arch." 16:156-163. These are all free adaptations of the story, very much abridged.

Author and Date.
The author of Judith beyond question lived and wrote in Palestine. He was a Jew, not a Samaritan, and probably dwelt near Shechem. From the manner and frequency of the mention of Dothan (iii:9 [?] "Dothaim," 4:6 7:3,18 8:3)— if the Greek text can be trusted— it might perhaps be conjectured that his home was there. From the prominence given in the book to the ceremonial law, many have drawn the conclusion that its author was a Pharisee but this is hardly a safe conclusion. All that can be inferred with certainty is, that the punctilious performance of rites and ceremonies was popularly recognized at that time as characteristic of the extreme type of "holiness" demanded by the story for its heroine. There is nowhere in the story any hint that its writer would have recommended such punctiliousness as desirable for the Jews in general, any more than the admiring Christian biographers of Simeon Stylites appear to think that it would be well for the people to follow his example. As for the tale invented to deceive Holofernes (xi:12-16), it is of course not necessary to suppose that even such a saint as Judith would have regarded this transgression of the Law, in a time of distress, as a grievous sin.

Possible Date of Composition.
The tale of Judith, as has already been observed, is not given any genuine historical setting nor is it likely that its author himself connected it with any particular time. The names, Jewish and Persian, of his principal characters he selected with the freedom which belongs to any popular narrator. There is nothing in the book which gives any direct clew to its date, or any precise indication of the circumstances of the Jews at the time when it was written. The passage 3:8 is plainly a reminiscence of the measures taken by Antiochus Epiphanes. It may also fairly be urged that the glorification of Shechem in this transparent way is much more easily conceivable after 120 B.C. , when John Hyrcanus took and humbled the city, than before that date, when it was a perpetual thorn in the side of the Jews. On the other hand, the character of the Hebrew in which the book is written (see above) favors a comparatively early date. One would probably not be far out of the way in placing it near the beginning of the first century B.C. The book is first quoted by Clement of Rome (Ep. I. ad Corinth., c. 55), near the end of the first century of the common era. Bibliography : The principal commentaries are those by Fritzsche, 1853, Ball in the Speaker's Commentary , 1888, and Scholz. 2d ed., 1896 Lö hr translates the book in Kautzsch's Apokryphen Nestle contributes helpful notes on the text in his Marginalien und Materialien , 1893 see also Gaster, in Hastings, Dict. Bible Porter, in Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Bibl. T. C. C. T.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Judith, Book of'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

Search for…
Enter query in the box:
Choose a letter to browse:
A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M 
N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  Y  Z 

Prev Entry
Judith of Worms
Next Entry
Judith, Madame
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology