The Apocryphal book of Judith

Many people refer to “the Apocrypha” as if it is a clearly defined set of books.  The work “apocrypha” means literally “things hidden away.”  In modern usage, an apocryphal book is any book not part of the Bible.  In that sense, the Book of Mormon could be called an apocryphal book; there is a new book called American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon.  It is a collection of essays by scholars specifically addressing the Book of Mormon.

We often think that the Bible has a set number of books.  However, this is not true.  The King James Version (that many Protestants and Mormons use) has 39 Old Testament Books, but the Catholic Bible has 46 books, and the Eastern Orthodox Bible has 51 books.  The extra 7 books in the Catholic Bible are:  Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Sirach, Baruch, and Wisdom.  In addition to these books, the Orthodox Bible also contains 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, Odes, and Letter of Jeremiah.  A few other books are considered part of the Apocrypha:  Bel and the Dragon, Song of the Three Young Men and Prayer of Azariah, Prayer of Manasseh, Story of Susannah.  The Book of Esther has 6 additional chapters in Greek, not found in the KJV.

Recently, I purchased the New American Bible.  It is the standard Bible for American Catholics.  One of the things that I was surprised to see in the NAB was scholarly information integrated within the Bible.  For example, there is a brief introduction to the Documentary Hypothesis right before the Book of Genesis.  The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest available versions of many Biblical books (in some cases by 1000 years), and this version of the Bible includes corrections from the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I found that pretty cool.

As part of my introduction to “the Apocrypha”, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the book of Judith.  (Here is a post on some other apocryphal books I have discussed previously.)  As I was looking through the table of contents, I was immediately struck by the female name of Judith.  After all, except for Ruth and Esther, I can’t think of any books of scripture with a female name.  So, I decided to pick this one first.

Judith was the widow of a man named Manasseh.  The Assyrians were attacking Israel, and cut off the water supply.  Concerned for her people, Judith dressed up in “her festive garments and all her feminine adornments” (Judith 12:15) , and approached the Assyrians.  She gains the trust of Assyrian General Holofernes, and promises to deliver Israel to them with no loss of life for the Assyrians.  At this point, the story gets really interesting, starting in chapter 13.

2  Judith was left alone in the tent with Holofernes, who lay prostrate on his bed, for he was sodden with wine.  3 She had ordered her maid to stand outside the bedroom and wait, as on the other days, for her to come out; she said she would be going out for her prayer.  To Bagoas she had said this also.

4  When all had departed, and no one, small or great, was left in the bedroom, Judith stood by Holofernes’ bed and said within herself: “O Lord, God of all might, in this hour look graciously on my undertaking for the exaltation of Jerusalem: 5 now is the time for aiding your heritage and for carrying out my design to shatter the enemies who have risen against us.”  6 She went to the bedpost near the head of Holofernes, and taking his sword from it, 7 drew close to the bed, grasped the hair of his head, and said, “Strengthen me this day, O God of Israel!”

8 Then with all her might she struck him twice in the neck and cut off his head.  9 She rolled his body off the bed and took the canopy from its supports.  Soon afterward, she came out and handed over the head of Holofernes to her maid, 10 who put it into her food pouch; and the two went off together as they were accustomed to do for prayer.”

Judith and her maid return to Israel and show them the head of Holofernes.  Encouraged, the Israelites then rout the scared Assyrians.

So why is this story considered apocryphal?  The NAB Bible cautions, “Any attempt to read the book directly against the backdrop of Jewish history in relation to the empires of the ancient world is bound to fail.”  The Jewish Encyclopedia says,

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.

Many believe this book to be historical fiction.  Martin Luther noted that books of questionable authenticity are found only in Greek, not Hebrew.  Jews also do not consider the book canonical.  Catholics consider the book written “by godly men”, but not quite on par with other scriptures.  However, they do consider the book canonical.  What do you think of this story?  Is it nice to have a feminine hero?

3 comments on “The Apocryphal book of Judith

  1. I think it’s great to have a feminine hero! Whether the story is fact or fiction seems irrelevant when much of what we read in the bible can be read as fact or fiction. Jesus taught by parables; even if the story of Judith is fiction, or a parable, are there not still things to learn or gain from it?

  2. Yes, the NAB is a brilliant translation, with honest criticism applied in the footnotes as well as the introduction. A new rendition of this translation has just been published this year as the NABRE. I highly recommend it. I was blown away by the beauty of its style, the content of the annotations, and how much it differed from the NAB translation from 1970 (the one to which you refer).

    Also, it is nice to add another feminine hero to the scriptures (the Book of Mormon didn’t bring any…) Canonical books to me, and the NABRE, are not necessarily history. I do not believe Job, Esther, or Jonah existed (not to mention Judith), but it seems to me that their inspiring still carry some weight. I read Job, and am provoked by it, not because I think it is a sacred history, but because of its intrinsic value…or rather, I’m provoked by the questions Job puts to God…inspired to think more on the nature of the God-humanity relationship.

  3. October 6, 2012
    The comments of Jayme and Arthur are well taken. I agree with both of them , that whether the book of Judith is true or not, it gives inspiration to people. It gives encouragement and the triumph of good over evil.
    Many people in this day and age spend millions of dollars on books , both fiction and non-fiction, but the Book of Judith is in good company when viewed in the light of the other books of the Bible, canonical or not. The important thing is that the story gives a moral lesson and helps our relationship with the Lord.

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