Nabuchodonosor, King of Nineveh, 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 book exists in distinct Greek and Latin versions, of which the former contains at least eighty-four verses more than the later. 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 the latter when discussing the origin of the book. The Chaldaic, from which St. Jerome made our present Vulgate version, is not recoverable unless 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 ( Vulgate ) 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 (2:27): "And he came down into the plain of Damascus at the time of the wheat harvest, and 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 (2:17): "And after these things he went down into the plains 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 with Codex Sinaiticus on the other.
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, nonetheless 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
(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 Arphaxad he sees Phraortes whose name, as Vigoroux (Les Livres Saints et La Critique Rationaliste, iv, 4th ed.) shows, could easily have been thus perverted.
Vigoroux, 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 ( 2 Chronicles 33:11 ; 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 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. 7:19 and Psalm 105:6 ; 7:21 , and Psalm 78:10 , 93:2 ; 9:6, 9 , and Psalm 19:8 ; 9:16 , and Psalm 146:10 ; 13:21 , and Psalm 105:1 ). 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. Archaeol., 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 to 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", may explain the mysterious city; the Machabean colouring of the story becomes intelligible, and the theme is the efficacy of prayer (cf. 6:14-21; 7:4; 2 Maccabees 15:12-16 ).
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 1 Corinthians 10:10 , with Judith 8:25 ). In the early Christian Church we find it quoted as part of Scripture in the writing of St. Clement of Rome (First Epistle ot the Corinthians, lv), Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian.
The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.
Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.
No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.
Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912
Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online