Is the Book of Judith Historically Accurate?

I. General Historicity of the Deuterocanon

One of the oft-repeated claims against the validity of the Deuterocanonical books is that they’re historically unreliable. This is generally untrue. In fact, without them, there’s no Biblical record for the establishment of one of the biggest religious holidays in Judaism: Hanukkah, which Jesus Himself celebrates (see John 10:22). Presumably, He wasn’t duped by some fictitious pseudo-history. Jesus at the very least seems to acknowledge the historicity of the miraculous events described in 1 and 2 Maccabees, the events which Hanukkah celebrates. And 1 and 2 Maccabees also contain the divine command to celebrate the holiday (1 Maccabees 4:36-59; 2 Maccabees 1:18-2:19; 10:1-8).* Jesus is, to all appearances, obeying the Divine Law as found in 1 and 2 Maccabees, just as He obeyed Divine Law found elsewhere in the Old Testament when He celebrated Passover, or was circumcised, etc. And more than that, He is celebrating it at a time and in a context where it will be understood that way: many of His followers would have believed that these were inspired texts. If He knows that these texts are spurious and uninspired, this is a bizarre way of signalling that.

II. The Weakness of the Argument Against Judith 1:1

So I think that the Deuterocanon is a very valuable historical source in addition to being (and even, as a result of being) God-breathed. But there are definitely parts where they fail even a basic historical test… right? Here’s the one I’ve heard most often. The Book of Judith begins, “It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh. At that time Arphaxad ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana” (Judith 1:1). Hold on, say modern Protestants. Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians? That guy was king of the Babylonians.

To which the writer of Judith would say, “Obviously.” I mean, it’s one thing for a modern Protestant to think that an ordinary reader doesn’t remember if Nebuchadnezzar was king of the Assyrians or the Babylonians, but do they honestly think that a pre-Christian diaspora Jewish audience wouldn’t catch that mistake… immediately? The Babylonian and Assyrian captivities were some of the most important and traumatic events in Jewish history, and a whole lot of the Old Testament that they pored over discusses these two events… as separate events. Essentially, the Assyrians conquered the nortern kingdom of Israel, and the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom of Judah. From these two conquests, we get the “lost tribes of Israel,” the destruction of the First Temple, and oh yeah, the creation of the Diaspora communities which held to these texts as Sacred Scriptures. These events were massively influential.

You wouldn’t have to be literate to know the difference between the Assyrians and the Babylonians, but presumably, the readers of Judith were that as well. Do these “skeptics” really think it’s plausible that neither the author, nor the scribes, nor the audience knew even the basics of their own history? This is the Biblical equivalent of the famous movie line, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” Or to take perhaps the two most traumatic events in modern Judaism, it would be like a modern Jewish source beginning, “When Hitler was the head of the Soviet Union in Moscow…” and no one noticing.

Does anyone think that the Diaspora Jews (or anyone) was that dumb? To not only not know their Scriptures, but not know their own history? Sure, a few people might miss it, like those people who fall for the old “How many animals did Moses take on his Ark” trick. But like I’ve said, this wasn’t just Scripture, it was history. Jewish history was like Moses and George Washington rolled into one, the source of their national, ethnic, and religious identity. You might as well think that the author of Revelation 11:8 really thought that Jesus died in Sodom, Egypt.

III. What’s Really Going on in Judith 1:1

So what’s going on here? Or perhaps a better question is, “why would a Jewish audience who could tell from the first verse of the Book that this wasn’t traditional history embrace it as Scripture?” Well, I think that what’s going on is the same thing that’s happening in the Book of Revelation: there’s an epic historical battle layed out in a mix of historical and metaphorical terms.** Let’s break down the first verse to get a sense for it:

“It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh. At that time Arphaxad ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana”

Well, the players on the scene are: Nebuchadnezzar, the Assyrian Empire (and specifically, Nineveh), and Arphaxad, who ruled “over the Medes in Ecbatana.” There is no Medean ruler named Arphaxad at the time of either the Babylonian or Assyrian Empire, but Arphaxad does appear elsewhere in the Bible. He’s one of the sons of Noah’s son Shem, and Jewish tradition associated the various peoples of the Middle East with each of the sons and grandson of Noah. Here’s what the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Joseph had to say about Arphaxad in the first book to his Antiquities of the Jews:

Shem, the third son of Noah, had five sons, who inhabited the land that began at Euphrates, and reached to the Indian Ocean. For Elam left behind him the Elamites, the ancestors of the Persians. Ashur lived at the city Nineve; and named his subjects Assyrians, who became the most fortunate nation, beyond others. Arphaxad named the Arphaxadites, who are now called Chaldeans. (Book 1, Chapter 6).

So we now have Judith, whose name just means “Jewish Woman,” up against the combined forces of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Medeans, and Chaldeans. The story continues in a similar vein. If you watch closely, you’ll see the actions of various real-life Jewish women drawn together in what seemingly is a Grand Narrative about the way that faithful Jewish women have overcome massive obstacles in a corrupt man’s world. In other words, this is Genesis 3:15, played out throughout all of history, and brought together in a particularly beautiful way in this Book.

Perhaps the key to understanding the Book is Judith 6:19, where the people pray, “Lord, God of heaven, behold their arrogance! Have pity on the lowliness of our people, and look with favor this day on those who are consecrated to you.” The answer to this prayer is echoed in another prayer, where we see this same powerful humility exhibited by a certain Virgin, consecrated in a special way to God, who prays:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away
empty.
He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

Judith herself is a treasure trove of Scriptural allusions and prophesies. In Judith 8, she responds to the leaders (who are threatening to turn the city over to their enemies, if God doesn’t save them in 5 days). Her speech begins at 8:11-12, where she asks, “Who are you, then, that you should have put God to the test this day, setting yourselves in the place of God in human affairs?” and ends with a profound understanding of suffering in 8:27: “Not for vengeance did the Lord put them in the crucible to try their hearts, nor has he done so with us. It is by way of admonition that he chastises those who are close to him.” Judith, better than virtually anyone before or since, understands that God desires to be Father, not simply Master. In another echo of the Magnificat, Judith promises in 8:32, “I will do something that will go down from generation to generation among the descendants of our race.” (She also repeatedly refers to herself as a handmaid throughout Judith 12, but that might be coincidental).

While we see elements of previous Old Testament women, such as Esther, Deborah, and particularly Jael (from Judges 4-5), in these accounts, they’re about faithful women generally. That’s why Judith 15: 12-13 says that after she slay the evil general Holofernes,

All the women of Israel gathered to see her; and they blessed her and
performed a dance in her honor. She took branches in her hands and distributed
them to the women around her, and she and the other women crowned themselves
with garlands of olive leaves. At the head of all the people, she led the women
in the dance, while the men of Israel followed in their armor, wearing garlands
and singing hymns.

In other words, this is a triumph of all faithful women in Israel and, as can be seen by their gallant followers, all faithful men, as well.

One final note on the Book’s Marian imagery; a line from Judith 15:9: “You are the glory of Jerusalem, the surpassing joy of Israel; you are the splendid boast of our people,” has historically been applied to Mary in Church liturgies. Which is just to say that I’m not the first person to notice a whole lot of Marian parallels throughout.

Anyways, those are some of my thoughts on the Book of Judith. Hope that helps anyone confused by its sort of strange style!

*Modern Jews, who reject the Deuterocanon, continue to celebrate Hanukkah based upon the law found in the Babylonian Talmud, or just as a cultural tradition. But I think that it’s safe to say that no one contends that Jesus viewed the Babylonian Talmud as binding?

** I don’t want to get too off topic by delving into Revelation, given the length and complexity of this post already. But suffice it to say this: the Church has historically understood that Revelation deals with specific historical events (Nero’s persecutions, the destruction of the Second Temple, etc.), as well as with a broader Grand Narrative about the faithful, marked with the sign of the Cross, facing off against the forces of corrupt government and corrupt religious authorities. There’s also a very strong liturgical element to Revelation. All of this and more is spelled out by Scott Hahn in The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth. Check it out.

1 Comment

  1. “But I think that it’s safe to say that no one contends that Jesus viewed the Babylonian Talmud as binding?”

    Actually some Judaizers now (Hebrew Roots, Messianic Jew movements) are arguing exactly that. And the fact that very few people are knowledgeable enough about Judaism to point out that the Talmud wasn’t written until 500 AD doesn’t help matters.

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