Book of Judith
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The Book of Judith is a deuterocanonical book of the Christian Bible: it is considered part of the Old Testament by the Roman Catholic church, but is not considered part of Jewish scripture, and relegated to the apocrypha by Protestants.
It tells the story of the Jewish heroine Judith, a widow from the city of Bethulia who goes to the enemy camp with her maid, and seduces and murders the invading enemy general Holofernes, cutting off his head and bringing it back to her people as a trophy. In the aftermath, the Israelites easily defeat their enemy and free their land. The story is historically dubious. But despite this, it has become an important myth in western culture, featuring in numerous works of art, and Judith has become a femme fatale, a symbol of destructive female power over men, with the beheading a symbolic castration. Quite a journey for a nice Jewish girl to take.
There are a number of different versions of the text: a Greek and a shorter Latin version, and two Hebrew versions which differ considerably from each other. St Jerome claimed to have translated it from now-lost Chaldaic texts which he only understood part of; this version (in the Vulgate) is considered inferior to the Greek version. The latter, in the Septuagint, appears to contain fewer obvious errors.
The book was traditionally considered by Christian church fathers as describing an actual historical event. However it is impossible to relate it to what we know of Middle Eastern history. At best, it is heavily fictionalised, but it could be entirely made up. Problems start at the beginning: the first words are "It was the twelfth year of Nebuchadnezzar who reigned over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh" (1:1). Except Nebuchadnezzar II, who features in the Book of Daniel, was actually king of the Neo-Babylonian empire. It is suggested by some people that the setting is transparently fictional, a "once upon a time", or "in a galaxy far, far away".
There have been numerous attempts to associate it with actual historical events and personages. Often it is assumed to be set in the 2nd or 1st century BCE, with Judith possibly a portrayal of Salome Alexandra, a female ruler of Judea, and the villains possibly Tigranes the Great and his Armenian army. However, it is also placed in the 7th-century BCE interregnum following the Jews' defeat by Nineveh. The fictional king has also been identified with the 7th century Neo-Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal. It may be a retelling of another, older story, possibly that of the Kenite heroine Jael who killed the Canaanite military leader Sisera, resulting in the Israelites' defeat of the army of King Jabin, in the Book of Judges. This would place it possibly as far back as the 12th century BCE. The book offers a genealogy for Judith, but each of the manuscript sources has a different version, though differing genealogies of someone else didn't invalidate other Christian books.
It is also unclear where the story is set; Judith's home town of Bethulia is unknown, despite apparently being a comparatively large city and scene of an important siege and battle. It has been identified with the Canaanite and Israelite city of Shechem (probably modern-day Tell Balata in the Palestinian West Bank), and with Mithilia (or Meselieh) south of Jenin. The book also has other geographical problems. It mixes Babylonian, Greek, and Persian names. At one point, Judith herself appears to confuse Bethulia with Jerusalem.
Judith is considered by some as an exemplary leader and role model, a thoughtful, devout, brave, and eloquent woman. However that is not the only way she has been seen: images in art range from feminist avenging angel to castrating vampire.
There are a number of Renaissance and Baroque paintings of the theme, generally focussing on the murder or the severed head of Holofernes. One of the most gory is Judith Slaying Holofernes by the female Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, which seems to offer the story as an example of female power and revenge over patriarchy.
Judith was popular in the decadent atmosphere of the latter 19th century CE, with Gustav Klimt a pre-eminent example of the conversion of the myth of Judith into a psychosexual drama, mixing her with the myth of Salome and vampire lore.
- See the Wikipedia article on Book of Judith.
- Depictions of Judith, Tania Albin, Victorian Web, 2006
- Book of Judith, Catholic Encyclopedia
- Book of Judith, Jewish Encyclopedia
- Book of Judith, Britannica.com
- Location of Judith’s Town of “Bethulia”, A Historical Commentary on the Book of Judith, WordPress, 2016
- Judith: A Remarkable Heroine, Bible History Daily, 2016
- More savage than Caravaggio: the woman who took revenge in oil, Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, 5 Oct 2016