The Apocryphal Book of Judith

by: Mormon Heretic

August 15, 2011

The word “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 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?

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5 Responses to The Apocryphal Book of Judith

  1. Mike S on August 15, 2011 at 7:51 AM

    I do like the idea of a feminine hero – there are not enough roles for women in the scriptures.

    Also, the caution suggesting that an attempt to read the book “in relation to the empires of the ancient world is bound to fail” can hold true for many scriptures – including the BofM. We have yet to find evidence for elephants and horses in the New World. We can’t find a relationship between the Abraham papyri and the Book of Abraham. Etc.

    Maybe someday someone will find the “missing links” – maybe not. In any event, however, there are still truths contained within the books that can help us be better people.

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  2. Jeff Spector on August 15, 2011 at 8:45 AM

    I did a post on this last year on MM http://mormonmatters.org/2009/11/20/time-to-study-the-old-testament-again-part-2-the-books/ where I discussed the differences in the different collections of book that make up the various Bible. People now associate the Apocrypha with false books when they are not necessarily in that category. they, in most cases, didn’t make the cut when the various bibles were organized. I’ll have to check our Judith in more detail. Thanks,

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  3. mh on August 15, 2011 at 10:14 AM

    I think angelina jolie could play the part of judith if this ever became a movie. I think it’s a very entertaining plot.

    mike, pretty much every biblical book prior to jeremiah has no historical support, so quite a few books in the bible have questionable historical value, just like the book of mormon. quite a few scholars question whether moses or david were historical people, for example. a lot of them claim these early biblical characters are myth.

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  4. Bishop Rick on August 15, 2011 at 8:53 PM

    This story reminds me of Jael and Sisera.
    There’s a female hero that made it into the canon.

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