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The Sword of Judith

Kevin R. Brine
Elena Ciletti
Henrike Lähnemann


1. The Judith Project

Kevin R. Brine

Texte intégral

  • 1 For Judith as a fictional model for cultural survival in the Hasmonean period, see Steven Weitzman (...)

1The Book of Judith is the story of a Jewish heroine living during the period of the Second Temple when the Jewish community had returned from the Babylonian captivity and reestablished temple worship in Jerusalem. In this story, a fictional Near East sovereign threatens the religious hegemony of the Jewish people. The story is famous for Judith’s pursuit and beheading of the King’s general, Holofernes. Judith’s success against all odds epitomizes the charter myth of Judaism itself – cultural survival through the commitment to the preservation of the Mosaic Law, with the help of God.1

  • 2 The author thanks Marta J. Deyrup for pointing out that verses from the Book of Judith are used in (...)
  • 3 For the importance of the sword in Judith iconology see Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Huma (...)

2Judith is remembered in the Jewish tradition on the festival of Hanukkah. Roman Catholics chant verse from the Book of Judith in liturgy on Mary’s name day in the daily office.2 Judith is a celebrated figure in European visual arts, drama, and music. The powerful appeal of the Judith story has inspired scribes, composers, playwrights, poets, painters, and sculptors for over two millennia. The famous scene of the beheading of Holofernes with his own sword defines the Judith story. The motif of the sword became a defining attribute of the figure of Judith.3

3The Sword of Judith is the first multidisciplinary collection of essays on the representation and reception of Judith through the ages. It includes new archival source studies, the translation of unpublished manuscripts, the translation of texts previously unavailable in English, and essays in relatively unexplored areas in Judith Studies, such as Judith in the history of music. It is based on the proceedings of ”The Sword of Judith Conference” held at the New York Public Library in the spring of 2008.

  • 4 See Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (P (...)
  • 5 Word for Word – Artemisia No. 02. Trilingual edition (English/French/Italian). Texts by Roland Bar (...)

4Judith Studies emerged as a multidisciplinary field of endeavor in the humanities in the late twentieth century. It was stimulated by the work of feminist art historians, a renewed interest in apocryphal books of the Bible, a new ecumenism in the study of early Judaism and Christianity, and new approaches to early Jewish literature. The (re)discovery of the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi by feminist art historians4 brought the Judith theme new cultural prominence. For example, the Yvon Lambert Gallery in Paris exhibited a show of contemporary artists in 1978 inspired by Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes with works by Cy Twombly, Joseph Kossuth, Daniel Buren, and others. The exhibition catalogue was introduced with an essay by Roland Barthes.5 Judy Chicago’s famous installation The Dinner Party (1974–79) created a place setting for Judith at the table of the most important women in history, and Gentileschi’s Judith imagery was given fictional treatment in film, drama, and popular novels.

  • 6 See Toni Craven, ”The Book of Judith in the Context of Twentieth-Century Studies of the Apocryphal (...)

5In 2003 Toni Craven’s article ”The Book of Judith in the Context of Twentieth Century Studies of the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books”6 reviewed one hundred years of Judith scholarship. By the end of the century, she noted, ”Postmodern concerns [in Judith Studies] predominate the period. Scholarship is committed to the past, but it is increasingly gender inclusive, international and eclectic.” Beyond traditional biblical studies, commentaries, and translations, Judith Studies now includes art history, social and cultural history, Jewish studies, history of religion, musicology, and literary criticism.

  • 7 Yvon Lambert, 1979, p. 9.

6Why Judith? What is the case for Judith Studies? Why has Judith garnered so much multidisciplinary interest? It is beyond the scope of this introduction to attempt to define the relevance of Judith for the study of culture and religion in the humanities. However, we can point out that the story has had an uncanny ability to perpetually remain ”load bearing,” that is, to carry significant cultural, political, and theological meaning in different times and contexts. Parsing the meaning the narrative has captured is the work of Judith Studies. As Roland Barthes wrote for the Yvon Lambert Gallery exhibition, ”as a strong narrative this story has exploded, over the centuries, into every possible form of narration: poems (in English, in German, in Croatian), in ballads, oratorios (Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans is by now well known), and, of course, figurative paintings.”7

7The Sword of Judith maps the terrain of Judith Studies across disciplines in two sections: Writing Judith: Jewish Textual Traditions and Christian Textual Traditions and Staging Judith: The Visual Arts and Music and Drama. The essays were conceived and developed over the course of a year-long collaboration among scholars called the Judith Project, facilitated by the New York Public Library’s Digital Experience Group. ARTstor, the digital image library, has assembled a digital collection of Judith images, some of which are published here, accessible through ARTstor portals at most university, college, government, and private research libraries. Jstor, the digital archive, compiled and made available journal articles on Judith for the benefit of scholars working in the project.

8The Sword of Judith is published by Open Book Publishers. Under the direction of the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library a comprehensive bibliography of Judith Studies has been compiled, the first of its kind. In addition, all of the papers published here can be read for free or downloaded in a digital format for a nominal price as an alternative to purchase.

9The essays are presented as case studies supplemented by illustrations and new translations. Texts addressed in this book are written in ancient Greek (Ioudith); Hebrew (the Megillat Yehudit); Anglo-Saxon (Judith); medieval French (Mistère du Viel Testament); German (Luther Bible, popular folk songs, nineteenth-century dramatic literature); Latin (Speculum Virginum); Yiddish (Dos Bikhli fun der vrumi Shoshana [Susanna and Judith in Yiddish]); English (Hudson’s translation of Du Bartas’s epic, La Judit); Italian (nineteenth-century newspaper articles, musical librettos), and other texts and languages.

10A work of this ambition, conducted cooperatively by many scholars and institutions, in a number of languages, would not have been possible even a few years ago. And the results are being made available to readers, quickly, cheaply, and with opportunities for them to engage, discuss, correct, and carry the work forward. The Judith Project, which is ongoing, is therefore tangible proof of the success of new approaches to producing, validating, and disseminating knowledge. It is a practical vindication of the Re: Enlightenment Project ( of New York University and the New York Public Library, which will be formally launched in April 2010 and of which I am proud to be among the founders.

11The editors want to point out both the ambitions of the book and its limitations. The organization of the book provides a provisional schema for Judith Studies, which is the result of and will require multidisciplinary collaboration. Within this schema, the papers cover new ground and revisit old terrain. The Sword of Judith is not a comprehensive guide to Judith Studies, however. By design, the essays are concise and narrowly focused on specific research agendas within discrete disciplines. The case studies selected for the 2008 Judith Project do not begin to exhaust the diverse research interests of Juditheans working in the field today. We take this as a positive sign that indicates the need for new projects of this kind.

The Story of Judith and Holofernes

  • 8 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, with an introduction by Hannah Arendt (New (...)

The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender itself to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.
Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller8

12I begin with a discussion of the story of Judith and Holofernes as told in the earliest extant version of the Book of Judith (Ioudith) in the Septuagint (LXX), the ancient and celebrated Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The discussion will anticipate the two introductory sections: ”Writing Judith: Jewish Textual Traditions” and ”Writing Judith: Christian Textual Traditions.”

  • 9 Ioudith, trans. by Cameron Boyd-Taylor in Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (eds.), A New En (...)

13Ioudith has just been published in an important new English translation from the Septuagint by Cameron Boyd-Taylor.9 Using a passage of his translation as a starting point, we will follow Judith’s state of mind leading up to and during the beheading of Holofernes and then discuss the compelling qualities of Judith as a biblical heroine. I will point out recent scholarship addressing the importance of the Book of Judith in the history of Jewish religion, women in the ancient world and the history of the book. The introduction will conclude by framing the subject of the essays that follow.

  • 10 See Abraham Wasserstein and David J. Wasserstein, The Legend of the Septuagint: From Classical Ant (...)
  • 11 For the date, authorship, and place of composition of the Book of Judith see Carey A. Moore, The A (...)

14The Septuagint (LXX) is so named because, according to legend, preparation of the Pentateuch was undertaken at the bequest of King Ptolemy II (285–46 b.c.e.) and required seventy (two) translators.10 Later other Hebrew scriptures were added. Modern scholars place the writing of the Book of Judith in the Hellenistic era, ca. 135–78 b.c.e., in Alexandria or Palestine and by an unknown author.11 There is no extant Hebrew text predating the Septuagint, and scholars still debate whether the Book of Judith was written in Hebrew and translated into Greek or composed originally in Greek.

  • 12 See Otto Rank, Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development (New York and London: W. (...)

15The most celebrated and notorious part of the Judith story involves the beheading of Holofernes. What does beheading symbolize? For Otto Rank, ”the discovery of prehistoric graves with decapitated heads (sculls) laid by the side of the body indicated a prehistoric head cult based on the magical significance of the head as the seat of personal power.”12 In Greek and Roman times, beheading was considered a privileged mode of execution, reserved for Roman citizens; crucifixion was inflicted on those who were to be publicly shamed. Paul was beheaded; Jesus crucified. In the twelfth century, in his treatise on justifiable tyrannicide, Bishop John of Salisbury allegorically interpreted the beheading of Holofernes as the sundering of an unjust king (as head) from the body politic. For Sigmund Freud, beheading symbolized castration. This was the most popular reading of Judith iconography in the twentieth century.

16The author of the Book of Judith makes it amply clear that the beheading of Holofernes was an act of war and uses the celebratory scene of the presentation of the head to establish Judith as a military heroine. Judith brings the head back from the Assyrian camp to the battlements of Bethulia to inspire the Jews to rout the Assyrian aggressors. The head of Holofernes is exhibited as a war trophy. Judith is honored with the captured booty of Holofernes’armor. The same ancient military convention of exhibiting a tyrant’s head to establish that the enemy has been vanquished appears in 2 Maccabees, which describes the head of Nicanor exhibited on a tower (LXX 2 Mc 15:35).

17The significance of the beheading is also layered in the biblical text with the idea of retribution for sexual violation. From the outset, the text introduces the threat of rape. Judith is aware that she may be raped when alone with Holofernes and prays with a loud voice:

  • 13 LXX Jdt 9:1–2. Biblical books are referenced with the short titles following the Chicago style (cf (...)

Now Ioudith fell face down, and she placed ashes upon her head and stripped off the sackcloth that she wore, and just then in Jerousalem the incense for that evening was being carried into the house of the God, and with a loud voice Ioudith cried out to the Lord and said:
O Lord, God of my father Symeon, to whom you gave a sword in hand for vengeance on aliens, the ones who ravaged the virgin’s vulva for defilement and stripped naked the thigh for shame and polluted the vulva for disgrace, for you said ”It shall not be thus” and they did; therefore you handed over their rulers for slaughter, and their bed which, deceived, felt ashamed at their deceit, for blood, and you struck down with slaves with lords and lords upon their thrones, and you handed over their wives for pillage and their daughters for captivity and all their spoils for division among the sons loved by you, who also were zealous in zeal for you and detested the defilement of their blood and called upon you as helper. O God, my God, also listen to me, the widow.13

18The special twist of the Judith narrative is the transformation of the private, potentially intimate bedchamber scene between the Assyrian general and Judith into a beheading:

  • 14 LXX Jdt 13:6.

And approaching the bedpost that was near Olophernes’ head, she took down his scimitar from it, and drawing near to the bed she took hold of the hair of his head and said ”Strengthen me, Lord, God of Israel, in this day.” And she struck his head twice with her strength and took his head from him. And she rolled his body from the mattress and took the mosquito netting from the posts. And she set forth shortly afterward and handed the head of Olophernes over to her favorite slave, and she threw it in her bag of provision.14

19I offer these extensive quotations from Ioudith because they introduce so many of the themes addressed in what follows. Note Judith’s social status as a widow; the references to the sword (scimitar), which became forever iconographically linked to the figure of Judith; the allusion to the worship services at the temple in Jerusalem, locating the narrative in the Second Temple period; note her solitary prayer conducted in sackcloth and, the more unusual detail, prayer conducted after stripping off sackcloth; note also the detail of the mosquito netting that she takes from the posts after she beheads Olophernes. (For an explanation of the significance of the mosquito net, see Barbara Schmitz’s essay, Chap. 4.)

Judith: Biblical Heroine

20The Book of Judith is one of the three books in the Septuagint, and later Bibles, named for a woman: Judith, Esther, and Ruth. There is also one story named for a woman, the Story of Susanna, found in an addition to the Book of Daniel. Of the four women – Esther, Ruth, Susanna, and Judith – Judith is by far the most autonomous, politically engaged, and spiritually accomplished. As a character, Judith is complex. She embodies political shrewdness and military effectiveness, yet she lives a life of simple piety, chastity, and temperance. As a biblical heroine, Judith functions symbolically as a Deborah, the prophetess, leader, and composer of a song, who is described as ”a mother of Israel.” Judith functions actively like Jael, the heroine who seduces and kills the enemy. She is a public figure – charitable and civically influential.

21As a woman, Judith is beautiful, independent, sexually attractive, wealthy, and intelligent. As penitent before her God, she is vulnerable. She has the longest genealogy of any woman in the Bible and, like Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Moses, she composes a biblical song, yet, unlike Deborah, she is not a prophet. Her role in Second Temple society is that of daughter and widow. Judith not only saves her people; her resourcefulness and faith also make her a symbol of her people. Judith is synonymous with Judaism itself, etymologically and symbolically.

The Book of Judith

  • 15 See Karel Van Der Koon, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge, MA: Harvard (...)

22As already noted, the Book of Judith was composed in the Hellenistic era, ca. 135–78 b.c.e., in Alexandria or Palestine by an unknown author. The book was produced during a key point in the history of print media and print culture – the transition from the scroll to the codex and the invention of the book as we know it today. As Karen Van der Toorn writes:15

  • 16 Ibid., p. 23.

The first Jewish books in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek were written in the Hellenistic era. All books written before that time were not books in the modern sense of the term. The Jewish books that began to appear after 300 b.c.e. differ from earlier texts inasmuch as they do seem to resemble the concept of a book as a single work by a single author, aimed at a particular audience. Hellenism created the conditions under which the new phenomenon could occur. Among the many aspects of this new cultural climate, three have a special bearing on the birth of the Jewish book: the emergence of schools, the foundation of libraries, and the growth of a reading public …16

23The transformation in book production from scroll to codex played a key role in shaping how Christians would use the Book of Judith allegorically and typologically. As Roger Chartier explains:

  • 17 See Roger Chartier, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer (...)

The Codex undeniably facilitates the organization and handling of the text. It permits pagination, the creation of indexes and concordances, and the comparison of one passage with another; better yet, it permits a reader to traverse an entire book by paging through. From this set of advantages followed the adaptation of the new form of the book to the textual needs of Christianity: in particular, comparing the Gospels and mobilizing citations of the Sacred Word for preaching, worship, and prayer.17

24The inclusion of the Book of Judith in the Septuagint used by early Christians as the Old Testament in the Christian Bibles facilitated the pairings of Judith with Mary and Jesus with Moses, and Isaiah’s prophecies to the birth of Jesus. This enshrined Judith within Catholic theology.

25The Book of Judith also signals the creation of a new rhetorical genre in the ancient world. Scholars do not agree about how to classify this text. The Book of Judith has been denominated a romance, or even the first Jewish novel, a genre that includes Esther, Daniel, Tobit, and Joseph and Aseneth. The Book of Judith has also been placed within the genre of Hellenistic romance along with Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Pseudo-Callisthenes’s Alexander Romance. Recently, Sarah Johnson has defined the genre more narrowly and places Judith within a group of peers characterized by their didactic intent and use of history and fiction.

26Johnson calls the genre ”historical fiction”:

  • 18 See Sara Raup Johnson, Historical Fictions and Hellenistic Jewish Identity: Third Maccabees in Its (...)

Each of these texts – The Letter of Aristeas, 2 Maccabees, Esther, Daniel, Judith, and Tobit – contains a significant element of historical fiction, deliberate manipulation of historical material to communicate a particular didactic point. A common attitude toward historical fact – treating it as raw material to be mined and manipulated for the purpose of creating a credible, persuasive didactic fiction – unites the authors of these texts and sets them distinctively apart from the mainstream of Jewish and Greek historiography alike. They belong neither to the mainstream of historiography nor to the genre of the ancient novel but to a nebulous group of unclassifiable ancient fictions beginning to proliferate in the postclassical Greek world.18

  • 19 See Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkele (...)

27The Book of Judith also reflects a new theology that transformed what it meant to be considered a Jew in the Hellenistic era. This is the crucial relevance of the secondary plot of the book: the conversion of Achior. Judith and 2 Maccabees are the earliest references to conversion in Jewish literature. As Shaye Cohen demonstrates, the Book of Judith and 2 Maccabees, both fictional accounts written in the Hellenistic period, reflect the refashioning of the practice of conversion. ”It was this Hasmonean redefinition of Judaism that permitted Josephus at the end of the first century c.e. to state that the constitution established by Moses was not only a genus – a nation, a ’birth’ – but also ’a choice in the manner of life’.”19 The Book of Judith is thus an important source for understanding an important social and cultural development within Judaism – the addition of belief to birthright in the definition of a Jew during the Hellenistic period. As Cohen sums up his argument:

  • 20 Ibid., p. 132.

Some of the seers of the exilic and postexilic periods (sixth to fourth centuries b.c.e.) forecast a utopian future in which the gentiles would recognize God, worship in his temple, and either serve the Israelites or ”attach themselves” to them. But in none of these texts, even in the eschatological visions, is there a sense that non-Israelites somehow become Israelites through acknowledging the god of the Israelites. None of these texts precisely parallels 2 Maccabees’ story about Antiochus Epiphanes and Judith’s story about Achior.20

  • 21 See Lawrence M. Wills, ”Ascetic Theology before Asceticism? Jewish Narratives and the Decentering (...)

28Written during the Second Temple period, Ioudith also exhibits pre-Rabbinic Jewish ritual and ascetic practices in the portrayal of Judith’s private religious practice on the roof of her house in Bethulia. Lawrence Wills recently singled out the importance of Judith and Esther for the study of ancient ritual and asceticism, writing, ”The literary presentation of Jewish identity [in Judith and Esther] combined ritual and ascetic themes, a three-way convergence that has been overlooked by scholars of literature, ritual studies, and asceticism when these are studied separately.”21 As we noted in the passages from Ioudith presented above, Judith places herself in prayer in an attitude of self-abnegation (after stripping off her sackcloth). This is a rare representation in Jewish literature of the practice of asceticism in antiquity.

  • 22 See Hugo Mantel, ”Ancient Hasidim,” in Studies of Judaism (1976), pp. 60–80, summarized in Carey A (...)

29Judith is committed to a private religious (ascetic) practice conducted on the roof of her home. Jewish motifs – such as the wearing of sackcloth, tithing, ablutions, private prayer, ritual immersion, food laws, lunar festivals, Sabbath observance, the presence of the high priest, and the observance of the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem – are present in this pre-Rabbinic text.22 Reference to rabbinic ideology and practice – such as the institution of the synagogue, the rabbinate, and the ideology of a life of study of the Torah as described in the tractate of the Mishna, the Pirkei Avos or the Ethics of the Fathers (written hundreds of years later) – do not appear in the book.

  • 23 See Tal Ilan, Integrating Women into Second Temple History (Tübingen: C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1 (...)

30Scholars do not agree about when or why the Book of Judith was written. This question, of course, is undoubtedly linked to the question of why the book was not included in the Hebrew Bible, a subject that Deborah Gera addresses in her introduction to Jewish textual traditions. In Integrating Woman into Second Temple History,23 Tal Ilan provides a thorough review of evidence about the composition of the book and suggests, based on largely circumstantial evidence, that the book may have been written to support the legitimacy of the rule of the Hasmonean queen Shelamzion. In the conclusion to Ilan’s chapter on Esther, Ruth, and Susanna she presents her view of the reason Judith was written:

  • 24 Ibid., p. 153.

Esther, Judith, and Susanna are contributions to the theoretical debate on the nature of women and their competence as political leaders. The books do not openly promote woman’s leadership, and they are not revolutionary in nature. Yet they do question some of the suppositions of their day on the ”natural order.” Because the Colophon to the Greek Book of Esther mentions the date 78–77 b.c.e., just one year before the coronation of Queen Shelamzion in Jerusalem, it may be suggested that certainly Esther (and with it Purim) was created as propaganda for this queen’s reign. Because of formal and ideological similarities between Esther and the books of Judith and Susanna, I have suggested here that all three can be seen as serving that purpose.24

31In this short tour of contemporary scholars’ writing on Hellenism, early Judaism, and the Second Temple period we can see the importance of the Septuagint Ioudith. Ioudith plays a definitive mediating role for the early Christians linking Jewish Scriptures to Christian theology through pairing Judith and Mary. The book demonstrates an early form of Jewish asceticism. It allows modern scholars to understand how Judaism itself evolved from a religion of birthright to a religion of choice and presents an early example of a conversion to Judaism in the ancient world. It contained an important set of literary innovations that constituted a critical chapter in the creation of the modern book as we know it. It is one of the earliest examples of historical fiction and is a precursor to the modern novel. It is one of the most eloquent rhetorical constructions in antiquity promoting the leadership capabilities of women, and was perhaps composed as propaganda for a Jewish queen. It also remains one of the most important source texts from antiquity about the social conditions of woman in the Second Temple period.

Judith in Christian Tradition

32The Book of Judith was not included in the Hebrew Bible, and, before the tenth century, Jewish literature does not refer to Judith after the text was included in the Septuagint. Then the story reappeared in midrash (Jewish tales) and piyyut (prayers). The Book of Judith was preserved by Christian tradition, however. Though apparently lost to the Jews, the Book of Judith exercised a formative influence on the creation of models of Christian piety and asceticism. Several literary milestones from the first five centuries of Christianity illuminate the ways that Judith was appropriated as a model for Christian spirituality. The first reference to the Book of Judith in the Roman period was by Clement, the third bishop of Rome. Clement used Judith as a model for Christian love and communal discipline, writing: ”The blessed Judith, when her city was besieged, asked of her elders permission to go forth into the camp of the strangers; and, exposing herself to danger, she went out for the love of her people” (Clement of Rome, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: 55). By the fourth century, the Apostolic Constitutions, the early Christian manual of doctrine and practice, idealized Judith as the pious widow ”sitting at home, singing and praying and reading and watching and fasting” (Apostolic Constitutions Book iii: VII).

33In Christian doctrine Judith is typologically paired with Mary. Jerome famously used the analogy of Judith’s cutting off the head of Holofernes as a metaphor for Mary’s chastity with the following allusion to the Virgin birth: ”the chaste Judith once more cut off the head of Holofernes” (Jerome, Letter 22: 21). The fourth-century Roman Christian poet Prudentius, in his influential Latin poem Psychomachia, typologically paired Judith with Mary and used Judith allegorically as a figure of chastity (cf. Mastrangelo, Chap. 8).

34The cultural authority of the Book of Judith in the West comes from its inclusion in the Vulgate, the early fifth-century version of the Bible in Latin translated by Jerome, which preserved the canon of the Septuagint and the Latin scriptures of the early Church.

35As Elena Ciletti and Henrike Lähnemann explain in their introduction, Jerome played a crucial role in the Christian reception of Judith over and above his Latin translation. His influence was formative in the development of the place of Judith in Marian theology.

  • 25 In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the order of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Bible’s Old Testament fo (...)

36However, in the Western Church the religious authority of the Book of Judith was debated from antiquity forward. The Roman Catholic tradition considers the book to be of divine inspiration (deemed deuterocanonical). The Book of Judith was excised from Protestant Bibles after the Reformation; the Puritans took it out of the Bible in 1644. Categorized as apocryphal (originally meaning secret), it was considered by Protestants a story worthy of moral instruction, but not divinely inspired. The theological divide between Catholics and Protestants had a profound impact on the iconographical treatment of Judith. The theme of Judith was secularized in the nineteenth century but the Catholic Church continued to promulgate the story’s canonical status in liturgical practice and papal homily.25 In secular contexts, the story of Judith and Holofernes, refashioned in art, discourse, and polemics, was used with wildly different connotations: misogynistic, erotic, anti-Semitic, patriotic, nationalistic, and feminist.

Writing Judith: Jewish Textual Traditions

37This section consists of four papers and an introduction to Judith in Jewish textual traditions by Deborah Levine Gera. Barbara Schmitz’s essay, ”Holofernes’s Canopy in the Septuagint,” is a textual analysis of the Septuagint Book of Judith. Schmitz rhetorically and philologically analyzes the Septuagint and convincingly locates the writing within Greek and Roman literary traditions and provides a new cipher to help us understand the representation of Holofernes.

38The second paper, ”Shorter Medieval Hebrew Tales of Judith,” offers a close reading of an important, but neglected, group of medieval Hebrew tales. Deborah Levine Gera analyzes the changes rendered in character, setting, and plot in the tenth-century Hebrew midrash (tales) through which Judith was reintroduced to Hebrew tradition after a thousand-year, unexplained hiatus. When Judith returns in these tales, Judith is a younger, more vulnerable figure.

39The third paper, ”Food, Sex, and Redemption in Megillat Yehudit (the ’Scroll of Judith’),” is an interpretation and translation of an unpublished Hebrew manuscript that offers the first written evidence of the assimilation of the Judith narrative into the Hanukkah festival. Susan Weingarten suggests that Megillat Yehudit was written as Jewish counter-history, presenting Judith as a sexual being; setting honeyed manna against the Christian Eucharist; and creating a heroine-queen who has a redemptive function, like David and Esther.

40The fourth paper, ”Shalom bar Abraham’s Book of Judith in Yiddish,” is a comparative textual and philological analysis of an important Yiddish translation of the Book of Judith in the early modern period. Ruth von Bernuth and Michael Terry challenge the assumption that Jewish and Christian interaction was limited during the reformation. They demonstrate that Shalom bar Abraham’s Book of Judith in Yiddish, printed in Cracow in 1571 from a lost first edition produced in Italy years earlier, was translated from the Huldrych Zwingli Zurich Bible (1529, 1531) and not the Luther Bible, which was the basis for many other translations. This argument has implications for the way we understand both Ashkenazic attitudes to the Renaissance and the Reformation and the relationship of Old Yiddish literature to Christian German sources.

Writing Judith: Christian Textual Traditions

41This section, introduced by Elena Ciletti and Henrike Lähnemann, contains seven papers that analyze Judith in diverse literary genres: Christian roman poetry, Anglo-Saxon homily and epic, late-medieval French mystery plays, French and English Protestant epic, medieval German poetry and popular song, and Quaker proto-feminist tracts. The introduction ”Judith in the Christian Tradition” sets out the broad framework of Christian tradition that lays the foundation for the construction of the figure of Judith.

42Marc Mastrangelo, in ”Typology and Agency in Prudentius’s Treatment of the Judith Story,” reads Roman Christian poetry to investigate the social construction of the role of women in the fourth century a.d. He argues that by locating the Christian doctrine of free will in a typological series of female figures (Judith, Mary, and Pudicitia), Prudentius has made female agency the ideal for both males and females and the imitation of female weakness and chastity a source of moral strength for all.

43The reception and adaptation of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate Judith, used in Roman Catholic liturgy, is the basis for Tracey-Anne Cooper’s analysis of Judith in the Anglo-Saxon corpus and John Nassichuk’s analysis of the depiction of Judith’s prayer in medieval French mystery plays. (The latter are taken as the foundation of the representation of Judith in subsequent French literature.) Cooper, in ”Judith in Late Anglo-Saxon England,” shows how the Anglo-Saxons imbued Judith with the qualities of both a military hero and a chaste widow, and used her narrative as a tropological message and an allegorical type.

44John Nassichuk’s essay, ”The Prayer of Judith in Two Late-Fifteenth-Century French Mystery Plays,” is a rhetorical (metrical and lexical) analysis of Judith’s prayer in Mystères de la procession de Lille (ca. 1480) and Mistère du Viel Testament (first printing 1502). He demonstrates the use each author makes of the biblical model. Nassichuk explores the two different approaches to translation and shows how the text that strays the furthest from the Vulgate ”solemnizes the dignity of the heroine.” In doing so, Judith ”at last acquires a voice and begins to speak.”

45Kathleen Llewellyn’s essay, ”The Example of Judith in Early Modern French Literature,” examines the figure of Judith in French dramatic works to understand the historical evolution of the depiction of conduct for woman. Llewellyn treats three ”Judiths” in three different works: Mistère du Viel Testament, La Judit by Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas (1579), and Imitation de la victoire de Judich by Gabrielle de Coignard (1594). She reveals the early modern metamorphosis of the ambiguous biblical heroine. Judith is progressively ”rehabilitated” over the course of the sixteenth century, thus reflecting changing perceptions of the feminine ideal in early modern France.

46The return to the Septuagint, from the Vulgate, in the great Protestant biblical translations with European vernaculars as target languages establishes the conditions for the widely circulated and read Protestant French epic La Judit by Du Bartas. This epic was later translated into English and used to endorse both Catholic and Protestant regimes.

47Robert Cummings’s ”The Aestheticization of Tyrannicide: Du Bartas’s La Judit” shows how the potent ideological content of the poem (the justification of tyrannicide) could be neutralized and manipulated through translation, reprinting, and rededication.

48In Protestant German- and English-speaking countries, Judith, no longer linked to Mary, proved to be rhetorically labile. She serves different functions in different contexts: she is ”cunning” in German popular poetry, but, as a public figure and orator, provides a role model for women in Christian communities and Quaker rhetoric.

49Henrike Lähnemann, in ”The Cunning of Judith in Late Medieval German Texts,” demonstrates how the image of Judith as a pious and chaste instrument of God’s will, which dominated the Vulgate reception in the German Middle Ages, was supplemented by new roles: the heroine and the cunning woman. The late medieval development of illustrated short versions of the Judith story contributed significantly to developing the iconography of Judith as seductress and, finally, femme fatale.

50Janet Bartholomew’s essay, ”The Role of Judith in Margaret Fell’s Womens Speaking Justified,” shows how English proto-feminist Margaret Fell chose Judith as a figure that exemplified the Quaker belief in women’s justifiable right to preach. Fell’s biblical exegesis established Judith as a virtuous woman who effectively preached in her own right.

Staging Judith: The Visual Arts

51The first identifiable Christian images of Judith are found among fifth-century frescos at Nolo, Naples and the eighth-century frescos of Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome. Judith iconography was nurtured in illuminated manuscript traditions such as the Winchester Bible and the illuminated manuscript of the Speculum Virginum, or Mirror of Virgins. From the Renaissance on, ”Judiths” were a staple of artist workshops and were produced contemporaneously with the development of oil painting on canvas. Donatello, Caravaggio, and both Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi created works based on the subject of Judith. Donatello’s monumental freestanding bronze of Judith initiated an important change in the iconography of Judith. The sculpture Judith and Holofernes became a metaphor for Medici rule in Florence. The five papers on the visual arts elaborate these themes.

52Elizabeth Bailey proposes that the illuminated manuscript of the Speculum Virginum, or Mirror of Virgins, in the British Library (Arundel MS. 44, dated ca. 1140) is the first extant work of art in which the figure of Judith and the personification of Humilitas are visually related in the same composition. Bailey also argues that this new concept derives from the Psychomachia and the Bible and combines the two figures as ”brides of Christ.”

53Noting that images of David were produced predominantly for public contexts while representations of Judith were almost exclusively employed in the private domain, Roger J. Crum analyzes the social and ideological content given to these two Old Testament figures in Renaissance Florence. Crum uses the different deployments of representations of Judith versus David to explore the way that the negotiation between public and private realms reflected tensions between Florentine private interests and public responsibilities.

54Sarah Blake McHam’s essay, ”Donatello’s Judith as the Emblem of God’s Chosen People,” deals with the different meanings that Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes acquired when, in 1495, the newly reinstated Florentine Republic appropriated it from the Palazzo Medici, changed the sculpture’s inscriptions, and transferred it to the ringhiera, or elevated platform that framed the entrance to the city’s center of government. Through an examination of treatises and sermons by the Dominican preacher Savonarola, McHam reveals unrecognized ways in which Judith’s slaying of Holofernes became not just a model for the virtuous removal of a tyrant, but as an exemplar of Florentines as God’s newly chosen people and their divinely appointed mission to purify Italy.

55Diane Apostolos-Cappadona traces the development of Donatello’s innovations in the ”tradition of costuming,” which symbolized Judith as warrior, in his monumental bronze Judith and Holofernes and in the work of the next several generations of Italian artists: Botticelli, Mantegna, Michelangelo, Vasari, Caravaggio, and Artemisia Gentileschi. She argues that the symbolic meanings and cultural origins of the alterations these painters made to Judith’s costume reflect values taken from the Classical tradition of the female agency of Athena, Diana, and the Amazons.

56Elena Ciletti addresses less familiar but ideologically resonant ecclesiastical commissions devoted to Judith, including a fresco cycle by Giovanni Guerra and Cesare Nebbia created for Pope Sixtus V (Lateran Palace, Rome, 1588–9) and individual frescoes by Leonello Spada (Basilica della Ghiara, Reggio Emilia, 1615) and Domenichino (San Silvestro al Quirinale, Rome, 1628). Ciletti shows how these works are congruent with a large corpus of polemical writings on Judith written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and argues that they helped convert Judith into a weapon of Catholic orthodoxy.

Staging Judith: Music and Drama

57As the following essays demonstrate, Judith scholarship in the twenty-first century will continue to open new areas of exploration. This section contains six essays that examine dramatic musical works and theatrical stage productions of Judith. The earliest work addressed in the essays was composed in 1629, the date of the earliest opera on the subject of Judith. The latest work treated is the production of the 1849 Nestroy travesty of Hebbel’s Judith.

58Kelley Harness uses archival source studies to demonstrate the important influence female patrons had on the art and iconography of Renaissance and early modern Italy. In this study, Harness looks at five musical works dedicated to or commissioned by nuns, noblewomen, and female regents; the works begin with the first Judith opera, Andrea Salvadori’s La Giuditta (Florence, 1626), which was sung to music composed by Marco da Gagliano. Following a tradition that stretched back to the sacra rappresentazione, which flourished during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Italy, virtually every performance of a Judith play included at least some music. Harness argues that texts to be sung bore a special responsibility to focus and amplify a play’s didactic message.

59David Marsh’s survey of librettos on the Judith theme shows how the emergence of oratorio around 1600 brought out the dramatic potential of the biblical Book of Judith, making it attractive to a succession of distinguished composers, including the fifteen-year-old Mozart, who made brilliant use of Metastasio’s libretto in 1771. Marsh provides a survey and textual analysis of some sixty years of libretti written on the theme between 1675 and 1734 and set to music as late as 1771.

60Following Alberto Mario Banti’s insight that Judith was marginalized during the Italian Risorgimento, Paolo Bernardini shows how the changing treatment of Judith in Italy between 1800 and 1900 can be understood in the context of social and cultural changes that led to the Italian Union and the forging of a new ”Italian national identity.” Judith’s model of individualist action, represented well by the genre of oratorio, was at variance with the need for the representation of collectivist action, for which the perfect genre was opera. From being an individual and a strong supporter of individualistic action and female agency, Judith gradually changed and became the representative of the general will and action in operatic tradition.

61Alexandre Lhâa approaches Marcello and Peri’s Giuditta (1860), which was performed at the Teatro alla Scala in March 1860, as a melodrama that echoes and disseminates the Risorgimento’s ideology. Using research on the reception of the opera by audiences, he shows how the opera was changed in subsequent stagings because of Judith’s disquieting challenge to the gender assumptions of a patriarchal society.

62Jann Pasler analyzes dramatic musical composition and its reception in opera and concert halls and salons to uncover political, social, religious and cultural trends (conflicts, tensions, and anxieties) in late-nineteenth-century France. Pasler proposes that the representation of Judith changed after France’s defeat by Prussia and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine; instead of an exotic, orientalist femme fatale, Judith became a symbol of individual strength who reignites the French fervor for war. This transformation occurred in the context of important new biblical translation projects, both Catholic and Protestant, which revalued the sanctity and historicity of the text.

63Gabrijela Mecky Zaragoza’s essay, ”Judith and the ’Jew-Eaters’ in German Volkstheater,” addresses a dark and little-known theme in German popular theater: Judith and anti-Semitism. Drawing on the text of the anonymous 1818 drama Judith und Holofernes and Nestroy’s 1849 parody of Friedrich Hebbel’s 1840 tragedy Judith, Mecky Zaragoza brings to light a decisive change in the appropriation of the story. The Jewish narrative is connected to the Jewish Question and used to negotiate images of Jews and Jewishness.


64In this introduction I have tried to emphasize unique attributes of the Septuagint Ioudith – as a Hellenistic book, a new literary genre, and an important source for the recovery of early Jewish religious practice and the status of women in the ancient world. As the earliest extant text, the study of the Book of Judith in the Septuagint is one of the foundations of Judith Studies. There are two other formative factors that set the conditions for the study of Judith. One is the subject of the thousand-year lacuna in the mention of Judith in Jewish writings and the omission of the book from the Hebrew Bible. The second is the uniquely determining influence of biblical canonical traditions, Catholic and Protestant, on the representation and reception of the Judith story. These two prominent topics, and others, are explored in the introductory chapters on Judith in Jewish and Christian textual traditions.

  • 26 See P. N. Medvedev, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociolog (...)

65As P. N. Medvedev has written, seeing (perception) is shaped by genres of expression. As the Book of Judith was translated and the story has been retold in new genres, new aspects of Judith and her tale have been made visible. The essays ”see” Judith through the lenses of a broad spectrum of genres – epic, allegory, play, opera, novel, tale, prayer, political tract, painting, fresco cycle, sculpture. As Medvedev noted, ”Each genre is only able to control certain definite aspects of reality. Each genre possesses definite principles of selection and a definite scope and depth of penetration.”26 Each genre, that is, provides a new way of seeing Judith.


1 For Judith as a fictional model for cultural survival in the Hasmonean period, see Steven Weitzman, Surviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 48–54.

2 The author thanks Marta J. Deyrup for pointing out that verses from the Book of Judith are used in the liturgy sung on the Most Holy Name Day of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 12. The feast dates to the sixteenth century although the date was changed in the seventeenth century to commemorate the Polish king Ian Sobieski’s victory in Vienna over the Turks on September 12, 1683.

3 For the importance of the sword in Judith iconology see Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, Icon Edition, 1972), pp. 11–13.

4 See Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); Mieke Bal, Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (Chicago, IL, and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999); and Mieke Bal, The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People (Chicago, IL, and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

5 Word for Word – Artemisia No. 02. Trilingual edition (English/French/Italian). Texts by Roland Barthes, Eva Menzio, Léa Lublin (Paris: Yvon Lambert, 1979).

6 See Toni Craven, ”The Book of Judith in the Context of Twentieth-Century Studies of the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books,” Currents in Biblical Research, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2003), pp. 187–229.

7 Yvon Lambert, 1979, p. 9.

8 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, with an introduction by Hannah Arendt (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968; reprint, Schocken, 1969), p. 90. The author thanks Henrike Lähnemann for referencing Benjamin’s poetic original German: ”Die Information hat ihren Lohn mit dem Augenblick dahin, in dem sie neu war. Sie lebt nur in diesem Augenblick. Sie muß sich gänzlich an ihn ausliefern und ohne Zeit zu verlieren sich ihm erklären. Anders die Erzählung: sie verausgabt sich nicht. Sie bewahrt ihre Kraft gesammelt im Innern und ist nach langer Zeit der Entfaltung fähig.” Walter Benjamin, ”Der Erzähler. Betrachtungen zum Werk Nikolai Lesskows,” in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. II, no. 2 (Frankfurt/Main, 1977), pp. 438–65 (p. 445).

9 Ioudith, trans. by Cameron Boyd-Taylor in Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (eds.), A New English Translation of the Septuagint (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 441–55.

10 See Abraham Wasserstein and David J. Wasserstein, The Legend of the Septuagint: From Classical Antiquity to Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

11 For the date, authorship, and place of composition of the Book of Judith see Carey A. Moore, The Anchor Bible Judith: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), pp. 67–71.

12 See Otto Rank, Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1989). Rank continues, ”In any case, comparison with the headcult, as it still exists today, suggests the conclusion that the magical significance of the head as the seat of personal power may be regarded as the beginning of a belief in the soul” (ibid., p. 181).

13 LXX Jdt 9:1–2. Biblical books are referenced with the short titles following the Chicago style (cf. index under ”Bible”).

14 LXX Jdt 13:6.

15 See Karel Van Der Koon, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

16 Ibid., p. 23.

17 See Roger Chartier, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), p. 19.

18 See Sara Raup Johnson, Historical Fictions and Hellenistic Jewish Identity: Third Maccabees in Its Cultural Context (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2004), p. 50, and Lawrence M. Wills, The Jewish Novel in the Ancient World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).

19 See Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 133–34.

20 Ibid., p. 132.

21 See Lawrence M. Wills, ”Ascetic Theology before Asceticism? Jewish Narratives and the Decentering of the Self,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 74, no. 4 (December 2006), pp. 902–25 (907).

22 See Hugo Mantel, ”Ancient Hasidim,” in Studies of Judaism (1976), pp. 60–80, summarized in Carey A. Moore 1985, p. 71.

23 See Tal Ilan, Integrating Women into Second Temple History (Tübingen: C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1999; repr. Peabody, MA: Hendrick Publishers Inc., 2001).

24 Ibid., p. 153.

25 In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the order of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Bible’s Old Testament follows the placement in the Septuagint; the Book of Judith remains as a ”history” and is placed as part of the penultimate trilogy (Esther, Judith, Tobit), which appear before the books of Maccabees that conclude the Old Testament.

26 See P. N. Medvedev, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics, trans. Albert J. Wehrle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 134, quoted in Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), pp. 275–76.


Kevin R. Brine, the founder and director of the Judith Project is an independent scholar and visual artist. He is Member of the Board of Overseers of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of New York University, and the co-founder, with Clifford Siskin of The Re-Enlightenment Project at New York University and The New York Public Library. Mr. Brine co-edited, with Garland Cannon, Object of Enquiry: The Life, Contributions and Influence of Sir William Jones (1746–1797) (1995). Mr Brine’s paintings are published in Kevin R. Brine: The Porch of the Caryatids: Drawings, Paintings and Sculptures (2006).


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