Named after its heroine, the book of Judith is regarded by Jews and Protestants as apocryphal and by Roman Catholics and some Orthodox churches as deuterocanonical (see Apocrypha, article on Jewish Apocrypha). Judith is a beautiful and wealthy widow who, in defense of God and country, first captivates and then decapitates Holofernes, the Assyrian general besieging her hometown, Bethulia of Samaria. Often characterized as a type of novel, the book is best understood as a folktale about a pious widow who, strengthened by her faith in the God of Israel, courageously (and literally) took matters into her own hands and so saved Israel and Jerusalem.

The story is well‐told, especially chaps. 10–13, which are a masterpiece of irony. The character and personality of the principal antagonists, as well as those of minor figures such as King Nebuchadrezzar (called Nebuchadnezzar in the book), the Jewish elder Uzziah of Bethulia, and the Ammonite convert Achior, are all vividly drawn and take on a life of their own. Their speeches, conversations, and prayers, as well as the story's plot, clearly and effectively express the storyteller's theology and ethics. Nonetheless, the book fairly bristles with problems, as the struggles over its canonicity so clearly attest. While western church fathers routinely accepted the book as canonical, eastern fathers quite often did not.

Although the book purports to be a historical account, it abounds in serious errors concerning both history and geography, the most egregious being in 1.1, where Nebuchadnezzar (605–562 BCE) is described as king of the Assyrians with his capital at Nineveh! Moreover, in 1.13–16 he kills the great Median king Arphaxad (who is otherwise unknown to scholars) and destroys Ecbatana, the great city Arphaxad had founded (1.2–4), although in point of fact Ecbatana was founded by Deioces and was conquered by Cyrus the Great in 554 BCE.

In chap. 2, geographical errors replace historical ones: Holofernes's army traveled from Nineveh to Northern Cilicia, some 800 km (500 mi), in three days (2.21), then fought its way through Put and Lud (2.23)—which are usually identified by scholars as being in Africa and Asia Minor, respectively—only to cross the Euphrates and proceed west through Mesopotamia (2.24) and arrive in Cilicia (2.25)! Paradoxically, the brief survey of Israel's history from the days of the ancestors into the early postexilic period by the Ammonite Achior (chap. 5), is a reasonably accurate account. So too, Holofernes's itinerary through Palestine (chaps. 2–3) seems to be more or less geographically correct. Yet, despite a wealth of geographical and topographical clues throughout the story, the location of Bethulia, the principal scene of the action, is totally unknown to scholars.

The moral and ethical views of the storyteller have frequently been censured, especially the treatment and obvious approval of the character and conduct of the heroine who, at least in her dealings with Holofernes, showed herself to be a shameless flatterer (11.7–8), a bold‐faced liar (11.12–14, 18–19), and a ruthless assassin (13.7–8) who seemingly follows two highly popular but debatable axioms: “all's fair in love and war” and “the end justifies the means.”

Yet both before and after her murderous (and salvific) act, Judith is regarded by her people as a saint, that is, one who is totally devoted to the Lord: diligent both in prayer (9.1–14) and in fasting (8.4–6), observant of the dietary laws (10.5; 12.2), honoring her husband's memory by remaining forever celibate after his death (16.22) and honored by all (8.8, 28–31; 16.21), and fearing the Lord (cf. 16.16). In the eyes of the storyteller, at least, Judith was the saint who murdered for her people and her God; she is the ideal Jewish woman, as her name, which is simply the feminine form of the word for “Jewish,” suggests.

No other biblical book, in either its parts or its totality, is as quintessentially ironic as Judith. Given the sexist and patriarchal character of the day, its central theme is most ironic: “The Lord Almighty has foiled them by the hand of a woman” (16.5); this echoes, probably deliberately, the story of Jael (Judg. 4.17–22; 5.24–27). The storyteller probably intended even the opening verse (1.1) to be understood as ironic, and certainly all the major scenes and characters are.

A beautiful, desirable, but childless widow, Judith lived a celibate life after her husband's death; yet she gave political and spiritual rebirth to her people. Very feminine in appearance, she herself murdered the general, praying even as she decapitated him (13.7–8)! Neither King Nebuchadnezzar, lord of the whole world (2.5), nor Holofernes, the master of the west (2.21–3.9), could master Bethulia. The Ammonite Achior, a seasoned warrior who early in the story displayed more faith in Israel's God (5.20–21) than did Uzziah, the chief elder of Bethulia (7.29–31), fainted on seeing the head that Judith had cut off with her own two hands (14.6). The Assyrian patrol that captured Judith and her maid were so captivated by their captive that they escorted her into the well‐protected tent of her intended victim (10.11–16).

The scenes featuring conversations between Holofernes and Achior (5.5–6.9) and between Holofernes and Judith (11.5–12.4, 14–19) abound in punctual ironies (i.e., irony at more or less isolated points) and, when taken together, are what literary critics call “episodic irony.” These episodes result in a thematic irony in the book as a whole: Achior spoke the complete truth to Holofernes but was not believed, while Judith dissimulated, equivocated, and lied—and was totally believed! Holofernes had intended to have his way with Judith, but as Judith's song so eloquently expresses it, the exact opposite happened: “Her sandal ravished his eyes; her beauty captivated his mind; and the sword severed his neck” (16.9). Not surprisingly, this dramatic climax is a favorite theme of Renaissance artists.

The opinion sometimes expressed that the book is unbalanced, that chaps. 1–3 or even 1–7 are slow‐moving and irrelevant to the main story in 8–16, and that this imbalance probably results from the union of two originally separate stories—that of a Mesopotamian king's war in the east and west [chaps. 1–3] and the tale of Judith—is unjustified. A careful analysis shows that the book is a unity, with chaps. 1–7, in a variety of ways and on a number of levels, serving as an effective and indispensable foil for chaps. 8–16. Moreover, each half of the book has a threefold chiastic structure and a distinctive thematic repetition, namely, fear or its denial in chaps. 1–7, and beauty and its effects in 8–16, with Judith's triumph over Holofernes (10.11–13.10a) being the story's climax in both form and content. Moreover, in chaps. 1–7 masculine, brute force wins many a battle; but in chaps. 8–16 Judith's feminine beauty and wiles, undergirded by her faith in God, wins the war. (None of this is to deny that Judith's song [16.1–17] may be, as several scholars have suggested, an older synagogal psalm adopted and adapted by the storyteller.)

As for the book's religious ideas, neither God's titles nor attributes are in any way noteworthy. His covenant with Israel is interpreted largely in Deuteronomic terms (5.17–18, 20–21; 8.20; 11.10), with emphasis on the importance of Jerusalem (4.2), its Temple (4.2–3), and ritual (4.14–15; 8.5–6; 9.1; 11.13). The efficacy of prayer, fasting, and wearing sackcloth (4.10–15; 8.5–6; 9.1) is unquestioned, as is the importance of the dietary laws (10.5, 11–15; 12.2–4, 19). With the exception of almsgiving and the baptizing of gentile converts (cf. 14.10), virtually all the traditional practices of Maccabean Pharisaism are mentioned. Clearly, the storyteller believed that courage and cleverness, Pharisaic piety and patriotism, undergirded by strong faith in the Lord, would be of benefit to Jews of any time or place.

Whatever the original language of the Judith story, the basis of the Greek version, as its many Hebraisms attest, was Hebrew. In view of this fact, as well as the storyteller's Pharisaic theology and greater knowledge of Palestinian geography, one may infer that the author was a Palestinian Pharisee.

As for the book's date of composition, though the story has a postexilic setting and a significant number of Persian nouns and personal names, it also has unmistakable Hellenistic features (cf. “garlands” in 3.7; reclining while eating in 12.15; “wearing garlands” in 15.13), as well as distinctively Maccabean/Hasmonean elements, notably the worshiping of a king as god (3.8), the sweeping political and military powers of the high priest (4.6–7), and the supremacy of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin (4.6, 8; 11.14).

Other elements in the story are reminiscent of the general circumstances, terminology, spirit, and tradition of the days of Judas Maccabeus (167–161 BCE), especially of the defeat of Nicanor, the general under the infamous Antiochus Epiphanes (175–163 BCE), as narrated in 1 Maccabees 7.43–50. All this, plus the fact that the book has none of the anti‐Sadducean spirit so characteristic of Pharisees in the days of Alexander Jannaeus (104–78 BCE), suggests that the book was composed in the days of John Hyrcanus I (135–105 BCE).

The Septuagint version of the book, which appears to be a very literal translation of Hebrew syntax and idiom, nevertheless has a rich and varied Greek vocabulary. The translation was made no later than the first century CE, for Clement of Rome (ca. 96 CE) alludes to Judith (1 Clem. 55.45).

Unfortunately, the ancient versions are of little help in establishing either the Septuagint text of Judith or its Semitic basis. The Old Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopic versions are all based upon the Septuagint, but no critical or scientific edition exists for any of them. Jerome's Vulgate (ca. 405 CE) is a paraphrase of the then‐current Aramaic text, which may be based upon the Greek rather than the Hebrew. Like Judith who stood alone to do the job, so also must the Septuagint of the book of Judith.

Carey A. Moore