These essays, based on the conference by the same title held at the New York Public Library in 2008, emerge from a project conceived “as a kind of cultural archaeology, devoted to excavating some key theological currents and undercurrents of the construction of the figure of Judith in Western European thinking” (Elena Ciletti and Henrike Lähnemann, p. 41). The case studies attending to Judith’s reception, in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, medieval French, German, Yiddish, English and Italian contexts, show how her depiction both marks and challenges cultural, political and theological trajectories.
In the first of three introductions, entitled “The Judith Project,” Kevin R. Brine claims that Judith “epitomizes the charter myth of Judaism itself—cultural survival through the commitment to the preservation of Mosaic Law, with the help of God” (p. 3). As the collection confirms, Judith does this—and much more. These essays, by presenting translations of unpublished manuscripts, analyzing new archival sources, and exploring Judith’s representation in narrative, poetry, art, music and theatre, demonstrate how Judith serves as a template for marking changing views of politics, ethics, gender roles and theology from the Patristic period to the nineteenth century.
Deborah Levine Gera, summarizing Judith’s story and its earliest reception in a second introductory chapter on “The Jewish Textual Tradition,” dates the original text to some time after the Maccabean revolt in the second century BCE. Judith’s story is found in the Septuagint, the Greek texts that served as an inchoate canon for Diaspora Jewish communities and that became the Church’s Bible, but she is absent from the writings of Josephus and Philo. No fragments appear among the scrolls from Qumran, and the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds ignore her. Only from about the tenth or eleventh century onward does Judith reappear in Jewish literature. In the Middle Ages, as Gera then details, she becomes linked to the Hanukkah story.
In the third introductory chapter, on “Judith in the Christian Tradition,” Ciletti and Lähneman render into English Jerome’s Latin “Preface to the Book of Judith.” They go on to trace Judith’s history in Christian sources from late antiquity to the early modern period. Striking (sometimes literally) observations abound, regarding, for example, [End Page 146] “Judith’s long history as a justification for tyrannicide” (p. 58) and her transition from “femme forte” to “femme fatale” (p. 61).
The volume then divides into two sections. Part I, “Writing Judith,” begins with “Jewish Textual Traditions.” Barbara Schmitz, in her chapter on “Holofernes’s Canopy in the Septuagint,” explores the feminizing of the Assyrian general and the consequent disempowering of Judith: The man she killed was less a man than he might at first have seemed. In “Shorter Medieval Hebrew Tales of Judith,” Gera expands upon her introductory essay by looking at the medieval materials through a feminist lens. Susan Weingarten’s complementary contribution, “Food, Sex, and Redemption in Megillat Yehudit (the ‘Scroll of Judith’),” reveals how this fifteenth-century Hebrew manuscript analogizes Judith, inter alia, to Sarah, Lot’s daughters, Dinah, Potiphar’s wife, Rahab, Ruth, Jael, Delilah, Abigail, Bathsheba and the female lover in the Song of Songs. Ruth von Bernuth and Michael Terry present “Shalom bar Abraham’s Book of Judith in Yiddish,” composed in the mid-sixteenth century, as a Jewish response to the Reformation as well as the first known Jewish text to show influence by Protestant Bible translations.
Case studies in “Christian Textual Tradition” begin with Marc Mastrangelo’s “Typology and Agency in Prudentius’s Treatment of the Judith Story,” in which he analyzes the late fourth-century Psychomachia. This poem casts Judith as prefiguring both the Virgin Mary and the victory of the virtue Pudicitia (Chastity) over Libido (Lust); as Mastrangelo generously observes, “Prudentius has made female agency the ideal for both males and females” (p. 155). In “Judith in Late Anglo-Saxon England,” Tracey-Ann Cooper describes Judith’s reception in that context as military heroine and chaste widow, reflecting both a...