The very opening chapter of the book of Judith reveals the fictitious nature of the work. Nebuchadnezzar is said to be the king of the Assyrians, and Arphaxad (cf. Gen. 11: 10–13) is ruler of Ecbatana; and the Assyrian army is about to attack Jerusalem, where the Temple has recently been rededicated following the return from exile. This should not deter the reader: though the author is evidently stronger on piety than history, the book has captured the artistic imagination for centuries, and now receives a good deal of attention from feminist scholars in particular because of its treatment of the issues of gender, sexuality, religion, and violence (Brenner 1995; Stocker 1998). However, the book and its heroine are highly ambiguous: some consider that the author may even have been female (van Henten, in Brenner 1995: 224–52), while others such as Milne (1993) are more pessimistic about her suitability as a feminist heroine.
Judith is a rich, beautiful, and pious widow, who delivers her town Bethulia and consequently Jerusalem itself from the Assyrian army by beguiling and then killing the enemy commander Holofernes. She does not make an appearance, however, until the beginning of chapter 8. The first seven chapters describe the political and military preparations for war against Judea. By accentuating the seemingly insuperable danger facing the Jews, they serve to highlight God's deliverance through the hands of just one woman. This is a ‘rescue-story’ typical of the Bible (Otzen 2002: 68): Judith's pivotal role in the salvation of her people is akin to that of Esther, especially in the embellished, Greek version of that book. Judith is also consciously modelled on figures in the book of Judges. She leads the people like Deborah (Judg. 4: 4–10), beguiles the enemy general with implicit sexual promise, slays him in his sleep like Jael (Judg. 4: 17–22; 5: 24–7), and retreats back into domestic life like her supposed ancestor Gideon (Judith 8: 1; Judg. 8: 22–8: see Levine, in Vanderkam 1992: 17–30). There are also points of contact with Abigail in 1 Sam. 25: 18–19, taking food to appease the leader of a hostile force (Judith 10: 5), and the loyalty and boldness of heroines like Tamar (Genesis 38) and Ruth. White (in VanderKam 1992: 5–16) observes that Jael, Deborah, and Judith all have husbands who are either absent from the scene or dead, so the women's identity arises from their own actions and not those of their husbands or sons.
Others have pointed out that Judith's name means ‘Jewish woman’, and therefore to some extent she symbolizes the entire Jewish nation, beautiful but widowed Zion (Levine, in Brenner 1995: 210).
The book has been assigned various dates. However, it seems clear from the narrative that it was written at a time of national crisis, under a foreign threat, and of consciousness of personal religious observance (note Judith's private prayers and careful adherence to dietary law). This is most likely to be the Maccabean period (160s BCE) when Antiochus IV Epiphanes threatened Jerusalem and the Jewish way of life (Otzen 2002: 132–5). Therefore, ‘Assyria’ is a cipher for Syria, and Nebuchadnezzar would represent Antiochus IV, and Holofernes his general, Nicanor. A later date has been suggested by others, notably Ilan (1999), who suggests that three late books with key female protagonists, Judith, Esther, and Susanna, were all written in support of the reign of Queen Salome (Shelamzion) Alexandra (78–69 BCE), who in spite of opposition succeeded her husband Alexander Jannai at a time of national crisis. She was supported by the Pharisees, and Pharisaic tendencies have been detected in both the book of Judith and that of Susanna (q.v.: but see Craven 1983: 121). Other theological features include the phenomenon of the full voluntary conversion (including circumcision) of Holofernes' Ammonite counsellor Achior (see Roitman, in VanderKam 1992: 31–46). However, the book shows no interest in the afterlife or martyrdom.
The original language of the book is likely to have been Hebrew, though Jerome claims that his Latin translation was based on an Aramaic text. However, the main witness is now the Greek text, and Camponigro argues that the book was originally composed in Greek, on the basis of apparent allusions to Herodotus (in Vander-Kam 1992: 47–60). If that is the case, it would explain why it was not accepted into the Jewish canon, though this hesitation may have been for other reasons. Its absence from Qumran may be explained by its pro-Hasmonaean stance (Moore, in VanderKam 1992: 61–72).
The many depictions of the story usually involve Judith in the act of cutting off the head of Holofernes, or carrying it in a bag, accompanied by her maid (Stone, in VanderKam 1992: 73–93; Bal, in Brenner 1995: 253–85), and reveal a great deal about the society, the artists, and the patronage that produced the work.