Judith in the Reformation

By Bruce Gordon

Martin Luther on Judith

The Apocryphal books of the Bible, which include the book of Judith, had a troubled history in the Protestant Reformation. Found in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint, they were not included in the Masoretic text, and the reformers of the sixteenth century debated their status in scripture. The church father Jerome had argued that the books of the Apocrypha did not belong to the canon of the Bible, but that they were profitable to read, a position adopted by most Protestant reformers.

In the Luther Bible of 1534, which was the first complete German translation produced by the reformer, the books of the Apocrypha (including Judith) were placed between the testaments with the description that they were “useful and good to read.” Later, in Geneva, John Calvin would take the same position. Luther’s assessment of the book of Judith specifically was also more complex. In his 1534 preface he revealed a largely positive attitude towards the book. Although he doubted the historical veracity of the story of Judith, finding that its events and chronology did not square with other books of the Bible, notably Jeremiah and Ezra, there was much to be admired. He held up Judith, declaring that her story would have been of great value to the ancient people as instruction in virtue and godly living. Indeed, Luther felt that as allegory Judith was an excellent piece of Christian edification.

Therefore this is a fine, good, holy, useful book, well worth reading by us Christians. For the words spoken by the persons in it should be understood as though they were uttered in the Holy Spirit by a spiritual, holy poet or prophet who, in presenting such persons in his play, preaches to us through them.1

Judith in the Catholic Reformation

In its struggle against Protestantism in the sixteenth century, the renewed Catholic Church appropriated valiant Judith, triumphant over unbelievers, as a significant tool of veneration and propaganda. The heroine of the Apocryphal book was presented in literature and paintings as the conqueror of heretics and as a symbol of Catholic resurgence. In the Palazzo Laternese in Rome, a series of frescoes of the Judith story was painted for Pope Sixtus V, who reigned from 1585–90.2 In twenty scenes, produced by the workshop of Giovanni Guerra and Cesare Nebbia, the story of Judith is told on a grand scale. The message of the art could not be more striking: church was restored and triumphant and the authority of the Tridentine papacy absolute. The execution of Holofernes was nothing less than the true Church dispatching its most reviled enemies.

Cover page of Vulgate Bible from the time of Pope Sixtus V.

Catholic writers such as Robert Bellarmine robustly defended the place of the book of Judith in the canon of the Latin Bible known as the Vulgate. Much of his argument was directed against the views of Martin Luther, who, as we have just noted, doubted the place of the Book of Judith in scripture. Bellarmine searched out arguments to defend Judith, and much of his attention to historical context is expressed in the Lateran frescoes. Another key writer in the Catholic appropriation of Judith was Cesare Baronio, the great historian of the Catholic Reformation. Baronio identified the Judith story with papal authority by making the heroine a type for Peter, the first pope. As one historian recently commented, “Baronio’s reference reveals that Judith was more than a generic personification of the triumphant Church: she was fashioned as a pillar of the contentious doctrine of papal sovereignty itself. We find here yet another reason for the Catholic insistence on her canonicity.”3 The Catholic defense of the book’s canonicity fashioned a figure who embodied the triumph over infidels and heretics in a conflict that culminated in the battle between the Bethulians and Assyrians, and the victory of the former. The true Church likewise crushed both the Turks and the heretical followers of Luther and Calvin.

Judith’s most singular role was as a type for Mary, a connection first made by the ancient fathers of the Church. Mary was at the center of a fierce struggle between Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century. One theme that united almost all Protestant reformers was the rejection of the intercessory powers of Mary, who by their reckoning was the model of humility and faithfulness, not the Queen of Heaven to whom men and women could pray. But Mary had been of great importance in the late-medieval church, and this relationship was continued and even enhanced in the Catholic Reformation. To counter Protestant arguments that the veneration of Mary was unscriptural, Catholic scholars turned to the book of Judith as providing a precursor.

Judith’s genealogy in the book, which is the longest of any woman’s in the Hebrew Bible, confirmed Mary’s lineage from the house of David. Judith’s chastity and humility preceded that of Mary: Judith delivered the people by resisting Holofernes’ advances, and, although she was able to deceive him, she succumbed to his will before she ultimately killed him. Scholars have also noted that Judith’s frequent recourse to prayer would be reinforced in Mary, who intercedes for the faithful. Judith was interpreted as a model of the devout Christian life, one of prayer and virtuous action. Such was the connection made between the two women that passages from the book of Judith became part of the liturgies for Mary’s feast days. Perhaps most important are the words of Bethulian elder Ozias (Judith 13:23), who, when Judith returns from the Assyrian camp, declares, ”Blessed art thou, O daughter, by the Lord the most high God, above all women on earth.” This passage became of great significance to Tridentine Catholics, finding expression in the Ave Maria.

Judith rose above the debate over her book’s canonicity to inspire, in different ways, both Catholics and Protestants.

A native of Canada, Professor Bruce Gordon taught at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he was professor of modern history and deputy director of the St. Andrews Reformation Studies Institute, before joining the Yale faculty in 2008. Gordon teaches and supervises graduate students in a broad range of medieval and early modern subjects and their resonances in contemporary historiography and society. In 2012 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Zurich.

1  Luther’s Works, 35:338.
2  I recommend the essay by Elena Ciletti, “Judith as Imagery in Catholic Orthodoxy in Counter Reformation Italy,” in The Sword of Judith. Judith Studies across the Disciplines, ed. Kevin R. Brine, Elena Ciletti, and Henrike Lähnemann. (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2010), 345–68. My view of Judith in Catholic reception is much indebted to Ciletti’s chapter.
3  Ciletti, “Judith as Imagery,” 351.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 1 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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