The Problem of the “Nebuchadnezzar” in Book of Judith



Damien F. Mackey



So difficult have commentators found it to secure an historical locus for the events described in the Book of Judith that the almost universal tendency today – for those who give the book at least some sort of credence as a recording of historical events – is to relegate the book to the category, or genre, of ‘historical fiction’, as, for instance, some kind of literary fusion of all the enemies (Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Syrian, etc.) with whom ancient Israel had ever had to contend.


Charles, for one, has proposed the likelihood of this particular genre to account for the Book of Judith: “But if the book is historical fiction, as it seems to be, we need not expect to explain all its statements. The writer selected such incidents as suited his purpose, without troubling about historical accuracy … The details are not meant to be historical”.


Such a view is perhaps not entirely surprising, considering that whoever might aspire to show the historicity of the book tends to stumble right at the very start, with verse 1:1:


“It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh. In those days Arphaxad ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana”.


At first appearance, we have here:


(i) A great Babylonian king, ‘Nebuchadnezzar’, ruling over

(ii) an Assyrian capital city, ‘Nineveh’ [that had ceased to exist several years before Nebuchednezzar II the Great’s rule] and whose contemporary rival, ‘Arphaxad’ [a historical unknown], was apparently

(iii) a Mede. For, as we learn a bit further on, in verse 5, the ruler of ‘Nineveh’ will make war on the Medes [who were in fact the allies of Nebuchednezzar II the Great]. And, to complete this potpourri, Nebuchadnezzar’s commander-in-chief, introduced into the narrative in chapter 2, will be found to have a name that is considered to be

(iv) Persian, ‘Holofernes’, as will be thought to be the case also with his chief eunuch, ‘Bagoas’.


No wonder, then, that earlier commentators had sought for the book’s historical locus in periods ranging over hundreds of years.

Thus, according to Charles: “Attempts have been made to identify the Nebuchadnezzar of the story with Assurbanipal, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes Ochus, Antiochus Epiphanes: Arphaxad with Deioces or Phraortes”.

Moore gives a similar list of candidates for BOJ’s ‘Nebuchadnezzar’:


Although a large number of Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Syrian kings have been suggested by scholars as the particular pagan king in question …. Several rulers have had a goodly number of scholars supporting their identification with Judith’s “Nebuchadnezzar”, notably, Ashurbanipal of Assyria; Artaxerxes III, Ochus, of Persia; Antiochus IV, Epiphanes, of Syria; and Demetrius I, Soter, also of Syria.


To which Moore adds this intriguing point: “Ironically, the two Babylonian kings with the actual name “Nebuchadnezzar” (i.e., Nebuchadnezzar II and “Nebuchadnezzar IV”) have won virtually no supporters …”.

Apparently Nebuchednezzar I, whom I have identified with Sargon II/Sennacherib:


Nebuchednezzar I as the ‘Babylonian Face’ of Sargon II/Sennacherib


is chronologically – in conventional terms – much too far out of range to be seriously considered as a candidate for the ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ of the Book of Judith.


Leahy has pointed to the following seeming “Historical Inaccuracies” in the book:


… (i) Nabuchodonosor [Nebuchadnezzar] bears the title ‘king of the Assyrians’ and is said to reign in Nineveh. But the historical Nabuchodonosor was king of the Neo-babylonian empire from 604 to 562 B.C. The Assyrian empire had then ceased to exist and so also had Nineveh which was destroyed in 612 B.C. (ii) The Assyrian monarchy is assumed to be still in existence, yet the following passages seem to assign the events narrated to the period following the Babylonian captivity – 4:3 (LXX) reads, ‘For they were lately come up from captivity … and the vessels, the altar and the house were sanctified after their profanation’; 5:18 f. (LXX) reads, “they were led captive into a land that was not theirs, and the temple of their God was cast to the ground (εγενήϑη εις εδαφος) … and now they are returned to their God, and are come up from the dispersion where they were dispersed, and have possessed Jerusalem where their sanctuary is’; 5:22 f. (Vg)

reads, ‘many of them were led away captive into a strange land. But of late returning … they are come together … and possess Jerusalem again, where their sanctuary is’. Moreover other passages (e.g. 4:5) imply that there was no king reigning, for the supreme authority, even over the Northern Kingdom, was vested in the high-priest assisted by the Sanhedrin (ή γερουςία cf. LXX 4:8; 15:8). (iii) None of the known Median kings was named Arphaxad. (iv) Holofernes was a Persian as his name implies, and we should not expect a Persian in command of the Assyrian armies.


Another proponent of the historical fiction genre for the Book of Judith is Montague, whose explanation Moore has quoted in the context of whom he calls “present-day scholars who regard Judith as having “a certain historicity””:


The author, writing resistance literature under the rule of a foreign power, has used the Assyrians as types of the Greeks and used Nebuchadnezzar as a coded symbol for Antiochus the Illustrious, the Greek Seleucid king who persecuted the Jews. … the author reworked for this purpose a story whose historical nucleus went back two centuries, to the Persian period. … Thus, we can conclude that the book of Judith is historical in two senses: one, there is a historical nucleus which gave rise to the Judith tradition, though this nucleus is now difficult to recover; the other, the story witnesses to the way believing Jews of the post-exilic period understood the challenge of their existence when pressured by tyrants to abandon their sacred traditions. [italics added] (Books of Esther and Judith, p. 8).


But see e.g. my:


Book of Judith Not a Maccabean Product


“Once scholars stopped regarding Judith as a purely historical account, they started looking for a more accurate characterization of its literary genre”, writes Moore, who adds:


Starting with Martin Luther, who characterized Judith as a poem, “a kind of allegorical … passion play,” … scholars have had continued difficulty in establishing the precise genre of the story. To say that the book is a fictional account where historical and geographical details serve a literary purpose, while somewhat helpful, is not precise enough. In other words, exactly what kind of fiction is it?”


“Perhaps the most popular hypothesis among scholars”, according to Moore, “has been

what might be called the two-accounts theory”:


… that is, the book of Judith consists of two parts of unequal length: (1) a “historical” account of a pagan’s war in the East and/or his subsequent invasion of the West (chaps. 1-3); and (2) the story of Judith’s deliverance of her people (chaps. 4-16). While these two sections of the Judith-story are sometimes thought to reflect the same historical period, more often scholars have thought otherwise, especially those scholars who view the story of Judith itself as being essentially fictitious.


Judith Long Considered

to have been Historical


According to Leahy, on the other hand, there is a very long tradition of historicity associated with the Book of Judith:


(a) Jewish and Christian tradition and all commentaries prior to the sixteenth century regarded the book as historical; (b) the minute historical, geographical, chronological and genealogical details indicate a straightforward narrative of real events; (c) the author speaks of descendants of Achior being alive in his time (14:6), and of a festival celebrated annually up to his day in commemoration of Judith’s victory (16:31).


And Pope thinks that the variants in the present text indicate a most ancient original: “With regard to the state of the text it should be noted that the extraordinary variants presented in the various versions are themselves a proof that the versions were derived from a copy dating from a period long antecedent to the time of its translators”.

Moore continues on with certain arguments in favour of the Book of Judith historicity, beginning with this general remark: “The book purports to be a historical account. Moreover, it has all the outward trappings of one, including various kinds of dates, numerous names of well-known persons and places, and, most important of all, a quite believable plot”. All of this data – what Leahy called “the minute historical, geographical, chronological and genealogical details [that] indicate a straightforward narrative of real events” – was what impressed upon me (back in the early 1980’s, my first recollection of having read the Book of Judith) that here was an account of a real history (albeit an anciently written one). Moore again:


Typical of genuine historical accounts, Judith includes a number of quite specific dates …:


the twelfth year … of Nebuchadnezzar (1:1)

In [Nebuchadnezzar’s] seventeenth year (1:13)

in the eighteenth year on the twenty-second day of the first month (2:1)


and exact periods of time:


feasted for four whole months (1:16)

stayed there a full month (3:10)

blockaded them for thirty-four days (7:20)

hold out for five more days (7:30)

a widow … for three years and four months (8:4)

It took the people a month to loot the camp (15:11)

For three months the people continued their celebrations in Jerusalem (16:20)


Substantially, the details in the Book of Judith find their place, as I have argued, in the era of king Hezekiah of Judah (c. 700 BC), largely in the conflict between the neo-Assyrians and the Jews, e.g.:


“Nadin went into everlasting darkness”


though names have been confused and certain later foreign elements appear to have been interpolated. I put down these anomalies and interpolations largely to copyists’ mistakes and ignorance (historical and geographical) on the part of the later editors and translators.

This last is not just an excuse. The so-called ‘pseudepigraphal’ books of Tobit and Judith were extremely popular down through the centuries and were copied many times, with mistakes inevitably creeping in.

In the light of such explanations, let us try to restore to pristine condition that extremely problematical beginning to the Book of Judith, whilst locating it to what I believe to be its proper historical setting (1:1, 5):


It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh. In those days Arphaxad ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana.

… Then King Nebuchadnezzar made war against King Arphaxad in the great plain that is on the borders of Ragau.


“Twelfth year”. Sargon II (my Sennacherib), king of Assyria, had, in his “twelfth year”, successfully waged an eastern war against a stubborn opponent, Merodach-baladan. Sargon tells us: “In my twelfth year of reign (Merodach-baladan) …. For 12 years, against the will (heart) of the gods, he held sway over Babylon …”.

Moreover, I have proposed in my “Nebuchednezzar I” article (referred to above) that the so-called ‘Middle’ Babylonian king, Nebuchednezzar I, was in fact Sargon II/Sennacherib as ruler of Babylon. Sennacherib in fact began to rule Babylon even before his rule over Assyria had commenced.

This, if correct, would immediately account for one of the Book of Judith’s most controversial details, having a king named ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ ruling over the Assyrians at Nineveh!

Given this premise, then the Book of Judith’s Arphaxad, with whom the Assyrian king fought in his Year 12, can only be Merodach-baladan of Babylon (cf. 2 Kings 20:12; Isaiah 39:1). Merodach-baladan’s rule over Chaldea and the Chaldeans seems to be reflected in the name, ‘Arphaxad’ (Ur-pa-chesed), i.e., ‘Ur of the Chaldees’. And that is confirmed by what we are told in verse 6: “Thus, many nations joined the forces of the Chaldeans”, including the “Elymeans” (Elamites), perennial allies of Babylon against Assyria.

Thus we can probably now isolate, as copyists’ mistakes, “Medes” and “Ecbatana” in 1:1, and also the associated “Ragau” mentioned in 1:5.

Arphaxad/Merodach-baladan did not ‘rule over the Medes’, at least not primarily, as the current translations of Judith 1:1 would have it. And this seems to be underlined by the fact that verse 6 identifies his army as Chaldean, without any mention here of the Medes.


Possibly, then, Judith 1:1 can be historically reconstructed as follows:


It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar [Nebuchednezzar I], who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh. In those days Arphaxad [Merodach-baladan] ruled over the Medes [Chaldeans] in Ecbatana [Babylon] ….


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