A Commentary on The Book of Judith

raban-maur_alcuin_otgarI’d like to tell you about a project that I am working on. This particular project arose from a forum-based assignment I submitted in my studies under The Saints Cyril and Athanasius of Alexandria Institute for Orthodox Studies. The project involved using the Orthodox hermeneutic of reading the Old Testament through the lens of Christ. I chose to do the assignment on the Book of Judith because the story intrigued me and because, having come from a protestant tradition, it was relatively new to me. Alas, the only ecclesial commentary I could find on the book was a work by the Archbishop Rabanus Maurus (leftmost person in the picture above), which had no English translation available. At that point I put the project in the back of my mind as something to begin after I completed my studies with the institute.

As an amateur Latinist I am interested in improving my Latin skills, but also I am interested in making this commentary available to the non-Latin-reading public.  I took up the study of Latin for the purpose of teaching my children in a homeschooling context, but enjoyed it so much I have continued applying it for my own purposes. In making this project public, I hope to find others who are interested in contributing. I welcome most types of assistance including (but not limited to) corrections to my English, corrections on my translation work, or even assistance translating.

The majority of the Holy Fathers who bear witness to Judith offer remarks that generally seem tangential to the substance of the primary works. Judith is sometimes held up as an example of chastity or courage, or even as an exemplar of fasting, but there is only one ecclesial author who might be considered Orthodox, who authored a thorough commentary on her story, and he is a relatively obscure (for the Orthodox) Frankish archbishop from the eighth century. It is disappointing that Judith seems to be a book almost universally neglected by the Christian East, even though we include it in our Bibles.

I’ll be writing more on this subject: sharing more details of my work and approach, talking about Rabanus Maurus, about Judith and her history, thoughts on allegory, and sharing the actual translation. I’ve presently completed drafts of two full chapters (out of sixteen) and will share them over time.

At present I am retaining copyright of my work, but will be providing a Creative Commons license that will allow for relatively liberal use of the book.

Judith: Sources and Translations

In translating The Blessed Rabanus Maurus’ explanation of the Book of Judith, I have greatly benefitted from Google’s search capabilities. The simple fact of the matter is that without this oracular power, I would probably be incapable of doing such a thorough job of ascertaining Rabanus’ sources. At this time (I’m half way through chapter 3), I have found that Rabanus makes use of a number of sources (without much acknowledgement), including Orosius, Josephus, Eusebius, and Saint Jerome. Occasionally I will come across a phrase that I find exceedingly difficult to translate and will resort to Google to see if a similar phrase is used in another work and if a translation has already been made of said phrase. These are the times when I accidentally discover that Rabanus has quoted another author, often verbatim.

I am going to share one of these translations and another translation of it from a modern author. In this case, I had already translated the entire passage (which omits a few sentences from the middle) before I discovered Bosanquet’s translation. This is a passage from volume 2 of Paulus Orosius’ Historiae Adversus Paganos, or History Against the Pagans. Orosius was a student of Saint Augustine of Hippo. My translation follows (overlapping portions are boldface):

The first king among the Assyrians, who achieved preeminence among the rest, was Ninus. With the murder of Ninus, Semiramis his wife and queen of all Asia restored the city of Babylon and established that it would be the head of the Assyrian empire, and thus did the kingdom of the Assyrians long stand with unshaken power. But when Arbatus, whom others call Arbaces, the prefect of the Medes, and from the same race as Medus, had killed Sardanapalus his king in Babylon, he transferred the name and substance of the kingdom to the Medes: truly under these circumstances, in the year in which the kingdom of Babylon was diverted to the Medes, in this year did Procas the father of Amulius and Numitor, the uncle of Rhea Silvia who was the mother of Romulus, begin to reign among the Latins 

However, with the withdrawal of Arbatus to the Medes, the Chaldeans retained possession of part of the kingdom, for they claimed Babylon for themselves against the Medes. Thus the strength of Babylon, which had belonged to the Chaldeans, came among the Medes; The Chaldeans, however, because of the royal city’s ancient renown, which was no longer theirs, preferred to declare themselves to belong to it.

Whence it came to pass that Nebuchadnezzar and other kings after him until Cyrus, however potent in the powers of the Chaldeans and manifestly bequeathed with the name of Babylon, are not included in the number and order of the illustrious kings.

The following translation comes from Chronology of the Times of Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, by James Whatman Bosanquet, Esq., published in 1848.

Thus the kingdom of Ninus and Babylon was conveyed to the Medes, in the same year that Procas, the father of Amulius and Numitor, the grandfather of Rhea Silvia, who was the mother of Romulus, began to reign over the Latins. But, as an evidence that all these things happened according to the ineffable mysteries and deep designs of God, and not by human power or uncertain chance, all ancient history begins with Ninus, all Roman history with Procas. Again, from the first year of the empire of Ninus, to the time when the foundation of Babylon was laid by Semiramis, is sixty-four years; and from the first year of Procas, when he began to reign, to the building of the city by Romulus, is exactly sixty four years. So that while Procas reigned, the seed of future Rome was sown, though the germ was not yet to shoot forth. In the same year of the same Procas the kingdom of Babylon failed, though Babylon itself remained. For Arbatus (Arbaces) having fallen upon the Medes, the Chaldaeans, who vindicated to themselves the possession of Babylon against the Medes, retained in their power a portion of the kingdom. Thus the power over the province of Babylonia was with the Medes, the possession with the Chaldaeans. The Chaldaeans, however, in consideration of the ancient dignity of the royal city, preferred to call themselves the subjects of Babylon, rather than that the city should be called after them. From whence it happened that Nebuchodonosor and his successors down to Cyrus, though counted powerful from the strength of the Chaldaeans, and distinguished by the name of Babylonia, were, nevertheless, not included in the number or succession of illustrious monarchs.

For those of you who are readers of Latin, you are invited to provide corrections of my translation from the original Latin. Note that my translations tend to be relatively literal, perhaps too literal at times.

Another thing to note about this commentary is that Rabanus goes to some fairly extensive efforts to try to place the story within the context of history and also geography, whereas most modern scholars believe that Judith is a fictional or allegorical parody rather than an actual historical account. Father Patrick Henry Reardon is one of those who argues against an historical account in his article, Apocryphal Judith, Saintly Deceiver.

Judith: Three Chapters Translated

judith-cover-2In celebration of completing drafts of the first three chapters of my translation of the Blessed Rabanus Maurus’ commentary on Judith, I am making it available publicly. This is by no means the final version. There will likely be multiple revisions, but this should give a reasonably good representation of what the bishop said about the Book of Judith. Additionally, I have just received a copy of a modern critical edition of the text that I will use to go back through these chapters and make some revisions. This new edition denotes quotations from other sources and so will save me a lot of work in hunting those down.

When I began translating this commentary I had no idea what I was getting into. Given the present pace of translation, I expect it will take 3–5 years to complete. In addition to improving my Latin, this work is improving my understanding of history as well. I feel the need to understand the context in which the translator lived and so have taken this opportunity to study the early middle ages. In addition to hagiographic literature about Rabanus, I have begun delving into some more scholarly papers addressing the life of the Blessed Rabanus Maurus and his work. In particular, Exegesis for an Empress, by Mayke de Jong has been enlightening. But perhaps most engaging and broadly useful has been an online course on The Early Middle Ages. (I’ve been very pleased with my subscription to The Great Courses Plus).

In addition, I have included an idea for a cover above. There are many great works of art that portray scenes from the story, but I chose an illustration by a relatively recent artist named W. Russell Flint, who produced an illustrated edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This image is from that book.

Note that I am using Google Documents to do my work. That means that online collaboration becomes very simple. In fact, if you follow the link to the document you will, even without being logged in to Google, be able to add comments and suggested edits to the work. If you wish to contribute feedback in either of these ways, you are invited to do so. It would be nice if you would log in so that I can see who has made the comments, but I’ll still accept anonymous feedback and corrections. Even if you don’t read Latin, grammar and spelling corrections are useful (though I’ll likely maintain Rabanus’ run-on sentences in the first revision and later work on breaking them up for modern readers).

The present version of the translation can be seen here:

An Explanation of the Book of Judith

Judith: Naming People and Places


Judith, by August Reidel, 1840

I decided to revise the way I was translating names of people and geographical features in An Explanation of the Book of Judith. My initial approach was to use the names found in the Orthodox Study Bible (OSB), which tend to follow the standards set by the King James Version (KJV). The Vulgate and the Septuagint tend to have different ways of writing the names that also provide differences in pronunciation. The KJV tends to choose names that are closer to the Hebrew, I believe generally following the Masoretic Text. Because the KJV has had such a strong impact on our modern usage and expectations, it seems to make sense to use these names. However, because of the fact that I’m working on what I hope will be a relatively literal translation, and because I’m including translations of the Vulgate (the version of the Bible Abp. Rabanus used) from the Douay-Rheims (D-R) translation of the Vulgate directly in the text, I have decided to shift to using the names from the D-R throughout.

What this means is that some of the names may be somewhat unfamiliar to people who are accustomed to typical modern usage. For instance, in the D-R rather than Nebuchadnezzar, we find Nabuchodonosor. Or, rather than Ishmael, we find Ismahel. However, these names reflect how the Blessed Rabanus actually wrote the names in his commentary. In many cases, these are literally the same in English as they are in Latin.

What I have found is that, in many cases, choosing how to name something is actually more difficult than the rest of the translation work. For instance, some of the names don’t actually exist in the D-R or the Vulgate and I have to choose another source, such as Saint Jerome’s Chronicon (or the Latin version). I can use the name verbatim from the Latin, or I can look in alternative sources. Sometimes digging around online can turn up a more commonly spelled version of a name such as Arbis. In the Vulgate this name is Arbimin, but Arbimin is pretty hard to find when searching in Google. It turns out that the more common name is Arbis, which actually turns out to be the modern day Porali River in Pakistan.

During the course of this process of name revision, I have actually made some interesting discoveries. For instance, the D-R names a river Jadason, which the Beatus calls Hiadas. Then in a later spot, when quoting Orosius, it is called Idaspem. Idaspem is an unusual way to spell Hydaspem or Hydaspes. The OSB uses Hydaspes where the D-R uses Jadason, which brought me to the realization that they are the same. Other sources confirm this. Further research indicates that it is the modern day Jhelum river that flows through India and Pakistan.

In order to make this process manageable, I ended up creating tables of names in appendices. There is a table of people and a table of geographical names. The tables include the versions of the names found in this translation, the Douay-Rheims, the Orthodox Study Bible, Jerome’s Chronicon, and the Latin itself. Creating this table enables relatively easy future revisions using a simple search and replace feature.

Judith: Moral Metaphor (Ch 4)


Potential cover with art by Trophime Bigot, ca. 1640

I’m pleased to announce that I have completed a draft of chapter 4 of Abp. Rabanus Maurus’ commentary on the book of Judith.

Up until now we’ve been following the activities of Nebuchodonosor (Nebuchadnezzar) and Holofernes in their campaign to take over the world. In chapter 4 we begin to learn about how the people of God react to this campaign through prayer and fasting.

While the Blessed Rabanus has been drawing allegorical parallels throughout the book, the parallels tend to become more tropological in chapter 4. As we learned in our ongoing discussion on The Ark of the Covenant, Saint Jerome takes this tropological approach with the Ark. The tropological approach is characterized primarily by the use of moral metaphor.

A good example of this approach is found in the following paragraph:

In fact, these very ones are the altar of God, who, upon the altar of their hearts, continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God. Truly the haircloth, which is woven from the hair of goats, bears well the figure of sins, for which repenting is entirely necessary, because without it the sinners themselves do not find cures of true wholeness.

Rabanus finds a parallel between the altar of God and our hearts, upon which we offer a sacrifice of praise. He also find a parallel between a garment made of goat hair and sin. It is interesting to recall that the Israelite sacrificial system included a “scape-goat,” upon which the sins of the nation were place. In the subsequent paragraph, Rabanus takes this metaphor one step further and ties it to the “altar of the Cross:”

This also needs to be known, that in pious prayers it becomes important and the principal aid if a remembrance of the Lord’s passion is employed, which was completed on the altar of the cross for our sins, because not only for our offenses, but also for those of the whole world, was the blood of our redeemer shed in expiation for all sins. About which John says, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the just: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2).

Rabanus here follows the orthodox approach to the Old Testament Scriptures, reading them through the lens of the risen Christ. The risen Christ is the key that unlocks the Old Testament.

But I think it’s important not to miss the message of this chapter. The Israelites beseech God fervently in fasting and prayer when they come to the realization that they are going to have to contend with Holofernes. Rabanus likens Holofernes to the antichrist and Nabuchodonosor to the devil himself. The clear message is that when we ourselves contend with the wiles of the devil, our only hope of deliverance is repentance, fasting, and prayer.

Judith: Chapter 5 Translated


Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598—1599.

I am pleased to report that I have completed the draft of chapter 5 of Rabanus Maurus’ commentary on the book of Judith.

In chapter 5 we meet Achior, a heathen who seems to know the story of Israel quite well and warns Holofernes and his leaders that they won’t likely be able to defeat Israel. Holofernes and his leaders don’t take kindly to this warning and threaten to kill Achior for suggesting that anyone is greater than Nabuchodonosor (Nebuchadnezzar).

Early in the chapter, Rabanus likens Achior to a heretic who, while he speaks words of truth, also mixes error in with that truth. Later Achior is likened to the ten lepers cleansed by Christ. The white spots intermingled with the healthy skin represent error intermixed with truth, yet Christ cleanses the lepers. By the end of the chapter Achior is related to the man born blind from birth to whom Jesus granted sight. Even further, Rabanus connects the Jews who ejected the blind man from the temple with Holofernes’ phalanxes. But Achior, choosing the discipleship of Christ, and more literally being circumcised in the flesh and joined to the people of Israel, has chosen the correct side, being converted from his heathen ways.

Rabanus compares Holofernes and his men to those who “take pride in worldly arrogance” and who on the one hand:

look down from outside upon “men unarmed and without force,” being unable to look inwardly at the force of spirit and virtue of faith by which they fight invisibly against spiritual enemies; on the other hand these, who with false hope in their own power do not see that they themselves are deluded, give the order to consign the proclaimers of truth to the multitude that is to be destroyed.

Achior and all those like him have joined themselves to those who have a force of spirit and virtue of faith to fight invisibly against spiritual enemies. Perhaps in today’s secular world, Achior is those who, discovering Christ, become marginalized because they take hold of the discipleship of Christ.

Judith: Chapter 6 Commentary


Achior liberated by the Israelites (c. 1430), Azor Masters

I have finished translating chapter 6 of the commentary on the Book of Judith by the Blessed Rabanus Maurus.

In chapter 6, Achior, the pagan who told Holofernes about Israel’s God in the previous chapter, is taken by Holofernes’ men to be delivered to the Children of Israel at the town of Bethulia. During their approach the Israelites send out slingers to drive away Holofernes’ men. The men, concerned for their own safety, elect not to deliver Achior directly to the Israelites and instead tie him to a tree and escape.

Abp. Rabanus interprets this allegorically as usual, explaining it this way:

The servants of Holofernes lead the apprehended Achior through the plains, whereas the persecutors of the Catholic Faith desire to drag the confessor of Christ to illicit desires and to the wide and spacious way of the age, which leads to death (cf. Mt 7:13); but when they come near the mountains, the slingers, having come out against them, put the terrified to flight with darts; because men of virtue, who more frequently adhere to contemplation of the supernal, confound the malevolent ones with arrows of the divine testimonies.

Rabanus draws parallels between very simple elements of the story and practical elements of our ordinary lives. The picture of a man being dragged by soldiers across a broad plain is likened to the temptation to succumb to sinful desires, while the slingers are likened to one who is very familiar with the Scriptures, and, like Christ in the wilderness, is ready to quote Scripture to the devil.

Furthermore, because these men are unable to lead Achior into sin, they seek, metaphorically, to cause him physical suffering.

But those, while they are unable to bring their commitment to completion, determine to tie the captive to a tree hand and foot; because they are unable to seduce the soldier of Christ through depraved persuasion, they contend to make him a participant in His cross and death, and themselves return to their master, because they are not corrected, but through an increase of wicked deeds they return even more depraved into the service of their original master.

The last part of the chapter speaks of the freeing of Achior and the hospitality of the town of Bethulia, a topic left to the reader.