Creating Pseudo-History (and Comedy) from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 4

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by Neil Godfrey

Nathanael Vette (NV) is demonstrating how authors of the Second Temple era drew upon Jewish Scriptures to create narratives through a wide range of literary genres, and once we are aware of the many ways they went about doing that, we can expect to find that much of the Gospel of Mark is likewise composed from Scripture not only explicitly but even implicitly, subtly, sometimes even barely noticeably.


Although Judith was most likely written around the turn of the second to first centuries BCE, the surviving evidence leads some scholars to suspect  there was little interest in the work until the late first or early second century CE. (Lawrence Wills: “By the turn of the first to second centuries CE, then, a textual tradition of Judith was already popular enough to be referenced.”) NV notes that Judith‘s “manifold historical blunders” are not necessarily the reason for its scarcity in the earliest records (making it “something of an outlier in the miscellanea of Second Temple literature”) since Daniel and Esther are also replete with “equal historical absurdity”. (You can read the story online at the Early Jewish Writings site.)

Jael and Judith (Wikimedia Commons)

Just as I was beginning to wonder how much relevance this narrative might have for an interpretation of the Gospel of Mark, a footnote by NV ripped my complacency from me the moment I followed up its references:

  1. For some, Judith’s absurdities are a sign the author intended it to be read as a kind of historical fiction; so André-Marie Dubarle, Judith: Formes et sens des diverses traditions. Tome I: Études, Analecta Biblica Investigationes Scientificae in Res Biblicas 24 (Rome: Institut Biblique Pontifical, 1966), 162-4; Enslin, The Book of Judith, 38; Moore, Judith, 76-85; Gera, Judith, 60; Lawrence Μ. Wills, Judith, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2019), 78-95; or as a ‘legend’ in Benedict Otzen, Tobit and Judith, Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (London: Sheffield Academic, 2002), 124-6. The label of historical fiction is also applied to the equally fabulous Daniel, Esther and Letter of Aristeas. There is, however, no evidence that these texts were read as fiction during the Second Temple period. A simpler explanation is that the authors merely suffered from a lack of adequate historical information. This surely lies behind the absurd detail in the Pirḳê de Rabbi Eliezer that ‘Pharaoh, king of Egypt [of Exod. 5-14] went and ruled in Nineveh [in the time of Jonah]’ (PRE 43:9). That this may also explain the historical inaccuracies in Judith is explored in an unjustly overlooked article by Alan Millard, ‘Judith, Tobit Ahiqar and History’, in New Heaven and New Earth: Prophecy and the Millenium [sic]. Essays in Honour of Anthony Gelston, eds. Peter J. Harland and Robert Hayward, VTSup 77 (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 195-203. There is less to commend Ernst Haag’s view (Studien zum Buche Judith: Seine theologische Bedeutung und literarische Eigenart, Trierer Theologische Studien 16 [Trier: Paulinus, 1963]) that Judith’s historical inaccuracies are simply part of its theological agenda. (p 86 — my bolding in all quotations)

If one cauterizes the Gospel of Mark from its historical theological status and reads it as literature alongside other early stories of Jesus, both canonical and extra-canonical, historical absurdities also emerge as they do in Judith: a Pilate cowered by a mob demanding the release of an insurrectionist and the execution of an innocent man, Pharisees touring and synagogues dotting the landscape of Galilee in the early first century, a Sanhedrin trial for a capital offence conducted at night on the eve of a holy day, Pharisees portrayed as vicious martinets, the Jerusalem temple so small a single man was capable of disrupting its traffic and business . Should we think the author of the Gospel of Mark “intended it to be read as a kind of historical or biographical fiction”?

Compare the Enslin reference:

Compare studies that set out a case for the Gospel of Mark‘s narrative sharing elements from Scriptures, Homer, Euripides, the lives of Heracles and Aesop, and historical memory (per Josephus).

The story of Judith is an example of Jewish fiction at its best. The purpose of the author of this popular tale is not to recount history as such; rather he is concerned with picturing once again the nature and attempts of world powers hostile to the people of God who are saved by their covenant God from all assaults so long as they keep the law inviolate. But while this emphasis is always to the fore—”And whilst they did not sin before their God good things were theirs because God who hates iniquity was with them” (5 17)—the book is in no sense allegory. Rather the author has given life to this basic religious confidence, not by rewriting any one incident in Israel’s history, but rather through the invention of a romantic story, with many colorful details borrowed from earlier stories known to him from the Bible, from history as he had learned it, and from tradition. (p. 38 of Enslin’s The Book of Judith)

And the Moore reference:

Compare the Gospel of Mark being associated most readily with that most apt characterization of “Markan irony”. Characters speak truth without knowing it or even thinking they are denying it, a lowly individual overcomes the earthly and spiritual powers through an “ironic triumph” on Golgotha. (Some critics say that no-one would invent a story of a messiah being crucified, but Moore’s comment reminds us of the potential popularity of such “irony”.)

All things considered, Judith appears to be a folktale in which its author, a Pharisee and an ironist extraordinaire . . . , offered an example story featuring the least likely of models, a pious widow, who by courageously taking matters into her own hands, defeated the enemy and won lasting fame for herself. Such a message is always in vogue, in a period of peace as well as in time of war. The author was intent on telling an interesting and well-crafted story, and every detail of his narrative was designed to serve a literary or theological purpose. . . . 


A number of biblical books, including Esther. . . , make effective use of irony. But few, if any, are as quintessentially ironic as Judith. Failure to recognize this fact has been a primary reason for so many misinterpretations of the book, for whatever else the author of Judith may have been, he was an ironist. Because an ironist often means the exact opposite of what he says, he runs the risk of being misunderstood, especially if his readers are of too literal a cast of mind or if, as is so often the case with biblical passages and even whole books, the reader is unfamiliar with the Sitz im Leben, i.e., the full context or total situation in which the ironic statement is made. . . . 

The mention of Nebuchadnezzar here as “king of the Assyrians” is no slip of the pen; for he was so identified at least five more times in Judith (cf. 1:7, 11; 2:1, 4; 4:1). Moreover, that any biblical author would not have known that Nebuchadnezzar was king of the Babylonians rather than the Assyrians is improbable; and it is impossible for the author of Judith not to have known of the historical Nebuchadnezzar. After all, the storyteller was an author who knew his people’s history well enough to have written a quite creditable survey of it (see Achior’s account of Jewish history in Jdt 5) and to have provided Judith with an accurate awareness of certain periods of Israel’s past, as evidenced in her confrontation with the magistrates of Bethulia (see notes on 8:25-27) and her prayer (especially 9:2-4). If modern readers of Judith could have been present when the story was first told, it is not unlikely that as the author began his account of “Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians,” he would have given his listeners a slight smile or a sly wink. . . .

Despite modern literary criticism that recognizes the many ironies, theological allegories and diverse literary influences in the Gospel of Mark, most readers for nearly 2000 years have read the work literally, at face value.

(Even apparent geographical gaffes arguably conveyed a theological message.)

This is not to say that everyone in that audience understood the rest of the story as fiction. In other words, in spite of the caveat in 1:1, many hearers and readers probably took the story essentially at face value. . . .

To recognize the sweeping applicability of the “ironic theory” does not mean the immediate resolution of all the perplexing problems in Judith. The theory is no procrustean bed; for while it may help to resolve such historical problems as the presence of mutually exclusive preexilic and postexilic data in Judith, the theory does not resolve all the difficulties in the text, the notorious geographical problems being a case in point (see notes passim). Nonetheless, it does help the reader better to understand and to enjoy Judith when he or she realizes that its original author was an ironist who knew, as did many in his ancient audience, that he was writing fiction rather than fact. (Moore, 78-85)

And that of Gera:

“Esther,” states Berlin, “typifies storytelling about Persia from the Persian period. It takes some of its motifs from biblical literature, and it partakes of many others from the broader literary world of its time, preserved for us most abundantly in the Greek writings. We should … use these Greek writings in connection with Esther for literary purposes, not for historical purposes.” This is no less true of Judith than Esther, for there is a strong Persian flavor to Judith as well. Besides characters with Persian names such as Holophernes and Bagoas, Persian weapons such as the akinakes, and luxurious Persian objects such as Holophernes’ richly equipped tent, the Book of Judith has many novellistic [sic] or fictional elements which seem to be influenced by, and perhaps even stem from, stories of Persia. . . .

Branching out from the Gospel of Mark for a moment, we have discussed here a number of studies identifying the influence of Herodotus (and even Plato) on the Primary History of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings).

See also the post Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels. (The title is taken from a chapter title by Ronald F. Hock.)

. . . . [T]hese stories featured arrogant kings and ferocious queens, omnipresent eunuchs, maids, and courtiers, as well as councils, monumental building projects, and aggressive military campaigns. All these elements are found in Judith and contribute to the work’s fictional air. Indeed the overall fictional cast of our work has led in recent years to the description of Judith as a Jewish novel, one of a group of Second Temple Jewish texts, such as Tobit, the Greek Esther, and Joseph and Aseneth, which are said to form a genre of their own. These Jewish novels share several features with Greek novels . . . Comparison of Judith and other Jewish fictions with the Greek novel has proven fruitful . . . .  Herodotus, Ctesias, and Xenophon, . . . Greek writers of history and pseudo-history provide dramatic stories of harsh despots, independent women, and plotting eunuchs, whose caprice and cunning seemingly dictated the course of Persian history. . . . In other words, while there are many resemblances between Judith and later Greek novels, these resemblances ultimately stem from their common source of influence, classical Greek authors who wrote about early Oriental monarchies and the Persian empire. Herodotus, Ctesias, and Xenophon are forerunners of both Judith and the Greek novel and their works can be used to trace and illuminate the Persian literary background of the Book of Judith. . . . 

. . . . Herodotus and Judith both contain the same sequence of an ideological dialogue on the role of law and a particular military situation of a narrow pass leading to an important city. The evidence for Herodotean influence on the Holophernes-Achior conversation has nonetheless been termed “problematic,” because there is no mention of nomos or the Torah as such in Judith, and because Achior, who is similar to the gentile prophet Balaam and makes several deuteronomistic pronouncements, seems to belong to the biblical world. While there are, to be sure, biblical parallels for Achior’s role and words, a look at the discussion between Holophernes and Achior from a wider Herodotean perspective demonstrates that there is a strong Herodotean flavor to the scene as well.

Indeed, the encounter between Achior and Holophernes weaves together several recurring motifs, character types, and situations found in Herodotus. (Gera, 59-62)

And finally Wills:

Think of all the effort spent over generations attempting to explain or justify or excuse or simply deny the historical and geographical errors in the Gospel of Mark.

As for “telescoping of history” in Mark, observe the conflation of post-70 CE features and debates with early first century settings itemized in the paragraph above beginning, “If one cauterizes…”

For two millennia, scholars have struggled in vain to restore plausibility to the historical timeline of Judith. Yet the list of historical and geographical inconcinnities is far too great. Here I assume that the text is a work of fiction and that the author was intentionally playing with a fanciful story line that would have been obvious to the audience. . . .

Despite the audacious mockery of actual historical and geographical order, the author also provides details of historical dates and long series of geographical sites. Yet, although the telescoping of history has been judged to be outrageous and playful, patently fictitious, it is not entirely unique in the ancient world. . . . 

There are two opposing tendencies in Jewish literature of this period, the historical—a strict chronologizing found in both history and apocalypses—and the novelistic—the imaginative play of epochs. As in Greece and Rome, novelistic play becomes popular as the other side of the coin of new rigorous historicism (see §7 below). . . . 

I am reminded of the works of Andreas Bedenbender and Clarke Owens that make a case for names and events in the Gospel of Mark sometimes being ciphers for the Jewish War that saw the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Some like Hermann Detering who kept the candle of the Dutch Radicals burning would even see names and events pointing to the final doom of Jerusalem in 135 CE.

At the turn of the twentieth century Charles James Ball made the reasonable suggestion that, as in the book of Daniel, the figures stood for leaders from the period of the Maccabean Revolt: Nebuchadnezzar the Assyrian represented Antiochus IV Epiphanes the Seleucid—or Syrian, a form sometimes used for Assyrian—while Holofernes represented Nicanor; Judith stood for Judah the Maccabee, and Joakim for Alcimus the high priest. It was not a neat theory, however; whereas Judith and ­Joakim in the narrative acted very much in concert, the real Judah and Alcimus were bitter enemies. Still, shades of Antiochus IV can surely be seen in the character of Nebuchadnezzar. . . . 

Wordplay is common throughout the Gospel of Mark: Jairus (enlightened),  Bartimaeus (son of honour), Barabbas (son of the father), the play on the name Peter (rock) and the rocky soil of the parable of the sower, the miracle performed on the fig tree near Bethany (the house of figs), and many more; and some readers see humour in the outrageous inability of the disciples to grasp the simplest words of Jesus even after having seen him demonstrate his meaning in spectacular miracles; or reading about the young man fleeing naked in Gethsemane.

§7 Genre and Literary Qualities of Judith; Humor, Irony, and Lying

. . . . We begin at a basic level. Interesting examples of wordplay, humor, and irony have long been noted in Judith. Words are often repeated to develop both theme and audience response . . . a technique common in the Hebrew Bible. Retardation and acceleration of plot, common in ancient storytelling, rise to extravagance in Judith. . . . . More experimental is the telescoping of historical epochs as an open advertisement of the text’s fictionality. There are also highly developed structural patterns, a vast number of biblical and Greek allusions, and even occasional slapstick. . . . . Although it is not clear how intentional it was, there is an alternation of Semitizing biblical style in the narrative and Greek style in prayers and direct quotations. (Wills, extracts copied from Scribd online)

The above diversion with fulsome quotations and commentary is my own extrapolation from NV’s footnote.

As we saw in that footnote quoted above, NV attributes the historical errors in Judith to the author’s ignorance. Carey Moore’s remark “that any biblical author would not have known that Nebuchadnezzar was king of the Babylonians rather than the Assyrians is improbable; and it is impossible for the author of Judith not to have known of the historical Nebuchadnezzar” cannot be lightly dismissed. NV finds little to commend Ernest Haag’s view that “Judith’s historical inaccuracies are simply part of its theological agenda”, but Haag’s view overlaps with that of Carey Moore and it synchronizes well with the Gospel of Mark‘s historical “blunders”: the night time trial of Jesus on the eve of a holy day; a pusillanimous Pilate switching Barabbas for Jesus; John the Baptist being executed half a dozen years too soon if the Josephus paragraph is not a forgery; and, if Mark 1:9 is not a glossNazareth being inhabited as early as the first decades of the first century. All of the those inaccuracies appear to serve theological aims. For the benefit of the curious reader, here is a translation of the first part of the relevant passage by Haag:

In the eighteenth year of his reign, on the twenty-second day of the first month, Nabuchodonosor takes the decision to carry out the announced revenge against the insubordinate peoples (2:1). Since this verse does not correspond to the actual course of history, but is an artificial time specification formulated by the author himself, it is important to pay close attention to the details when interpreting it. First of all, the author recalls the eighteenth year of the reign of the historical Nabuchodonosor, in which, according to the biblical account, he had undertaken his last and decisive campaign against Jerusalem [Jer 32:1]. In this enterprise, the enemies of God’s people had experienced their highest triumph to date. The memory of this event makes the planned enterprise of Nabuchodonosor in the Book of Judith appear as a similar threat to the existence of the people of God, in which the world power wants to savour its last triumph in victory over the people of God. In doing so, it does not fear Yahweh’s resistance. This is what the second part of the time alludes to. For the twenty-second day of the first month is the first day after the Passover, the memorial of the miraculous deliverance of God’s people from Egypt. On that occasion Yahweh had declared his superiority over the Egyptian great power and its gods (Ex 12:12) and had shown once and for all that no enemy was a match for him. But Nabuchodonosor questions this saving power of Yahweh. The whole plan of Nabuchodonosor gets its character already from the time in 2:1. It is the plan of a world power hostile to God which, in the course of its totalitarian development of power, is preparing to take up the struggle with Yahweh Himself. (Haag, 15)

NV is not persuaded. Maybe I am too easily, at least partly, swayed. Either way, I think the question is an interesting one worth taking time to study. Maybe with more information and input I might come around to NV’s view. Meanwhile, NV sides with Alan Millard who writes:

Others built up a picture which they thought adequate on the basis of the information available to them, as the author of Judith did for the background to the story and as Eupolemus and Josephus did, lacking better sources, or not knowing they existed. For all of these authors it is fair to suppose that there were problems of access to sources and barriers of language and educated Greeks apparently had an aversion to reading foreign languages. (Millard, 199)

NV demonstrates in detail the “scripturalization” by the author of Judith in his or her use of motifs, scenes, imagery and dialogue from

  • Genesis,
  • Exodus,
  • Numbers,
  • Joshua,
  • Judges,
  • Ruth,
  • Jonah,
  • Micah,
  • and possibly Esther (though some scholars think the influence was in the opposite direction).

Judith is a woman with the iron nerve of Jael, the courage of Deborah, the musicality of Miriam, the beauty of Esther, and whose enemies ironically acknowledge is as pious as Ruth. Our heroine is a pastiche of Scriptural passages that NV cites in full.

But why the author of Judith modelled their heroine on Jael in the first place is as mysterious as the book itself. Was Judith wholly a product of the author’s imagination, pieced together out of Jael, Deborah, Miriam and other scriptural heroines, or was a pre-existing legend over time given elements of the Jael story? Here there can be no certainty, other than that the author Judith made use of Judges 4-5 when composing the story. If the book of Judith was meant to be read as historical fiction – which is doubtful – then it would be an example of a knowingly fictional character fashioned, in part, out of the Jewish scriptures. As no sign of the author’s intent survives, and the events are narrated in the historiographical style, it is more appropriate to consider the book of Judith as pseudo-history – which is a statement of fact, rather than intention. The events described in Judith did not happen, not least because in some cases they would be impossible. The author nevertheless presents them as if they did. What historical or legendary sources the author used to compose this story, if any, are lost. The only surviving sources are the Jewish scriptures. Though the scriptures do not explain every aspect of the story, a scripturalized episode lies at the heart of the pseudo-historical tale: the slaying of an enemy general in a tent ‘by the hand of a woman’. (NV, 98f)

NV acknowledges his debt to Lionel Pearson for the term “pseudo-history” but I am not quite sure if he, NV, interprets the term in as clear-cut a manner as I do. Maybe I am quibbling over a difference without a real difference. I will leave you, dear reader, to judge. . . .

NV without any doubt recognizes the scriptural raw materials that have gone into the mix to create the figure of Judith but seems to cling to a sliver of doubt about it being totally fictional. He speaks of there being “no certainty” about the possibility of a “pre-existing legend” and that it is “doubtful” that the story was read as “historical fiction”. But on that latter point see again the extract from Carey Moore’s discussion above: the surviving evidence that early audiences took a story at face value tells us nothing about the intent of the author and the understanding of the original audience for whom he or she was writing.

As for the propensity to maintain some doubt or level of uncertainty in the absence of corroborating evidence, here is the principle that Lionel Pearson, the source of NV’s term “pseudo-history”, addressed at various points in his article:

Although we may grant that Plato was right in accepting Tyrtaeus as a genuine old Spartan poet, can we believe him when he makes a Statement that is not corroborated by any historical writer?(p 401)

Plato enjoys no great authority as an historian, and it is tempting to believe that the war of 490 was invented early in the fourth Century by the Spartans themselves, as a reply to those who criticized their reluctance to help Athens at Marathon. (p 401)

But the founding of Messene offered a much stronger incentive to invent Messenian history and to give it a pro-Spartan or anti-Spartan twist. (p 404)

Pausanias (IV 1. 3) says bluntly that he does not believe there was an old city at Messene, or called Messene, and archaeologists think he is right, since they can find no traces of earlier buildings there. (p 405)

But unlike Thucydides, who is ready to reject or ignore what he thinks irrelevant or incredible, a hellenistic historian, more concerned perhaps with finding numerous readers than pleasing critical ones, will not discard a good story. (p 412)

It is not my intention to attempt any reconstruction of the poem or any criticism of Rhianus as an artist. But the account of Pausanias shows clearly enough that its historical value as a source is negligible, that it is not an account of the war any more than the Iliad is an account of the Trojan War; its concern is with the individuals, Aristomenes, Aristocrates, and the others, just as Homers concern is with Achilles, Hector, Patroclus, and the rest. To call it historical epic, with the implication that it is an account of historical events, is misleading; it is historical only in so far as its setting is historical, not mythological. (p 418)

‘‘Creative” history writing, if one may ventury [sic] to coin a new term, more dignified than Juvenal’s “Quicquid Graecia mendax Audet in historia,” [=”the lies those old Greek historians got away with!” – Peter Green’s translation] (p 425)

The invention of ancient history for new nations, such as Messene was, has obvious attractions; (p 426)

Pearson recognizes the ideological need for a new Greek polis to create a certain kind of history. One is reminded of Plato’s discussion in Laws of the need for a created history, preferably one with divine authority, for the establishment of an ideal community. We have posted here scholarly work on the need for the new Persian province of Jehud to develop an idealized history. Can we take the process another step and suggest a similar need was being met when it was felt the time had come for a history of Christian origins? But I am stepping out ahead of NV here.

Words like “doubt” and “uncertain” in NV’s critique miss the point, from my point of view. If there is no corroborating (that is, independent) supporting evidence for a claim then we are obliged to admit we are working with untestable assertions and nothing more, except that assertions can often be found to have a political or ideological motive for their manufacture. An event or person that cannot be established “beyond reasonable doubt” has nothing to contribute to a hypothesis or honest historical reconstruction.

What NV demonstrates with his survey of Judith is that stories and persons can be constructed from known sources, in this case from the Jewish Scriptures and spiced with styles from Greek writings. If there was a historical person on whom Judith was ultimately based the evidence is lost and the question therefore idle speculation.

Testament of Abraham


NV’s last Second Temple work is the Testament of Abraham, a text that reads more like a comedy than a sober sacred writ. Abraham uses his righteousness to repeatedly confound God’s agents, Michael and the Angel of Death, to take his life from the earth. (You can read the story on the New Advent site.) Again, NV shows the many ways in which even this comic genre is riddled with Scriptures, implicit and explicit, mainly compositional, paraphrased and verbatim, with Bruce Fisk’s “secondary” references overlaying those passages from the primary Genesis verses. Those “fillers” come from

  • Genesis 12-25
  • Numbers 16,
  • Psalm 19,
  • 2 Kings 1-2,
  • legends about the death of Moses bequeathed to us in the later rabbinical writings on Deuteronomy
  • as well as more directly from Deuteronomy 3 and 34
  • Job 1-2

Job is only mentioned once in the Testament of Abraham but as NV points out, according to Dale Allison the hidden structural edifice of Job’s story gives the new story of Abraham its distinctive appeal.

The analogies with Job, who gets named only once, not only add the comfort of familiarity, they also generate the pleasure of discovery. The unspoken parallels and oblique references become, when deciphered, occasions for enjoyment. The imagination gains satisfaction from uncovering the covered; it takes pleasure in detecting hidden analogies and experiencing literary deja vu. In short, the allusions to Job, whatever else they may do, make a pleasing story even more pleasing. (Allison, 147)

NV even compares the manner of direct comparison between Job and Abraham to the technique of Plutarch in his Parallel Lives of Greeks and Romans. Like Plutarch, the author of the Testament of Abraham placed “flags” in the narrative to enable readers to recall otherwise unspoken comparisons with Job all for the purpose of edification.


The foregoing analyses of five Second Temple era Jewish texts have established the ubiquity of the literary technique of creating new episodes from Scripture. Scriptures are sometimes introduced exegetically, often woven in subtly, unannounced, sometimes quoted directly, other times loosely paraphrased or hinted at allusively. If we find in a new story a direct Scripture parallel, we will even more often find Scriptures from otherwise unrelated works fleshing out the new perspective. Sometimes new plots would be invented for well-known Scripture heroes, other times new annals for hitherto insignificant names were brought to the fore, and sometimes even new persons (NV would say “pseudo-historical individuals”) would be composed from Scriptures. Sometimes the Scriptures were introduced to promote an ideology — I think also of situations calling for the creation of “recovered” history to meet the needs of a new community — or to cement a theological perspective.

We have now reached the point where NV enters the literary world of the Gospel of Mark to see how the foregoing practices contribute to gospel origins.


Allison, Dale C. “Job in the Testament of Abraham.” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 12, no. 2 (October 2001): 131–47. https://doi.org/10.1177/095182070101200201.

Enslin, Morton Scott. The Book of Judith: Greek Text with an English Translation. Leiden: Brill, 1973.

Gera, Deborah Levine. Judith. Berlin ; Boston: De Gruyter, 2013.

Haag, Ernst. Studien zum Buche Judith; seine theologische Bedeutung und literarische Eigenart. Trier: Paulinus, 1963. http://archive.org/details/studienzumbuchej0000haag.

Millard, Alan. “Judith, Tobit, Ahiqar and History.” In New Heaven and New Earth: Prophecy and the Millennium : Essays in Honour of Anthony Gelston, edited by Peter J. Harland and Professor of Hebrew Department of Theology and Religion Robert Hayward, 196–203. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 1999.

Moore, Carey A. Judith: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. http://archive.org/details/judithnewtransla40moor.

Pearson, Lionel. “The Pseudo-History of Messenia and Its Authors.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 11, no. 4 (1962): 397–426.

Vette, Nathanael. Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. London ; New York: T&T Clark, 2022.

Wills, Lawrence M. Judith : A Commentary on the Book of Judith. Hermeneia. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2019. https://www.scribd.com/book/428319703/Judith.


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9 thoughts on “Creating Pseudo-History (and Comedy) from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 4”

    1. “It feels somewhat like if we only had Victor Hugo as a source for Napoléon”

      • Godfrey, Neil (28 September 2013). “Why the Gospels Are Historical Fiction”. Vridar.

      One could write a book covering the literary artifice that makes up the Gospel of Mark. I have of course only scratched the surface of a few verses. The entire gospel could be analysed in such a way to reinforce the same conclusion.

      So I’ll conclude with something Robert Alter wrote in relation to his literary analysis of tales from Genesis:

      From this distance in time, it is impossible to determine how much of this whole tale was sanctified, even verbally fixed, tradition; how much was popular lore perhaps available in different versions; how much the original invention of the writer. What a close reading of the text does suggest, however, is that the writer could manipulate his inherited materials with sufficient freedom and sufficient firmness of authorial purpose to define motives, relations, and unfolding themes, even in a primeval history, with the kind of subtle cogency we associate with the conscious artistry of the narrative mode designated prose fiction. (p. 32, my emphasis)

  1. Thank you for the expanded post on Judith – this is very instructive, and easier to digest with all the references laid out as you have done.
    How can it be that after studying NV’s work in detail, you are “not quite sure if he, NV, interprets the term [pseudo-history] in as clear-cut a manner as I do”? Is he perhaps being disingenuous? Surely, if he’s going to use a term that’s been around since 1815 he should make very sure that the meaning which he is adopting has been made clear? The definition used by Robert Carroll (see below) is much more specific and perhaps goes too far. I wonder if NV is hiding from a definition like Carroll’s by being circumspect in his use of Pearson’s 1962 discussion? Perhaps, Neil, you could tell us your working definition.
    Carroll’s definition is not necessarily the most authoritative, but is useful since it is in the public domain:-

    Pseudohistory is purported history…
    – which treats myths, legends, sagas and similar literature as literal truth;
    – is neither critical nor skeptical in its reading of ancient historians, taking their claims at face value and ignoring empirical or logical evidence contrary to the claims of the ancients;
    – is on a mission, not a quest, seeking to support some contemporary political or religious agenda rather than find out the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the past;
    -often denies that there is such a thing as historical truth, clinging to the extreme skeptical notion that only what is absolutely certain can be called ‘true’ and nothing is absolutely certain, so nothing is true;
    – often maintains that history is nothing but mythmaking and that different histories are not to be compared on such traditional academic standards as accuracy, empirical probability, logical consistency, relevancy, completeness, fairness, honesty, etc., but on moral or political grounds;
    – is selective in its use of ancient documents, citing favorably those that fit with its agenda, and ignoring or interpreting away those documents which don’t fit;
    – considers the possibility of something being true as sufficient to believe it is true if it fits with one’s agenda;
    – often maintains that there is a conspiracy to suppress its claims because of racism, atheism or ethnocentrism, or because of opposition to its political or religious agenda.


  2. Wiki on Nebuchadnezzar:

    “The Jews thereafter referred to Nebuchadnezzar, the greatest enemy they had faced until that point, as a “destroyer of nations”.”

    I can see the author referring to Nebuchadnezzar as King of “a defeated nation” (Assyria), as an insult to the Assyrians, and purposely ignoring Babylon (also as an insult to Babylon). Especially if Judith follows a Deuteronomy theme of re-establishing centralized worship in the Jerusalem Temple (Maccabees mirror Josiah).

    Another subject – maybe the women’s lib approach of the author was used a couple hundred years later by the author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla (pseudo-history and comedy). It subtly insults Paul, just like Judith subtly insults Assyrians and Babylonians.

    The reality of the situation might be – an author (during any century), tries the write text that will be popular and read by the people, not boring text no one wants to read.

    Although I don’t know what this has to do with Mark! I see no parallels in Mark.

    1. Off-topic for the post but interesting: Why would someone write Judith? I don’t think “to be popular.” A sole author without an audience wouldn’t have gotten any traction.

      I think the simplest explanation is that it was written to honor a wealthy woman, and was read in a synagogue or at a party in her honor. She was surrounded by a community that preserved the text as a memorial to her. (Hellenistic period) Other congregations learned about it and used it as entertainment for festivals, or perhaps to honor their own female patrons. Thus, it survived but not considered canonical by Judeans

      The intense referencing of Scripture and of other Judean texts assures the audience that though the work is fiction, it does not intend to upset tradition.

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