Scala/Art Resource, New York, NY

“Judith,” by Cristofano Allori (1577–1621). The powerful grip and large strong hand with which Judith grasps the head of Holofernes belie the delicate beauty and innocence of her face. Further contrast to her youth are provided by the ashen features of the decapitated head and the anxious expression of the aged maid, Judith’s accomplice.

Was the Book of Judith excluded from the biblical canon because of Judith’s gruesome act? Or because the story is rife with errors of geography, chronology and even identities of well-known historical figures? The search for answers reveals much about this great but “immoral” biblical heroine and about the complex process by which books were included or excluded from the canon of the Bible.