Susannah: The Lost Heroine of the Old Testament
By Patrick Henry Reardon
When Luther decided to limit the books of the Old Testament to those contained in the rabbinical canon, one of the eventual casualties of his decision was the dramatic, fast-moving story of Susannah, which forms the initial chapter of the Greek version of the Book of Daniel (or Chapter 13 in the traditional Latin version of the West). For Protestants, the Susannah narrative, along with all other Old Testament material not contained in the Hebrew/Aramaic canon, was thenceforth transferred to what became known as the “Apocrypha,” thus effectively guaranteeing that many later Christians would take it less seriously and probably read it less often. In our own country, in fact, where most Protestant Bibles have traditionally been published sans the Apocrypha, it is arguable that a good number of ardent Bible-readers at present are quite unfamiliar with the memorable story of Susannah.
A pity, surely. It is no exaggeration to say that all generations of Christians before Luther and most Christians even after him were very familiar with the biblical account of the beautiful and wise Susannah—the tale of the two lustful elders who attempted to seduce this virtuous lady by threats, their perjured testimony against her when she refused them, the death sentence imposed for her alleged adultery, and the dramatic emergence of young Daniel to vindicate her innocence and confound her accusers.
The Susannah narrative is well worth pursuing for both literary and spiritual purposes, and the meandering veins and mother-lode of the Christian exegesis of the Susannah account are especially rich with doctrinal themes and moral teaching. In addition, the Christian theological tradition has especially relied on the Susannah story in regard to a specific feature of the divine omniscience—God’s knowledge of future events.
This story of Susannah was most dear to earlier generations of Christian believers. Early in the second century we already find the first of six mural icons drawn from the Susannah story on the walls of the Roman catacombs, and there are seven extant examples of scenes from the Susannah chapter in bas relief on Christian sarcophagi from the first few centuries in Italy and Gaul. Moreover, in all of Christian history there is preserved not a single Christian manuscript of the Book of Daniel without the story of Susannah. In the third century, Origen of Alexandria wrote that the account of Susannah was “found in every church of Christ in that Greek copy that the Greeks use.”
At the time when Origen wrote this, nonetheless, not many Jews seem to have been reading Susannah, at least not as Holy Scripture. Although the tale had clearly been part of the earlier Semitic form of the book (more likely written in Aramaic than in Hebrew, as with the bulk of Daniel) which was translated into the Septuagint, it is not contained in any of the seven Semitic copies of Daniel discovered among the Dead Sea scrolls. Moreover, it is found neither in the writings of Flavius Josephus in the first century nor in the second-century translation of the Hebrew Scriptures by the Jew Aquila. We have the further witness of Jerome, speaking of a Jewish critic who considered the story of Susannah a piece of Greek fiction.
As to why the account of Susannah was no longer to be found in the rab-binical canon of the Sacred Scriptures, Hippolytus in Rome and Origen in Egypt were perhaps voicing a common third-century Christian view when they advanced a rather simple explanation. The reason the story of Susannah had not been included in that canon, they said, was that the latter canon was established by Jewish elders, who would not look favorably on a narrative that made villains of two of their number!
With respect to the Christian reading of the Greek version of Daniel, including Susannah, there is a further and most curious feature of textual history to be mentioned here. After Origen, in his famous Hexapla, placed Theodotion’s fairly recent (late-second-century) translation of Daniel in a parallel column with that of the Septuagint, Christian readers began to compare the two translations and decided that they much preferred Theodotion. Thus, in spite of the traditional and venerable authority of the Septuagint in the Church, Theodotion’s translation came to predominate among Christian copyists when they transcribed the Book of Daniel.
Theodotion’s version was thus adopted as the Danielic text of the Byzantine liturgical lectionary, and the Latin (Vulgate) translation of Theodotion’s Daniel was incorporated into the Roman lectionary. So great was the dominance of Theodotion in this respect that the ancient Septuagint translation of Daniel almost disappeared, not a single copy of it being known until the discovery of the Chisi-anus Codex in 1772. Similarly, it was Theodotion’s translation of Daniel that was rendered into almost all the other ancient Christian versions (the Peshitta Syriac, both the Boharic and Sahidic Coptic, the Ethiopic, the Armenian, the Arabic, and the Slavonic), as well as virtually all modern translations. Moreover, a comparison of the two accounts shows Theodotion’s to be by far the more colorful and detailed. Consequently, one suspects that, even if their choice of Theodotion had not pertained to Daniel as a whole, it is no wonder that Christian copyists preferred his rendering of Susannah.
Susannah, whose name was traditionally understood to mean “lily,” has ever been held in the highest regard by Christians. Jerome called her the woman “noble in faith,” and she was described by Chrom-atius of Aquileia as “that most noble woman.” Her chief adornments, said Hippolytus, were “faith, chastity, and holiness.” Faithful to the vows of her marriage, she would be repeatedly held up by Ambrose and others as a sterling model of married chastity.
Indeed, said Zeno of Verona, Susan-nah valued her chastity more than her life. She feared disgrace more than death; truly, the only death she feared was the death of the soul by sin, said Jerome. Theodoret of Cyr exalted her as one who chose wisely and bravely with a safe conscience. “In the sense of the Gospel,” wrote Hippolytus, “Susannah despised those who can kill the body, in order that she might save her soul from death.” Thus, Stephen of Grandmont observed that God, in saving Susannah from sinning, showed her an even greater mercy than in saving her from death.
Christians have been particularly impressed that Susannah, when falsely accused, spoke not a word to defend herself. Moreover, in Theodotion’s version, which differs in this respect from the Septuagint, she did not even raise her voice in prayer until after her condemnation. Rather, she prayed silently during her accusation and trial. As she was being accused, the text says, she simply “looked up with tears to heaven, because her heart trusted in the Lord.” “By her tears,” wrote Hippolytus, “she drew the Word from heaven, who himself was with tears able to raise the dead Lazarus.” As Origen observed, this devout gesture of Susannah is graced with a great literary irony, for it is to be contrasted with the description of her two lustful accusers: “Thus they perverted their own minds and turned away their eyes from looking up to heaven, and they rendered not just judgments.”
So Susannah, said Ambrose, did not attempt to justify herself, but sought in prayer the justice of God. The Church Fathers never ceased to praise Susannah’s silent prayer. The Lord heard her petition, wrote Hippolytus, because “God hears those who call upon Him from a pure heart.”
According to Ambrose, “She kept silence and conquered.” And again: “Susannah bent her knee to pray and triumphed over the adulterers”; “keeping silence among men, she spoke to God.” And Augustine: “She kept silence and cried out with her heart”; “Her mouth closed, her lips unmoved, Susannah cried out with this voice.”
And Jerome: “Great was this voice, not by the movement of the air nor the cry from the jaws, but by the greatness of her modesty, through which she cried out to the Lord.” And again: “The affection of the heart, and the pure confession of the mind, and the good of her conscience rendered her voice the clearer, so great was her shout to God that was not heard by men.” There were similar observations by Maximus the Confessor and others.
We may summarize the traditional treatment of this aspect of the story by quoting Leander of Seville, who speaks of the most virtuous Susannah, who did not reply with words of justice to those who accused her of adultery, although she had that justice in her heart; nor did she repel the adulterers by any claims of her own, but with a pure conscience she entrusted herself to God alone with sighs and groans, for He is the One who sees within our minds; and thus she who did not wish to be defended by her own words was defended by the divine judgment, so that God was witness for her of the guiltless conscience that she bore and as she was being led to punishment, revealed the fact of her innocence.
Nor is it without interest that Susannah’s temptation took place in a garden (paradeiso). Indeed, unlike the Septuagint, Theodotion’s version also places the entire trial in that same location, the “scene of the crime.” As the place of Susannah’s temptation, false accusation, and final vindication, therefore, this Danielic “paradise,” said Hippolytus, is to be contrasted with the garden of Genesis 3, where Eve was tempted, justly accused, and finally banished: “As formerly the devil was disguised in the serpent in the garden, so now is he concealed in the two elders, whom he arouses with his own lust, that he might once again seduce Eve.”
The Book of Daniel abounds, of course, with cases of accusations against God’s servants, followed by their divine deliverance, and in this respect the account of Susannah certainly fits the pattern. Jerome especially drew attention to her resemblance to the three youths condemned to the furnace. In the Catacomb of St. Priscilla in Rome, Susannah appears near a picture of Daniel in the lions’ den.
Of all the characters in Holy Scripture, however, it was inevitable that Susannah would most be compared to Joseph, in the case of Potiphar’s wife. Indeed, the resemblance between the two instances is remarkable: Joseph and Susannah both resistant to assaults against their chastity, both falsely accused by those who lusted after them, both maintaining silence when accused, both condemned in a foreign country, and both finally vindicated by a providential intervention. No wonder that Christian readers (Origen, Athanasius, Didymus, Ambrose, and others) repeatedly elaborated comparisons between the two of them, whether in respect to their chastity under severe trial, to their being falsely indicted and condemned by their tempters, or to their patient silence when accused.
But if Susannah is to be likened to the unjustly accused Joseph, how much more to Jesus in the context of His passion. Both Jesus and Susannah were betrayed in a garden, noted Maximus of Turin, a circumstance that would prompt a further comparison between the two lustful elders and Judas Iscariot. The sorely tried and unjustly accused Susannah, then, becomes a “type” of the Lord in His saving passion. Jerome and Eric of Auxerre remarked that Susan-nah and Jesus were alike in their being maliciously accused by false witnesses. Other writers noted that both remained similarly silent when indicted. Jerome, for example, when he read of the resounding clamor raised for the execution of Susannah, thought immediately of the loud “Crucify him” uttered against the Lord on Good Friday.
This comparison of the contrived criminal trials of Jesus and Susannah inevitably led to a studied contrast between the radically varying judgments of Daniel and Pontius Pilate. It is a striking resemblance between the Susannah story and Matthew 27:24 that both Daniel and Pontius Pilate believed that the respective trial was ending in a miscarriage of justice, and both claimed to be “innocent of the blood” about to be shed. How different, nonetheless, the two cases! Susannah was saved from the crowd by the bravery of Daniel, whereas Jesus was handed over to the crowd by the cowardice of Pilate.
Even before she was likened to Jesus, however, Susannah was perceived as a symbol of the Church. Indeed, this line of interpretation is already found in our first full commentary on the Book of Daniel, that of Hippolytus of Rome from the early third century: “It is within our ability to understand the true meaning of all that befell Susannah, for you can find all these things fulfilled in the present condition of the Church.”
For Hippolytus the entire story of Susannah is especially replete with a deep mystic symbolism having to do with the union of the Lord with His Church: “Susannah prefigured the Church; and her husband Joachim, Christ; and the garden, the summoning of the saints, who are planted in the Church like trees laden with fruit.”
Similarly, Hippolytus finds references to the Church’s sacraments in the details of this account. To Hippolytus, Susannah’s bath in the garden manifestly signifies baptism, in which the Church “washed herself in order to be presented as a pure bride to God.” As to the two maids who serve Susannah, these represent faith and love; Hippolytus explains: “For it is by faith in Christ and love for God that the Church confesses and receives the washing.” Thus, he goes on to say that the story of Susannah exhorts Christians to “follow the truth and aim at the exactitude of the faith.” And the ointments that Susannah requests of her handmaids? Obviously these are “the commandments of the holy Word.” The oil, of course, refers to the sacrament of chrismation:
And what was the oil but the power of the Holy Spirit, with which the believers are anointed after their washing. For our sakes all these things were figuratively represented in blessed Susannah, that we who believe in God might not find strange the things that are done in the Church, but believe them to have been presented figuratively by the patriarchs of old.
Still pursuing this symbolism, Hippolytus observes that the entire story takes place in Babylon, a symbol of exile in the world, where the Church is per-secuted by two groups of enemies symbolized in the two wicked elders. These enemies of the Church are the Jews and the Gentiles. “Slaves of the prince of this world,” these two are forever bringing afflictions on the Church, even “though they do not agree with one another.” Alas, Hippolytus goes on, the Church is likewise persecuted by those who are Christians in name only.
Following this last emphasis, but with a less allegorical and more strictly moral interest, other Christians found somewhat different lessons to be drawn from the negative example of these two corrupt elders, or “presbyters.” Thus, in the earliest Christian reference to the story of Susan-nah, Irenaeus of Lyons took them to be examples of wicked, self-serving pastors. Indeed, references to these two elders more than once led Gregory the Theologian to make critical observations about wicked presbyters in the Church. Didymus of Alexandria called them “pseudo-presbyters.”
Christians were also to take note of the rash action of the crowd, criticized by Daniel for being so quick to condemn an innocent woman. This remembrance would always stand in the Church, particularly in her judicial proceedings, as a warning against hasty judgments, a lesson that seems to have made a special impression among the Christians of Syria and Egypt.
In the trial of chaste Susannah, the champion of the hour was, of course, Daniel. The drama of this young man’s sudden appearance is somewhat muted in the Western or Latin tradition, in which the Susannah story forms Chapter 13 of the Book of Daniel, a position that gives the account almost the aspect of an appendix to the book. Far more effective as drama, surely, is the structural arrangement in the traditional Greek text, in which the Susannah story stands at the very beginning. Thus, in the sequence known to Eastern Orthodox Christians, we first meet the character of Daniel in the Bible when his yet boyish voice cries out suddenly: “I am innocent of this woman’s blood!” That is to say, the reader hears Daniel, and rather loudly, before he really sees him. Daniel’s first shape, so to speak, is that of a startling prophetic voice ringing out against injustice. Thus, a very young man dramatically takes his stand beside Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.
Ambrose compared the wisdom of Daniel in this scene to that of the twelve-year-old Jesus amidst the doctors in the Temple, as described in Luke 2. Cyril of Jerusalem referred to Daniel’s spiritual precocity as manifest in the trial of Susannah, and Ambrose compared him to the prophets Samuel and Jeremiah, both of whom were called at an early age.
The case can be made that Susannah’s major contribution to the history of theology is to be found in that line of her prayer where she says to God: “O Eternal God, Reader of secrets, who know all things before they come to be.” This is the Old Testament’s clearest expression of God’s knowledge of future events, events which have not yet occurred and which are, in fact, contingent upon the free decisions of men acting within history. It is the mystery of God’s foreknowledge of things that do not yet exist. Susannah invokes God using an adjective essentially related to His ability to know the future—God is “eternal.” He has a single existence, both before and after time; it is all one, “from eternity to eternity” (Greek text of Psalm 89:2). As God embraces all time in His eternity, His knowledge of things is not contingent on future historical events in such a way as to render that knowledge doubtful. He embraces history, His majestic freedom in no way lessened by the freedom of human beings who make choices within the historical stream. For He is the everlasting channel, the very bed in which that raging stream races and runs its course.
It is to this eternal God, then, that chaste Susannah commits her destiny, for in His eternity He knows all things, even “before their happening.” This expression of faithful Susannah—even “before their happening”—was to appear repeatedly in Christian literature. Whenever the Church of old sought to give expression to her faith in God’s foreknowledge of history, it was ever to Susannah’s prayer that she had recourse. This line of the prayer was quoted even by Church Fathers who made no other reference to the Susannah story. Starting with the Liturgy of St. James, we find citations of this line and clear references to it universally among the patristic traditions, whether Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian, Cappadocian, Byzantine, African, Italian, or Gallic.
At the end of this brief survey of what the story of Susannah has meant to Christian readers from the very earliest times, one is perhaps justified in inquiring just what was accomplished by Luther’s removal of that story from the Bible, in spite of its being contained in every single manuscript of the Book of Daniel, without exception, throughout all of Christian history. I ask, but I do not really expect an answer. We know what was lost by Luther’s eccentric decision. It is less clear what was gained.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. He is also a regular columnist for AGAIN. A more ample and documented version of this article appeared in Touchstone Magazine.