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Susanna

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Susanna

    A devout and beautiful Jewish woman, whose name means “lily.” She was falsely accused of adultery, but saved from sentence of death by the young Daniel, who presented in court an unorthodox but clever defense; and she is the heroine of the small book of the Apocrypha that goes by her name. (See Apocrypha, article on Jewish Apocrypha.)

    In Theodotion's edition of the Greek and in several ancient versions based upon it, Susanna appears as a prefix to chap. 1 of the book of Daniel, but in the older Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate it is placed in an appendix after chap. 12 along with the story of Bel and the Dragon. It seems almost certain that it was originally an independent work, since neither the style and setting of the story nor the character of Daniel, its hero, seem to harmonize with the rest of the book. Other independent stories about Daniel were current in antiquity, as is evidenced by the discovery of fragments of Daniel legends among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    The story is interesting and well told. Susanna, the wife of Joakim, a wealthy and highly respected Jew who lived in Babylonia during the exile, used to walk every afternoon in the garden of her house, and attracted the lecherous interest of two elders of the community who had been appointed judges and were frequent visitors to Joakim's home. Separately bent on seducing her, they met by chance in the hiding place where each had her under observation, and concocted a plot against her virtue. One day when she was bathing in the garden and the doors to the house had been shut by her two maids, the elders rushed out of their place of concealment and demanded that she lie with them; otherwise they would publicly accuse her of committing adultery with a young man, and would declare that they had witnessed the act. Susanna, true to her principles, refused their request and said she was willing to accept the consequences. When the inevitable trial began, they carried out their threat and, as a result, she was condemned to die. But at the critical moment God inspired the youthful Daniel to protest against the sentence and to undertake to cross‐examine the two elders separately. In an anticipation of the technique of the classic detective story, he caught them in a clear contradiction about the kind of tree under which the alleged crime was committed, with the result that Susanna was acquitted and the accusers suffered the fate they had intended for her (cf. the similar ironic reversal in Esther).

    The tale is commonly accepted as fiction, but there has been no general agreement on its purpose. Some scholars have thought the story a kind of midrash dealing with the fate of the two false prophets, Ahab and Zedekiah, who were the objects of a curse by Jeremiah, and were accused by him, incidentally, of adulterous conduct (Jer. 29.21–23). Others regard it as a partisan polemic calling for an improvement in the commonly accepted procedures of the rabbinic courts. The prevailing view, however, sees it as simply a popular tale, probably secular, and perhaps even non‐Jewish in origin, which has been provided with edifying religious motifs and adapted for Jewish readers. Some scholars who assert that specific elements in the story have been taken from traditional folklore, notably the theme of the “wise child”—the youth who displays more insight than his elders and is able to correct some flagrant injustice—but the evidence is vague and indecisive.

    Until comparatively recent times, it was the common view that the original language was Greek; this seems especially persuasive because of the puns on the names of the two trees in vv. 54–55 and 58–59 (see text notes b and c in NRSV), which make sense only in Greek. Recently, however, the book has increasingly been thought a translation from an original Semitic text, probably Hebrew but possibly Aramaic, though there is no supporting external evidence. The book does, however, contain a number of apparent Hebraisms, and the social ambience suggests a Palestinian origin. The puns could have been introduced by the Greek translator. The date could be as early as the Persian period and certainly no later than ca. 100 BCE, when the Septuagint translation was completed. The story of Susanna was a popular subject of later Christian art and literature, and poetic versions of the tale are known in several European languages.

    For other additions to Daniel, see Azariah, The Prayer of and Bel and the Dragon.

    Robert C. Dentan

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