What did we lose when Martin Luther senselessly discarded some books from the Bible? Most people who read the Bible know nothing about Susannah. This three part article by Fr. Patrick gives a glimpse into a powerful heroine and type for Christians, all but lost to the ‘Bible-reading’ American. With the evidence from early, medieval and even late Christian witness, we can weep with pity for the loss. Thanks be to God, it is still in the Orthodox Bible. Enjoy it.
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.
Christians and Jews
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 rabbinical 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 Chisianus 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.