Why Read The Apocrypha: Susanna and The Elders

Why Read The Apocrypha: Susanna and The Elders

Part 8 in Our Why Read the Apocrypha Series. So far we have discussed – the Book of Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, and the Prayer of Azariah and the Three Children.

Today we will discuss the Story of Susanna – its history and background, the original language of the text, the view of the Church Fathers throughout history, any criticisms, and lastly, we will read portions from this book. 

This story is set early on in the Hebrew Captivity in Babylon. Susanna is a very wealthy, beautiful married woman, and two religious elders are sexually attracted to her. They try to force her to be intimate with them. If she refuses they say they will blackmail her, saying they discovered she was committing adultery. Susanna is put on trial and sentenced to death. The story features a younger Daniel, who through the spirit of God, helps to save Susanna from an undeserved death. 

History and Background

Close up on many old books

This book is also known as the Story of Susanna, the History of Susanna, or simply Susanna. This story is an addition to the Book of Daniel that is present in the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate translations of the Bible. It is included as either the first or 14th chapter. 

In History

Throughout history, the Story of Susanna was seen by the early Christian Church as an allegory for the Church. While this book is regarded as scripture or an inspired work by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, it is seen as an Apocryphal Old Testament addition by most Protestants. 

Following the English Reformation, we see Susanna formally placed outside the Biblical canon with the rest of the Apocryphal books.

Article VI of the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England, places this book as an important book to read for an “example of life and instructions of manners” but not for doctrine. 

The Thirty- Nine Articles are used by the Church of England and the U.S. Episcopal Church. They were the defining statements of the doctrines and practices of Anglicans in relation to Calvinist doctrine and Roman Catholic practice. They were defined in the years following King Henry VIII’s ex-communication in relation to his divorce and his removal of the Pope’s authority in Church affairs in England. 

Article VI states:

And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:

The Third Book of Esdras, The rest of the Book of Esther,

The Fourth Book of Esdras, The Book of Wisdom,

The Book of Tobias, Jesus the Son of Sirach,

The Book of Judith, Baruch the Prophet,

The Song of the Three Children, The Prayer of Manasses,

The Story of Susanna, The First Book of Maccabees,

Of Bel and the Dragon, The Second Book of Maccabees.

Anglican Online “Thirty-Nine articles

In Art

The story of Susanna and the Elders has been depicted in art throughout history. Mostly with a focus on Susanna in the nude with the elders trying to talk or interact with her in some way. These paintings are a gross misinterpretation and depiction of Susanna’s character, morals, and beliefs. 

Original Language and Date

It isn’t clear if the original language was Greek or a Semitic language, like Hebrew or Aramaic. This same uncertainty is seen with its date (usually placed between the 2nd or 1st B.C), and its author.

(Britannica “History of Susanna“, Bible Gateway “History Susanna“, Wikipedia “Susanna – Book of Daniel“, Anglican Online “Thirty-Nine articles“, Wikipedia “Thirty-Nine Articles“)

Church Fathers’ View Throughout History

apocrypha - susanna and the elders

Up until the 3rd century A.D. The Story of Susanna was a part of the Bible and was seen as inspired or at least as an important book to read. During the time of the Church Fathers (roughly 70 A.D. – 700 A.D.), many discussions ensued regarding the books of the canon. It was during this time that many of the books that are now considered ‘Apocryphal’ were disputed. 

Sextus Julius Africanus a Christian traveler and historian from the late second to the early third century, did not regard this story as canonical. 

Jerome, a Latin priest, theologian, and author of the Latin Vulgate, has historically rejected the Apocrypha. He believed this story, in particular, to be a non-canonical fable because it was not present in the Hebrew Masoretic translation of Daniel. 

However, Origen of Alexandria, another early Christian scholar, and theologian, believed the Story of Susanna to be ‘divinely inspired’ and mentioned the story was commonly read in the early Church.

(Britannica “History of Susanna“, Bible Gateway “History Susanna“, Wikipedia “Susanna – Book of Daniel“)

Criticisms Against Susanna 

There are many criticisms against the Story of Susanna cited by modern scholars. They range from implausible circumstantial details about the story, disbelief on the grounds of the conviction of Susanna, to similarities between Babylonian and Hebrew legends. 

Criticism 1: Implausible Circumstantial Details

Opposition to this book cites Joacim’s (Susanna’s husband) luxurious house and garden, his servants, elected judges, and the right to inflict capital punishment, as grounds to dispute its validity. These things are believed to be in opposition to what would have been expected of a newly exiled population.

On the other hand, when reading about the Babylonian captivity in the Bible, we don’t get the impression that the Hebrews were slaves in Babylon. They seemed to have some measure of freedom while living there. Although we did see them serving in Babylon in some capacity, like Nehemiah for example, it doesn’t seem highly unlikely that Susanna and her husband would have been wealthy.

Daniel and the three Hebrew boys also were very wealthy and important men during the Babylonian captivity and exile. 

Criticism 2 – The conduct of the judge – Daniel, was believed to be unnatural and arbitrary. 

I haven’t seen any concrete reasons for this claim. It seems the critique is juxtaposing the ancient morals, conduct, and court systems against our own. The way the judge conducted the trial might seem unnatural and arbitrary based on our modern court system. However, the ancient court systems and trials were probably very different from the way our systems are conducted.

Criticism 3 – Theodotion’s translation varies in detail from some other Greek translations of the Story of Susanna

Theodotion was a Hellenistic Jewish Scholar in the second century, he is believed to have translated the Book of Daniel from Hebrew into Greek and its additions to it. His translation is seen as authoritative and is often contrasted with the Greek Septuagint. His translation of Susanna is said to differ from the Septuagint version. 

As a result of these discrepancies, scholars believe this book to not be credible. 

However, Brenton’s Septuagint  – the first Septuagint to be translated into English from Greek- seems to be very similar to Theodotion’s version.

Criticism 4 – Fictitious because the storyline is similar to many Babylonian and Hebrew Legends

This story is believed to be fictitious because it is similar to a common Babylonian legend of two older men being seduced by the goddess of love. Likewise, there is a Hebrew tradition that Ahab and Zedekiah tried to seduce women by persuading them that they would become the mother of the Messiah is also cited. The origins of this tradition are believed to be from Jeremiah 29: 21 – 23. In this verse, God says that these men would be punished for committing adultery with their neighbor’s wives.

Origen, Jerome, and many rabbinical works mentioned this Hebrew tradition in many variations. 

(Bible Gateway “History of Susanna“, Biblical Training “History Susanna“)

Introduction to Susanna and the Elders

black woman sculpture

If you want to read this book – I’ll link it here!

Right away we are introduced to Susanna, her upbringing, her love for the Lord, and her husband. Because of Joacim’s wealth, honor, and importance, his house was the place to conduct discussions concerning the law. 

Verses 1 – 4: “There dwelt a man in Babylon, called Joacim: 2 and he took a wife, whose name was Susanna, the daughter of Chelcias, a very fair[beautiful] woman, and one that feared the Lord. 3 Her parents also were righteous, and taught their daughter according to the law of Moses. 4 Now Joacim was a great rich man, and had a fair[beautiful] garden joining unto his house: and to him resorted the Jews; because he was more honorable than all others.”

Two Elders lusted after Susanna

When the Jews departed from her house at noontime, Susanna loved to walk through her gardens. It was during one of these walks, that two of the elders saw her and lusted after her. They tried not to show anyone that they had these feelings, and continued to watch her regularly. 

Verses 7 – 9: “Now when the people departed away at noon, Susanna went into her husband’s garden to walk. 8 And two elders saw her going in every day, and walking so that their lust was inflamed toward her. 9 And they perverted their own mind, and turned away their, that they might not look unto heaven, nor remember just judgments.”

Elders plan to accuse Susanna of adultery

These two elders planned to find Susanna alone to find a way to be intimate with her. They hid inside the gates of Joacim’s gardens, waiting for her. She later came out to take a bath and sent her maids inside to grab everything needed. The elders used this opportunity to come to her. They confess their love for her and try to persuade her to sleep with them. She refuses and cries out and they accuse her of being an adulteress. 

Verses 20 – 23: “Behold, the garden doors are shut, that no man can see us, and we are in love with thee; therefore consent unto us, and lie with us. 21 If thou wilt not, we will bear witness against thee, that a young was with thee: and therefore thou didst send away thy maids from thee. 22 Then Susanna sighed, and said, I am straightened on every side: for it I do this thing, it is death unto me: and if I do it not I cannot escape your hands. 23 It is better for me to fall into your hands, and not do it, than to sin in the sight of the Lord.”

The Trial of Susanna

Court is in session for Susanna. She and her family are brought in. The elders shame her and tell all the people gathered their false story. The other elders, judges, and the people gathered believed the story, and Susanna was sentenced to death. 

Verses 30 – 32;  35; 41: “So she cam with her father and mother, her children, and all her kindred. 31 Now Susanna was a very delicate woman, and beauteous to behold. 32 And these wicked men commanded to uncover her face, (for she was covered) that they might be filled with her beauty.

35 And she weeping looked up toward heaven: for her heart trusted in the Lord. 

41 Then the assembly believed them as those that were the elders and judges of the people: so they condemned her to death.”

Susanna’s Deliverance

While being led to her death, Susanna cried out to the Lord for help. In response, God stirs up the heart of Daniel. He says that it was shameful that the leaders didn’t examine to see if the claims were true.

Verses 42 – 45; 48: “Then Susanna cried out with a loud voice, and said, O everlasting God, that knowest the secrets, and knowest all things before they be: 43 Thou knowest that they have borne false witness against me, and, behold, I must die; whereas I never did such things as these men have maliciously invented against me. 44 And the Lord heard her voice. 45 Therefore when he was led to be put to death, the Lord raised up the holy spirit of a young youth whose name was Daniel. 

48 So he standing in the midst of them said, “Are ye such fools, ye sons of Israel, that without examination or knowledge of the truth ye have condemned a daughter of Israel?”

Daniel proceeds to cross-examine the two elders separately to see if their stories line up. He asks under what tree did this alleged act of adultery occurred.

Verse 54: “Now then, if thou hast seen her, tell me, Under what tree sawest thou them companying together? Who answered, Under a mastic tree.”

The second elder responds by saying: 58”… Under a holm tree.”

Everyone sees that the elders had falsely accused Susanna, and they were sentenced to death instead. Everyone rejoices and praises the Lord. And we see that Daniel had an honorable reputation as a result of helping to save Susanna from death. 

Verse 60 – 64: ”With that all the assembly cried out with a loud voice, and praise God, who saveth them that trust in him. 61 And they arouse against the two elders, for Daniel had convicted them of false witness by their own mouth: 62 And according to the law of Moses they did unto them in such sort as they maliciously intended to do to their neighbor: and they put them to death. Thus the innocent blood was saved the same day. 63 Therefore Chelcias and his wife praised God for their daughter Susanna, with Joacim her husband, and all the kindred, because there was no dishonesty found in her. 64 From that day forth was Daniel had in great reputation in the sight of the people.”

The Story of Susanna and the Elders is so much more than the highly sexualized oil paintings of the past. Susanna was a righteous woman who was falsely accused of adultery, and at that moment God used Daniel to save her and reward her faithfulness. It is a story of faith, obedience to the laws of God, and deliverance. It is a story that has been hidden, disputed, and criticized but one that should be read and cherished. Shalom. 

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