The History of Susanna

SUSANNA, THE HISTORY OF sōō zăn’ ə (שׁוֹשַׁנָּה, Σουσάννα, G5052). One of the Gr. additions to the Heb. (and Aram.) text of Daniel which in the LXX originally was placed after Daniel as an appendix, but which in the important surviving MSS is found before Daniel because of the story’s reference to Daniel as a young boy (cf. v. 45). In the Vul. Susanna occurs at the end of Daniel as an integral part of the book (numbered as ch. 13); in the Protestant Bible it is found as a separate book in the Apoc.


The narrative tells of Susanna, a pious woman of great beauty who lived with her wealthy husband Joakim in Babylon. Adjacent to his house Joakim had a large garden in which Susanna loved to stroll at midday when the elders (judges) and litigants, who were in the practice of conducting their business in Joakim’s house, had departed. Two of these elders, however, had for some time been secretly inflamed with desire for Susanna, and one sultry day they individually stole back to the garden where, having surprised each other, they were forced to confess their mutual designs on Susanna. After she had sent away her servants in preparation to bathe, the elders confronted her with the alternative of either submitting to their desires or being exposed as having been caught with a young man. Susanna chose to be unjustly accused “rather than to sin in the sight of the Lord.” At the trial on the following day the men gave their false testimony. But as Susanna was being led away to her execution, the young Daniel was moved by the Lord (in answer to Susanna’s prayer) to protest the precipitate action. At their invitation, Daniel sat with the judges in a renewed examination of the evidence. He shrewdly examined the men separately, inquiring under which tree in the garden Susanna and her alleged lover were seen. The contradictory answers to this question exposed the treachery of the two elders who in turn received the punishment which was to have been Susanna’s. The innocence of Susanna had been vindicated and the narrative concludes with a statement that from thence onward Daniel’s reputation among the people was established.


Although the narrative is given a prima facie historical setting (Babylon, during the youth of Daniel; cf. the names Joakim; Susanna, daughter of Hilkiah) it is doubtful that the story is a historical one. It has been pointed out that a number of the circumstantial details of the story (e.g. Joakim’s luxurious house and gardens, and his servants; synagogues; elected judges; the right of capital punishment) do not fit the situation one expects among members of a newly exiled population. In addition, Susanna is of the same genre of mystery writing as Bel and the Dragon, another addition to Daniel, and the story consists of motifs (the wrongly accused woman; the wise young judge) which are not unknown in ancient folk lit. It has been suggested by a number of scholars that the author infused some such ancient tale (or tales) with traditional Jewish piety and presented it in new form for his own purposes (cf. Tobit). This explanation is, of course, conjectural but may be regarded as prob. correct.

Author, language, and date.

The author of this beautiful story remains anonymous. It is not even clear whether he wrote the original in Gr. or Heb., although the play on words in connection with the name of the trees and the imminent punishments (13:54f.: σχι̂νοισχίσει; v. 58f.: πρι̂νονκαταπρίσῃ [πρίσαι, Theodotion]) seems to suggest a Gr. original (unless the Gr. tr. has endeavored to imitate the word play of a Sem. original). The date of the document is similarly difficult to determine, but the consensus of modern scholarship is that it dates from the 2nd cent. or the beginning of the 1st cent. b.c. Depending on whether one decides for a Heb. or Gr. original, Susanna is usually assigned a Palestinian or Alexandrian origin.


The question concerning the purpose of the author in writing the story is an interesting one. Several writers have conjectured that if the author wrote from a Palestinian milieu, he may well have written the story as a Pharisaic polemic against the jurisprudence of the ruling Sadducees. An interesting piece of history could serve as the background to Susanna: the son of Simon ben Shetach, leader of the Pharisees in the time of Alexander Jannaeus, was condemned to death by testimony of a false witness who was duly exposed, but upon whom, by Sadducean interpretation of lex talionis, no punishment could be inflicted since the son of Simon had not yet been executed. (Thereupon, it is said, the son of Simon chose to die that his false accusers might also die.) If this is the background of Susanna the author could have intended the work as a satire on the “justice” of the Sadducean legal system as well as an apologetic for the careful cross-examination of witnesses and the punishment of perjurers. On the other hand, the story may well have originated in Alexandria, having been intended merely as an illustration of the justice of God in answering the prayer of the righteous. As an incentive to purity of life and trust in God the story is of powerful significance.

Text and canonicity.

The Gr. text of Susanna is available in the standard editions of the LXX. As with the Book of Daniel itself, there are two recensions, the Theodotionic and the “LXX” represented by codex Chisianus (see under Book of Daniel). The story is substantially the same in the two VSS but there are a number of differences in detail.

Origen argued for the canonicity of the book; Jerome included it in the Vul. However, the Roman Catholic Church alone among Christian bodies has recognized the full canonicity and authority of Susanna (at the Council of Trent, 1548). In the early Christian Church Susanna was often understood as an allegory of the Church.


D. M. Kay in R. H. Charles, APOT (1913), 638-651; W. O. E. Oesterley, The Books of the Apocrypha (1915), 391-394; E. J. Goodspeed, The Story of the Apocrypha (1939), 65-70; R. H. Pfeiffer, History of New Testament Times with an Introduction to the Apocrypha (1949), 434-436; 448-454; B. M. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (1957), 107-113; R. A. F. Mac Kenzie, “The Meaning of the Susanna Story,” Canadian Journal of Theology III (1957), 211-218; F. Zimmermann, “The Story of Susanna and Its Original Language,” JQR XLVIII (1957-1958), 237-241; L. H. Brockington, A Critical Introduction to the Apocrypha (1961), 93-99; O. Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction (1965), 588ff.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. Name

2. Canonicity and Position

3. Contents

4. Fact or Fiction?

5. Date

6. Original Language

1. Name:

This novelette has, in the Septuagint, the bare title "Susanna" (Sousanna, from Hebrew shoshannah, "lily"). So also in the Syro-Hexapla. In Codex Alexandrinus (Theodotion) it is designated Horasis a (Vision I); see Bel and the Dragon, sec. I. In the Harklensian Syriac (Ball’s W2) its title is "The Book of Little (or the child?) Daniel."

2. Canonicity and Position:

Susanna was with the other Additions included in the Bible Canon of the Greek, Syrian and Latin churches. Julius Africanus (circa 230 AD) was the first to dispute the right of Susanna to a place in the Canon, owing to its improbable character. Origen replied to him, strongly maintaining its historicity (see Schurer, GJV4, III, 455; HJP, II, 3, p. 186, where the references are given). In the Septuagint, Syro-Hexapla and Vulgate, Susanna is Daniel 14, but in Theodotion (ABQ) it opens Daniel, preceding chapter 1, a position implied in the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American) which are based on Theodotion, formerly believed to be the true Septuagint. Yet it is probable that even in Theodotion the original place agreed with that in the true Septuagint (Swete’s 87); so Roth (Kautzsch, Die Apok., 172) and Driver (Commentary on Daniel, Cambridge Bible, xviii).

See Bel and the Dragon.

3. Contents:

The story of Susanna is thus told in Theodotion’s version, and therefore in English Versions of the Bible which follows it. Susanna was the beautiful and devout wife of Joakim who resided in Babylon in the early years of the exile, and owned a fine park which was open to his fellow-exiles (verses 1-4). Two of these last were elders and judges who, though held in high esteem, suffered impure thoughts toward Susanna to enter their minds. One day, meeting in the park, they divulged to each other their lustful passion toward this beautiful woman, and resolved together to seize the first opportunity to waylay her in the park and to overpower her (verses 5-15). A joint attempt was made upon Susanna, who resisted, notwithstanding threats of false accusation (verses 22-26). The elders make a false charge, both in private and in public, and she is accordingly condemned to death (verses 27-41). On the way to execution she is met by Daniel (= judge "of God") who has the case reopened, and by a system of cross-examination of the two elders succeeds in convincing the people that Susanna is innocent of the charge brought against her. She is acquitted, but her accusers are put to death.

The story told in the Septuagint (87) is essentially the same, though varying somewhat in details. Versions 1-4 seem to have been prefixed for clearness by Theodotion, for in Susanna verse 7 of the Septuagint Susanna is introduced for the first time: "These seeing a woman of beautiful appearance called Susanna, the wife of one of the Israelites," etc. The original text began therefore with verse 5, though in a slightly different form. Septuagint omits verses 15-18 which tell of the two elders concealing themselves and watching as Susanna entered the park and took her bath. There is not a word in Septuagint concerning the threats of the elders to defame Susanna in the event of her refusing what they desired (verses 20 ff); this omission makes the Septuagint form of the story obscure, suggesting that this section has fallen out by error. Nor does the Septuagint mention the crying out of Susanna and the elders (verse 24). The trial took place in the house, according to Theodotion (and English Versions of the Bible) (verse 28), but, according to Septuagint, in the synagogue (verse 28). In Septuagint (verse 30) it is said that the number of Susanna’s relatives, servants and servant-maids present at the trial was 500; Theodotion is silent on this. Septuagint (verse 35) makes Susanna pray to God before her condemnation, but Theodotion (English Versions of the Bible, verses 42-44) after. According to Septuagint the young man whom the elders falsely said they found with Susanna escaped unobserved because masked; Theodotion says he got away because the elders had not strength to hold him (verse 39). Septuagint is silent about the two maids who, according to Theodotion (verse 36), accompanied Susanna to the bath. Theodotion does not speak of the angel who according to Septuagint imparted to Daniel the wisdom he displayed (but compare Theodotion, verse 50); but on the other hand he adds the words ascribed to Daniel (verse 51, English Versions), though he leaves out the words imputed to him by Septuagint (= even elders may lie). Septuagint omits the words of the people addressed to Daniel: "What mean these words which thou hast spoken?" (verse 47, Theodotion, English Versions of the Bible). According to Theodotion (verse 50) the people entreated Daniel to act as judge among them; Septuagint omits this statement. Two questions were put to the elders, according to the Septuagint: "Under what kind of tree?" "In what part of the park?" but only one, according to Theodotion (and English Versions of the Bible): "Under what kind of tree?" Septuagint has it that as a punishment the two elders were hurled down the precipice; according to Theodotion they were slain (verse 62). In the last two verses (verses 63 f) Septuagint points the moral of the story, but Theodotion closes by describing the joy of Susanna’s relatives at the happy issue of the trial and the increased respect in which Daniel came to be held. For the dependence of the version see Text and Manuscripts of the New Testament; Text of the Old Testament; VERSIONS.

4. Fact or Fiction?:

It is quite evident that the story is a fabrication and that it came to be attached to Daniel on account of the part played in it by Daniel the judge.

(1) The form of the story differs in Septuagint, Theodotion and the various Syriac recensions, showing that it was a floating legend, told in manifold ways.

(2) No confirmation of what is here narrated has been discovered in written or epigraphic sources.

(3) The grounds on which Susanna was condemned are trivial and wholly inadequate.

(4) The conduct of the judge, Daniel, is unnatural and arbitrary.

Though, however, the story is fictitious, it rests in part or wholly on older sources.

(1) Ewald (Geschichte(3), IV, 386) believed that it was suggested by the Babylonian legend in which two old men are seduced by the goddess of love (compare Koran 2 96).

(2) Brull (Das apokryphische Sus-Buch, 1877), followed by Ball (Speaker’s Apocrypha, II, 323-31), Marshall and R. H. Charles, came to the following conclusions:

(a) That the first half of the story rests on a tradition regarding two elders (Ahab and Zedekiah) who seduced certain women by persuading them that they would thus become the mother of the Messiah. This tradition has its origin probably in Jer 29:21-23, where it is said that Yahweh would sorely punish Ahab and Zedekiah because they had "committed villany in Israel," having "committed adultery with their neighbours’ wives" (the King James Version). We can trace the above story amid many variations in the writings of Origen and Jerome and in sundry rabbinical works.

(b) The trial scene is believed to have a wholly different origin. It is said to have arisen about 100-96 BC, when Simon ben Shetach was president of the Sanhedrin. His son was falsely accused of a capital offense and was condemned to death. On the way to execution the accusers admitted that he was innocent of the crime; yet at his own request the son is executed in order that the father’s hands might be strengthened in the inauguration of new reforms in the administration of justice. The Pharisees and Sadducees differed as to the punishment to be meted out to false witnesses where the death sentence was involved. The first party advocated a stricter examination of witnesses, and a severer penalty if their testimony could be proved false. The Sadducee party took up a more moderate position on both points. Susanna has been held to be a kind of tract setting forth by example the views of the Pharisee party. If this opinion of the origin of Susanna be accepted, this tract was written by a Palestinian Jew, a position rendered probable by other considerations.

5. Date:

If, as the Greek, Latin and Syriac churches held and hold, Susanna forms an integral part of Daniel, the date of this last book (see Daniel) is the date of Sus. But there is conclusive evidence that the three "Additions" circulated independently, though we have no means of fixing the date with any certainty. Perhaps this piece arose during the struggles between the Pharisees and Sadducees about 94-89 BC; see preceding section. In that case 90 BC would be a suitable date. On the date of Theodotion’s translation see Daniel; Bel and the Dragon; VERSIONS; TEXT AND MANUSCRIPTS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT; TEXT OF THE OLD TESTAMENT.

6. Original Language:

Our materials for judging of the language in which the author wrote are slender, and no great probability can at present be reached. The following scholars argue for a Greek original: Fritzsche, De Wette, Keil, Herzfeld, Graf, Holtzmann. The following are some of the grounds:

(1) There are several paronomasias or word-plays, as in Susanna verses 54 f, schinon ("under a mastick tree") .... schisei ("will cut"); verses 58 f, prinon ("under a holm tree") .... prisai ("to cut"). But this last word (prisai) is absent from the true Septuagint, though it occurs in Theodotion (Swete’s text, verse 59, has kataprise from the same root). If the word-play in verses 58 f is due to a translation based on Septuagint, the first example (verses 54 f), found in Septuagint and Theodotion, is as likely to be the work of the translator of those verses from the Hebrew.

(2) It is said that no trace of a Hebrew original has been discovered; but up to a few years ago the same statement could have been made of Sir.

There is a growing opinion that the author wrote in Hebrew (or Aramaic?); so Ball, J. T. Marshall, R. H. Charles.

(1) The writer was almost certainly a Palestinian Jew, and he would be far more likely to write in his own language, especially as he seems to have belonged to the Pharisaic party, who were ardent nationalists (see preceding section, at end).

(2) There is a goodly number of Hebraisms, rather more than one would expect had the writer composed in Hellenistic Greek

For versions and literature see Bel and the Dragon; Daniel; the Oxford Apocrypha, edition by R. H. Charles, 638 ff.

T. Witton Davies

See also

  • Apocrypha