Patrick Reardon ponders a story which resonates in centuries of Christian art.
When Luther determined to limit the books of the Old Testament to those in the classical rabbinical canon, one of the casualties of his decision was the fast-moving story that opens the canonical Greek text of the Book of Daniel and forms chapter 13 of its traditional Latin version. Namely, the account of chaste Susannah and her lecherous detractors. Because of Luther a good number of ardent Bible-readers nowadays seem unfamiliar with this story.
A pity, surely, for 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.
In general, the early Christians did not doubt that the story of Susannah is integral to the Book of Daniel. In all of Christian history there is not a single Greek or Latin manuscript of the book of Daniel without the story of Susannah. In the third century Origen testified that the story was ‘found in every church of Christ in that Greek copy that the Greeks use.’
This impression is also supported in the history of Christian art. Already in the second century we find the first of six mural icons drawn from the Susannah story on the walls of the Roman catacombs. Spread throughout Italy and Gaul, there are seven extant examples of scenes from the Susannah chapter in bas relief on Christian sarcophagi from the first few centuries.
Susannah has ever been held in the highest regard by Christians, especially for her faith, chastity, holiness of life, and patience in affliction. ‘In the sense of the Gospel,’ wrote Hippolytus of Rome, ‘Susannah despised those who can kill the body, in order that she might save her soul from death.’ Christians have been particularly impressed that Susannah, when falsely accused, spoke not a word to defend herself but sought in prayer the justice of God.
Nor is it without interest that Susannah’s temptation and subsequent took place in a garden (paradeiso). This new ‘paradise’ is 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,’ wrote Hippolytus, ‘so now is he concealed in the two elders, whom he arouses with his own lust, that he might once again seduce Eve.’
It was inevitable that Susannah be compared to Joseph, in the case of Potiphar’s wife. Indeed, the resemblance between the two stories is remarkable: Joseph and Susannah both resistant to assaults against their chastity, both falsely accused by those who lusted after them, maintaining silence when accused, condemned in a foreign country, and finally vindicated by a providential intervention. No wonder that Christian readers have repeatedly elaborated comparisons between the two, 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.
Type of the Passion
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, after all, a circumstance that would prompt Maximus of Turin to compare the two lustful elders and Judas Iscariot. For St Jerome the sorely tried and unjustly accused Susannah was a ‘type’ of the Lord in his saving passion, both of them maliciously accused by false witnesses. Both remained similarly silent when indicted. Jerome, when he read of the resounding clamor raised for the execution of Susannah, thought immediately of the loud ‘Crucify him’ against the Lord on Good Friday.
This comparison of the contrived criminal trials of Jesus and Susannah inevitably led Maximus of Turn to contrast the judgments of Daniel and Pontius Pilate. Both men claimed to be ‘innocent of the blood’ about to be shed. How different, nonetheless, the two cases! Whereas Jesus was handed over to the crowd by the cowardice of Pilate, Susannah was saved from the crowd by the bravery of Daniel.
Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. Touchstone is edited and produced in the United States. www.touchstonemag.com