The story of Susanna was most likely composed around the early first century BCE. It appears in the Greek translation of the bible called the Septuagint. However, the text commonly used is that of Theodotion because it is a little fuller than the Septuagint text and has 64 verses. Theodotion was a Greek Jew who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek around 150 CE. He died around 200 CE. The book is not included in the Hebrew and Protestant Bibles, but is part of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic bibles. The biblical book of Daniel has several significant additions in the Bible of these religions, including Susanna and the two tales Bel and the Serpent.
We do not know why it was composed. Some commentators suggest that it is designed to show the brilliance of the biblical Daniel even at an early age. Others suggest that the story emphasizes that living a virtuous life as Susanna did will be rewarded. Still other saw the tale reinforcing the biblical requirement that the two witnesses required to substantiate a case must be examined separately.
Susanna was a very beautiful and pious woman who was wrongly accused of a crime. In those days, courts were composed of elders who lived in the town. Susanna was tried by this court, convicted, and sentenced to death. She cries to God for help. God sends Daniel, who at the time was young. He conducts a clever investigation and proves to everyone’s satisfaction that Susanna is innocent.
The following is the story.
A very rich man named Joakim, who lived in Babylonia, married Susanna “a very beautiful and pious woman.” She observed the Law of Moses.
Two evil men were appointed judges. The came to Joakim’s house where they decided cases that were brought to them. They saw Susanna and were smitten by her beauty and wanted to have relations with her. They decided to look for an opportunity when she was alone. One day they found her alone and threatened her. They said either sleep with us or we will give testimony that we saw you sleep with a young man.
She refused and began to scream. The two judges testified against her, no one believed her, and she was sentenced to death. She prayed to God. God stirred up the spirit of Daniel, a young man. He criticized the people for condemning Susanna to death without examining the witnesses.
Daniel told the elders that they should separate the two witnesses. When they were separated, he called one of them, berated him saying he was a liar, and asked, “under which tree did you see them meet?” He answered, “Under the clove tree.” When the second judge was called before Daniel, he berated him, and asked the same question. The judge replied, “Under the yew tree.”
The entire community who were watching uttered a great shout and blessed God “who saves those who hope in him.” They treated the two conspirators “as they had wickedly planned to treat their neighbor.” Joakim, Susanna’s husband, and all the people praised God. “And from that day onward, Daniel had a great reputation in the eyes of the people.”
Why was this tale not included in the Hebrew and Protestant Bible? We do not know because how the ancient Jews decided which books to include in the Bible is recorded nowhere. There are several possibilities. (1) It is possible that it was excluded because it was not an ancient book, and the Jews decided not to include books in the Canon that were composed after a certain date. (2) The book was considered a fable with only a simple even obvious message. (3) Knowing the dispute between the Pharisees and Sadducees when false witnesses in capital crime cases should be executed – one group saying only if the innocent party was executed, while the other said only if the innocent party was not executed – and not wanting to decide the issue at that time, the Jews excluded the tale from the Bible. (4) It is also likely that the Jews knew that very few people could distinguish one tree from another and the discrepancy between the two false witnesses as to the tree’s name in the tale proved nothing. Similarly, (5) they may have thought that more was needed than the one relatively small disagreement between the two witnesses, that Daniel should have asked more questions.
Many scholars consider Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) as the originator of the detective story, others say that the originator was Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), but the mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) contends that Susanna and Bel and the Serpent preceded them by two millennia, and were the first detective tales.