24 Aug 2007

Susanna: Legendary Woman on the Family Tree

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Church History, Hermeneutics, Ministry, Mission, Women

Over the next week or so I will be continuing my posts on “Women on the Family Tree.” I will be looking at the stories of semi-biblical women and women from the history of Christianity. Most of these women are unknown among modern Christians especially those in the Churches of Christ. My intention is to expand our horizons by seeing that women have always been powerful servants of the Lord and I seek to honor that legacy. Perhaps there is a little bit of corrective in these posts as well for sometimes church history is a series (intentionally or unintentionally I do not know) of male stories. I have intentionally chosen women that are unknown in the Churches of Christ to resurrect stories that we ought to know.

I begin with a story that most in the Churches of Christ (indeed most with an Evangelical orientation) have never even heard of, the story of Susanna. Susanna is one of those semi-biblical ladies I mentioned. Susanna appears in Daniel 13. You might be thinking, “my Daniel has only twelve chapters.” True! But the typical Christian in the early church had a Daniel with 13 chapters. Think of it like this, Susanna is to Daniel what the woman caught in adultery is to the Gospel of John (we might call it a textual variant … Susanna is technically called one of the “Additions to Daniel.” Ironically, these two passages have many commonalities. Just as many Christians today read John 8 as from the apostle so many Christians then read Susanna as from Daniel. It was not until the rise of modern translations that Susanna was omitted … even where it was acknowledged as spurious.

The Story of Susanna

The Story of Susanna is an elegant and edifying story read by Jews and Christians for thousands of years.Susanna was the righteous daughter of Hilkiah and husband of Joakim.She and her family were faithful Jews in a time of exile.Their home was a place of faith and communal identity for Israelites in Babylon.In fact the Jewish elders met in their home and heard cases on behalf of the people.

Susanna’s home had a private garden in which she walked everyday. One day two elders, who had been enraptured by Susanna’s beauty and purity, conspired to take advantage of her. While taking a private bath the elders accosted Susanna and warned her that if she did not fulfill their evil desires they would accuse her of being caught in the act of adultery with a young man (that just happened to escape!). They would see that she is put to death. Knowing her fate she chose instead to protect her honor and her husband’s and she screamed. The elders rushed at the door in false pursuit of the young man and accused Susanna.

Susanna was put on trial. Because these men were trusted and respected their words carried great weight with the people. Thus Susanna was found guilty and about to be put to death. Then she cried to the God of Israel in prayer,

O eternal God, you know what is secret and are aware of all things before they come to be; you know that these men have given false evidence against me. And now I am to die, though I have done none of these wicked things that they have charged against me!” (Daniel 13.42-43).

The Lord took pity upon Susanna and stirred the spirit of Daniel to speak on her behalf. He shouts “are you going to condemn a daughter of Israel without learning the facts?” Daniel separates the elders and asks them a simple question to see if they are telling the truth: “under what kind of tree did Susanna’s supposed infidelity take place?” When the elders gave contradicted each other they were caught in the act of lying. The congregation then did to them as they sought to do to Susanna.

“After Life” of Susanna: The Age of Susanna

Many scholars today are not sure if there was a real Susanna.They call her legendary and this may be the case.However, in the early church she was as real as Daniel himself.And the story of Susanna was an incredibly popular story with the “average” Christian.This is discovered not by analyzing the theological disputes of the early Christians rather this learned through studying their burial practices, their art and their piety.Indeed the earliest known Christian art has scenes from Susanna (dates in the late second and third centuries A.D.).

Piero Boitani, of the University of Rome, states that the oldest surviving illustration in Christian catacombs is on “the left hand side of the arcosolium vault in the St. Eusebius crypt at the tombs of Callistus on the Appian Way.” Susanna is depicted on the walls. These tombs “significantly” have the feel of martyrdom. Boitani describes many other scenes in the Roman catacombs with the Susanna story gracing them. In one scene there is a “lamb occup[ing] the center of the piece, surrounded on either side by a wolf. Above the wolf on the right hand side, the word SENIORIS makes clear that is one of the two elders, whilest, the name, SVSANNA, is visible above the lamb.” Boitani goes on to explain how Susanna not only graces the catecombs but is often found on the sarcophagi of the Christians (i.e. boxes that contain the “remains” or “bones” of deceased loved ones).

Why was the story (and a story most contemporary Christians {sadly!} know virtually nothing about) of a woman, Susanna, so important to the run of the mill Christian in the early church?Other than being a beautiful story the reasons are found in that Susanna is about life and death.Boitani states “Susanna has to do with death, the single crucial event of human life – with death and resurrection.”Susanna is condemned to death (like many early Christians).But Susanna is rescued by the gracious Lord. The Savior “vanquishes death, Susanna is [symbolically] risen.”Thus “Susanna … typologically signifies the soul of every Christian.”That is why Susanna graces the places of safety, hiding and even death.She is not only the individual Christian but Susanna becomes a symbol of the church itself in her struggles for survival with Roman oppression on side and Jewish rejection on the other.During that last 75 to 100 years before becoming legalized in the Roman Empire, Professor Boitani dubs the “age of Susanna” among Christians.

Susanna has remained a popular woman among Christians through the ages. She figures in the expositions of Irenaeus, the scholarly works of Origen, and the sermons of John Chrsyostom. The tale of Susanna was among the earliest pieces of “biblical” literature translated into English, the Middle English poem The Pistel of Swete Susan which dates to the 1200s or early 1300s. Susanna has been the subject of most of the great artists of the western world too. Handel committed her to the world through his music.

On our family tree we find a legendary woman named Susanna. Her virtue was more important to her than life and God delivered her. Her courage and God’s grace to her became literally the stuff of hope and life for early Christians. During some of its darkest days the church drew inspiration from the life of this woman of faith. On her they attached their dreams of resurrection. They saw her as a lamb, like Jesus, led to the slaughter by wolves. And because God rescued her … he would rescue them. Such is the testimony of this legendary woman on our family Tree.

Further Study

Sources: Susanna can be best enjoyed in the NRSV. By far the best introduction to the Apocrypha is David deSilva’s Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context and Significance (Baker Academic, 2002). Professor Boitani’s research is published in “Susanna in Excelsis” in The Judgment of Susanna: Authority and Witnesses edited by Ellen Spolosky (1996). This grows out of an SBL seminar. There is also useful material in Carey Moore’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Daniel, Esther and Jeremiah: The Additions.

Bobby Valentine

5 Responses to “Susanna: Legendary Woman on the Family Tree”

  1. preacherman Says:

    Excellent story the drives I believe the point home for today’s time. I really am enjoying this series. I hope you are staying cool. And keep up the great series of the women in Christian history.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I love this story because this woman of God finds her identity in Him alone. The same way I believe the church should.

    In your last post some responded with the story of the fall. The old Adam and the pattern that God sets down.

    The pattern that our Lord sets and teaches Adam is to draw Adam into His counsel, to basically share in what God had done. Naming and assigning the nature or character of the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Than God creates woman to work with Adam.

    Maybe I think to much but I can’t help wondering why Eve is that tree? Created in God’s image with a desire for His wisdom. Wasn’t it Adam’s job to teach his wife this same pattern? To find her identity in God, to be drawn into His counsel, and to fill her desire’s with his wisdom,to also be creative in revealing God’s glory to the ends of the earth?

    It seems to me Adam’s sin begins in his heart long before they pick from the tree. Adam becomes self-sufficient and not only ignores the pattern God sets down but it dosen’t look like he taught his new wife/bride/community/church properly either.

    Than we have Jesus who comes along and does the exact opposite of our Adam. Jesus not only sets a pattern that He follows of being drawn into the Father’s counsel but Jesus also teaches His disciples/bride/church to do the same.

    I think we all wind up doing the same as Adam. We become our own gods when we believe that our position or institution(church)is the only oracle that speaks for God. It was the same problem when they crucified Jesus, when Peter was brought before the counsel in Acts, and the same problem we battle today.

    I’m not a feminist, I am simply me. I am not a spokes person for all christians or all women. Ministry is not a position it is a condition of the heart. A function that takes on many different forms. When we are drawn into God’s counsel, and find our identity in Him, we can be creative in how we reveal His glory. Creativity is something our enemy does not have. Satan is an imposter who uses the same tricks throughout history, he just changes the outer packaging to make it more enticing.

  3. Gardner Hall Says:

    Thanks for introducing me to Susanna and also to anonymous for his or her thoughts about Adam and Christ.

  4. Matt Says:

    Oh, Susanna, Don’t you cry for me!

    I just had to make an Alabama connection with the story is all. It is easy to take for granted what you have never heard. Keep them coming. Help those of us who are proud of our heritage understand what that heritage consists of!

  5. TREY MORGAN Says:

    Bobby … I’m enjoying your posts on women. They are so often overlooked and underrated.


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