From the June, 2000 issue of Touchstone

Susannah’s Virtues by Patrick Henry Reardon

Susannah’s Virtues

The Prayer of Distress & the Cause of Justice

by Patrick Henry Reardon

When Dr. Martin Luther decided to limit the books of the Old Testament to those contained in the classical rabbinical canon, one of the eventual casualties of his decision was the memorable account of chaste Susannah, a dramatic and fast-moving story that forms chapter 13 of the Book of Daniel in the traditional Latin version of the Bible. For Protestants the Susannah narrative, along with all other Old Testament material not contained in the Hebrew/Aramaic canon, was thenceforth transferred to what became known as the “Apocrypha,” thus effectively guaranteeing that many later Christians would take it less seriously and probably read it less often. In our own country, in fact, where most Protestant Bibles have traditionally been published sans the Apocrypha, it is arguable that a good number of ardent Bible readers at present are quite unfamiliar with the story of Susannah.

A pity, surely. 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. Whatever the theological merits of Dr. Luther’s canonical preference (and this discussion is not to my purpose here), I believe the consequent fading of Susannah’s story from the Christian popular imagination to be a genuine loss.

In the following reflections, I hope to make three points about the story of Susannah. First, the narrative is well worth pursuing for both literary and spiritual purposes. Second, the meandering veins and mother lode of the Christian exegesis of the Susannah account are especially rich with doctrinal themes and moral teaching. Third, the Christian theological tradition has especially relied on the Susannah story in regard to a specific feature of the divine omniscience—God’s knowledge of future events.

Susannah’s History

First, this story of Susannah was most dear to earlier generations of Christian believers. Already early in the second century we find the first of six mural icons drawn from the Susannah story on the walls of the Roman catacombs.1  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.2  Moreover, in all of Christian history there is preserved not a single Christian manuscript of the Book of Daniel without the story of Susannah. When Julius Africanus in the third century objected that the Susannah chapter was uncanonical because it did not stand in the Hebrew Bible, Origen responded that the story was “found in every church of Christ in that Greek copy that the Greeks use.”3 

At the time when Origen wrote this, nonetheless, not many Jews seem to have been reading Susannah, at least not as Holy Scripture. Although the tale had clearly been part of the earlier Semitic form of Daniel (Aramaic more likely than Hebrew, as in the bulk of Daniel) that was translated into the Septuagint, it is not contained in any of the seven Semitic copies of Daniel discovered among the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran. Moreover, the story is found neither in Josephus in the first century nor in the second-century translation of the Hebrew Scriptures by the Jew Aquila. We have the further witness of Jerome speaking of a Jewish critic who considered the story a piece of Greek fiction.4  As to why the account of Susannah was no longer to be found in the rabbinical canon of the Sacred Scriptures, Hippolytus in Rome and Origen in Egypt were perhaps speaking for a common Christian view in the third century when they advanced a rather simple explanation. The reason that the story of Susannah had not been included in that canon, they said, was that the latter was established by Jewish elders who would not look favorably on a narrative that made villains of two of their number!5 

With respect to the Christian reading of the Greek version of Daniel, including Susannah, there is a further and most curious feature of textual history to be mentioned here. After Origen, in his famous Hexapla, placed Theodotion’s fairly recent (late second century) translation of Daniel in a parallel column with that of the Septuagint, Christian readers compared the two renderings and decided that they much preferred Theodotion. Thus, in spite of the traditional and venerable authority of the Septuagint in the Church, Theodotion’s translation of Daniel came to predominate among Christian copyists.6  His version was adopted as the Danielic text of the Byzantine liturgical lectionary, and the Latin (Vulgate) translation of Theodotion’s Susannah was incorporated into the Roman lectionary. So great was the dominance of Theodotion in this respect that the ancient Septuagint translation of Daniel almost disappeared, not a single copy of it being known until the discovery of the Chisianus Codex in 1772. Similarly, it was Theodotion’s translation of Daniel that was rendered into almost all the other ancient Christian versions (the Peshitta Syriac, both the Boharic and Sahidic Coptic, the Ethiopic, the Armenian, the Arabic, and the Slavonic), as well as virtually all modern translations.7 

Given this massive dominance of Theodotion in the textual tradition of Daniel, it is this version of Susannah that we will be following in the present article, except where otherwise noted. Moreover, a comparison of the two accounts of Susannah shows Theodotion’s to be by far the more colorful and detailed. Consequently, one suspects that, even if their choice of Theodotion had not pertained to Daniel as a whole, it is no wonder that Christian copyists preferred his rendering of Susannah.8 

Furthermore, notwithstanding Luther’s relegation of Susannah to the Apocrypha, it is arguable that her story has always been better known to Christians in the West than in the East. It is quoted far more frequently by the Latin writers than by the Greeks, and the reason for this phenomenon almost certainly had to do with a traditional liturgical practice. Since at least the fifth century the Roman eucharistic lectionary prescribed that the Susannah narrative be read at Mass each year on the Saturday before the Fourth Sunday of Lent ( Laetare Sunday). The origins of this prescription go back even further, to the venerable custom of Roman “stational churches,” a liturgical arrangement in which the pope would visit and preside at the Eucharist at the various parish churches of the Eternal City in a specific order. As it happened, the parish church traditionally selected for the Saturday before the Fourth Sunday of Lent was dedicated to St. Susannah, a consecrated virgin martyred under Diocletian. What, then, could be a more appropriate biblical reading for that annual occasion than the story of the earlier Susannah from the Book of Daniel? This propriety was heightened, moreover, by the striking circumstance that both women suffered persecution in the safeguarding of their chastity. This established reading endured in the West for nearly a millennium and a half, until the lectionary reforms associated with Vatican II only a few decades ago.9 

The Heroine

Susannah, whose name was traditionally understood to mean “lily,”10  has ever been held in the highest regard by Christians. She was the woman “noble in faith,”11  the nobilissima femina.12  Her chief adornments were “faith, chastity, and holiness.”13  Faithful to the vows of her marriage, she would be repeatedly held up by preachers as a sterling model of married chastity.14 

Indeed, Susannah valued her chastity more than her life.15  She feared disgrace more than death; truly, the only death she feared was the death of the soul by sin.16  Choosing wisely and bravely with a safe conscience,17  Susannah held death in contempt.18  “In the sense of the Gospel,” wrote Hippolytus, “Susannah despised those who can kill the body, in order that she might save her soul from death.”19  Thus, Stephen of Grandmont observed that, in saving Susannah from sinning, God showed her an even greater mercy than in saving her from death.20 

Christians have been particularly impressed that Susannah, when falsely accused, spoke not a word to defend herself. Moreover, in Theodotion’s version, which differs in this respect from the Septuagint, she did not even raise her voice in prayer until after her condemnation. Rather, she prayed silently during her accusation and trial. As she was being accused, the text says, she simply “looked up with tears to heaven, because her heart trusted in the Lord.” “By her tears,” wrote Hippolytus in the third century, “she drew the Word from heaven, who himself was with tears able to raise the dead Lazarus.”21  As Origen observed,22  this devout gesture of Susannah is graced with a great literary irony, for it is to be contrasted with the description of her two lustful accusers: “Thus they perverted their own minds and turned away their eyes from looking up to heaven, and they rendered not just judgments.”

Susannah, then, did not attempt to justify herself but sought in prayer the justice of God.23  The church fathers never ceased to praise Susannah’s silent prayer. The Lord heard her petition, said Hippolytus, because “God hears those who call upon Him from a pure heart.”24  Said Ambrose: “She kept silence and conquered.”25  And again: “Susannah bent her knee to pray and triumphed over the adulterers”;26  “keeping silence among men, she spoke to God.”27  And Augustine: “She kept silence and cried out with her heart”;28  “Her mouth closed, her lips unmoved, Susannah cried out with this voice.”29  And Jerome: “Great was this voice, not by the movement of the air nor the cry from the jaws, but by the greatness of her modesty, through which she cried out to the Lord.”30  And again: “The affection of the heart, and the pure confession of the mind, and the good of her conscience rendered her voice the clearer, so great was her shout to God that was not heard by men.”31  There were similar observations from Maximus the Confessor and others.32 

We may summarize the traditional treatment of this aspect of the story by quoting Leander of Seville, who speaks of the

most virtuous Susannah, who did not reply with words of justice to those who accused her of adultery, although she had that justice in her heart; nor did she repel the adulterers by any claims of her own, but with a pure conscience she entrusted herself to God alone with sighs and groans, for He is the One who sees within our minds; and thus she who did not wish to be defended by her own words was defended by the divine judgment, so that God was witness for her of the guiltless conscience that she bore and as she was being led to punishment, revealed the fact of her innocence.33 

Nor is it without interest that Susannah’s temptation took place in a garden ( paradeiso). Indeed, unlike the Septuagint, Theodotion’s version also places the entire trial in that same location, the “scene of the crime.” As the place of Susannah’s temptation, false accusation, and final vindication, therefore, this Danielic “paradise” is to be 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, so now is he concealed in the two elders, whom he arouses with his own lust, that he might once again seduce Eve.”34 

The Book of Daniel abounds, of course, with cases of accusations against God’s servants, followed by their divine deliverance, and in this respect the account of Susannah certainly fits the pattern. Jerome especially drew attention to her resemblance to the three youths condemned to the furnace.35  These two instances likewise appear in sequence in the traditional Western monastic litany for the dying.36  In the cappella greca of the Catacomb of St. Priscilla in Rome, Susannah appears near a picture of Daniel in the lions’ den.

Of all the characters in Holy Scripture, however, it was inevitable that Susannah would most be compared to Joseph, in the case of Potiphar’s wife. Indeed, the resemblance between the two instances is remarkable: Joseph and Susannah both resistant to assaults against their chastity, both falsely accused by those who lusted after them, both maintaining silence when accused, both condemned in a foreign country, and both finally vindicated by a providential intervention. No wonder that Christian readers have repeatedly elaborated comparisons between the two of them, whether with respect to their chastity under severe trial,37  to their being falsely indicted and condemned by their tempters,38  or to their patient silence when accused.39 

Jesus & the Church

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 a further comparison between the two lustful elders and Judas Iscariot.40  The sorely tried and unjustly accused Susannah, then, becomes a “type” of the Lord in his saving passion. Both Susannah and Jesus, in fact, were alike in their being maliciously accused by false witnesses.41  Both remained similarly silent when indicted.42  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.43 

This comparison of the contrived criminal trials of Jesus and Susannah inevitably led to a studied contrast between the judgments of Daniel and Pontius Pilate. It is a striking resemblance between the Susannah story and Matthew 27:24 that both Daniel and Pontius Pilate believed that the respective trial was ending in a miscarriage of justice, and in both instances there was made a claim to be “innocent of the blood” about to be shed. How different, nonetheless, the two cases! Susannah was saved from the crowd by the bravery of Daniel, whereas Jesus was handed over to the crowd by the cowardice of Pilate.44 

Even before she was likened to Jesus, however, Susannah was perceived as a symbol of the Church. Indeed, this line of interpretation is already found in our first full commentary on the Book of Daniel, that of Hippolytus of Rome in the early third century: “It is within our ability to understand the true meaning of all that befell Susannah, for you can find all these things fulfilled in the present condition of the Church.”45 

For Hippolytus the entire story of Susannah is especially replete with a deep mystic symbolism having to do with the union of the Lord with his Church: “Susannah prefigured the Church; and her husband Joachim, Christ; and the garden, the summoning of the saints, who are planted in the Church like trees laden with fruit.”46 

Similarly, Hippolytus finds references to the Church’s sacraments in the details of this account. With respect to Susannah’s bath in the garden, for Hippolytus it manifestly signifies baptism, in which the Church “washed herself in order to be presented as a pure bride to God.” As to the two maids who serve Susannah, these represent faith and love; Hippolytus explains: “For it is by faith in Christ and love for God that the Church confesses and receives the washing.”47  Thus, he goes on to say that the story of Susannah exhorts Christians to “follow the truth and aim at the exactitude of the faith” ( to akribes tes pisteos).48  And the ointments that Susannah requests of her handmaids? Obviously these are the commandments of the holy Word. The oil, of course, refers to the sacrament of chrismation (or confirmation):

And what was the oil but the power (dynamis) of the Holy Spirit, with which the believers are anointed after their washing. For our sakes all these things were figuratively represented in blessed Susannah, that we who believe in God might not find strange the things that are done in the Church, but believe them to have been presented figuratively by the patriarchs of old.49 

Still pursuing this symbolism, Hippolytus notes that the entire story takes place in Babylon, a symbol of exile in the world, where the Church is persecuted by two groups of enemies symbolized in the two wicked elders. These enemies of the Church are the Jews and the Gentiles. “Slaves of the prince of this world,” these two are forever bringing afflictions on the Church, even “though they do not agree with one another.”50  Alas, Hippolytus goes on, the Church is likewise persecuted by those who are Christians in name only.51 

Following this last emphasis, but with a less allegorical and more strictly moral interest, other Christians found somewhat different lessons to be drawn from the negative example of these two corrupt elders, or “presbyters.” Thus, in the earliest Christian reference to the story of Susannah, Irenaeus of Lyons took them to be examples of wicked, self-serving pastors.52  Indeed, references to these two elders more than once led to critical observations about wicked presbyters in the Church.53  Hence, Didymus the Blind called them “pseudo-presbyters.”54  These two evil men may also represent heretics,55  or simply such folk as make common cause to do evil.56  Their wicked conduct, nonetheless, serves as a warning to all believers at all times, especially with regard to lustful thoughts and leering glances.57 

Christians were also to take note of the rash action of the crowd, criticized by Daniel for being so quick to condemn an innocent woman. This remembrance would always stand in the Church, particularly in her judicial proceedings, as a warning against hasty judgments, a lesson that seems to have made a special impression among the Christians of Syria and Egypt.58 

The Youthful Hero

In the trial of chaste Susannah the champion of the hour was, of course, Daniel. The drama of this young man’s sudden appearance is perhaps somewhat muted in the Western or Latin tradition, in which the Susannah story forms chapter 13 of the Book of Daniel, a position that gives the account the aspect of almost an appendix to the book. Far more effective as drama, surely, is the structural arrangement in the traditional Greek text of the Book of Daniel, in which the Susannah story stands at the very beginning. Thus, in the sequence known to Eastern Christians we first meet the character of Daniel in the Bible when his yet boyish voice cries out suddenly: “I am innocent of this woman’s blood!” That is to say, the reader hears Daniel, and rather loudly, before he really sees Daniel. Daniel’s first shape, so to speak, is that of a startling prophetic voice ringing out against injustice. Thus, a very young man dramatically takes his stand beside Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

Unlike the Septuagint, which introduces an angelic intervention at this point, Theodotion’s version describes the source of Daniel’s prophetic prompting in this way: “God raised up the holy spirit of a young boy named Daniel.” The text does not use the expression “the Spirit of the Lord,” which is a very normal biblical way of describing prophetic inspiration. The difference between “the holy spirit of a young boy” and “the Spirit of the Lord,” nonetheless, hardly proved an inhibition to those church fathers who described the scene. “The holy spirit of a young boy,” in their eyes, was most certainly the Holy Spirit. This interpretation is common among both the Greek59 and the Latin60  Fathers, and I have been able to find no exceptions to this interpretation anywhere in ancient Christian literature.

With respect to Daniel’s interruption of the trial of Susannah, Hippolytus draws attention to a certain subtle irony. The accusation rendered against Susannah by the two elders, he observes, was that “a young man was with her.” Although the elders had intended this lie in order to indict Susannah for adultery, in point of fact their statement was literally true, notes Hippolytus, in a sense they had not intended. He comments: “Indeed, a young man was with her ( meta tautes), from heaven, not to have intercourse with her, but to bear a common witness to the truth ( symmartyron te aletheia).61 

Ambrose compared the wisdom of Daniel in this scene to that of the twelve-year-old Jesus amidst the doctors in the Temple, as described in Luke 2.62  Many similar references were made to Daniel’s spiritual precocity as manifest in the trial of Susannah, and he was sometimes compared, in this respect, to the prophets Samuel and Jeremiah, both of them called at an early age.63  This aspect of the narrative especially appealed to the monk Jerome, who referred to it repeatedly.64 

Indeed, one may argue that the very youth of Daniel so strongly impressed the monastic tradition of the West that it significantly nuanced its spirit and structure. In the sixth century, The Rule of Saint Benedict, which quickly became the dominant code for all Western monasticism, explicitly appealed to Daniel’s wisdom during Susannah’s trial. This reference is made in chapter 63, dealing with order and rank in the monastic community. This latter, the Rule prescribes, was to be established solely by the years of one’s monastic conversion, no account being taken of age to determine seniority in the monastery. The reason for this principle, chapter 63 says, is the wisdom displayed by young Samuel and Daniel, both of whom “judged the elders.”65 

This provision of the Rule was no insignificant detail in the Benedictine monastic system. In an earlier chapter of the Rule, St. Benedict had already shown his respect for the wisdom frequently ( saepe) to be found among the young. That earlier section, dealing with the abbot’s obligation to take counsel before making important decisions regarding the monastery, had observed that the Lord “ often reveals what is best to the young.” Not sometimes, but “often.”

These two passages of the Rule, one of them explicitly appealing to the example of young Daniel, were to have a profound influence on the development of Western monastic spirit and culture. It is arguable, as a point of prior probability, that these important texts in the major ascetical work of the West66 served to weaken the institution of “elder” that had been essential in earlier monasticism and would remain so dominant in the monasticism of the East right down to our own times. Following the lead of Jerome and Benedict, later important monastic authors in the West would likewise appeal to the wisdom of young Daniel during the trial of Susannah.67 Thus, the institution of “monastic succession” passed on through an inherited tradition of elders, which is so marked a characteristic of Eastern Christianity continuously from the time of the primitive Egyptian fathers to the contemporary monasticism of Mount Athos and Russia, was severely attenuated in the West, nearly to the point of disappearance.

God’s Foreknowledge

The case can be made that Susannah’s major contribution to the history of theology is to be found in that line of her prayer where she says to God: “O Eternal God, Reader ( gnostes) of secrets, who know all things before they come to be ( prin geneseos auton).” This is the Old Testament’s clearest expression of God’s knowledge of future events, events that have not yet occurred and that are, in fact, contingent upon the free decisions of men acting within history. It is the mystery of God’s foreknowledge of things that do not yet exist. Susannah invokes God using an adjective essentially related to his ability to know the future—God is “eternal” ( aionios), a term that appears elsewhere in the Greek Bible with reference to him.68 He has a single existence, both before and after time; it is all one, “from eternity to eternity” ( apo tou aionos heos tou aionos—Septuagint of Psalm 89:2). Embracing all time in his eternity, God’s knowledge of things is not contingent on future historical events in such a way as to render that knowledge doubtful. He embraces history, his majestic freedom in no way lessened by the freedom of human beings who make choices within the historical stream. For he is the everlasting channel, the very bed in which that raging stream races and runs its course.

It is to this eternal God, then, that chaste Susannah commits her destiny, for in his eternity he knows all things, even “before their happening.” This expression of faithful Susannah— prin geneseos auton—was to appear repeatedly in Christian literature. Whenever the Church of old sought to give expression to her faith in God’s foreknowledge of history, it was ever to Susannah’s prayer that she had recourse. This line of the prayer was quoted even by church fathers who made no other reference to the Susannah story. Starting with the Liturgy of St. James,69 we find citations of it and clear references to it universally among the patristic traditions, whether Egyptian,70 Syrian,71 Palestinian,72 Cappadocian,73 Byzantine,74 African,75 Italian76 or Gallic.77 

The Prayer for Justice

I will close these reflections on the Susannah chapter of the Book of Daniel by proposing two further lines of consideration that may be pursued with a view to placing this narrative within the larger biblical vision. Both of these lines have to do with justice, especially justice in what we may generally call a forensic context. That is to say, justice in the sense of just and wise judgment in contexts where justice is ever threatened and at risk.

First, there is Susannah’s prayer for justice in the face of a cruel, mendacious accusation and a vile judgment. Her prayer here fits into a very distinct pattern widely exemplified in the Book of Psalms. Besides the two psalms that actually begin with the explicit words, “Judge me,” a large measure of the psalter is composed of lines in which the man of prayer, surrounded by accusing and condemning enemies, commits his destiny to the God who can read hearts and therefore knows his innocence. Cries for the doing of justice on behalf of innocent and oppressed people thus make up a very considerable proportion of the psalms.

Now, inasmuch as the Book of Psalms is the “prayer book of the Church” and has been such since apostolic times (cf. Acts 4:24–30), this notable proportion of a pleading for justice means that the prayer of the Church is significantly preoccupied with the cause of justice upon the earth. That case is, I submit, as it should be. Generally considered, human existence in this world is marked by an almost ubiquitous proliferation of injustice, as daily witnessed in widespread hunger on the earth’s most populous continents, the countless sufferings occasioned by the displacement of literally millions of people from their native lands and homes, the squalor of slums and refugee camps, the slaughtering of whole populations in the pursuit of ideological goals or ethnic rivalry, the relentless oppression of little nations by big nations, whether by boycott or bombing, the systematic exploitation of the young and innocent, both boys and girls, in some of the world’s largest countries, the quotidian sacrifice of massive numbers of unborn children on the altar of Moloch, and so forth. Insofar as man demonstrates daily his componential descent from Cain, the Church’s traditional discipline of praying the Book of Psalms goes a long way toward guaranteeing that her prayer will be related to what actually transpires in the world around her.

The prayer of the Church on earth, rising to the throne of God, occasions the outpouring of his providential vindication into the otherwise corrupted processes of man’s dreadfully sinful history: “Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense with the prayers of the saints ascended before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and threw it to the earth” (Apocalypse 8:3–5).

But among all the psalms, Susannah’s prayer seems to have its closest affinity to Psalm 138 (Hebrew 139), which more explicitly relates these themes to God’s foreknowledge of what is to come: “O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thoughts from afar. You encompass my paths and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. A word is not yet on my tongue, but, behold, You know it already. . . . My substance was not hidden from you, when I was being formed in secret, and strangely put together in the depths of the earth. You saw my substance, as yet unfinished, but all my days were written in Your book before a single one of them came to pass.” This psalm, the final part of which makes very explicit reference to evil enemies, is readily comparable, in both words and setting, to the prayer of the falsely accused Susannah.

Wise Judgment

Second, we may consider more particularly the character and action of Daniel in this story with respect to justice and wise judgments. In most of the book named after him, Daniel appears as a kind of new Joseph, the wise Hebrew counselor and administrator employed in a foreign court, falsely accused but ever vindicated, a source of blessing to the foreign nation itself, and a powerful advocate for the welfare of Israel. Under some of these aspects Daniel is also to be compared, of course, to Mordecai and Nehemiah.

In the Susannah chapter, however, with which the canonical text of Daniel commences, the emphasis is somewhat different. Here he appears as the wise counselor whose intervention prevents the miscarriage of justice in a forensic setting. In this regard Origen commented on the similarities ( paraplesia) between Daniel’s cross-examination of the elders and Solomon’s questioning of the two harlots contending for the living child in 1 Kings 3. In each case, Origen observed, the wise man attained the truth of the thing by addressing the witnesses individually and comparing their reactions.78  Daniel thus displays not only the spirit of prophecy but also the wisdom of righteous judgment.

Daniel functions here, that is to say, as a counsel for the defense, a parakletos in the Johannine sense. Indeed, this picture of Daniel may profitably be compared to the various “forensic settings” in John’s Gospel.

The first of these is the account of the woman taken in adultery at the beginning of John 8. Indeed, ancient liturgical usage amply justifies our comparison of these two texts. The Susannah story, as we have already seen, was long used in the Church of the West as a eucharistic reading on the Saturday before the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Now it is passing curious that the Gospel on those occasions was precisely this story of the woman taken in adultery! This imaginative juxtaposition of stories of two women accused of adultery, the one guilty and forgiven, the other innocent and released, eventually became a standard arrangement among all Latin Christians who observed the Roman liturgical type.79 

Leaving aside the textual difficulty with assigning this narrative as originally Johannine,80 we may comment on those features of it that have affinities with Susannah and, as we shall see, certain themes of the Fourth Gospel. The woman, taken in the very act of adultery, was apprehended alone. Therefore, like Susannah, she is tried alone. Her accusers are respected members of the community, “scribes and elders,” who call for her to be stoned to death. Jesus, however, the new Daniel acting as a sort of counsel for the defense, or parakletos, turns the tables on her accusers and sets her free.

The second story is that of the healed blind man in John 9. The opening verses of that account already show that it is going to be a story about guilt and innocence: “Lord, who has sinned, this man or his parents?” During the course of the narrative both the blind man and his parents are subpoenaed by the Sanhedrin, Israel’s official judicial body, which pronounces the blind man himself to be the sinner (John 9:34). Jesus, again, acting the part of the parakletos, finally turns the tables and pronounces the accusers themselves to be the sinful party in the story; it ends: “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains” (John 9:41).

Thus, in both stories, Jesus, like Daniel, vindicates the accused and condemns the accusers. In both stories, likewise, the true intent of the accusers themselves was to condemn Jesus. Thus, they bring to him the woman (whom the operative Roman law, anyway, would certainly not have permitted to be stoned to death for adultery) in order to test Jesus himself, and, in the case of the blind man, their obvious intent in questioning him was to find something with which to accuse Jesus. In the Fourth Gospel as it stands in the canonical text, therefore, both stories prepare for the trial of Jesus before Pilate, in which the Lord acts as his own counsel for the defense.

The Church likewise is promised a new parakletos, who, when he comes, will turn the tables on the accusers and “convict the world of sin, of justice, and of judgment” (John 16:8). Thus, Daniel’s prompt and wise intervention as a defense counsel for the loyal servant of God, may be regarded as a type of that coming Holy Spirit sent in Christ’s name (John 14:25), the Spirit of truth who will guide the Church into all truth (16:13), but whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him (14:17). Considered within the biblical canon as a whole, then, the story of Susannah lends itself readily to Hippolytus’s understanding of it as an allegory of the historical trial of the Church in the world and her final vindication by the wise judgment of God’s appointed emissary.  


1. Cf. Henri Leclercq, “Suzanne,” Dictionnaire d’Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgie (hereafter DACL, followed by volume and column numbers) 15.1745–1748.

2. Art. cit. (DACL 15.1748–1749).

3. Origen, Ad Africanum 2 ( Bibliotheke Hellenon Pateron [hereafter BHP, followed by volume and page numbers] 16.350). Except in the case of Leander of Seville, all translations in this article are my own.

4. Jerome, In Danielem, Praefatio (PL 28.1293A).

5. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1 (PG 10.692); Origen, Ad Africanum 9 (BHP 16.354,356).

6. Some other sections as well: Lamentations, Ruth, and select parts of Samuel, Kings, Job, the Canticle, and Jeremiah.

7. The Syro-Hexaplar and the Vetus Latina, both translated from the Septuagint, are the exceptions to this rule. It is worth mentioning that I presume here the common hypothesis that Theodotion translated from a Semitic Daniel different from that underlying the Septuagint. If this view should be erroneous, however, there would be no disadvantage to my purpose in this study.

8. Both the Theodotion and the Septuagint Daniel are printed on split pages in Alfred Rahlfs’s standard edition of the Septuagint. Whereas in the Septuagint and the Vulgate the Susannah story forms chapter 13 of Daniel, the story stands at the very beginning of Daniel in almost all other versions. This latter arrangement is most certainly the earlier. It is instanced not only in the Byzantine lectionary, which is based on Theodotion, but also in our oldest surviving Greek manuscript of Daniel, the Septuagint Papyrus 967, and in the Vetus Latina, which was based on the Septuagint. It is also instructive to observe that our earliest commentary on Daniel, that of Hippolytus in the early third century, though certainly based on the Septuagint (cf. the detail of sequence in his In Danielem 1.55 [PG 10.697]), shows that the story of Susannah was found at the very beginning of the book. This accumulated evidence is conclusive.

9. The Ordo Lectionum Missae (Rome: Vatican Polyglot Press, 1969) makes no liturgical provision for reading the Susannah story, proh dolor.

10. Cf. Jerome, Epistolae 65.2 ( Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum [hereafter CSEL, followed by volume and page numbers] 54.619; “Lily, or the grace thereof,” he explains in Liber Interpretationis Hebraicorum Nominum ( Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina [hereafter CCL, followed by volume and page numbers] 72.129, 141). Cf. Hildebert, Versus de Sancta Susanna (PL 171.1288D).

11. Jerome, Epistolae 1.9 (CSEL 54.6).

12. Chromatius of Aquileia, Sermones 35.1 (CCL 9A.159).

13. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.31 (PG 10.696).

14. Ambrose, De Viduis 4.24 (PL 16.242A); Augustine, Tractatus in Joannem 26.10 (CCL 36.330); De Bono Conjugali 8 (PL 40.379); De Virginitate 20 (PL 40.406); Chromatius of Aquileia, Sermones 35.2 (CCL 9A.159).

15. Zeno of Verona, Tractatus 2.16 (PL 11.443–444); Ambrose, De Officiis Ministrorum 1.18.68 (PL 16.43–44); 3.14.90 (170C–D).

16. Jerome, In Danielem 13 (PL 25.581B–C).

17. Theodoret of Cyr, Epistolae 110 (PG 83.1304–1305). Theodoret, nonetheless, did not include Susannah in his commentary on Daniel (PG 81.1255–1546).

18. Chromatius of Aquileia, Sermones 35.3 (CCL 9A.160).

19. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.24 (PG 10.696).

20. Stephen of Grandmont, Liber de Doctrinis 119 ( Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis [hereafter CCM, with volume and page numbers] S8.57).

21. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.35 (PG 10.696); cf. also 1.55 (697).

22. Origen, In Joannem 28.5 (BHP 12.261).

23. Ambrose, De Officiis Ministrorum 2.9.48 (PL 16.116A).

24. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.44 (PG 10.696–697).

25. Ambrose, In Lucam 10.97 (CSEL 32.492); Explanation Psalmorum 37.45 (CSEL 64.174); 38.7 (189).

26. Ambrose, De Virginibus 2.4.27 (PL 16.214B).

27. Ambrose, De Officiis Ministrorum 1.3.9 (PL 16.26B–C).

28. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 137.2 (PL 37.1795).

29. Augustine, Sermones 156.14.15 (PL 38.858).

30. Jerome, In Danielem 4.13.24 (CCL 75A.947).

31. Jerome, Ibidem 4.13.43 (948).

32. Maximus the Confessor, Capita de Charitate 4.88 (PG 90.1069B); Thomas of Chobham, Sermones 2 (CCM 82A.20); Hildebert, Versus de Sancta Susannah (PL 171.1092B).

33. Leander of Seville, De Institutione Virginum 7 ( Iberian Fathers, Volume 1 [The Fathers of the Church series, Volume 62], Washington: Catholic University, 1969, pp. 202f). This translation by Claude W. Barlow reflects the more ample text of Leander’s work published by A. C. Vega in Spain in 1948, to which I had no access. It is not contained in the only Latin text of Leander available to me, that in PL 72.

34. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.18 (PG 10.693); also, Chromatius of Aquileia, Sermones 35.4 (CCL 9A.160); Maximus of Turin, Sermones 57.2 (CCL 23.229).

35. Jerome, Epistolae 1.9 (CSEL 54.6).

36. Cf. Breviarium Monasticum, Turin: Marietti, 1963, p. 327*.

37. Origen, In Psalmos 15 (BHP 15.324); Asterios Sophistes, Fragmenta in Psalmos 7.29 (BHP 37.227); Novatian, De Bono Pudicitiae 8–9 (PL 4.823–824; on the ascription of this work to Novatian, cf. Quasten, Patrology, Vol. 2, pp. 225f.); Zeno of Verona, Tractatus 1.28 (PL 11.277A–B); 1.4.6–7 (299–301); Didymus the Blind, Memoriale in Psalmos 20 (BHP 45.300); Augustine, De Sermone Domini in Monte 2.9.32 (PL 34.1283); Quodvultdeus of Carthage, De Symbolo 1.2 (CCL 60.308); Chromatius of Aquileia, Sermones 34.2 (CCL 9A.109).

38. The Apostolic Constitutions 2.37 (BHP 2.41); Eusebius, In Psalmos 145 (BHP 22.388); Athanasius, In Psalmos 118 (BHP 32.273); Nemesius of Emesa, Fragmenta de Anima 30 (BHP 38.281); Comianus, Expositio Marci 14.201 (CCL 82.67).

39. Ambrose, Exhortatio Virginitatis 13.86–87 (PL 16.361–362); Faustus of Rheims, Sermones 3.22 (CSEL 21.311).

40. Maximus of Turin, Sermones 58.1 (CCL 23.232).

41. Jerome, In Sophoniam 3.8 (CCL 76A.701); Eric of Auxerre, Homiliae 1.55 (CCM 116A.100).

42. Maximus of Turin, Sermones 57.1–3 (CCL 23.228–230).

43. Jerome, In Danielem 4.13.62 (CCL 75A.949).

44. Maximus of Turin, Sermones 57.3 (CCL 23.229f).

45. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.22 (PG 10.693).

46. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.7 (PG 10.689). Chromatius of Aquileia would later follow this line of interpretation; cf. his Sermones 35.4 (CCL 9A.160).

47. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.15 (PG 10.692).

48. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.41 (PG 10.696).

49. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.18 (PG 10.693). Hippolytus is one of the earliest extant writers to speak of this post-baptismal anointing with chrism; cf. his Apostolic Tradition 21–22. Cf. also Tertullian, De Baptismo 7.8 (PL 1.1206–1209); De Praescriptione 36, 40 (PL 2.50, 54); De Resurrectione Carnis 8 (PL 2.806); Cyprian, Epistolae 73.9 (PL 3.1160).

50. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.7–12 (PG 10.692). Once the local Gentiles had been converted, later Latin writers tended to limit the enmity, symbolized in the two corrupt elders, simply to the case of the Jews; cf. Isidore of Seville, Allegoriae 126 (PL 83.116B); Rhabanus Maurus, De Universo 1 (PL 111.66A).

51. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.22 (PG 10.696).

52. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 4.26.3 (PG 7.1054).

53. Gregory Nazianzen, Orationes 2.64 (PG 36.473); Jerome, In Sophoniam 3 (CCL 76A.698); Thomas of Chobham, De Arte Praedicandi 3 (CCM 82.87). Elsewhere this last author actually calls them sacerdotes, “priests” ( De Commendatione Virtutum 1 [CCM 82B.24]), but in the same work he later reverts to the common reference presbyteri, “elders” (4 [149]).

54. Didymus the Blind, Fragmenta de Trinitate 2.20 (BHP 43.178).

55. Quodvultdeus of Carthage, Liber Promissionum 34.73 (CCL 60.139).

56. Augustine, Contra Litteras Petiliani 2.23.53 (PL 43.277).

57. Pseudo-Clement, Epistola Secunda de Virginitate 13 (PG 1.442); Origen, In Ezechielem 6 (BHP 16.279); Pseudo-Shenoute, On Christian Behavior 37.4 ( Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium [hereafter CSCO] 207.51f.).

58. The Apostolic Constitutions 2.37 (BHP 2.41); 2.49 (48); 2.51 (49); the Boharic Life of Pachomius (CSCO, Coptic 3rd series, Volume 7, p. 95).

59. Athanasius, Ad Serapion Thmuae 5 (BHP 33.94); Didymus the Blind, Fragmenta de Trinitate 3.11 (BHP 44.19); Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 16.31 (BHP 39.214).

60. Zeno of Verona, Tractatus 2.16 (PL 11.444A); Ambrose, De Spiritu Sancto 3.6.39–40 (PL 16.785B); Jerome, Epistolae 1.9 (CSEL 54.6); Augustine, Speculum (CSEL 12.318f).

61. Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.19 (BHP 6.33).

62. Ambrose, Explanatio Psalmorum 36.57 (CSEL 64.113).

63. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 16.31 (BHP 39.214); Ambrose, Expositio Psalmi CXVIII 2.17 (CSEL 62.30); 13.14 (290).

64. Jerome, Epistolae 14.9 (CSEL 54.56); 58.1 (528); In Isaiam 2.3.3 (CSEL 73.48); In Ezechielem 4.16.3 (CSEL 75.161).

65. Benedict of Nursia, Regula Monachorum 63 (CSEL 75.160).

66. Among Latin manuscript texts from the thousand years prior to the invention of printing, only the Bible surpasses the Rule in sheer number of copies.

67. Gregory the Great, In Ezechielem 1.2.4 (CSEL 142.19); Venerable Bede, In Lucam 1.3.23 (CSEL 120.85).

68. Cf. Genesis 21.33; Isaiah 26:4; 40:28, etc.

69. The Liturgy of St. James (CSCO 122.29, 74).

70. Origen, In Joannem 13.61 (BHP 12.175); In Genesin 3 (BHP 15.111); Athanasius, Historia Arianorum 1.13 (BHP 30.134); Vita Antonii 31 (BHP 33.28).

71. Chrysostom, Homiliae in Joannem 42.2 (PG 59.240); Disodad of Merv, On Genesis 27.33 (CSCO 156.33).

72. Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 6.11 (BHP 25.228).

73. Gregory of Nyssa, De Opificio Hominis 29.1 (PG 44.233D); In Laudem Fratris Basilii (PG 46.792B).

74. John of Damascus, De Fide Orthodoxa 1.9 (PG 94.837A); 1.14 (860D); 2.10 (908D); 4.24 (1208B).

75. Augustine, Quaestiones in Heptateuchum 7.17 (CSEL 28.461); Victor of Vita, Historia Persecutionis Africanae Provinciae 2.84 (CSEL 7.61); Fulgentius of Ruspe, Epistolae 14.4 (CCL 91.390); De Veritate Praedestinationis 1.15 (CCL 91A.468); De Fide ad Petrum 76 (756).

76. Cassiodorus, De Anima 6 (CCL 96.548).

77. Paschasius Radbertus, In Matthaeum 12.26.34 (CCM 56B.1301); Peter the Venerable, Adversus Judaeorum Inveteratam Duritiem 5 (CCM 58.128, 173); Eric of Auxerre, Homiliae 2.31 (CCM 116B.298).

78. Origen, Ad Africanum 11 (BHP 16.359).

79. Cf. John Beleth, De Ecclesiasticis Officiis 92 (CCM 41A.163). These two texts were also compared by Hincmar of Rheims, De Divortio Lotharii et Tetbergae 21 (PL 125.738A). There is a passage in Rupert of Deutz suggesting that sometimes the Gospel reading accompanying the Susannah narrative may have been the story of the loose-living Samaritan woman in John 4; cf. his De Divinis Officiis 4.16 (CCM 7.132).

80. The textual testimony is very weak in assigning it to the Fourth Gospel, since John 7:53–8:11 is missing from papyri 66 and 75, the codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, the oldest versions in Syriac and Coptic, and a host of other witnesses. Moreover, no Greek Father during the first thousand years ever commented on it in the course of exegeting the Fourth Gospel. The canonicity of the text, on the other hand, is not in doubt, some manuscripts placing it in other New Testament contexts. I have long suspected that this story found its way into the Gospel of John because it was recognized to touch certain themes otherwise present in that Gospel.

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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