Monday, September 10, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (8)

“One of these things things not like the others
  One of these things just doesn’t belong ...”
— Sesame Street

Ah, the relics of my misspent youth.

I hated school. Hated it with the burning rage of a thousand suns, or one of those other overwrought metaphors my kids use.

I loathed it so passionately that in order to avoid it, I spent an inordinate amount of time home “sick”, usually on the pullout couch. Daytime TV just doesn’t get much better than muppet Ernie and the “One of These Things” song.

And once in a blue moon there’s even a spiritual application ...

8. Susanna

In the Septuagint, the story of Susanna is appended to the book of Daniel. You can read it in the New Revised Standard version here, in four or five minutes, which is about all the attention it merits.

Depressingly Inadequate

Yet another candidate for canonicity; this one is the most depressingly inadequate to date. “Susanna” is the tale of a beautiful Israelite wife living in Babylon early in Judah’s captivity. Two lust-driven elders, recently appointed to be judges of the Jews, conspire to falsely accuse her of adultery because she has refused to grant them sexual favors.

This sets up a dramatic court scene in which our heroine is condemned to death by the assembled Jews, who cannot bring themselves to believe her protestations of innocence against the word of two upstanding citizens who have officially met the evidence threshold established in the Law of Moses.

In the nick of time, a young man named Daniel (yes, THAT Daniel, at least allegedly) challenges the verdict, cross-examines the accusers and manages to get them to contradict one another, all the time heaping abuse on them. Sadly, the English translations of Daniel’s harangues (“You old relic of wicked days”, “You offspring of Canaan and not of Judah”) are ineffective at showcasing the cleverness of the dialogue, which is full of Greek puns. The angry mob then executes the conspirators in accordance with the Law of Moses, declaring Susanna innocent. Young Daniel’s stock goes through the roof, which, I suspect, is the point of the exercise.

Trust me, my summary makes it sound WAY more dignified than it is. Thankfully, at only a single chapter, Susanna at least has the virtue of being brief.

Cornflower Prose

As with a number of other Apocryphal writings, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches accept Susanna as canonical despite the fact that the Hebrew text of Daniel does not include it. That fact is not insignificant: as Paul puts it, “the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” Jerome, translator of the Vulgate in the early fourth century, considered Susanna a fable. Martin Luther called it a “cornflower”, and summarily uprooted it.

Personally, I find the story vulgar and implausible. Even if we take into account that the version of Daniel the prophet found in Susanna is on the younger side of things, his portrayal is all wrong tonally. Canonical Daniel, even in the early chapters, is resolute, devout and very defined; he does not hector or mock. The version we meet in Susanna is a bit of a smartmouth. While canonical Daniel would certainly stand against injustice, I cannot picture him calling God’s people “fools” (1:48) for obeying the Law as they understood it and for showing deference and respect to authority.

Capital Punishment … in Babylon?

Equally implausible is the fact that very early on in Judah’s captivity, the Chaldean captors are already allowing the exiles living among them to enforce their own law — including capital punishment — and to enforce it on foreign soil, in Babylon, their own capital city. The Romans didn’t. Why would the Chaldeans? Moreover, if we compare the relaxed atmosphere among the Jewish exiles in Susanna with the tension between captors and captives in Daniel 1 and 2, which are, at least theoretically, from exactly the same time period, Babylon seems like two different places entirely.

Again, the word “Jew” [YÄ•huwdiy] occurs nowhere in canonical Daniel, but shows up in Susanna (1:4). Daniel repeatedly refers to “people of Israel”, “my people Israel”, “the exiles from Judah” (several times), to “the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel.” The word “Jew” appears in the Old Testament in the histories written in the late exilic period, and especially in Esther, but not before.

Wildly Out of Place

When taken together with the notable tonal difference from canonical Daniel, the divergent portrayal of the living conditions of the exiles, and the lack of evidence of a Hebrew or Aramaic original for Susanna, the case for a much later authorship than canonical Daniel seems compelling.

Then there is the story’s placement. The book of Daniel is not beginning-to-end chronological, but it is also not the least bit disorganized; it is arranged thematically. It begins with six chapters of historical material in chronological order, starting in chapter 1 around 605 B.C. and finishing in chapter 6 around 535 B.C. These are followed by six chapters of prophetic visions covering the twenty-year period from 553 B.C. through 534 B.C., also in chronological order.

So the Susanna story is not just tonally jarring; it is also wildly out of place.

Oskar, Meet Oscar ...

Chapter 12 of canonical Daniel ends with this direction to the prophet from what would seem to be an angelic being:
“But go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days.”
It’s the resolution of a series of apocalyptic visions that takes us through the next couple thousand years of world history. It’s got world powers and spiritual principalities and a “time of trouble, such as never has been”. It’s got scope, it’s got narrative heft, it’s got good and evil on a grand scale. It makes the Jew pale and the Christian say, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

And when it ends, in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, we are treated to a tale of a smart-mouthed kid saving the pretty girl and getting the better of two creepy old men.

I’m no expert, but as someone who has read Daniel many times, along with every commentary on the book I can get my hands on, let me just say one of these things is NOT like the other. It’s not quite as unbelievable as ending the Director’s Cut Edition of Schindler’s List with an outtake from The Muppet Movie ... but it’s not so far off either.

Readability: 3/10
Plausibility: 1/10

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