False Witnesses

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Apocryphal/Apocalyptic Writings


In the story of Susanna, the evil judges are put to death for bearing false witness against her. Was this really the practice?


It specifically states in Deut 19:18-19: "If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst." It also, of course, recommends that the judges make a thorough inquiry before doing this. The question remains, however, whether this was in vogue during the time Susanna was written – sometime during the third and first centuries BCE. 

About one hundred years ago, a scholar by the name of Nehemiah Brull came up with an interesting possibility. He theorized that Susanna was written as a Pharisaical polemic around the first century -- during the Maccabean period. This was a very difficult time for the Jewish people. They, essentially, were at war with themselves. True, they had banded together to rid themselves of the dreaded Selucid kings, which had brought an end to the Selucid dynasty. But after they had rededicated the temple, the supporters of the Maccabees could not agree on anything. Some wanted to continue fighting for total independence; others were satisfied that the temple had been restored and they had religious freedom. 

The Sadducees and Pharisees represented the opposing viewpoints. The Pharisees opposed the political wars, while the Sadducees supported them. Jonathan Maccabee took over in 160 BCE upon the death of his older brother. He already was the High Priest and soon began making treaties with other foreign dignitaries. This furthered the religious divide between the opposing factions. When he died in 142, Simon Maccabee took over. He was the last of the Maccabean sons and during his reign the King of Syria granted the Jews political independence. This led to the founding of the Hasmonean dynasty, which would last over a hundred years. Simon was a great supporter of the Sadducees, who were the aristocratic priests. As the years went on, each successor brought new tensions to the region.

One notable ruler, Alexander Jannaeus (102-76 BCE) was particularly calculating. Though he was a great supporter of the Sadducees, his wife's brother was a notable Pharisee, so for a time it appeared that Jannaeus had backed off from persecuting them. Unbeknownst to them, however, he simply used this time to solidify his power and prestige, ultimately bringing in foreign soldiers to help eliminate the Pharisees. This led to a civil war, which he eventually won. But it was said that 50,000 died during this war; historical records reveal some of the shocking atrocities that were committed against the Pharisees and their families.

A relevant story comes from this period. The leader of the Pharisees during the time of Jannaeus was Simon be Shetah (his wife's brother). His zeal for the law knew no bounds and in one day he hanged 80 "witches." Later on, some relatives of those women accused one of Simon's sons of a capital offense, and the lad was sentenced to death. The witnesses came forward before his execution to admit they had falsely accused him. The lad offered to go through with his execution so they would have to be killed! This illustrates a major difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees. It also reveals that the Sadducean position was the authoritative one. The Sadducees believed in the principle of "an eye for an eye." Interpreted strictly, this meant a false accuser could not be sentenced to death unless the victim had already been killed. Whereas the Pharisees, following Deuteronomy, believed the intent of the accusers would suffice. If they meant to do harm, they could be killed. In both scenarios, all parties affirmed that careful examination of the accusers was essential for justice to be carried out.

Hence, Brull saw the story of Susanna as an argument that was supportive of the Pharisaical position. First, witnesses should be carefully interrogated (although that was not done until Daniel showed up), and second, the punishment should fit the intent of their crime. Recently, scholars have pointed out the flaws in his theory, mostly based on the fact that Daniel was no model of interrogation. Indeed, he pronounced his sentence upon them before he even asked them any questions. Obviously, he could do this on the basis of divine revelation. But if this was meant to be used as an example for others, it would be difficult to do so for the same reason – not everyone is the recipient of divine revelation.

The civil war finally ended with the arrival of Pompey, who made all of Judea a protectorate of Rome in 63 BCE. The Hasmonean dynasty was over, to be followed by the Herodians. Judea could still have a "king" but would now be under the administration of a governor whose job it was to regulate trade and collect taxes. It would be a good long while before they were independent again.

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