Monday, September 10, 2012

The Watson Report: The First Whodunnit? (Part Two)

by I.A. Watson


There are two earlier stories are from the extended Septuagent version of The Book of Daniel, which adds new chapters 13 and 14; the text appears in only one ancient source and these parts are omitted from most bibles (they were in the 1611 King James Version though).

In chapter 13, two lustful elders spy on the bathing Susanna. They threaten to accuse her of adultery unless she has sex with them. She refuses them. They bring their allegations, and given the testimony of two prominent holy men the young wife is to be executed. Daniel intervenes to separately question the witnesses, and from their contradictory answers proves Susanna innocent. The accusers are executed instead.

Here we have all the trappings of the detective story, and one of the first reported interrogation scenes. I'd only discount it from my definition of "the first whodunnit story" because it forms one short incident in a much longer narrative, not the focus of the story as a whole. No doubt it is a proper detective mystery though.

By the way, one reason the ancient provenance of this story is questioned is that Daniel, in interrogating the witnesses (in Greek, the language of the Septuagent), uses outragoeous puns that would not have existed in the original Hebrew. The key discrepancy of the testimonies is the kind of tree under which Susanna was supposed to have had sex with her young lover. One witness claims it was a short mastic tree, whose Greek name is similar to the Greek verb for to cut (σχίνον vs σχίσει), and Daniel asks if an angel was ready to cut the mastic down. The other witness describes an oak, whose Greek name is similar to the verb to saw (πρίνον vs πρίσαι), and Daniel asks if the angel was ready to saw that tree down. Many scholars have gone into massive linguistic gymnastics to try and demonstrate how there might have been similar puns in an original Hebrew text. So this tale is also something of a literary whodunnit too.

In chapter 14, a dispute with the king about the giant statue of the god Bel, the priests of Bel argue that their god consumes the massive amounts of offerings laid out for him in his temple each night. A test is made, wherein the temple is sealed overnight and the food still vanishes.

However, detective Daniel has scattered flour on the temple floor, and from this demonstrates to the king the multitude of footprints that betray the priests' secret door, through which they and their families enter each night to consume the food. Bel is discredited, his statue shattered. So ends history's first locked room mystery. Technically it's more a howdunnit than a whodunnit, but its definitely a contender.

But if we're dipping into biblical sources, why not dig back to Solomon's detection of who was the mother of the disputed baby?