From the sources by Eliezer Segal: Footprints in the ashes

By Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – Literary historians and just-plain fans of mystery fiction occasionally raise the question “What was the first detective story?” The correct answer depends somewhat on how you define the genre (for example, whether it has to involve a crime or a detective). The proposed candidates are almost invariably nineteenth-century European or American authors, such as E. A. Poe or Wilkie Collins. Those with wider horizons might include a tale from the Thousand and One Nights. Others expand the category to allow just about any story that involves solving a puzzle.

A popular candidate is the biblical Daniel who exposed the fraudulent cult of Bel.

What’s this? You don’t recall that episode from your reading of the Jewish scriptures? Well, the truth is that the story is not found in the editions of the Bible that were accepted by Jewish tradition. It was however included in some other ancient versions. The original Hebrew or Aramaic text has not survived, but it found its way into Greek translations that were preserved by Christian communities. There are two known versions of the Greek text; one of which is part of the complete Greek Bible from Alexandria (the “Septuagint”), and a slightly different one preserved by the second-century Jewish translator Theodotion.

In Christian churches, the Greek books and sections that were excluded from the Hebrew canon are often placed under a separate classification as “Apocrypha.” This story, which appears in the Greek Bibles as a concluding chapter of the book of Daniel, gets separate billing as “Bel and the Dragon.”

The story takes place during the reign of King Cyrus of Persia. The pagan priests maintained a temple into which were daily heaped enormous quantities of grain, meat and wine for the god Bel to consume, thereby proving to everyone that Bel was a powerful deity —everyone, that is, except Cyrus’s trusted Jewish counselor Daniel. Daniel laughingly dismissed the notion, arguing that Bel was nothing more than an inanimate statue of clay and bronze.

The pagan priests challenged Daniel to a test. The temple’s only entrance would be sealed after the food was deposited. If in the morning the food was gone, then that would prove conclusively that Bel was real, and the unbeliever Daniel would be put to death. Otherwise the priests would be executed.

That night Daniel, observed only by the king, scattered ashes on the temple’s floor. When the temple was opened in the morning, the food was all gone, and everyone rushed to judge Daniel. He, however, called their attention to footprints in the ashes, which proved that the supposedly sealed chamber had been entered by a large contingent of humans, identified as the cult’s seventy priests and their families. These people had been sustaining themselves sumptuously from ostensibly religious contributions of grain, meat and wine. The enraged king had the priests and their families executed, and authorized Daniel to destroy the idol and its temple.

The motif of a Hebrew monotheist unmasking the hoax behind the worship of graven images is familiar to many of us from the midrashic account of young Abram’s undermining his father’s idol business. After destroying all the statues in the shop, he accused the largest of them of causing the destruction in an argument over the distribution of offerings. This elicited an admission by his father that the idols were nothing more than inanimate objects.

There is an earlier episode in the Greek Daniel that also has a detective-like ring to it, the story that appears in Apocrypha collections as “Susanna and the Elders.” It tells of the virtuous lady of that name who resisted the advances of some dirty old men who subsequently accused her falsely of adultery in an attempt to blackmail her for sexual favours. Just as she was about to be condemned to death on the fabricated charge, their nefarious plot was exposed by young Daniel when, under his cross-examination, the elders gave differing identifications of the tree where the supposed dalliance had occurred.

The Mishnah, to illustrate the need for intensive interrogation of witnesses in capital trials, contains the cryptic statement: “there was a case in which Ben Zakkai interrogated the witnesses regarding the stems of figs.” The Talmud identified this mysterious “Ben Zakkai” as the renowned Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai; and explained that the case arose while he was still a student before receiving his rabbinic ordination. Rabban Yohanan lived during the generation of the temple’s destruction, centuries later than the biblical Daniel; and scholars disagree whether there is any real connection between the two stories.

The trick of detecting intruders by sprinkling ashes on the floor makes an appearance in the Talmud—not for purposes of exposing human charlatans, but rather in order to reveal the presence of nocturnal demons. “One who wishes to know them should surround his bed with powdery ashes, and in the morning he will see something resembling rooster footprints.” This was probably similar to the function of the many Jewish Aramaic incantation bowls that have been discovered in Babylonia, which were placed upside-down in order to capture hostile demons.

The Apocryphal story about Daniel and the pagan priests did eventually find its way back to “normative” Jewish literature, apparently with assistance from Babylonian or Syrian Christian teachers who helped adapt it from their Syriac Bible for the benefit of Jewish scholars. A version of that text appears in the collection Bereshit Rabbati by the eleventh-century Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan of Narbonne, and it found its way into several medieval Jewish compendia. In that guise it was cited as an ancient midrash by the erudite Dominican Raymond Martini in his Pugio Fidei (“dagger of the faith”), an anti-Jewish polemical treatise that attests to the compiler’s extraordinary mastery of Jewish religious literature, including valuable quotations from books that have otherwise been lost.

The precise details of the story’s wanderings from ancient Greek Bibles through the dust of later ages are not entirely clear, and will undoubtedly benefit from additional scholarly sleuthing.

Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter. 

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