Susanna is the Biblical Latin form of the Greek Sousanna, itself a transliteration of the Hebrew Shoshana meaning, quite simply, “lily.” Many scholars believe the name ultimately finds its roots in the Egyptian element “sšn” meaning, apropos, “lotus” (water lily), a flower of great importance to the early people of the Mediterranean. To the Ancient Egyptians, it was symbolic of the sun, creation and rebirth – at night the lotus flower closes and sinks underwater, only to rise and blossom again at dawn.
Susanna (Hebrew: Shoshana) is a notable character from the Hebrew Bible's Book of Daniel, a narrative also recognized by Christians. Her story goes something like this: Susanna was a very beautiful, God-fearing and faithful Jewish woman living in Babylon during a period of exile. Happily married to a man named Joakim, she was wrongly accused of adultery by two disgruntled Jewish elders whose romantic advances she rejected. Angered, the two morally corrupt men decide to blackmail her by giving her one of two choices: Either she “lies” with them (that’s Old Bible-speak for “fornication”) or else they promise to publicly accuse her of adultery anyway. The pious beauty refuses the men again, knowing full-well that she risks certain social shame and the probability of execution (adultery was punishable by death in those days) should they indeed carry out their threat.
As the story progresses, Susanna is ultimately convicted and sentenced to death. But wait. This ancient Biblical story has a nail-biting climax worthy of Court TV. At the last minute, God sends Daniel to Susanna’s defense. In a brilliant legal maneuver, Daniel separates the two elders and asks them individually: “Under which tree did this alleged adultery take place?” No surprise, the two men give disparate answers, revealing their fraud. A true Biblical “gotcha” moment. As the story ends, the bad guys get a taste of their own medicine (they are sentenced to death) whilst Susanna lives happily ever after.
Though Susanna finds her roots in the Hebrew Bible, endurance of the name among Christianized Europeans in the Middle Ages is owed to Susanna from the New Testament (Luke 8:3), briefly mentioned for her role in spreading the “good news of the kingdom of God.” Used occasionally in medieval times, Susanna gained more steam after the Protestant Reformation when Puritans and other dissenting Christians brought about the revival of many Hebrew names from the Old Testament (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Susanna, etc.) in a demonstration of their return to God.
Shoshana is still used with frequency in the Jewish community. Susanna is old-school Biblical Latin and Old Church Slavic. In the English-speaking world, the name has more commonly been used in the form of Susan (or Suzanne with a “z”). The French tend to use Suzanne or Suzette. The pretty Latinate Susanna is also typical of Northern Europe (Scandinavia and Germany) as well as Italy. Zsa Zsa is a cute Hungarian diminutive.