What Did Jesus Write on the Ground?

What Did Jesus Write on the Ground? April 17, 2015

Oftentimes, when Jesus went to Jerusalem to worship at the temple during appointed feasts, religious authorities envious of his popularity would question him in an effort to get him to teach against the Law of Moses (Torah) in hopes that they could condemn him. One of those times they brought a woman to him who had been caught in the act of adultery. The account does not say if both parties were married, and this omitted detail is not important to the story. At least one of the guilty parties had to be married for it to be adultery. This account appears in the Gospel of John, in John 7.53—8.11 NRSV, as follows:

7 53 [Then each of them went home,

1while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”]

In a previous post, on January 12, 2015 (“I Am the Light of the World”—Jesus), I said there is substantial internal and external evidence indicating that John 7.53—8.11 originally was not a part of the Gospel of John. That is why most Bible versions place it in brackets, as here in the NRSV, and/or they have a footnote explaining this. The main reason is that all but one of the ancient Greek manuscripts of this gospel, Codex Bezae, do not contain it, yet some have it in the Gospel of Luke. Ancient versions also omit it. The NRSV has a footnote that says, “The most ancient authorities lack 7.53—8.11; other authorities add the passage here or after 7.36 or after 21.25 or after Luke 21.38, with variations of text.” Raymond E. Brown says of it (John I–XII, 335), “There are no comments on this passage by the Greek writers on John of the 1st Christian millennium, and it is only from ca. 900 that it begins to appear in the standard Greek text.” And C. K. Barret (John, 589) begins his treatment of this text by saying, “It is certain that this narrative is not an original part of this gospel.” Greek linguists claim its style and vocabulary certainly are not Johannine. Yet J. H. Bernard (John, 716) is surely right is saying, “the story of the adulteress seems to be an authentic fragment of early tradition.” Also, I think the Gospel of John is more sensible if John 8.12 immediately follows John 7.52. So, we will examine this intriguing story that captures the attention and imagination of many Bible readers, pose questions about it, and attempt to answer especially the question, What did Jesus write on the ground?

Jesus was a Torah teacher par excellence. The Torah’s moral commandments are known for their brevity. That is why Jews constructed 613 laws that supposedly elaborate what Torah says. Jesus constantly taught the deeper meaning of Torah. In doing so, sometimes he cited one or more of these 613 laws as being an incorrect assessment of Torah. That is similar to what he did here regarding the very law these men mentioned regarding adultery. These men were “scribes and Pharisees.” Like Jesus, scribes were Torah experts, and they made copies of scripture. Pharisees were a sect in Judaism known for its teaching of the scriptures as well. All of these men likely were married since Judaism emphasized marriage and having children in fulfillment of the antediluvian injunction, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1.22).

Actually, this law against adultery appears three times in Torah. One of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20.14). But in the other two occurrences, the penalty for committing adultery is clearly stated. One says, “the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20.10). The other says, “both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman” (Deuteronomy 22.22). Just as today, “lay with a woman” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Neither penalty proscribed gives the means for its execution. But the penalty for the next stated infraction about sexuality is to “stone them to death” (v. 24). And Ezekiel 16.38–40 indicates that the penalty for adultery was stoning. Also, Deut 22.22 tells the purpose of this law against adultery as well as its penalty. It is “so you shall purge the evil from Israel.” So much for social theorists contending that this grave penalty for breaking such laws does not curb that ill behavior. In contrast, the concept of purging evil from society by punishing law-breakers appears often in Torah. According to Bible prophecy, one of the main features of the endtimes will be rampant lawlessness (Matthew 24.12; 2 Thessalonians 2.3, 7).

As the account states, the motives of these men were highly suspect. And it is abhorrently duplicitous that they brought the adulteress without also bringing the adulterer. Plus, they had the audacity to say to Jesus, “This woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery,” and “Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” But the law to which they referred says both transgressors are to be put to death. That smacks of male chauvinism if I’ve ever seen it! And knowing Jesus, he is going to expose such crass hypocrisy.

J. D. M. Derrett (“Law in the New Testament: The Woman Taken in Adultery,” New Testament Studies 10/1 (1963) pp. 12–16) says the later Talmud required that witnesses of imminent adultery must warn the two people in advance or the witnesses’ testimony would be invalid on the basis of Exodus 23.1–7, and he suggests this injunction may have existed during Jesus’ time. Since these witnesses obviously failed to do that, this omission exposes their ill-motive of desiring the couple to commit adultery in order to take the woman to Jesus to test him.

So, Torah says those caught in the act of adultery are to be put to death by stoning. But who is to press charges? Regarding “any crime or wrongdoing” that requires the death penalty, Moses says, “Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained” (Deuteronomy 19.15). Also, if there is suspicion of the veracity of a witness, that person is to be brought before the priests and judges for them to “make a thorough inquiry. 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” (vv. 18–19). Moses then explains, “The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you” (v. 20). The Law of Moses had some very efficient checks and balances.

After the charge is brought, inquiry made, and guilt established, who must do the stoning? Israel’s whole congregation was to stone blasphemers of Yahweh’s Name as well as Sabbath-breakers (Leviticus 24.16; Numbers 15.32–35). If anyone “trangresses his [God’s] covenant by going to serve other gods and worshiping them,” they were to “stone the man or the woman to death” (Deuteronomy 17.2–3, 5).  “The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to excecute the death penalty, and afterwards the hands of all the people” (v. 7). So, in capital crimes, which included adultery, the witnesses were to cast the first stones, and then the rest of the congregation were to cast stones as well.

Christians preachers have commonly cited this Pericope de Adultera as evidence of Jesus’ mercy. Yet not a few readers of this adulteress affair have thought that when Jesus said to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you,” he was being too lenient on her, so that he should have condemned her and thereby upheld the Law of Moses. But that represents a clear misunderstanding of the Mosaic law. We just read that it says those who press such charges must be witnesses of the act of adultery. Jesus certainly was not a witness to it. And he was not an official judge so that he had no lawful authority to interrogate the veracity of the witnesses and condemn her if their testimony appeared truthful.

But the main question to ask about this story of an adulteress is this, Why did Jesus keep writing on the ground? And what did he write? Many New Testament scholars claim we cannot know anything about what Jesus wrote.  Then, why does it say twice that he “bent down and wrote (with his finger) on the ground”? When the Bible provides a detail about a story, that detail may not be significant. But when it repeats that detail, that suggest that this information is indeed significant. So, the repeated detail about Jesus bending down and writing indicates that knowing what he wrote is essential to understanding this pericope. Indeed, Jesus seems to have written something that caused these men to shut up and leave!

The account says Jesus was sitting and teaching people when these scheming men arrived. They and the woman probably remained standing. After Jesus wrote the first time on the ground, he straightened up, probably stood up, looked these men in the eyes, and said to them, paraphrasing it, “Who among you is without sin?” He surely was not asking if any of them had never sinned in their lives. Solomon wrote, “Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning” (Eccle 7.20). I think the answer has to do with context, that is, what Jesus meant when he last spoke and the story ends. For he told the woman, “from now on do not sin again.” He surely did not mean for her to be sinless the rest of her life. Instead, he meant she should not do that particular sin of adultery anymore. Bible expositors adhere heartily to this interpretation. Accordingly, that must be what Jesus meant when he said to these men, “Who among you is without sin,” referring to adultery. This remark can be further paraphrased, “Let anyone among you who has never committed adultery be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Now, to be clear, this story is about actual adultery in contrast to mental adultery. There is a significant difference. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5.27–28). He was speaking to married men, and he was bringing out a deeper meaning of this law. It is that not only is physical adultery a terrible sin, mental adultery is also a sin. But Jesus did not mean they are equal. Some sins are worse than others, and that is why God imposes more severe penalties for the worst sins.

The underlying intent of laws and penalties in Torah is that those who execute justice for crimes committed should not themselves be guilty of the same infractions. Otherwise, it is hyprocrisy.

So, those who cast stones at adulterers must have never committed adultery themselves. Jesus appears to have been drawing the attention of this woman’s accusers to this important principle of Torah by writing on the ground. When the incident began, he was sitting and teaching. All involved in this incident probably were standing or sitting on a dusty, smooth surface made of some stone, perhaps marbel, in which writing on it could be quite visible. So, what was Jesus writing? Was he quoting one or more of these scriptural laws against adultery or just sin in general? Probably neither.

The primary thrust of this incident regarding adultery was that Jesus was writing something that caused these men to promptly depart. Thus, what he was writing must have pertained specifically to them. George R. Beasley-Murray (John, 146) says of this one time the New Testament says Jesus wrote anything, “Thereby he set an unanswerable conundrum for exegetes of all time.” Beasley-Murray then relates that some expositors have said it was doodling to calm Jesus’ anger, or an appropriate scripture, or a revelation about the woman’s husband and her accusers having enticed her to commit this sin.

Many cite Jeremiah 17.13 and apply it to Jesus writing on the ground. In the NIV it says of God: “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water.” Perhaps it applies to this situation, but they link it to this adulteress woman pericope being here in the Gospel of John right after Jesus’ proclamation during the Feast of Tabernacles in which he claimed to be “living water” (John 7.38). We we saw that is quite doubtful due to its lack of manuscript attestation and that this portion of the gospel makes more sense if John 8.12 is joined to John 7.52. So, I think the above suggestions are not compelling mostly because they fail to explain the many details given.

First, why do we read that these men “kept on questioning” Jesus as if he refused to answer their original question, “Now what do you say?” His silence was defeaning. The text does not say these men looked at what he was writing, but it doesn’t have to. Anyone would have been most interested in such an unusual activity in this emotionally-charged scene while Jesus seemed oblivious to their question by continuing to write. Or was he? He likely was answering them silently, yet powerfully, with his finger on the ground.

Second, when Jesus straightened up and said to this poor woman’s accusers, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” why didn’t they respond to this statement? Throughout the New Testament gospels, when Jesus argued with his interlocutors, they always responded unless he stumped them. But this isn’t even an argument. Why did the mouths of these men, that were so willing to chirp about this woman’s moral failure, now stay shut as if their jaws were wired together? Their sudden silence had to be because of what Jesus was writing on the floor.

Incidentally, Jesus spoke to these men, or some of them, about being the first to throw a stone at her. That seems to indicate he knew they, or some of them, were witnesses to this woman’s act of adultery. So, they probably are the ones who “caught” the couple performing the prohibited act. They may have known that these two were having an affair. In that case, these men could have conspired together to catch this couple in the act for the purpose of bringing the woman to Jesus with their question. The standard view of this incident is that if Jesus had reacted to their question by condemning her, that would have violated his teaching about mercy and forgiveness; but if he upheld the law he would have to condemn her. And that may have been the thinking of her incriminators. And what about stoning her? Israel was under the subjugation of the Roman Empire, so at that time it was unlawful for its Sanhedrin to prosecute crimes deserving capital punishment and execute such, thus to execute adulterers.

Third, why does this account then say of these men, “when they heard it, they went away”? It is pretty obvious that the combination of Jesus’ question and what he was writing caused them to depart. Why? With Jesus’ finger he accused and convicted each of these men of the same sin for which they were accusing the adulteress. How so? He had written the names of each of these married men and the women with whom they had indulged in illicit sex. In English, it could have been written like this: John+Mary, or if there were multiple trysts John+Mary, Rebeccah, Sarah. But since their Aramaic language had no punctuation or even space between words, more likely Jesus wrote the names of each man with the names of their unlawful female partners underneath those male names. And if Jesus attached multiple names of females to some of these men, this Prophet-like-Moses had just accused them of more such escapades than the single allegation they had brought against this woman.

Most importantly, in this way Jesus would not have had to write many words in order to make his point, certainly less words than quoting scriptures. In fact, this schema would require the least amount of words conceivable. We might imagine Jesus kneeling and being bent over, writing on the floor with his back facing most of these standing men. When he straightened up, what he had written would be visible to all.

In a tenth century, edited, Armenian manuscript of the canonical gospels, John 8.8 reads (translated into English), “He himself, bowing his head, was writing with his finger on the earth to declare their sins, and they were seeing their several sins on the stones.” The portion after the word “earth” must be received as commentary, thus not reflecting the original text. I think it is insightful but that it lacks specification.

Fourth, why does the account say, “they went away, one by one”? Apparently, those men who departed this dramatic arena first were those whose names, with their female accomplice(s) appended, Jesus wrote on the ground first. So, they exited “one by one” according to the progress of Jesus’ brief expose being laid in broad daylight right in front of their feet.

Fifth, why do we read that these men departed “beginning with the elders”? Since the story begins by saying they were “scribes and Pharisees,” the word “elders” here probably regards their age rather than them being tribal elders. Generally, the older a married man is the more experience he has had in being tempted to commit adultery. So, the older men probably were guilty of more such unlawful rendezvous than the younger men were. If this was the case, Jesus likely wrote first about the older men because they had more of these unfaithful trysts.

As we draw near the end of this pericope de adultera, Latinized, Jesus being “left alone with the woman standing before him” suggests that all of her accusers had been exposed of not only the same sin for which they had condemned this publicly shamed woman but also their hypocrisy in doing it. And I think Jesus’ remark when he last stood up from writing on the ground is hilarious—“Woman, where are they?”







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