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Why did Jesus write on the ground?

The story of the woman caught in adultery who is dragged by the scribes and Pharisees to Jesus for judgment (John 7:53-8:11) is a fascinating one, for various reasons. I made extensive use of it in a sermon on gentleness at Crossroads in the Hague yesterday – I love the way that Jesus stills the storm and so gently restores the woman’s humanity. But I probably gave myself too much freedom to explore some of the literary questions that it raises.

Christopher Hitchens, who thinks that ‘religion poisons everything’, is very excited to discover that the passage was not originally part of John’s Gospel and cites the fact as evidence that the New Testament can’t be trusted (143-145). He admits to being dependent here on the work of Bart Ehrman, who has done his best in recent years to hold up for public scorn the text critical flaws of the New Testament documents. We can hardly expect Hitchens to have taken the trouble to read the many critiques of Ehrman’s books (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and Misquoting Jesus) that have exposed the tendentious nature of his scholarship; but it is odd that he picks on a passage whose formal ‘inauthenticity’ is openly acknowledged in the marginal notes of most modern Bibles. He didn’t need Ehrman to point that out to him. The suspicion is that the story also gives Hitchens an opportunity to snigger at the anxieties of sexually frustrated religious males.

But is the passage inauthentic? Eusebius reports that Papias referred to a story of Jesus and a ‘woman accused of many sins’ which could be found in the no longer extant Gospel of the Hebrews. Both the 3rd century Syriac Didascalia Apostolorum and Didymus the Blind appear to refer to the incident, though without linking it to John’s Gospel. It also fits the pattern and literary style of the controversies between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees.

The only detail that has always struck me as out of place is the writing on the ground – a bit too arbitrary, opaque, meaningless, cabalistic, even gnostic. The young man who runs away naked when Jesus is arrested (Mark 14:51) belongs in the same category, as does perhaps the application of mud to the eyes of the blind man (John 9:6). But I was unaware of a rather long-standing tradition of interpretation that associates Jesus’ action with Jeremiah 17:13, which casts it in a very different light:

O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.

This would make the writing on the ground another one of Jesus’ acted parables, an allusive gesture, much like the calming of the storm (Matt. 8:23-27; cf. Ps. 107:25-30) or the entry into Jerusalem (cf. Zech. 9:9). It is Jesus’ way of saying to the scribes and Pharisees, who always hear but do not understand, that they have turned away from the fountain of living water – and of course, that they face the same judgment, the same devastation, as the apostates of Jeremiah’s generation.

J. Jeremias makes the point very well in The Parables of Jesus, 228:

If we may assume that the pericope de adultera ([John] 7.53 ff.) rests on early tradition, then the writing in the sand is another example of parabolic action; it would have reminded her accusers, without openly putting them to shame, of the scripture which said: ‘They that depart from me shall be written in the earth’ (Jer. 17.13), and his action would have said to them, ‘You are those of whom that scripture speaks’ – a silent call to repentance.

Moreover, Jesus has just announced in the temple, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38). It seems likely, therefore, that the allusion to Jeremiah 17:13, with its reference to a ‘fountain of living water’, may have been a factor in the insertion of the story at this point in John’s Gospel.

This sort of covert, unself-conscious detail makes me much more confident that the story, whatever its provenance, really does belong here.

As a footnote, Diogenes Laertius 2.127 tells the story about the irascible philosopher Menedemus (300 BC):

…when a young man behaved with boldness towards him, he did not say a word, but took a bit of stick and drew on the floor an insulting picture; until the young man, perceiving the insult that was meant in the presence of numbers of people, went away.

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Re: Why did Jesus write on the ground?

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Re: Why did Jesus write on the ground?

Andrew’s exegesis of John 8 is very helpful. I haven’t read such a satisfactory explanation of what or why Jesus wrote on the ground when the Jews were ready to stone her. This explanation flows well with what Jesus said in John 7. Thank you for the insight.

It is remarkable that the Jews realized the meaning of their action. They realized that they were about to reject the Lord. If they do so, they would be as meaningless as the dust on the ground. The glorious destiny God has for them will not be theirs. They will end up mere dust.

The Jews were operating out of the ethics of law. They knew the law very well. It was universal in its application. Regardless of circumstances, the law must be applied. Of course, the question here is ‘Where is the man who committed adultery with her?’ Anyhow, the ethics of law does not know life. It only has judgment, punishment, and death in view. All who operate from this ethics of law will find it almost impossible to accept Jesus’ invitation to come to him and drink their fill of the living water. When the spirit flows freely from someone, that person no longer operates from the ethics of law, but from the ethics of redemption and the ethics of creativity. I am indebted to Nicolai Berdyaev for these three categories of ethics.

Those who do not have the Spirit cannot have life as the goal of their ethics. Yet, with Jesus, he was interested more in restoration of life. He operated from the ethics of creativity, which is based on the freedom of the Spirit.

What the Jews did, we evangelical today also do. While we claim to be free in the Spirit, when we read the gospels, we read them from the perspective of legalism. Even the Beatitudes are read from such a point of view. When we see the Jews ready to stone her, we see ourselves. We are duly warned not to reject the source of our living water.

Re: Why did Jesus write on the ground?

Concerning John 8.3-11, I think it is quite a stretch to expect those men to connect their names being written on the ground with either Jeremiah 17.13 or John 7.37-38, and that would have only started an argument. Moreover, it does not account for important details in this pericope.

These men had unfairly brought only the woman and not the man who also was guilty of the adultery. Although we can’t know for sure, I suspect Jesus sought to expose this hypocrisy and that he did it by writing on the ground their names and the names of women with whom they had committed adultery at some time or times in their lives. “When they heard it” (v. 9)—these men hearing Jesus’ saying in v. 7 about being “without sin,” meaning specifically the sin of adultery (same for “do not sin again” in v. 11)—they were convicted in their hearts because of what Jesus said and wrote. Then, “they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders” (v. 9).

Why did the elders exit first? Maybe it was because Jesus held them more responsible due to their position and thus wrote their names first. Or maybe it was because elderly men who are adulterous are more likely to have had multiple encounters in their lives, in which case Jesus wrote by attaching more female names to theirs. Ot maybe it was both. This scenario is much more likely since Jesus apparently got no argument from these men, only silence, as they one by one departed.

Re: Why did Jesus write on the ground?

Is it such a stretch? They are men well versed in the Law and the Prophets. Jesus frequently makes both explicit and implicit reference to the prophets, not least to express divine judgment on Israel. The crowds of ordinary people got the point of his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey pretty quickly.

In any case, the allusion only has to explain Jesus’ action. The story doesn’t require us to think that the scribes and Pharisees immediately got the point – it merely helps to explain Jesus’ line of thought, or perhaps even just a redactor’s line of thought in placing the story directly after the teaching about the fountain of living water.

The Jeremiah text may well imply that it is the names of the unrighteous that are written in the ground. Beyond that, it seems to me a better approach exegetically to rely on what must surely have been for Jesus relevant scriptural background rather than on speculation about the sins of the scribes and Pharisees.

I agree, though, that the sudden and silent departure of the men needs explaining.

Re: Why did Jesus write on the ground?

At least twice Jesus preached to Israel’s religious leaders that theirs was an “evil and adulterous generation” (Matt 12.39; 16.4). And sometimes he drew out God’s intention in a certain mitzvah in the Torah that was not explicitly stated therein. Stoning for adultery was surely such a case (Lev 20.10; Deut 22.22). The city elders were the judges and executioners, with the witnesses being the first to cast stones, and then the elders joined in. God’s intention was surely that none of those executioners had ever committed this sin or that would be hypocritical.

That seems to be the meaning of Jesus’ words concerning the adulterous woman. That is, those men who accused her should be “without sin” (John 8.7), meaning that they had never committed adultery.

This John 7.53—8.11 pericope is found in various other locations in the New Testament Greek manuscripts, thus not in this location in the Gospel of John. And the verses immediately before and after its inclusion, here, strongly suggest that it has been inserted by a later hand and thus was not a part of the original gospel. Nevertheless, I am inclined like most to accept its historical authenticity and its inclusion here. However, if it was inserted later, there is no reason to believe that it should be connected to the previous pericope and thus Jesus’ saying in John 7.37-38.

Re: Why did Jesus write on the ground?

The idea that Jesus wrote the names of people about to stone her, and the names of the women with whom they committed adultery seems more of imagination than of exegesis. I do see the element of shame in the Middle Eastern culture, if Jesus wrote their names on the ground because they also committed adultery. However, I doubt that Jesus used the tactic of shame.

Whether Jesus wrote their names or not, it is not very clear from the text. If we understand this passage in light of Jeremiah 17:13, we probably can understand it to mean the lifelessness of those who reject Yahweh. Since they rejected the living water, certainly, they will be like the dry dust of the earth.

When Jesus accused the Jews and their leaders of being an adulterous generation, it seems better to understand it in their relation with Yahweh. In the OT tradition, idolatry was often likened to adultery. This was the case because the relationship of Israel with Yahweh was one of covenant, just like a marriage covenant. When Israel followed after other gods, they committed adultery because they violated the covenant with God.

With regard to the location of the passage in view, I would argue that we have to think about how all the books in the Bible are arranged as well. While we are so accustomed to the current order of our English Bible, the Hebrew Bible has a different order. Does this mean that we should abandon the arrangement of our English translation? If we argue against the meaning of this passage because this passage is found at different locations in other NT manuscripts, does it necessarily negate the meaning of the passage in the current location in our Bible? If that is the case, where should the passage be placed? Even if the passage is placed in other locations, it doesn’t seem that much of a stretch to link John 7:53-8:11 with Jeremiah 17:13.

Re: Why did Jesus write on the ground?

It seems obvious that the real question here is if this passage is authentic to the original text of John, or if it was added later by a devoted scribe. It’s not found in the other gospels or the epistles. So, Andrew, have you resolved this? Are you conflating the Eusebius report of a much earlier church father (by some 200 years) that refers to a story of Jesus and a ‘woman accused of many sins’. Is that what you are offering as proof that this passage was authentic but was somehow lost for centuries so that it’s not in any of the early texts that exist today. As I understand (from Ehrman) this episode begins to show up in copies of John beginning around A.D. 900 or so. That’s a big gap. If this is true, then I’d say that your logic is somewhat tendentious.

So why debate this detail about what he may or may not have written in the sand? I suppose we all love this story more than most of those found in the gospels. I do. But if the evidence of scholarship shows that it’s likely a fabrication from the Middle Ages, why hold on to it? It’s got to dawn on Christians that they can’t simply say something is true because they want it to be true and then expect rational people who may or may not be Christians to simply consent to agree…again, tendentious.

Re: Why did Jesus write on the ground?

Will, the story was certainly not part of John’s Gospel. It seems to appear very late in the eastern tradition and not earlier than 5th or 6th century in the western manunscripts (D). Eusebius’ evidence is not much use, frankly, but the 3rd century Syriac Didascalia advises bishops dealing with repentant sinners to do ‘as he also did with her who had sinned, whom the elders set before him, and leaving the judgment in his hands, departed’. That seems to constitute quite strong evidence that the story now found in John 7:53-8:11 was circulating in some form, perhaps as an isolated pericope, perhaps as part of a lost Gospel, in the early church.

Can we regard it as authentic – or, at least, as authentic as the other stories in the Gospels? That would depend on whether we judge it to be historically and theologically consistent with the canonical material. The reason I like the suggestion that Jeremiah 17:13 is in the background is, on the one hand, that it seems in keeping with Jesus’ prophetic methodology, and on the other, that it is very unlikely that a covert detail of this sort, relying on a knowledge of and interest in Old Testament judgment texts, would have been fabricated at a much later time – it only really makes sense in the context of first century Judaism.

But it may be that there are aspects of this case that I don’t know about – I haven’t read Ehrman.

Christians certainly like the story, but are they all unthinkingly saying that it’s true? There can’t be many Bibles that don’t have a marginal note to the effect that the story is not found in the most ancient MSS. I think we should just learn to tell the bigger story about the development of early traditions – our problem is that we don’t know or care enough about the world of Papias or of the Syriac Didascalia.

Re: Why did Jesus write on the ground?

Andrew, thanks for the thoughtful and insightful response. It sheds light.

With the Syriac Didascalia you refer to we’re left to assume that there was a legitimate 1st or 2nd Century story about Jesus forgiving a woman whom the elders brought before him and left to him to judge. This seems close to the later John episode, without the dramatic particulars. But since the actual story doesn’t appear in John for hundreds of years, the obvious answer appears to be that some later scribe, aware of Jeremiah, married that part of Jeremiah with this oral tradition, which we may assume continued floating around Christian circles several hundred years later. Actually, whether or not it refers to Jeremiah is tangential, it could simply have been a way of demonstrating that Jesus was not willing to engage the hypocritical elders and therefore used a common ploy of appearing disengaged with other more important business while some annoying person tried to distract him – gives it a certain touch of realism, don’t you think?.

But it’s a beautiful story and illustrates what we want in our savior; grace and wit. However, for the record, if John’s story is a 7th or later Century fabrication, then it’s fictional. If the Didascalia correctly documents some early story similar to this, the circumstances may have been much different. So, unfortunately, this episode reinforces my skeptical hunch that stories written by adherents or practitioners of a particular persuasion are tendentious, and maybe not true.

I’ve read several of Ehrman’s books. I cannot speak for him, but I would guess his interpretation would be that we should let the author speak for him/herself. To Ehrman, the basic tenant of historical criticism is to try to render what the subject themselves wrote and as an extension, believed. Not to knit together a disparate set of epistles, gospels, and related oral traditions into a homogenized product based on a tradition of the elders. Following Ehrman’s method (actually the modern method of historical criticism) what emerges from the scripture is a patchwork that can either enhance disbelief…or allow a believer more freedom of interpretation. We know that’s what happened in the first church - until Constantine.

Given that the last 80 generations of believers have not had the benefit of seeing the actual miracles occur and hearing the words spoken themselves, it becomes evident that, if true, then God had something else in mind when he relegated the means of revelation of him to faith based on believing the testimony of others. After all, an omnipotent creator can be more persuasive than employing a mythic tradition. He could speak to us face to face, couldn’t he? Again, if true, then we must recognize that it’s got to be a personal attitude that can vary widely, not some orthodoxy stitched together from a hodgepodge of sources. Scary to contemplate, but I think the term Logos, as understood by Philo, is appropriate here. But this is altogether another topic.

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