The Gospel of John recounts a story in which some Jewish leaders came to Jesus one day and during the exchange, Jesus wrote something on the ground. It goes like this:
At dawn He appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around Him, and He sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing Him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with His finger. When they kept on questioning Him, He straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8: 2-11, NIV).
People have been wondering for ages what on earth Jesus wrote (and I do mean on earth). Well, wonder no more because we’re gonna figure it out right now!
I’m not putting words in Jesus’ mouth; I’m putting words in Jesus’ finger!
So, what did Jesus write in the dirt?
Was it a symbol? Jesus could have drawn a fish that would eventually symbolize Christianity. Recall that the early Christians supposedly used it as ID: one person would make part of the fish in the dirt and the other person would complete it. Maybe Jesus was working on that logo design when the Pharisees came along. That actually sounds a little fishy, so we move on.
Was it a slogan? If it wasn’t a symbol, then maybe it was a slogan. Perhaps He wrote, “WWJD?” The purpose of the phrase “What would Jesus do?” is to get people to think and react to situations as Christ would have. So WWJD would be perfect for this story. Well, actually, the Pharisees DID go directly to Jesus to find out what He would do. (This is my favorite possibility, even though it’s wrong. I should get a lanyard for coming up with this one!)
Was it a circle? Did He draw a circle of protection around the woman?
Was it a line? Some people think that Jesus drew a line in the sand. The saying refers to “a temporary boundary marker which is not to be crossed and which if erased can be redrawn.” Was Jesus telling the Pharisees that they had crossed the line by snatching the woman? (A little word-play there; ponder it for a while.) Was He warning them not to cross the line in pressing this issue? By the way, the Bible doesn’t use the word “sand” but rather “ground” or “dirt.” He wasn’t at the beach, so He probably wasn’t drawing anything in the sand.
By the way, what was the woman wearing? In what state of undress was she? If she were “caught in the act,” then certainly the Pharisees wouldn’t have allowed her to fix her garments before bringing her to Jesus. That would ruin the whole set-up.
Was it election advice? Perhaps Jesus was being constructive when he wrote in the dirt. Maybe He wrote “pave me.” The Romans were known for building roads, so perhaps Jesus was offering a tip for economic development. Get some funding from Rome to pave the streets and create jobs instead of focusing on scandals. Maybe the Pharisees were running for re-election to stay in office. They figured a sex scandal would take the attention off the real issues. Does this sound familiar? Does this sound totally bogus?
Was it janitorial advice? Some translations say this happened in the “temple courts” or the “temple courtyard.” That indicates that it was outside. But most translations simply say “temple.” If indeed this took place in the temple itself, then “ground” would actually mean “floor.” Thus, Jesus would have written in the dust and dirt on the floor. Perhaps He wrote “wash me,” just as some people do on dirty windows and cars, or maybe He wrote “mop me.” However, the translations which say “courts” or “courtyard’ are more accurate; Jesus was writing on the actual ground. So Jesus wasn’t commenting on how dirty the temple was (at least not physically).
Was it doodles? Was Jesus just doodling because He really wasn’t interested in the Pharisees’ cause? Some translations include an extra phrase in verse 6: “…Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground, as though He heard them not” (John 8: 6, KJV). The King James translators added that to the text. This implies He was ignoring them, or at least trying to stall the confrontation.
John McArthur points out in his Study Bible, “This seems to have been a delaying device, giving them time to think.” Well, Jesus tried stalling, but they didn’t stop pestering Him and finally He spoke to them.
Was it a theory? Maybe Jesus wrote out a highly scientific theory, like E=MC² or something like that. If the Gospel writers had just written it down, humans would have known about energy’s components thousands of years before Albert Einstein came along!
Was it an ad? Maybe Jesus wanted to get rid of the Pharisees and send them off some place. Could it be He knew of a sale at the local quarry? Maybe He wrote, “Deep discounts on stoning stones at Peter’s Rock Farm.” They could get new pet rocks or shiny new stones to throw at people. Maybe a rock would fall on them as they shopped. Or maybe the local shoe store needed some business. Perhaps He could have written, “50% off all sandals.” That’s so they could throw shoes, too.
Was it nothing? Some commentators think Jesus wrote absolutely nothing because, they contend, the event never happened and it wasn’t a part of John’s original Gospel. One person wrote, “That passage is spurious. It was made up and added to the Bible in later manuscripts and is not found in any of the most ancient ones.” How would a professor say the same thing? Here’s how: “The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming. It is absent from... early and diverse manuscripts. ...In the East, the passage is absent from the oldest form of the Syriac version, as well as from the Sahidic and the sub-Achminic [Coptic] versions and the older Bohairic manuscripts. ...In the West the passage is absent from the Gothic version and from several Old Latin manuscripts” (Bruce M. Metzger in “A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament”).
The “pericope of the adulteress”? How about we just say “story.” So, get out your razorblade or box cutter and slice that story right out of your Bible. Just don’t do it at the airport. Before you do that, though, consider this: There might be something good printed on the back (flip the page to see).
Should we actually just forget the whole thing? The people who wrote the Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary don’t think so: “Though not an original part of this Gospel, it need not be taken as an unauthentic tradition about Jesus. It conforms to all we know of Him as one who came to seek and to save the lost, not to condemn men but to offer them God’s forgiveness and acceptance. …The story certainly does not mean that Jesus either condoned sin or did not acknowledge the justice of the law. His clemency and compassion indicate His concern for the motives of the woman’s accusers, with regard to both her and to Himself.”
Was it a list of sins? Many people theorize that Jesus was writing down various sins of the Pharisees. He, of course, knew what all of their sins were, and so it would have been easy for Him to just rattle them off. That certainly fits with Jesus’ words in this story. If you’re without sin, you can throw the stone – but here’s a laundry list of your misdeeds in case you’ve forgotten. This is certainly a possibility, but I’ve always been leery of this speculation because the naughty list would have been so long that Jesus would run out of ground!
Was it a list of laws? Instead of listing bad behaviors, maybe Jesus listed the laws that apply to their sins. He wouldn’t have to write sentences, just references to the legal code, like citing verses from Exodus 20 or Leviticus 19. This way, the laws they had broken would be before their eyes.
Was it the anti-mob law? One person speculates that “Jesus was quoting the Oral Torah to them which contains the details of the how the punishment of stoning cannot be done by a mob and must be done in a proper Jewish court.” The Pharisees should let “those without sin” or “the sinless men” take care of this. This commentator suggests that “the sinless men” were the upright members of their society who were appointed by the Jewish court to carry out the punishments as dictated by the court. The commentator goes on to say, “Like a lawyer giving advice on the street, Jesus was probably writing the verse and chapter of the law that they were breaking by becoming a vigilante mob.” According to this theory, the guys left because they realized this wasn’t a court proceeding. This legalistic interpretation takes the impact out of the story.
Was it a manly question? Because this whole incident involves adultery, many people wonder why the Pharisees only brought the woman. Where was the man involved? Why didn’t they drag him to Jesus, too? Why did they single out the woman? If there was an adulteress, there also had to be an adulterer.
I contend they did bring the man. It was one of them.
This is what I think Jesus wrote: “Which of you is the adulterer?” For those of you who think Jesus always used proper King’s English, perhaps it was written this way: “Which are thou who went in unto her?”
Was it their names? Then, later Jesus wrote something more in the dirt. He probably answered His own question. Maybe He wrote just one guy’s name. Maybe He wrote several of their names.
The names, written in the dirt, would thus blow away – meaning they would get no honor or celebrity status for uncovering dirt on this woman (or just uncovering this woman, as the case may be). They shall be consigned to oblivion, as Jeremiah tells us:
“Lord, you are the hope of Israel; all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water” (Jeremiah 17: 13, NIV).
In contrast, the people of God shall be named in the Book of Life, as John attests:
“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. …Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20: 12, 15, NIV).
Anyhow, instead of the Pharisees entrapping Jesus, He turned the trap around and put them to shame. They wanted to accuse Jesus, but they ended up accusing themselves.
This was further proof that Jesus had it right when He said: “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16: 4, NIV). He really did mean adulterous!
Well, there you have it. And that’s all He wrote, folks. Oh, but wait. He then added a little post script: “WWJD?” Or perhaps that’s what we should write when we are about to entrap ourselves and/or others in sin.