Many are familiar with the story from John 8, as follows (actually read this to the end, it has a point):

"1But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them.
3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court,4they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.
5"Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?"
6They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.
7But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."
8Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court."
John 8:1-9 (NASB)

There are many theories as to what Jesus was writing when he wrote on the ground, and I have a theory I would like to present. In Jeremiah 18:13 it says, "O LORD, 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." I believe the Pharisees were amoung those who have "foresaken the LORD," and thus Jesus was writing their names one by one in the dust.

This is a difficult passage to interpret for numerous reasons...

  1. This particular story lacks any comparison in the rest of the gospels. Most biblical exegesis involves seeking out similar tales in the other texts we have in order to find the "truth" somewhere in between. This is a difficulty not only for this story, but for much of the Gospel of John and is one of the reasons the Gospel of John has been mostly discounted for the purposes of modern theological discussion on the life, historicity or meaning of Jesus.
  2. Compared to the other gospels, John tends to be very direct and straightforward in his telling of Jesus' tale. What few occlusions John leaves nearly always contain a Messianic subtext to them. The fact that John would take the trouble to mention Jesus' writing but refuse to state what exactly was written should be a red flag. Most likely this inclusion by John amounts to little more than a symbolic gesture. Since I see you've read your Old Testament - I'll point you to Exodus 31 where God inscribes the tablets with nothing save his finger... These two passages are frequently sited together to show John's interest in making Jesus' Messianic status overt.
  3. Most troublesome about this passage though is the very likely possiblity that it was not an original inclusion. All of the very earliest pericope exclude John 7:53-8:11 entirely.(1) This, coupled with the already problematic fact that John was probably not written until at least a generation (if not more) after the Gospel of Mark, makes the likelihood of any degree of "truth" to the story almost nil.

...When all that's said and done, we're left with very little to speculate on what Jesus might have been writing (if he even could write - most modern scholarship suggests otherwise) or whether this story ever happened in the first place. And in the end, I find that answer far more important than any speculation on what may or may not have been written.

(1) B. M. Metzger's excellent A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament is the best place to begin searching for a textual approach to the New Testament based on actual evidence presented by differing pericope. I couldn't recommend it more.

At the risk of being obvious and/or clever, (and with multiple options, a certainty of being wrong) both of which can be dangerous in certain situations, though less immediately dangerous than having a number of hefty stones chucked at you, I submit the following:

By not throwing any stones, the Pharisees are protecting themselves from:

  • Personal guilt over feeling hypocritical: "I'm killing a sinner, but I'm a sinner too."
  • Further criticism from Jesus: "He seems to be more preoccupied with making a point and moving on rather than condemning anyone in particular; if I do nothing, maybe he'll shut up and not say clever embarassing things against me which will be repeated by huge crowds. That one little sentence was embarrassing enough."
  • Each others' death penalties: "Well, suppose I throw a stone anyway, regardless of (H)is disapproval. That will be taken to mean by one of my fellow Pharisees to mean I'm making a claim of perfection. If he does that, someone else will claim I'm claiming to be the Almighty. Too dangerous. Maybe I can stir up trouble for the guy who does throw one."
  • Supposing that this woman was not Mary Magdalene, which is a separate argument, that would mean that she, to the world at large, has no name, and therefore no particular reason to be heard. After all, she was a woman. Supposing also that there were no other bystanders. Suppose that Jesus wrote something particularly important with a stick. Conclusion: the Pharisees formed a conspiracy to keep it from us. Huz-agh! My first unique conspiracy theory! But I'll go on to disprove it: He was previously teaching people, and they are in the Temple. Plus He used His finger, not a stick. (Lies make the truth more interesting.)

    More likely to my mind, He wrote nothing important in particular; He wrote just to perform the act of writing, as opposed to gazing at the woman, the crowd of Pharisees, or any Pharisee in particular. It's probably one of those divine choices we'll never know the why's about, but might be diverting to speculate about, but probably will never achieve the fame of "What did He write?" Was it a distraction for the Pharisees benefit? An act of non-hostility? An invitation for the Pharisees to look downward, which is associated with humility?

    To put it simply, my question is: which and/or how many responses was Jesus intending:

  • shame about killing or hypocrisy
  • recognizance of also being sinful
  • paranoia about some new consequences he just invented
  • reflection upon the words He wrote, assuming He wrote some
  • just barely enough awkwardness to keep the woman alive
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