Why did Jesus write on the ground?

6 This they said testing him that they may have (reason) to accuse him. Jesus bent down and wrote with a finger on the ground.

7 As they continued questioning him, he stood up and said to them: ‘Let the one without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.’

8 And again he bent down and wrote 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.

Daniel | Tue, 10/25/2011 - 21:27 | Permalink

Great insight Andrew, thanks for sharing it...