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John 8:6-8 NIV

6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.

7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

Do we have any information on what he was writing?

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However this does beg the question: What else did Jesus write? –  user1054 Feb 6 '12 at 18:29
Pastors have been known to fill in the blank here, literally - sometimes saying it was a name or a deed, but the truth is WE DONT KNOW –  Affable Geek Feb 6 '12 at 19:00
On the question of the authority of the passage itself, see: christianity.stackexchange.com/q/3506/914 –  Jon Ericson Feb 6 '12 at 20:19

10 Answers 10

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The quick answer is "No." However, there has been a lot of speculation on this.

We do know that the accusers of the woman left without stoning her after Jesus said, "He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her," but apparently none of them left before He did this. We also know that the older ones were the first to leave.

So, what He wrote on the ground could have been irrelevant, and the people left perhaps under conviction from the statement alone.

One interesting suggestion is that Jesus was writing out the 10 Commandments. If so, it could have been that the accusers realized that they were guilty of breaking the law. "Honor your father and mother" comes before the "Thou shalt not commit adultery". Also included are the prohibition against bearing false witness and coveting, both of which could likely have indicted all of the accusers.

It is also possible that Jesus was writing other specific commandments (outside the ten commandments) of which each person was guilty of breaking.

Yet, again, we don't really know. We aren't told, so we can conclude that it wasn't important for us to know. What Jesus wrote may or may not have added to what drove the accusers away.

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We do not know what Jesus wrote. There is no other part of the Bible that makes a reference back to this passage to tell us what He wrote, or why He wrote it.

However, at least some of the more-scholarly sources simply point to Jeremiah 17:13:

O Lord, the hope of Israel,
all who forsake thee shall be put to shame;
those who turn away from thee shall be written in the earth,

for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.

This seems to be the only other passage in the Bible that makes an allusion to writing in the earth. The scribes and the Pharisees would have been familiar with this passage, especially the elders.

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A Jewish speaker said that Jesus was indicating "it is written.." And reminding the pharisees what God has instructed in the law, which they were not following when they brought out just the woman and not the man. Hence no one dared to proceed further with the accusation.

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Welcome to C.SE. This definitely addresses the question and is good information - any chance you could give a source so that people could learn more? When you get the chance, please check out our tour and specifically How we are different than other sites. –  Affable Geek Mar 20 at 0:41

The Scriptures don't record what was written, only that He began writing and paused to say that he who was without sin should cast the first stone. The commentators vary; St. Bede said that His writing was an indication to the Scribes and Pharisee that it was He who wrote the law given to Moses. Alcuin wrote: "the ground denotes the human heart, which yields the fruit either of good or of bad actions: the finger jointed and flexible, discretion. He instructs us then, when we see any faults in our neighbors, not immediately and rashly to condemn them, but after searching our own hearts to begin with, to examine them attentively with the finger of discretion." I have often heard the theory that He was writing the sins of the Scribes and Pharisees there present but I have never seen a citation of that. The context suggests it was something related either to the law given to Moses, of which He was the author, or a reference to the earth being an analog of the human nature which God made (the physical part, that is) from the earth.

Whatever the exact case was, between what was written and Christ suggesting that any sinless man present should cast the fist stone, served as an examination of conscience making the Scribes and Pharisees aware of their own guilt... prompting them to leave.

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The answers previous to mine are all good. The consensus of those answers is that we do not know what Jesus wrote on the ground in the incident of the woman caught in adultery, and I agree with the consensus.

Having heard a sermon recently based on this incident, however, I gained a little insight which led me to conclude the following:

It's not what Jesus wrote on the ground that matters. What matters is that He wrote on the ground. In other words, the content of Jesus' writing isn't nearly as important as His act of writing.

Prior to hearing the sermon I was well aware of how rabbinic tradition in Jesus' day was considered exceedingly important, and in some cases even more important than the sacred Torah, especially to the party of the Pharisees. As Rod Reynolds points out in his article "Did Jesus Break the Sabbath?",

To understand what is at issue in these accounts [of Jesus being accused of breaking the Sabbath], it is helpful to understand something of the rabbinical tradition that lay behind the Sabbath-breaking charges leveled against Jesus and His disciples. The Pharisaic tradition, by Jesus' day, had developed into an array of petty rules having to do with the minutiae of the law. It focused on physical works that had little to do with the spirit and intent of the law—and which, in fact, often violated the law (Matthew 15:1–9; Mark 7:1–13; John 7:19; Galatians 6:13).

The scribes among the Pharisees created and transmitted the Pharisaic rabbinical traditions. The body of traditional law that they formulated, called the Halakah (preserved in the Mishnah), is extra-biblical. Although authoritative for Jews who follow Pharisaic tradition, much of the Halakah is not directly supported by Scripture, but is intended as a "hedge" about the law, to prevent any possibility of its being broken.

Ironically, in an attempt to ensure their law-keeping by putting a "hedge" about the law, the Pharisees were breaking the law, for God had said: "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take anything from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you" (Deuteronomy 4:2; also 12:32). By adding the weight of their tradition to the law of God, they bound "heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders" (Matthew 23:4).

The Pharisees placed the authority of their traditions above that of Scripture itself, thus going against the word of God. Scripture scholar Joachim Jeremias affirms that for the Pharisees, the oral tradition was "above the Torah," and that the esoteric writings containing scribal teachings were regarded as inspired and surpassing the canonical books "in value and sanctity" (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, pp. 236, 238–239). Alfred Edersheim also points out that traditional law was of "even greater obligation than Scripture itself" (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book I, 1.98).

What was the nature of these traditional ordinances? "The Halakah indicated with the most minute and painful punctiliousness [attention to detail] every legal ordinance as to outward observance.… But beyond this it left the inner man, the spring of actions, untouched." Echoing what Jesus said (Mark 7:5–13), Edersheim continues: "Israel had made void the Law by its traditions. Under a load of outward ordinances and observances its spirit had been crushed" (Book I, 1.106, 1.108).

The sometimes-absurd contradictions within Pharisaic law are especially apparent in the rules of Sabbath observance.

Mr. Reynolds quotes extensively from Albert Edersheim's seminal work, The Life and Times of Jesus Christ, Volumes I and II, and if you are curious as to how punctilious the Pharisees were regarding the "keeping of the Sabbath," consult Edersheim (though for the time being, simply read Rod Reynolds' article).

The preacher of the sermon I alluded to earlier said that one of the rabbinic traditions regarding the Sabbath was that a pious Pharisee was allowed to write only so many letters--not words, but letters--on the Sabbath. While the preacher did not give a source for this tidbit, it makes sense to me, since the Pharisees had regulations about how large a piece of paper (papyrus) one was allowed to carry on the Sabbath. For example, a scrap of paper large enough to be converted into a note or a wrapper was not allowed!

All this to say, Jesus may have engaged in a situational irony in what He did by writing on the dusty ground with His finger. Since the scribes and Pharisees had a tradition regarding how many Hebrew letters one was allowed to write on the Sabbath, Jesus would respect that "law" by writing on the ground, and not paper. Stay with me now! Instead of asking for a clay tablet or a piece of paper and an inkpot, Jesus may have been engaging in a bit of irony by saying in effect,

"By writing on the ground, and not on paper, I'll respect your silly tradition which has no basis in the Law of Moses, although perhaps after I write on the ground you'll come up with a law which says one may not even write on the ground on the Sabbath! What I will not respect, however, is the way you treat this woman caught in adultery, asking if she, but not her partner in the sin, should be stoned to death. Don't put me to the test regarding adultery if you have no intention of carrying out that which is spelled out clearly in the Law of Moses; namely, ". . . the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death," and "If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die" (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22).

In other words, the woman's accusers were punctilious about obeying legalistic oral traditions having no basis in the Law of Moses, but they ignored the crystal-clear commandment concerning adultery by singling out the adulteress but not the adulterer.

That is why what Jesus did by writing is more important than what he wrote. Through His actions He was demonstrating how foolish and hypocritical the accusatory scribes and Pharisees were by inventing their own laws but not obeying God's revealed Law.

Ironic, isn't it?!

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The speculation that I have heard is that he was performing a miracle not unsimilar to speaking in tongues (where a person speaks and others hear them in their own language): he was writing and each were seeing their own trespasses being written out, different as they were.

This, despite not being as empirical as other ideas, fits most with the story itself and is not impossible.

I'm trying to find the citation but I'm having trouble finding John 7:6-8; has there been some renumbering done?

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Good catch. It's chapter 8. I updated it. –  Narnian Feb 6 '12 at 20:02
John Chrysostom's scriptures did not include this passage. (FYI) –  RiverC Feb 6 '12 at 20:05
Yeah, it's a disputed passage. Most manuscripts have it from what I've heard. –  Narnian Feb 6 '12 at 20:16

Like @narnian said, we really dont know what he wrote on the ground. However, I can add to the speculation.

Someone once suggested that Jesus could have written the names of all the men who slept with the prostitute on the ground. When the law clearly mentions that both the man and the woman should be punished, the pharisees only brought the woman in front of Jesus to try to "test" him. Writing the names of the adulterous men would have given far more emphasis when Christ Jesus said "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."

Once again, we can only speculate.

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Welcome to the site! This next is just standard to help new visitors avoid misunderstanding the site (as I did at first.) As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": the help page and How we are different than other sites?, and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Jan 25 at 17:19
In short, David Stratton just wants to see references in the answer and a clear denominational viewpoint. –  Anonymous Jan 26 at 20:46

It must be noted that John 7:53-8:11 is not found in Both Aramaic NT known as Aramaic Peshitta and the earliest Greek NT manuscripts (Papyrus 66, Papyrus 75, Codex Vaticanus, and Codex Sinaiticus).

So Both Aramaic NT Scholars and Greek NT scholars believe that this is not part of the original. So John 7:53-8:11 is popularly known as "Pericope de Adultera."

Based on the information provided in Pericope de Adultera (John 7:53-8:11), there is no information on what Jesus Christ was writing.

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Here's what I have been putting together and while trying to see if anyone else had already explained it this way (sort of, but I'm not quite sure) I ran across this site. The woman was being stoned to death. Jesus was writing in the dust. This meant that it was the Sabbath. It's unlawful both to execute anyone and to write on anything except in the dust on the Sabbath. When he asked that the one without sin cast the first stone he was making the point perhaps that to cast the stone for execution, perhaps even the act of having picked it up for that purpose already was a sin (sheer speculation now, but consistent with the logic for keeping the Sabbath) and there was no way at that point they could claim to be without sin and follow through on it. (I don't get the impression the group he had the hardest teachings for were above claiming to be without sin in other situations.) Recalling Jeremiah did make me think at one point that maybe he was writing their names in the dust, (rather than the Book of Life), and they would know that just by seeing him do it, but I think that may be going too far.

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Well, this fits the logic of the Sabbath, but not the logic Jesus used earlier, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." So either Jesus was consitent with Pharisitical teaching and in contrast with his own, or Jesus remained consistent with his own teaching and the writing in the dust served some other purpose. –  fredsbend Sep 8 at 5:24
Hi, welcome and thanks for your post! This is no particular reflection on your post above, but you might like to review our help centre - particularly what constitutes a well supported answer and some of the Meta posts it links to, in order that you can come to grips with the operating principles of this site - I say this, because it can actually take quite a while to really grasp these things and if you stick around (I personally hope you do) it will make the moderative standards easier to understand. –  bruised reed Sep 8 at 6:22

I think he wrote: לא תנאף

The scribes and pharisees said to him: "Moshe says that the adulterous woman must die" "What do you say?"

Then, bending down, Yeshua wrote on the ground with the finger.

But as they kept on questioning 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.”

If you translate this passage into aramaic it can be read:

“He who is without this sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

What sin? The sin in question. The sin of adultery. What he was writing was a commandment of the Law about this sin. Since what he wrote has to be in relation with what he said: “He who is without this sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

So I think Yeshua wrote:

לא תנאף

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

And they left because all of them were in adultery.

Yeshua also called them "generation, evil and adulterous"

"This is the voice of justice. Let the sinner be punished, but not by the sinners; let the law be carried into effect, but not by the transgressors of the law." (Agustine)

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