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We read in Jn 8: 6-8 (NRSVCE), of how an adulterous woman is brought before Jesus so that she could be judged by him:

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

Going back, we see that Jesus was teaching in the temple courts when that happened :

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them...

In the KJV version, it is clear why Jesus writes first time on the ground , that is to feign ignorance of the question put to him. But he resumes writing on the ground (Jn 8:8)after giving the verdict . But, humanly speaking, how could he be sure of the behavior of the Pharisees whom he himself had called `hard-hearted '(Mtt 19: 8 )? They could have all proclaimed themselves as free from sin and pelted stones at the woman, couldn't they ?

My question therefore, is: According to Catholic Scholars, why did Jesus write on the ground for a second time while the crowd with the adulterous woman was standing before him ?

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    He wrote the sins of her accusers in the sand the first time, not simply to feign ignorance. Then He continues writing their sins and as they read it one by one they leave off accusing because they realise they are not without sin and that the One who wrote it out could read their hearts.
    – user58803
    Apr 22, 2022 at 7:34
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    @AndriesStander The writing was what God had written with His finger : the ten commandments. And when the accusers left, the woman was 'in the midst'. Jesus had written the law all around her. To get to the woman, the accusers would have had to tread upon the writing of the law.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 22, 2022 at 14:21
  • @NigelJ your comment makes no sense at all. Jesus was facing a group of men who were professed experts at keeping the 10 Commandments. Simply writing it in the sand would have had no effect on them since according to them they obeyed it perfectly. What Jesus did write was sins that break the spirit of the law - sins that they committed which enabled them to catch this woman 'in the very act' as they said. Btw, if I was Jesus, I would have written it in the sky - for all to see! How great His compassion and forgiveness even toward hardened sinners...
    – user58803
    Apr 23, 2022 at 4:41
  • Jesus was writing the sins of the woman's accusers. He wrote no names, but as they, of curiosity, gathered around to see what was written, they were ashamed, and one by one they quietly departed. Some of the accusers had themselves been part of the adulterous act--which is how they had knowledge of the woman's guilt. Their sins were greater in magnitude than hers. Writing the sins in the dust was fitting: the weather would soon conceal the writing, and Jesus did not memorialize their sins nor glorify them by giving them vocal utterance.
    – Biblasia
    Jul 27, 2023 at 22:34

5 Answers 5

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Leviticus 20:10 NASB95 — ‘If there is a man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, one who commits adultery with his friend’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death

Could it be that He wrote first:

the adulteress shall surely be put to death

And then followed it with:

If there is a man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, one who commits adultery with his friend’s wife, the adulterer and...

If they caught a woman in adultery(the adulteress), did they not catch the adulterer as well? Why is only the woman being charged? By withholding the adulterer and judging the adulteress, the law is being disregarded and all of her accusers stand guilty.

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I would think all Christian traditions will admit that the real answer will ultimately remain elusive. All we can do is speculate, as the 3 answers also show. Protestant GotQuestions article offers more speculation: What was Jesus writing in the dirt/sand when the Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery?.

But since you're asking an answer from a Catholic scholar, I hope this blog article by Catholic priest, author, and speaker Fr. Dwight Longenecker can give you the best answer: Why did Jesus write with his finger in the dust?

After discarding his own (Jesus performing a prophetic action referring to himself as "the finger of God", Luke 11:19-20, similar to NigelJ's comment), he offered 3 traditional interpretations and think that the 3rd one is the correct one:

  1. Jesus was stalling for time.

  2. Jesus was writing the names and sins of the accusers in the dust, an interpretation since St. Jerome.

  3. Jesus wrote his accusers' names in the dust as prophetic sign referring to Jer 17:13. This interpretation is by St. Augustine. The context for this is John 7, esp. John 7:38

    Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.

    But who is the "Spring of living Water"? The answer is in Jer 17:13:

    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.

    Fr. Longnecker concluded:

    So the writing in the dust is one of Jesus’ signs to show who he really is. He is the Lord, the Spring of Living Water. If you reject him your name will be written in the dust of destiny.

For more on this interpretation, see Catholic professor of Sacred Scripture Dr. Brant Pitre (who wrote many books on the Jewish background of the New Testament) explains in this short 8 minute video What did Jesus Write in the Sand? According to Dr. Pitre, John tells us that Jesus did it twice for emphasis, a literary convention.

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  • The elephant in the room is this passage, i.e. John 7:52-8:11 wasn't in the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus and Codex Vaticanus. In other early manuscripts it occurs in different places, so reading too much into the juxtaposition may not work here.
    – M__
    Jul 18, 2023 at 15:53
  • John 7:38 is more likely a reference earlier in Jeremiah, viz. Jeremiah 2:13, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”. It's the opening charge against Israel (Judah). There could also be some context to Ezekiel, but also the context of the living water is the feast of Sukkot, which was about a ritual of pouring water.
    – M__
    Jul 18, 2023 at 15:54
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We are not told what Jesus wrote, only that he wrote it in the dust (or ground, as it varies by translation), so it is the dust that is important. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust... To return to dust is to die and is a common metaphor in the Bible.

The accusers had only one goal for this woman, to return her to dust. She was a subject of their judgment and their concern for her would end with her death.

Jesus desired more for this woman than judgment. He wished to make her righteous. He commanded her to repent from her sin and gave her the possibility to do so by sparing her life. Thus there are two uses of dust. The first is the just judgment we all are subject to, to return to dust. The second is for that dust to be reanimated at the time of the resurrection of the just. Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

Two is the symbolic number for the Christ. Two natures: divine and human. The Word in two testaments, old and new. Two comings, at the incarnation and at the end of history.

Jesus talked about the ground, the soil, in another way, in his parable of the four soils. The success or failure of the crop had something to do with the quality of the soil. The tone is one of responsibility. Did you do what you could to keep that seed alive and growing? However, two things we cannot do. Those things are God's. The first is plowing. The second is planting.

Plowing is the training we receive through personal suffering, superintended by God. The breaking of the soil softens our hearts and removes some of the stones.

Planting is the insertion of the seed. The seed is the gospel of Christ. We didn't invent it. It comes from outside of us. All we are to do is cooperate with its growth in us. What it will become is tied up in the nature of that seed.

Jesus writes upon the dirt twice. It makes sense that the first time corresponds to plowing, the suffering of sin and consequence of being subject to death by stoning. That is the woman's wakeup call. The second time Jesus writes corresponds to the planting of the seed of righteousness and forgiveness, the love of Christ.

For that woman, there was more to write in that dirt, but it would now be up to her to write it with the actions she would take after she walked away.

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Firstly, lets be clear the accusers were ready to kill, breaking that mindset wouldn't have been instant.

The "writing on the wall" was used to issue judgement and had a profound effect on the King of Babylon,

Daniel 5:

5 Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. 6 His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.

25 “This is the inscription that was written: mene, mene, tekel, parsin

The Babylonian king didn't understand the writing but was nevertheless terrified.

This seems more like the 'writing on the floor'. I would suggest the second written statement was make to sure the message hit home. For example, "Unless you repent you too ..." Luke 13:3-5 was issued twice to make clear its importance.

Jesus could have written something concerning the accusers own sin which would have alarmed them. It could have been the Law (@NigelJ's point). Whatever the case when Jesus said "He who is without sin ...", and reinforced the written message, the accusers would have realised from the writing on the floor they were as guilty of judgement as the adulteress.

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The woman was guilty of sin, everyone knew it (caught in the act). The point, however, was all of us are sinners. Most likely Christ wrote the 10 commandments (finger of God).

Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. They all departed, knowing they too were sinners.

As Paul would reiterate, the Law is to convict all of us of our sin.

What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; Rom 3:9

What did Christ most likely write the second time? The solution to our sin. The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is perhaps what He wrote.

He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Is 53:11

From a Catholic Church POV, allusion from John 8 is made to Jeremiah 17:13.

O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters. Jer 17:13

EDIT TO ADD:

Like Moses who received the 10 Commandments twice (Ex 31:18, 34:1), it may be that Christ simply wrote the 10 Commandments twice.

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