Why Jesus Wrote on the Ground
Jn 8:1-11: A Short Commentary

Exerpted from: Nazaroo, A Critique of S. Davidson's Case against the PA,
Previously Unconsidered Evidence Thread, 2006 (www.christianforums.com)

Page Index

Section 1: - Introduction
Section 2: - Commentary on John 8:1-11
Section 3: - Appendix: Jn 8:1-11 and Matt. 22:15-22

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This short commentary came out of an analysis and critique of Samuel Davidson's 1848 attack upon the Pericope de Adultera (John 8:1-11) in his Introduction to the NT. There Davidson tried to amass a stack of internal evidence against the authenticity and Johannine authorship of the passage. In examining some of the 'evidence' presented by Davidson, this commentary connecting two key components of the story almost wrote itself.

The insight and value of the discovery encouraged me to publish it on the internet both in the forums, and in the form of this downloadable article. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed the insights I discovered while examining Davidson's arguments.

Insight can Compensate for Lack of Knowledge

One of the most puzzling and annoying things for many people about this passage is that the narrator tells us that Jesus wrote on the ground, but he doesn't tell us what Jesus wrote!

My first reaction to this years ago, naturally was, if Jesus wrote it, it must have been important! And so how could John the Evangelist make such an incredible mistake as to forget to tell us what Jesus wrote? It is hard to imagine anything more frustrating to the innocent God-seeker, or even simple seeker of truth, than a situation like this.

This astounding mystery was one of the reasons that led me to a life-long study of these verses.

Of course I am lucky, having also had extensive interest and training in mathematics. So I was able to see beyond the surface problem, and to understand that this denial of information could have a true and valuable purpose, perhaps more valuable than the information itself.

Zero-Knowledge Proofs

To see how that could happen, let me take the example of a famous 'trap-door' / zero-knowledge puzzle.

You are challenged to a quest: You must get to heaven, but there is a fork in the road ahead. If you go the wrong way, the path leads instead to hell. At the fork in the road, an angel guide stands guard. Unfortunately, about half the time, the angel's evil twin also guards the road. While the first angel always tells the truth, the second angel always lies.

Every traveller is allowed to ask only one question, and from this must decide which fork to choose. What question should you ask?

At first it seems as if this is an impossible task: How can you tell which twin is guarding the road, so that you can correctly interpret his answer, and choose the right path?

As it turns out, paradoxically, you don't need to know which angel is guarding the road at all! You can find out what you need to know without ever knowing which angel was on duty. What question do you ask to pull this off?

"Which way would your twin say is the road to heaven?"

That's right! Both angels would give the same answer to this question. And you can now choose the opposite fork in the road, never knowing who answered your question, and whether or not they lied or told the truth!

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Why did Jesus write on the ground?

"the sinless one" (8:7) anamarthtoV

Admittedly here again we have a difficult and puzzling expression, attributed to Jesus. It compels a 'double-take'. At first, on the surface, (and seemingly well within translating parameters,) Jesus stands and makes the most simple and straightforward request:

"Let an innocent person come forward to begin the punishment."

Jesus Himself seems to innocently demand a reasonable and natural minimal requirement of the Law: That the punishers at least, be innocent of the crime of the accused. Many commentators have interpreted the verse just this way.

And more: He immediately reminds the crowd of the Mosaic Law - "the hands of the witnesses shall be the first to put the person to death." (Deut. 17:7). This is no place for shady gossip mongers or cowardly accusers.

A man must publicly stand behind his words, with the ultimate action, a killing. As if to underline it, he must stand here at dawn in the Temple before the people of Israel and give his testimony with a deadly rock, in the plain light of the Sun before the Teacher from Galilee.

But something has gone terribly wrong right at the starting gate:

"The sinless one among you..."

...it hangs in the air waiting for a confirmation. It hangs there intolerably, building an impossible tension: demanding...what? Justice. - And more: fulfillment.

Jesus, seemingly inexplicably, has bent down again a second time to write in the dust of the temple floor. What was confusing about the two times Jesus wrote becomes terribly clear. The first time He writes, he acts out a literal reminder of the Special Law of Adultery, whereby the sin will be written with the dust of the Temple. In the first case Jesus only need scratch three hebrew letters: N A F - "naw-af", adultery.

This also serves an important purpose. Jesus is not here avoiding the issue: He is forcing the men to persist, while the crowd wakes up and gets oriented to the new crisis at hand. For no teacher of Law can allow snap judgments based upon mere passing or frivolous accusations.

There can be no easy quick action for charges of such a seriousness that the death penalty is involved. Especially in an occupied country at a place where previous riots have already broken out. All present must be allowed time for the full implications of the proposal to sink in.

It must be clear that the charge is deadly serious. That the men bringing it forward are willing to risk far more than just one death to carry out their zeal for the Law of Moses.

And with this brings a mandatory compulsion to follow the Law to the letter: or else why risk death to oneself and others for a mere lynching or other sinful sport?

But all that is obvious enough: The new mystery is in Jesus pausing yet again, to write a second time in the dust. Again we are not told what is written. But this is not required, for we have already got the clue from the purpose of the first writing.

Jesus forces everyone to think in silence about His firm pronouncement in answer to the first exchange.

"The sinless one among you..."

Yes, it hangs in the air, a ridiculous amount of time, creating an impossible tension. What is the message? What does the Parable Teller par excellence want from us?

It first appears as hyperbole to the modern reader: "sinless"? Its an unreasonable demand. No. For the ancient pre-Christian listener this is still a raging controversy. This incident is not taking place in the open-and-shut attitude of the Post-Pauline era, or the uncompromising extremism of the Protestant Reformation.

The ancient Jewish listener is not having undue trouble with the request for a self-righteous pious one, even if he is aware of actors or hypocrites. That there were many such people is taken for granted by all the Gospels.

No, this parable is more personal and insulting. For it is not even a statement. "The sinless one among you" is just a phrase.

Its like the gag-question, "So when did you stop beating your wife?" . It simply assumes you are guilty. If one person actually were to step forward, and the others hang back, what are they? They are the others, the ones who are NOT sinless.

And it gets worse. Who is going to step forward to insult the others?

"I am the sinless one. Let me throw the first stone." Can we imagine for a second that everyone else, that anyone else, would let someone step up and take that slot? That this new person, in an attempt to move the stoning forward would risk the blasphemy of claiming to be without sin, to the shame of all the others? That such an arrogant fool wouldn't be immediately stoned himself for such chutzpah?

Its not even the surface insult that is the real issue. Who is going to step up and possibly get others killed for an act in defiance of Roman marshal law? And who is going to let someone else risk one's own death, for a 'mere' insignificant adultery, - a 'domestic dispute'?

The longer the hesitation, the worse the situation. Jesus has turned the accusers upon one another, and the crowd upon the accusers, while returning to his seat to stay out of it. He has effectively paralyzed them all, by stopping to write slowly in the dust again.

But we are hardly done yet. The big question left unanswered the night before by Nicodemus was, "Shouldn't Jesus be judged or tested according to Torah?" So they brought a case. They expected Him to step up and claim as Messiah and King to judge over Israel. Instead, although it is Jesus Himself who raises the question, the question is now,

"Who is the Sinless One among you?..."

And the only answer left, is Jesus.

The scribes and Pharisees have truly been defeated in the most profound and public manner possible. Of course they left quietly, convicted by conscience, and in fear of their very lives.

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John 8:1-11 and Matthew 22:15-22

Few would argue that one of the most powerful and entertaining exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees, is the one that occurred over the question of TAXES. Everybody hates taxes, everybody knows they are abused once given, and few are able to escape them even temporarily without a revolution.

The Pharisees try to entrap Jesus in an episode uncannily parallel to our passage in John. Its found in Luke 20:19-26, and Matt.22:15-22 (of which Matthew seems to have preserved the greater detail).

Here again the Pharisees attempt an entrapment, which backfires: They demand Jesus speak whether or not Jews should pay taxes to Rome or not and pose a dilemma meant to force Jesus to either 'honour' the occupying Roman authorities, and lose face and credibility as the Messiah, or else open Himself to charges of sedition and rebellion against Rome. Jesus completely catches his inquisitors with their pants down when He innocently asks for a coin.

The Pharisees pull a coin out of their pocket, and lo and behold, the Roman Emperor's head is stamped on it! The Pharisees have been accepting and keeping Roman money, when they wouldn't even allow visiting Israelites to bring it into the temple precincts, but forced them to exchange Roman coin for 'temple shekels', while making a handsome profit on the exchange! Jesus returns the dilemma back into their court in the shortest and cleverest way possible:

"Whose image is this, and whose inscription?.. Then return to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and give to God the things that are God's!" (Matt.22:20,21)

Again, it was all the Pharisees could do, just to leave quietly without getting lynched by the newly enlightened crowd.

Eerie Parallel

... But now, here in John 8:1-11, we see the very same Jesus, silencing and vanquishing his very same opponents again, with the coy, but incredibly loaded terse statement:

"Let the sinless one among you be first to cast a stone upon her." (John 8:7)

Again, we are confronted with the wholly unexpected, but brilliantly clever twist upon the words and meaning of the Old Testament Law in Deuteronomy 17:7. Because Jesus' ambiguous innovation on the Torah here cannot be overlooked or simply explained. It is neither hyperbole, nor an 'innocent' turn of phrase, but a deliberate double-image, meant to arrest the thought of everyone present.

Again the very thing that disturbs us and yet attracts us is this superimposition of meanings, creating an ambiguity and a symbolism that reaches far beyond the words of ordinary men in carrying out ordinary business. Who speaks like this?

Jesus of course, and no one else has been able to duplicate it, not even modern day poets like Kalil Gibran.

Yet here in John the case is amplified, for this is no simple mundane question of 'taxes', or some hypothetical question about who's wife somebody who dies and remarries will be. There is a life and death struggle right on the floor of the temple, and a symbolism extending to the entire nation and its salvation, and the very identity of its Saviour.

This is Jesus taken upward and launched a whole order of magnitude closer to the throne of God itself.

Yet we are still just scratching the surface, and turning over clues here and there like forensic police. We don't even know what we have yet, and it seems bigger than the robbery of the Hope Diamond, or the Enron Scandal, or 9/11.

And we get the feeling that if we were to question Jesus further, it would never end. There might be no limit to His greatness or genius. He is simply toying with us as a man might playfully place a crumb in front of an ant.

At least we can understand why the more intelligent textual critics don't dare suggest that John 8:1-11 is some kind of crude forgery, but rather an ancient and authentic piece of perhaps 'oral' tradition.

But who would have access to such a powerful and valuable jewel, if not an Apostle or very eye-witness to Jesus in His lifetime? After explaining this problem, the act of mounting this jewel in such a fitting setting as John, and making it the virtual centre-piece seems a trivial problem. How are we to explain that Luke or Mark or Matthew of all people would leave out such a fantastic treasure if they knew anything about it, while taking special care to preserve the lower exchange concerning taxes?

We are forced to agree with the textual critics when they confess that this is surely a genuine piece of authentic tradition concerning Jesus. And like them, we have no explanation for how all four gospels could be ignorant of such an incredible occurance, and why most of history would be silent about a story such as this.

Nor can we explain how it could magically 'appear' in all the main streams of transmission in the 2nd or 3rd century, and be JUST AS SILENTLY embraced by all of Christendom for the next thousand years... ...Unless we abandon the critics and their Alexandrian 2nd century texts and their theories of 'insertion' at this point, and admit rather that it was always there in John's Gospel, but it was so offensive to the Alexandrian Jews, and dangerous for Christian martyrs, that it was passed over silently in public Lectionary reading in the early Church.

This in turn led to its being left out of a handful of early manuscripts. This was exactly in fact how the book of Revelation was handled, and several other problem passages.

In terms of its remarkable content, the Pericope de Adultera (John 8:1-11) is utterly authentic to its core.

And finally, we can only underline that this 'double-meaning' word-play, this deliberate ambiguity, this overlaying of multiple meanings with the simplest of words and expressions, is precisely the single most notable feature of the Gospel of John.