John 8 – What Was Jesus Writing in the Dirt?

In the eighth chapter of John’s gospel, we read twice that when the scribes and Pharisees brought the adulterous woman before the Lord (with corrupt motives), Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground.

The question that has always remained is: what did Jesus write on the ground?  I have heard eight possible answers to that question:

(1) Some think that Jesus wrote the Ten Commandments.  Morris writes,

“The only other recorded instance of God writing ‘with His finger’ is when God wrote the Ten Commandments on two slabs of stone (Ex 31:18).  It would have been profoundly significant to the woman’s accusers, as well as profoundly stirring and convicting, if Jesus also was seen writing out these Commandments instead of speaking.” 1

(2) Some suggest that Jesus wrote some texts of Scripture which should have settled the matter, such as the seventh Commandment, Leviticus 20:10, and Deuteronomy 22:22.  Of this opinion, Ryle informs us, were Bede, Rupertus, and Lampe.  Ryle goes on to say, “The action would then imply, ‘Why do you ask me?  What is written in the law, that law which God wrote with His own finger as I am writing now?’” 2

(3) Some suggest that Jesus was referring to the trial of jealousy, as described in Numbers 5:11-31, where a woman accused of adultery was required to drink a concoction of water and dirt from the Temple floor, either by writing the actual law, or by simply bringing attention to the dirt, in order to jog the memory of the scribes and Pharisees.  This action would imply that Jesus was directing the scribes and Pharisees to try the woman by the word of the Law.  Ryle informs us that Lightfoot and Burgon were of this opinion. 3

(4) Some suggest, in the manner of Augustine, Melanchthon, Brentius, Toletus, and á Lapide4, that Jesus was making reference to Jeremiah 17:13: “they that depart from me shall be written in the earth” (KJV).

(5) Ryle recounts that “One rationalist writer suggests that our Lord ‘stooped down’ from feelings of modesty, as if ashamed of the sight before Him, and of the story told to Him.”  Ryle’s reply: “The idea is preposterous, and entirely out of harmony with our Lord’s public demeanour.” 5

(6) Some think that Jesus specifically wrote the sins of the woman’s accusers, so as to prove that not one of them was without sin.  As Gill writes: “some think he wrote in legible characters the sins of the woman’s accusers; and the learned Wagenseil makes mention of an ancient Greek manuscript he had seen, in which were the following words, ‘the sins of everyone of them’”.6  A slight variation on this is the view that Jesus wrote the names of all the women that the scribes and Pharisees were sleeping with, or had slept with, proving that they were not without the sin of adultery.

(7) Some suggest, as does MacArthur, that what Jesus wrote was neither significant nor relevant.  MacArthur explains this position thus:

“You say, “What’s He doing sitting there scribbling in the dirt?” Just waiting until He can capture the moment for Himself… He’s just cool, calm, collected, waiting for the moment to become His own moment. Jesus gets pushed in to no corners, my friend, none.  He takes His time. He calmly runs His finger through the dirt until the focus has left them and moved to Him. He’s acted very indifferent.  They’re passionate. They’re anxious.  They’d like nothing better than for Him to support the law of Moses so they could stone her. And then He would be the blame and the Romans would execute Him. And so He calmly makes them wait. It’s going to be His moment and when the time is right He’ll grab that moment.” 7

(8) Closely related to the last interpretation, yet slightly different, is another view which also attaches no significance or relevance to what Jesus wrote.  This view is the one that Ryle and Calvin accepted as better fitting the context.  Calvin explains:

“By this attitude he intended to show that he despised them.  Those who conjecture that he wrote this or the other thing, in my opinion, do not understand his meaning.  Nor do I approve of the ingenuity of Augustine, who thinks that in this manner the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is pointed out, because Christ did not write on tables of stone, (Exodus 31:18,) but on man, who is dust and earth. For Christ rather intended, by doing nothing, to show how unworthy they were of being heard; just as if any person, while another was speaking to him, were to draw lines on the wall, or to turn his back, or to show, by any other sign, that he was not attending to what was said.” 8

I favour this last interpretation as the simplest, and as better fitting the context.  It is significant that John does not reveal what Jesus wrote, and by implication, that the Holy Spirit saw fit to not reveal what was written.  Had it been important, surely we could suppose that the Holy Spirit would have included it in the Scriptures.

I believe that Jesus was most likely simply making a blatantly obvious sign that He was completely disinterested in playing along with the games that the scribes and Pharisees were wont of playing.  I believe that He was simply refusing to give the scribes and Pharisees the time of day.  What Christ was writing doesn’t seem to be a significant part of the passage. Why Christ did what He did seems to be more important.  It may well be that Christ was writing something of significance, such as the Ten Commandments or Numbers 5:17, or the like, but then again, He may just as well have written something of little or no consequence, such as ‘I hate the scribes and Pharisees,’ or ‘Jingle Bells, Judas Smells,’ for all we know.

Lending weight to this understanding is the fact that some Bible translations add some extra text to verse 6:

The KJV renders the verse thus: “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.” (emphasis added)

The NKJV has it: “This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.” (emphasis added)

The EMTV writes that Jesus, stooping down, “began to write on the ground with His finger, not taking notice.” (emphasis added)

The LEB has it that Jesus wrote on the ground, “taking no notice.” (emphasis added)

The LITV has it that Jesus wrote on the ground, “not appearing to hear.” (emphasis mine)

The 1833 Webster Bible writes that Jesus wrote on the ground, “as though he heard them not.” (emphasis mine)

Now granted, the extra text does not appear in the original, so it hardly proves that mine is the correct understanding of the passage. However, it does lend support to my view, by illustrating what appears to be the most straightforward understanding, namely, that Jesus wasn’t particularly concerned with writing something of significance, but rather, was making it clearly evident that He cared not to even answer the scribes and Pharisees. That is, He was doing nothing more than ignoring them, albeit in a not-so-subtle manner.

Notes

1 Henry M. Morris, The New Defender’s Study Bible, notes on John 8:6, p.1587
2 J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Vol. 3, notes on John 8:6
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 John Gill, John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, notes on John 8:6
7 John MacArthur, Jesus Confronts Hypocrisy, (<http://www.gty.org/resources/Sermons/1519_Jesus-Confronts-Hypocrisy>)
8 John Calvin, commentary on John 8:6

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