Skip to main content

Bible Q&A: What did Jesus write in the sand?

Author: Bible Society, 26 August 2019

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.


What was Jesus writing in the sand when the woman was caught in adultery? Was it the 10 commandments, or was he writing down all the sins of the Pharisees? Maybe by writing in the sand and not in stone, he was indicating that the laws of the religious elite were transient, like the house built on the sand. Any other ideas?


The story of the woman caught in adultery is in John 7.53–8.11. We aren't told what Jesus wrote, so we can't know. Here are some ideas, though.

St Augustine thought that in writing on the ground Jesus was establishing himself as a lawgiver, echoing what God did in writing the 10 commandments on tablets of stone.

Others think he was just doodling, and that it was a kind of displacement activity to take the heat out of the situation. 

St Jerome thought he was writing a list of the woman's accusers, with a reference to Jeremiah 17.13, '...all who abandon you will be put to shame. They will disappear like names written in the dust...'

Others think he was writing about the sins of her accusers, shaming them with his knowledge of what they had done.

Another idea is that he was echoing Roman law, and writing firstly her crime – adultery – and secondly her sentence – death. But the words were temporary, scuffed out by the feet of her accusers as they shuffled away. So it becomes an emblem of forgiveness: sins aren't written in concrete, but in dust.  

Interestingly, it isn't in the earliest Greek manuscripts and is sometimes put in italics or in a footnote in modern Bibles to show it wasn't originally part of John's Gospel. St Augustine said it was left out originally by 'men of little faith' because they thought it showed Jesus encouraging adultery.

Have you got a question about the Bible? Let us know and we’ll do our best to answer it!

This article was written Mark Woods, who is Bible Society's Editor.​

View more Bible Q&A articles

Like this? Subscribe for more

Want to see more posts like this? Sign up now!


Share this:

More articles about the Bible

What does Philippians tell us about the life of the Apostle Paul?

Paul is the Christian apostle who spread the gospel of Jesus after his radical conversion. He planted church communities across Asia Minor and Europe, raised people from the dead, and was jailed for Jesus. But this is the...

Nicholas King Lectio Divina 1

Explore Joseph’s reunion with his brothers in Nicholas King’s new translation. Follow this devotional reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation journey for an immersive experience of Scripture.

Paul's guide to Christian living

Following Christ’s example and glorifying God in our lives is a challenge and requires costly effort. Paul’s teachings on this aren’t easy or comfortable to hear but they are purposeful, practical and life-giving. Looking...
Read the Bible icon Read the Bible
Open the full Bible