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.
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This article was written Mark Woods, who is Bible Society's Editor.
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Author: Bible Society, 26 August 2019