What did Jesus write on the ground in John 8:8?

What did Jesus write on the ground in John 8:8?                                      by Jack Kettler

“And again, he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.” (John 8:8)

Cross References

“When they continued to question Him, He straightened up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.’” (John 8:7)

“When they heard this, they began to go away one by one, beginning with the older ones, until only Jesus was left, with the woman standing there.” (John 8:9)

The passage in John under consideration has been the subject of much speculation about what Jesus wrote on the ground. It should be pointed out that the text in John says nothing about what Jesus wrote on the ground, which in this case, the theories are based upon an argument from silence.

An argument from silence is flawed:

Argumentum ex silentio is a logical fallacy. How so? An argument from silence tries to prove something as true in the absenteeism of evidence.  

What Was it That Jesus Wrote on the Ground?

Four of the most common theories:

1.      Jeremiah 17:13 is said to show that Jesus was to write on the ground. “O Lord, 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.”  

2.      Jesus allegedly wrote the accuser’s names in the dust and perhaps then wrote a sin that they had committed next to their name.

3.      He wrote the Ten Commandments with His finger.

4.      The woman was “caught in the act” of adultery, possibly she was without clothes, and Jesus was writing in the dirt to avoid His eyes from seeing the unclothed woman.

Theory number one attempts to base the theory on a possible prophecy found in Jeremiah 17:13 predicting Jesus writing on the ground. However, even if this were true, the Scriptures still do not say what he wrote.

Raymond Brown’s Anchor Bible Commentary has the most comprehensive list of theories, some of which are listed below:

1.      “Starting with Jerome, there is a suggestion that Jesus wrote the names of the accusers.

2.      T.W. Manson, in a widely cited article: “The Pericope de Adultera (Joh 753–811)”, Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 44 (1953): 255-6, argued that Jesus’ actions reflected Roman legal practice: writing the sentence (8:6), then delivered (8:7), and wrote again (8:8) what he would say in v. 11.

3.      Some find echoes not of Exodus/Deuteronomy but of Jeremiah 17:13, which speaks of “writing on the earth.”

4.      J.D.M. Derrett proposed (1963) specific connections to Exodus 23:1b, concerning the prohibition against being a malicious witness.

5.      Some suggest that Jesus is just biding his time, with various grounds suggested.” (1)

From Arthur Pink’s Commentary on John 8:6-8:

“But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground” (John 8:6). This was the first thing that He here did. That there was a symbolical significance to His action goes without saying, and what this is we are not left to guess. Scripture is its own interpreter. This was not the first time that the Lord had written “with his finger.” In Exodus 31:18 we read, “And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.” When, then, our Lord wrote on the ground (from the ground must the “tables of stone” have been taken), it was as though He had said, you remind Me of the law! Why, it was My finger which wrote that law! Thus, did He show these Pharisees that He had come here, not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. His writing on the ground, then, was (symbolically) a ratification of God’s righteous law. But so blind were His would-be accusers they discerned not the significance of His act.”

“So, when they continued asking him” (John 8:7). It is evident that our Lord’s enemies mistook His silence for embarrassment. They no more grasped the force of His action of writing on the ground, than did Belshazzar understand the writing of that same Hand on the walls of his palace. Emboldened by His silence, and satisfied that they had Him cornered, they continued to press their question upon Him. O the persistency of evil-doers! How often they put to shame our lack of perseverance and importunity.”

“So, when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He who is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). This, too, has a far deeper meaning than what appears on the surface. God’s Law was a holy and a righteous one, and here we find the Law-giver Himself turning its white light upon these men who really had so little respect for it. Christ was here intimating that they, His would-be accusers, were no fit subjects to demand the enforcement of the law’s sentence. None but a holy hand should administer the perfect law. In principle, we may see here the great Adversary and Accuser reprimanded. Satan may stand before the angel of the Lord to resist “the high priest” (Zechariah 3:1), but, morally, he is the last one who should insist on the maintenance of righteousness. And how strikingly this reprimanding of the Pharisees by Christ adumbrated what we read of in Zechariah 3:2 (“The Lord rebuke you, O Satan”) scarcely needs to be pointed out.”

“And again, he stooped down, and wrote on the ground” (John 8:8). Profoundly significant was this, and unspeakably blessed. The symbolic meaning of it is plainly hinted at in the word “again”: The Lord wrote on the ground a second time. And of what did that speak? Once more the Old Testament Scriptures supply the answer. The first “tables of stone” were dashed to the ground by Moses, and broken. A second set was therefore written by God. And what became of the second “tables of stone”? They were laid up in the ark (Exodus 40:20), and were covered by the blood-sprinkled mercy-seat! Here, then, Christ was giving more than a hint of how He would save those who were, by the law, condemned to death. It was not that the law would be set aside: far from it. As His first stooping down and with His finger writing on the ground intimated, the law would be “established.” But as He stooped down and wrote the second time, He signified that the shed blood of an innocent substitute should come between the law and those it condemned!”

“And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last” (John 8:9). Thus was “the strong man bound” (Matthew 12:29). Christ’s enemies had thought to ensnare Him by the law of Moses; instead, they had its searching light turned upon themselves. Grace had not defied, but had upheld the law! One sentence from the lips of Holiness incarnate and they were all silenced, all convicted, and all departed. At another time, a self-righteous Pharisee might boast of his lastings, his tithes and his prayers; but when God turns the light on a man’s heart, his moral and spiritual depravity become apparent even to himself, and shame shuts his lips. So, it was here. Not a word had Christ uttered against the law; in nowise had He condoned the woman’s sin. Unable to find any ground for accusation against Him, completely baffled in their evil designs, convicted by their consciences, they slunk away: “beginning at the eldest,” because he had the most sin to hide and the most reputation to preserve. And in the conduct of these men we have a clear intimation of how the wicked will act in the last great Day. Now, they may proclaim their self-righteousness, and talk about the injustice of eternal punishment. But then, when the light of God flashes upon them, and their guilt and ruin are fully exposed, they shall, like these Pharisees, be speechless.”

“And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out.” There is a solemn warning here for sinners who may be exercised in mind over their condition. Here were men who were “convicted by their own conscience,” yet instead of this causing them to cast themselves at the feet of Christ, it resulted in them leaving Christ! Nothing short of the Holy Spirit’s quickening will ever bring a soul into saving contact with the Lord Jesus.”

“And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst” (John 8:9). This is exceedingly striking. These scribes and Pharisees had challenged Christ from the law. He met them on their own ground, and vanquished them by the law. “When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those your accusers? has no man condemned you? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, neither do I condemn you” (John 8:10, 11). The law required two witnesses before its sentence could be executed (Deuteronomy 19:15), yet, those witnesses must assist in the carrying out of the sentence (Deuteronomy 17:7). But here not a single witness was left to testify against this woman who had merely been indicted. Thus, the law was powerless to touch her. What, then, remained? Why, the way was now clear for Christ to act in “grace and truth.”

“Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). No doubt the question occurs to many of our readers, was this woman saved at the time she left Christ? Personally, we believe that she was. We believe so because she did not leave Christ when she had opportunity to do so; because she addressed Him as “Lord” (contrast “Master” of the Pharisees in verse 4); and because Christ said to her, “Neither do I condemn you.” But, as another has said, “In looking at these incidents of Scripture, we need not ask if the objects of the grace act in the intelligence of the story. It is enough for us that here was a sinner exposed in the presence of Him who came to meet sin and put it away. Whoever takes the place of this woman meets the word that clears of condemnation, just as the publicans and sinners with whom Christ eats in Luke 15, set forth this, that if one takes the place of the sinner and the outcast, he is at once received. So, with the lost sheep and the lost piece of silver. There is no intelligence of their condition, yet they set forth that which, if one take, it is representative. To make it clear, one might ask, ‘Are you as sinful as this woman, as badly lost as that sheep or piece of silver?’ (Malachi Taylor)”

“And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those your accusers? has no man condemned you? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more.” How striking and how blessed is this sequel to what has been before us! When Christ wrote on the ground the second time (not before), the “accusers” of the guilty departed! And then, after the last accuser had disappeared, the Lord said, “Neither do I condemn you.” How perfect the picture and to complete it, Christ added, “Go, and sin no more,” which is still His word to those who have been saved by grace. And the ground, the righteous ground, on which He pronounced this verdict “Neither do I condemn you,” was, that in a short time He was going to be “condemned” in her stead. Finally, note the order of these two words of Christ to this woman who owned Him as “Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). It was not, “Go and sin no more, and I will not condemn you,” for that would have been a death-knell rather than good news in her ears. Instead, the Savior said, “Neither do I condemn you.” And to everyone who takes the place this woman was brought into, the word is, “There is therefore now no condemnation” (Romans 8:1). “And sin no more” placed her, as we are placed, under the constraint of His love.”

“This incident then contains far more than that which was of local and ephemeral significance. It, in fact, raises the basic question of, how can mercy and justice be harmonized? How can grace flow forth except by slighting holiness? In the scene here presented to our view we are shown, not by a closely reasoned out statement of doctrine, but in symbolic action, that this problem is not insolvable to Divine wisdom. Here was a concrete case of a guilty sinner leaving the presence of Christ un-condemned. And it was neither because the law had been slighted nor sin palliated. The requirements of the law were strictly complied with, and her sin was openly condemned—”sin no more.” Yet, she herself, was not condemned. She was dealt with according to “grace and truth.” Mercy flowed out to her, yet not at the expense of justice. Such, in brief, is a summary, of this marvelous narrative; a narrative which, truly, no man ever invented and no uninspired pen ever recorded.”

“This blessed incident not only anticipated the epistle to the Romans, but it also outlines, by vivid symbols, the Gospel of the grace of God. The Gospel not only announces a Savior for sinners, but it also explains how God can save them consistently with the requirements of His character. As Romans 1:17 tells us, in the Gospel is “the righteousness of God revealed.” And this is precisely what is set forth here in John 8.” (2)

In closing:

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges on Proverbs 3:6 has an exhortation to be heeded:

“6. Add thou not] Do not mix with the pure silver of His words the dross of human speculations. “Noli investigare res quæ mentem humanam transcendunt (Proverbs 30:4), ut doctrinam divinitus patefactam inde compleas. Maurer.” (3)

Google translation of Maurer “so that you may complete the doctrine revealed by God.”

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)

Notes:

1.      R.E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, (Yale Anchor Bible 29; Doubleday, 1966), pp. 333-334.

2.      Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of the Gospel of John, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1975), pp. 14-19.

3.      The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, Proverbs, by T. T. Perowne, (Cambridge University Press, 1898), e-Sword version

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of books defending the Reformed Faith. Books can be ordered online at www. JackKettler .com

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