What Did Jesus Write In the Sand? (The Adulterous Woman)


One of the most fascinating scenes in the Gospel of John is when religious leaders bring a woman to Jesus who was guilty of adultery. The punishment for adultery according to the Law of Moses was death by stoning. Before Jesus said a word in response, John says that he bent down and wrote in the sand. Many Bible readers are curious about what Jesus wrote.

John, who is the only Gospel writer to record the story, doesn’t say what Jesus wrote so all interpretations are speculative. One view, favored by prominent figures in Christian history like Augustine of Hippo and Ambrose of Milan, is that Jesus wrote Jeremiah 17:13. Some modern scholars hold this view.

Why is this passage in John’s Gospel so controversial? What exactly do the religious leaders say that led Jesus to write in the sand? What does Jeremiah 17:3 teach? What does the theory say that speculates that Jesus was mimicking Roman law? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Jesus Christ
Does Jesus ever declare the woman’s innocence? See below

Jesus’ response to the woman caught in adultery

The story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8:2-11 is controversial, in part, because some of the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John don’t contain the passage.

Many modern English Bibles include the passage at the beginning of the eighth chapter of John. However, most have a note that informs readers that the story doesn’t appear in some of the most reliable manuscripts of John that exist today.

As a result, some authors of Bible commentaries on the Gospel of John don’t include any comments on the text, including Jesus writing in the sand.

There is a third view, however, besides “accept the passage” or “reject the passage.” New Testament scholar D.A. Carson, for instance, doesn’t believe the passage is original to John’s Gospel, yet says “there is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred.” [1]

The Pharisees and scribes bring an adulterous woman to Jesus

The setting of the story is Jesus teaching in the temple one morning when the religious leaders brought him a woman who was guilty of adultery. Since Jesus never declares the woman’s innocence in the passage, it’s likely that the religious leaders were telling the truth about her sin.

“Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery” and placed her in Jesus’ presence (John 8:2-3).

The religious leaders had ill intentions. They weren’t bringing the woman to Jesus for the purposes of repentance, forgiveness, or restoration. The Pharisees and scribes were trying to trap Jesus and they were using the potential execution of the woman to do so.

The religious leaders said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say? This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.” (John 8:4-5)

Jesus writes in the sand

In what must have been a shock to everyone, Jesus initially didn’t say anything. Instead, he “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground” (John 8:6). For over 2,000 years, Bible readers, scholars, and clergy have wondered what Jesus wrote.

“Jesus’ reaction is very unusual and has given rise to all kinds of explanations and speculations,” writes one commentator. [2] “Expositors have attempted to reconstruct what, in his stooped posture, Jesus wrote on the ground.”

Theories, speculations, and ideas about what Jesus wrote are numerous. That said, some interpretations have received more attention than others over the years.

Jesus writing in the sand
What does Jeremiah 17:13 say? See below

Did Jesus write Jeremiah 17:13 in the sand?

Some speculate that Jesus wrote Jeremiah 17:13 in the sand. The theory is built on the fact that the verse mentions writing in the dust of the earth, although the exact wording varies according to the English interpretation, and some unidentified Jews that turned away from God.

TranslationJeremiah 17:13
ESV“O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.”
KJV“O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters.”
NASB“O LORD, the hope of Israel, All who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, Because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the LORD.”
NIV“LORD, you are 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.”
NLT“O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who turn away from you will be disgraced. They will be buried in the dust of the earth, for they have abandoned the LORD, the fountain of living water.”

The implication is that Jesus is telling the religious leaders that they are the ones who have turned away from God. When Jesus finishes writing and speaks, he warns them against judging the woman. “And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.'” (John 8:7)

Jesus and the adulterous woman
Was Jesus mimicking Roman law? See below

Was Jesus following a Roman legal practice?

Some theorize that Jesus was following a Roman custom when he wrote in the sand. In the first century, a Roman judge would write down his verdict and then announce it. It’s easy to see why some people consider this possibility because of the obvious parallels of Jesus writing something and then making an announcement.

However, others question if Jesus would follow a Roman legal custom to make a point to Jewish religious leaders. The question the Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus pertained to Old Testament law, not Roman law. To many, it’s unlikely that Jesus would have answered such a question with a Roman legal technique or that the Jewish religious leaders would have been convicted by one.

Was Jesus just buying time?

Some believe that John didn’t record what Jesus wrote because he didn’t write any words. He was merely scribbling in the sand to buy time to give a response and let the religious leaders process his words.

After Jesus invited a sinless man to cast the first stone at the woman — which none did because they were all guilty of sin — he stooped down once again. “And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground” (John 8:8). The religious leaders eventually walked away (8:9) “and Jesus was left alone with the woman.”

Jesus “stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more‘” (John 8:10-11).

References:
[1] The Gospel According to John by D.A. Carson. p. 333. (PNTC commentary series)
[2] The Gospel of John by Herman Ridderbos. p. 289.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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