I’d like to take on the issue of what Jesus wrote in the dust. It is, indeed, a riddle: presented as a puzzle, which can be solved from the evidence and information presented around it, and which asks for such a solution. I make no claim to scholarship in the formal sense, but the genre of riddle does not ask for it, being a matter of reading, even reading for the plot, and working with the material itself.
Next, there is a unique answer, such that the story is better revealed, the scene better integrated into the overall narrative, and the actions of the characters consistent with the words; furthermore, that answer has to illumine an aspect of Jesus’ own temper and personality. Finally, it has to be generally available to both the actors in the scene and the readers of the story—in other words, Scripture.
The common interpretation bases its answer on a moral claim: Jesus wrote down the sins of the bystanders. The best argument for this is the instruction that the one without sins should cast the first stone, but problems arise. It has no general weight. It shows Jesus as a personal accuser, which would be a rare instance, and one in which He does not offer remedy. It would show Him as a mind-reader, although sins are common enough that any list of sins might do and anyone would find a shoe to fit.
It’s rather flat, lacking any poetry or resonance.
What would be the consequence of seeing a list of sins in the dust? Not much. No news for the actors, nothing added to the general understanding of readers. A hardened man might shrug, or rely on the lack of proofs, or his temple connections, to exculpate him. Sins were a matter of legality, payment, formal purity or the lack of it, and purchased sacrifices, in the minds of almost everyone in every scene of the Gospels. Crimes were hard to prove. And a man who knew your crime, but could not prove it, had little power over you.
A better reading: He wrote out an accusation that the scene itself was a set-up, that the woman was trapped or tricked, and that they were proposing murder. Scholars do tell us that the case is nearly impossible without some plan and ambush set. At least two men, the adulterer and a confederate planning the accusation, would be needed, and the law wanted two witnesses who would give identical testimony, making three. This would show Jesus as a mind-reader, but for a better cause, that of resolving the conflict, naming and stopping the crime being committed right there, and showing that He was not to be caught by that sort of scheme.
Still, there are a couple of problems. I have never actually heard this reading proposed, though it seems far more plausible than the first, likely because most people do not themselves believe the woman is a victim and not a criminal. Just teaching that point would have value. But the progress of the Gospel would not especially be served, nor the time and changes touched upon, nor the nature and mission of Jesus elaborated. And the claim for a unique content, though not a unique expression in words, can be made here. It does not offer an answer that would be readily available, unless we assume that readers be familiar with Jewish law of the time. I think we can do better, though, and I think a literary riddle asks us to look for a unique form of words.
There are words that do all these, which Jesus would have known, which would have shocked the crowd and elicited just the reaction we see, which would give the woman the best reassurance and release and reintegration we can imagine, and which announce the Acceptable Time, and which come from Scripture. The text is the Prophecy of Zephaniah, 3:8-15, wherein the Lord proclaims He will “arise as a witness”—in a context where witnesses are needed; and that the rescued ones “shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue..and none shall make them afraid.” It is read on Holy Saturday, the seventh reading, and therefore prominent and familiar.
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. (Zeph 3:14-15)
This rings all the bells. It is addressed to a female figure, and so easily may be addressed to a woman captive. It tells her to be joyful, not only pardoned but exultant. This neatly cuts off the moralizing about her being sent off in shame to stop sinning. As one of the redeemed, she “shall do no wrong.” She goes with her head high, on the best authority possible. It exactly reproduces the action of the scene. Jesus, by this reference, is taking her and setting her very high.
Further, it has its own root in a prior text, thickening the text in a satisfying way:
She despises you, she scorns you— the virgin daughter of Zion; she wags her head behind you— the daughter of Jerusalem. Whom have you mocked and reviled? Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes to the heights? Against the Holy One of Israel! (Is 37:22-23)
This, too, reproduces the scene, at the end, if we see her standing triumphant, and see Him revealing Himself, as He stands in sovereignty and solidarity with the woman. Assuming someone in that scene has a good scriptural memory, this should echo the claim of divine authority, and that authority should make the captors’ blood run cold. They thought they would catch Jesus in a legal bind, and He held up a mirror of their evil —which comprises the second type of reading I proposed—but in a cosmic context that places them entirely in the wrong. I cannot claim to know how far into the passage He wrote, or had to write, to make the meaning clear, but as soon as the men saw that Christ was claiming to be the King of Israel, in person, the Lord, the Messiah, and telling them that the time was come, and they were found on the wrong side, they could do nothing but melt away.
The forbearance is greater this way, too, because it is part of the Jubilee, part of the movement of the cosmic wheels, and not only a social adjustment. The mercy of the Lord is a greater thing than the winning move of a witty magician and disputant, as Jesus was as the least of His traits. It is generally granted that the scene takes place on the stone pavement of the Temple grounds. The Cambridge Bible Commentary notes that Jesus might have intended to evoke the thought of the finger of God writing on stone; if so, it would be small and mean for Him to write out some personal sins, but majestic and meet for Him to recount a glorious restoration and allude to a great battle-triumph.
This also shows us Jesus living and appropriating the Scriptures, a better match than all the guesses at original but ephemeral words. The semi-public announcement, assuming some of the accusers are prominent in the synagogue, contributes to the escalation of the messianic announcements in its degree. He is interested in punishing neither the woman nor the men, but in a higher matter altogether, and the lot of low-minded schemers on one hand, and moralists on the other, would be horrified to find that they had blundered into that level of action. That, too, is a note struck elsewhere in the Gospels, and supports the rightness of the quote. The motif of men thinking of politics, law, and earthly things, yet revealed as actors in the drama cast before the foundation of the world, runs from Herod through Caiaphas.
This story now joins them as a minor variation.
Tita Deacon is an independent scholar and exegete who holds a BA in English from the University of California Berkeley and reached ABD status in a PhD in English. She is a convert to Orthodoxy of thirty years. As the abbot told the monk, “Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything,” she has spent twenty years in a cubicle, and it has taught her a large fraction of everything.