Friday, December 17, 2010

What Did Jesus Write on the Ground?

Some readers may remember my report of the very highlight of SBL Annual Meeting in Boston 2008 ... for me personally, that is – the presentation I held together with Jennifer W. Knust of our co-written paper, “Earth Accuses Earth: Tracing Jesus’ Writing on the Ground.”

Jennifer and I continued to work on the material and submitted an article in the beginning of 2009 to Harvard Theological Review, which was accepted after a long period of review. Then came an even longer period editing and waiting for the article to get published. After two years from submission, we are now thrilled that the article is finally out in the current issue, HTR 103 (2010) (2010): 407-446.

The story of the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53–8:11) has a long, complex history. Well-known in the Latin West, the story was neglected but not forgotten in the East. Incorporated within Late Antique and Early Medieval Gospel manuscripts, depicted in Christian art, East and West, and included within the developing liturgies of Rome and Constantinople, the passage has fascinated interpreters for centuries despite irregularities in its transmission.

Throughout this long history, one narrative detail has been of particular interest: the content and significance of Jesus' writing. Discussed in sermons, elaborated in manuscripts, and depicted in magnificent illuminations, Jesus' writing has inspired interpreters at least since the fourth century, when Ambrose of Milan first mentioned it. Offering his opinion on the propriety of capital punishment, the bishop turned to the pericope in order to argue that Christians do well to advocate on behalf of the condemned since, by doing so, they imitate the mercy of Christ. Nevertheless, he averred, the imposition of capital punishment remains an option for Christian rulers and judges. After all, God also judges and condemns, as Christ showed when, responding to the men questioning him and accusing the adulteress, he wrote twice on the ground. Demonstrating that “the Jews were condemned by both testaments,” Christ bent over and wrote “with the finger with which he had written the law,” or so the bishop claimed. Ambrose offered a further conjecture in a subsequent letter: Jesus wrote “earth, earth, write that these men have been disowned,” a saying he attributes to Jeremiah (compare Jer 22:29). As Jeremiah also explains, “Those who have been disowned by their Father are written on the ground,” but the names of Christians are written in heaven.

The published article includes a good number of nice plates, one of which is the only depiction we have found of the Pericope of the Adulteress in a Greek New Testament manuscript, Florence, Laurenziana cod. Plut, VI, 23 (= Greg.-Aland 187), fol. 184v:

As I have reported earlier, high-resolution color images of the Plutei MSS of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence are now available online. So here is the link to this beautiful and rather unique illuminated Gospel codex. There is one other MS in Paris with a similar type of comic-strip like illuminations (but without this specific motive).


  1. Fascinating Stuff Dr. W,

    Was hoping you could you share some of those "irregularities of transmission"- without us having to buy the issue?

    As I understand it, this story was taken from a blind man (Didymus) of the 4th century (whose work was condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople for teaching re-incarnation). And the blind man heard something like this story (no mention of adultery)- from someone who thought that 'a man of small mental capacity'(Papias) had heard from the mysterious John the Elder- who was probably not the Apostle John.

    What's your take on this?

  2. Ron, our article is not focused on the origin of this story (we do have a section on that matter), but mainly on the transmission, specifically in regard to Jesus' writing.

    A good place to start in general is William L. Petersen, “OUDE EGW SE [KATA]KRINW: John 8.11, the Protevangelium Iacobi, and the History of the Pericope Adulterae,” in Sayings of Jesus: Canonical and Non-Canonical: Essays in Honor of Tjitze Baarda (ed. William L. Petersen, Johan S. Vos, and Henk Jen de Jonge; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 191–221.

    Follow the first link in the main post (to the summary of our SBL presentation), and you might get some idea of those irregularities of transmission.

  3. Thanks for the additional info Dr.