Monday, December 08, 2008

SBL Boston, Wasserman & Wright Knust on Jesus' Writing (Jn 8:6, 8)

We have come to the highlight of SBL in Boston (for me personally I should add), namely my and Jennifer Wright Knust's joint paper for the New Testament Textual Criticism session on Saturday afternoon. Just a few words of introduction before I go on to give a glimpse of the presentation:

Prologue: I met Jennifer for the first time at the SBL in San Diego. I had read her fine article in JECS on the pericope of the adulteress, in which she also referred to my article in the TC journal on the same pericope. I therefore suggested that we work on a joint paper for the next SBL on the topic of what Jesus wrote on the ground (John 8:6, 8). We both were familiar with the illustration in Codex Egberti where Jesus writes the sentence terra terram accusat. Bruce Metzger had expressed in two different publications that he did not know where this enigmatic phrase came from. At the same time, I had found a reference in Petrus Comestor who ascribed it to Ambrose. Jennifer agreed to my suggestion, and invited me to stay with her family in Brookline (practically a part of Boston) during the next meeting.

Initially we had a very optimistic plan to start writing in the Spring, but that plan was soon revised since we both had our hands full. So we just submitted an abstract in February and started working on the paper after summer. We had a very intensive e-mail correspondence during the following months. It has been a delight to work with Jennifer, and we had a marvellous co-operation. In the last minute, just a few days before the presentation, she caught a cold and lost her voice, so I was so glad that her voice was just strong enough so she was able to join in the actual presentation. The paper was based on a much longer version (three times as long) that will soon be submitted for publication. Here I will just offer some glimpses from the presentation. The purpose of the paper was to trace the reception of Jesus' writing from the origin of the story until medieval times, and specifically offer a plausible suggestion of the origin of the phrase terra terram accusat and how it came to be used.

Tommy Wasserman, Lund University, and Jennifer Wright Knust, Boston University, “Earth Accuses Earth: Tracing Jesus’ Writing on the Ground”

Offering an opinion on the propriety of capital punishment, the fourth-century bishop Ambrose of Milan turned to the story of the woman taken in adultery. Christians do well to advocate on behalf of the condemned, he argued, since, by doing so, they imitate the mercy of Christ. Nevertheless, the imposition of capital punishment remains an option for Christian rulers and judges. After all, God also judges and condemns, as Christ showed when he wrote twice on the ground, demonstrating that “the Jews were condemned by both testaments” (Ep. 68.14). Bending over to write, Ambrose explains, Christ “wrote with the finger with which he had written the law” (Ep. 68.14) and likely inscribed a saying of the prophet Jeremiah: “earth, earth, write that these men have been disowned” (Jer 22:29; Ep. 50.4).

Alluding to another saying of Jeremiah a few sentences later, Ambrose continues, “Those who have been disowned by their Father are written on the ground”; by contrast, the names of Christians are written in heaven (Ep. 50.5, 7; compare Jeremiah 17:13). Something like Ambrose’s perspective was recalled some five hundred years later in an abbreviated form, this time in the context of the illustrated pericope book Codex Egberti. Depicting Jesus, the woman, and the men involved in the controversy, the illuminator of this tenth-century manuscript traced out Jesus’ words, in Latin, supplying the phrase, “earth accuses earth” (terra terram accusat).

With his speculation regarding Jesus’ writing, Ambrose began what has become a long tradition of supplying what Johannine versions of the story usually leave out: the content of Jesus’ writing. From the time of Ambrose until today, readers have remained unsatisfied with this narrative gap and sometimes they have offered suggestions to fill it. This paper takes a different tack, however, asking not what Jesus wrote or why he was represented writing but what can be learned about the transmission and reception of the pericope adulterae on the basis of speculation regarding this writing.

Texts do not stand apart from those who produce, read and interpret them; rather they are written, preserved and authorized within particular historical settings by human actors, who bring diverse assumptions to the texts they interpret and transmit. Viewed from this perspective, textual witnesses that include or exclude the pericope adulterae--and interpretive elaborations regarding Jesus’ writing--bear witness not to an enduring text that stands outside of human history but to a complex interplay of text and meaning across time. Gospel books carry with themselves and as themselves the histories of their multiple engagements, preserving not only particular texts but also the interpretive assumptions that shape those texts.

The knotty transmission history of the pericope adulterae highlights this phenomenon further, with copyists and scholars from the fourth century onward taking care to signal the story’s instability, sometimes including it and sometimes leaving it out, according to the dominant text-critical assumptions of their day. Attempts to identify what Jesus wrote or to clarify the significance of his writing supplement this wider phenomenon, with various explanations regarding Jesus’ writing entering textual and interpretive traditions as diverse as the Latin picture book Codex Egberti and the ninth-century Constantinopolitan Codex Nanianus of the Gospels (U 030), the first Byzantine manuscript to supply the detail “he wrote the sins of each of them” (ενος εκαστου αυτων τας αμαρτιας). In this way, interpretive glosses regarding Jesus’ writing were quite literally written into textual witnesses. Similar glosses were also written into commentaries, sermons, images and apparatuses designed to accompany the Gospel, serving as “paratexts,” both within and outside of the material boundaries of the text itself. Proposals regarding what, why and how Jesus wrote, whether ancient or contemporary, therefore reveal as much about the assumptions brought to bear on the Gospel as they do about the possible content and significance of Jesus’ writing.

[Then we went through a number of examples century by century of sermons, mosaics, manuscripts, pyxides, illuminations, and other artefacts, that depict the story and offer various insights on the topic of Jesus' writing, specifically tracing the phrase terra terram accusat to Augustine's 13th sermon on Psalm 2, in which the bishop reminded North African rulers that, when judging, they are merely “earth itself judging the earth . . . a human judging a human, a mortal judging a mortal, a sinner judging a sinner” (Sermo 13.4). He then invoked the pericope adulterae, observing that, when the Lord Jesus wrote with his finger, he judged the earth, even as he displayed pity for the woman (13.5).

We went on to demonstrate how the pericope became an important reminder for human rulers and human judges that they are just that—human—and, like the adulteress, they too will be subject to divine judgment. We had collected over twenty images of various items, which Jennifer had organized in a marvellous slide that accompanied the presentation. Eventually, we arrived in the thirteenth-century for our final example.]

Jacobus de Voragine, a thirteenth-century Dominican monk, scholar and author, serves as our final example. Preaching a sermon on the pericope on the third Saturday of Lent, he offered a list of by then traditional suggestions regarding what Jesus wrote: According to Ambrose, Jacobus reports, Jesus wrote, terra terram accusat; according to Augustine, he wrote this (i.e., terra terram accusat) and then, afterwards said to the woman qui sine peccato est uestrum; according to the Glossa, Jesus wrote their sins (eorum pecccata); and, according to John Chrysostom (who, as far as we know, never discussed the pericope adulterae), he wrote terra absorbe hos uiros abdicatos (Earth, swallow these men who have been disowned) (Sabbato Sermo 1.45-48). Traveling back and forth across languages and time, the pericope adulterae--and Jesus’ writing—continued to be written and re-written, carrying as itself and with itself the long history of its re-tellings, a process that is not likely to end anytime soon.


  1. It is not fully clear to me what the purpose of your paper was.
    Did you want to note the various options of what he possibly wrote?

  2. Thanks Wieland, I added some sentences at the beginning and in the paragraphs in square brackets for clarification. It is easy to get blind when you know your own material so well... But I guess it will be necessary to read the whole publication in order to get this picture. This is mainly a reception-critical study; we do not ask the historical-critical question of what Jesus actually wrote although we mention some suggestions from modern scholars. (This was also included in the power point presentation but we did not read that part.) Chris Keith told me he was very happy to see his own proposal there on the wall.

  3. This is the first time I heard of pyxides in the context of TC. I take it this is a litted clay pot with an inscription on the outside?
    Question: when a pyxis breaks, is there a special name for the inscribed pieces, or are they indiscernible from ostraca?

  4. Thanks Tommy!

    according to John Chrysostom (who, as far as we know, never discussed the pericope adulterae), he wrote terra absorbe hos uiros abdicatos

    I think this is a very interesting reference! Haven't heard of it before. Do we know anything more about it?

  5. Daniel, read about pyxides (sing. pyxis) here:

    The PA is depicted (no inscription)on two pyxides from the 5-6th cent. CE.

  6. WW: "Do we know anything more about it?"

    We (TW and JWK) don't know anything more about it at this point.