When I was in high school, my buddy Steven and I went to a concert a couple of hours out of town. We skipped school to do it. I don’t remember if we had had permission from our parents or not. We must have, because we got home at like 2 am. Either way, the band Denison Marrs played there and this song had me entranced:
Around 3:13-3:16 in the song, the singer asks of Jesus, “what was it that you wrote in the sand?”
I’ve wondered that off and on for years. The Biblical passage in question, of course, is this:
[[They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 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 placing her in the midst they said to him, “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. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 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.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 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 7:53-8:11 ESV)
Of course, it is disputed whether this passage belongs in John’s gospel and whether the events described therein occurred. But either way, the author meant for the event to be understood. So what could an early Christian author with an understanding of the Torah and a desire to portray Jesus as a Torah expert have meant hearers and readers to understand by this cryptic event? My thought is that Jesus would have been understood to be writing this excerpt from Deuteronomy 19:
“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
(Deuteronomy 19:15-21 ESV)
Deuteronomy would indicate that perhaps every single person present, if they were witnesses of the adultery, would deserve the death penalty because they maliciously brought the woman and not the man. Or every one of them perhaps committed adultery with her (shades of the woman at the well?) and therefore were malicious witnesses. Or only one of them witnessed the crime and were therefore bringing her before Jesus. Incidentally, the entire scene is a miscarriage of justice because nobody was brought before judges or priests. Incidentally, the tabernacle, which would be the necessary ingredient for such a dispute, was missing. So to bring the dispute before the Lord was impossible, but the men did bring the dispute before the Lord unknowingly. This, with John’s theology of Jesus’ presence might work as an argument for the story’s inclusion in John’s gospel. But the story does completely interrupt the narrative where it stands and so it’s hard to imagine where it belongs other than as an appendix.