Written in the Dust

Jesus, like Socrates, is much quoted, but he left behind no writings of his own. Both men owe their legacies to followers who wrote down what they said. Socrates is indebted to his pupil Plato, who was no slouch as a philosopher in his own right. Scholars believe Jesus’ sayings were collected initially in a compendium known as the “Q document” that became the basis in part for at least two of the four gospels in the New Testament. The problem, of course, is that when you rely on third parties to transmit your teachings, your words become subject to reinterpretation. Thus, the oracular statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of St. John ("I am the way, and the truth, and the life…”) would seem out of place if they came from the lips of the homespun storyteller who inhabited the other three gospels.

Why didn’t Jesus write anything down – or at least something that survived him? First, we must remember he saw it as his mission to bring his message only to the people of Israel, which meant he would have to travel no more than 100 miles in any direction to reach just about everybody. There were no printing presses in those days; few people could read or write in any case; and time was short. The best way to get his message out was to gather up everyone within earshot. He would leave it to others to proclaim the gospel elsewhere by whatever means necessary.

The New Testament records only one instance in which Jesus did write something down, although what he wrote remains a matter of speculation. There is a story in the Gospel of St. John that Jesus was teaching in the temple when the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman they said had been caught in the act of adultery. Under Jewish law, this was a serious offense that could result in death by stoning, as they were quick to remind him. They asked his opinion, hoping Jesus would say something that might get him in trouble with the authorities. But he refused to take the bait. Instead, he wrote something with his finger in the dust, then said, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." He resumed writing. The scribes and Pharisees slunk off one by one.

You might think the woman’s accusers were overcome by guilt, and there might certainly be an element of that. But there was likely more to their reaction triggered by Jesus’ writing in the dust. As scribes and Pharisees, they would have been well versed in Jewish law and would have known they themselves were acting unlawfully by insisting that the woman be stoned. The law required that both the man and the woman be punished. Where was the man? The law also required that two witnesses attest to the act of adultery. Where were the witnesses? Normally, when a crime was alleged, a priest was obliged to write the names of the accused in the unswept dirt on the floor of the temple. Were the scribes and Pharisees reminded of this when they saw Jesus write in the dirt? And what did Jesus write there? Was it the names of the woman’s accusers?

One intriguing theory is that Jesus wrote a verse from the sixth-century BCE prophet Jeremiah, perhaps followed by the names of those who were prepared to take the law into their own hands. The verse reads: “O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake thee shall be put to shame; those who turn away from thee shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.” Jeremiah, incidentally, was another teacher who wrote nothing down, relying on his faithful scribe Baruch to record his words. What seems clear is that whether God’s judgment is written down by others, written on stone tablets or written in the dust, his words abide.

John 14:6
Jeremiah 17:13

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