The story of the woman caught in adultery and brought by the scribes and Pharisees to Jesus for judgment is recounted in the John 8:3-11 as follows:
“And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” 1
As indicated above, Scripture tells us that the scribes and Pharisees who brought the woman to Jesus for judgment were not so much interested in upholding the Law of Moses as they were in tempting him to break it so that they could accuse him. 2 It was a clever trap they were laying for him, or so it seemed. If Jesus refused to uphold the Law of Moses, which stipulated that an adulterous woman must be put to death by stoning, then he could be accused (and exposed before the people) of being a Lawbreaker. If he upheld the Law of Moses and ordered the execution of the woman, he could be accused of breaking the law of Rome, since only Roman officials had authority to mete out capital punishment.
As usual, Jesus was equal to the challenge. As soon as the scribes and Pharisees had finished their accusations, he stooped to write in the dust with his finger. This may seem a strange thing to do until one considers the chronological context of the event. It happened on a Sabbath day. The fact that it was a Sabbath can be shown by arranging the events of the festival week in their proper chronological order. [The following chronological order is used in this article: John 7:1-36, John 8:1-John 10:21, John 7:37-53.]
Recapping the events that occurred during the week of the Feast of Tabernacles as recorded in John, chapter seven through ten, and rearranged chronologically: Jesus told his brothers to go ahead of him to the festival in Jerusalem, then after they had departed he traveled separately to the Jerusalem area, but took the precaution of not showing himself in public since he knew that the Temple authorities were looking for him. It is assumed that Jesus went to a safe place on the Mount of Olives when he arrived, where he stayed overnight for one or two days. Early on the morning of the fourth day of the festival (specified as “the midst of the feast” in John 7:14), Jesus went to the Temple, where he began to teach the crowds publicly. The people marveled at his teaching, and many believed him to be the Messiah. Because of the murmuring of the people, the Pharisees and chief priests sent officers to arrest Jesus (John 7:32). After a day of teaching in the Temple, Jesus stayed overnight in his safe place on the Mount of Olives (John 8:1), then the following morning, which was the regular Sabbath day (as opposed to the festival sabbaths that were ordained on the first and eighth days of the festival), again went to the Temple to teach (John 8:2).
It was at this time, early on the regular Sabbath day, that the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus to be judged (John 8:3-11), presumably with the officers standing by to arrest Jesus for whatever judgment he gave (the scribes and Pharisees believed Jesus would have to break either the Law of Moses or Roman law), but his words and actions provided no reason for his arrest (John 7:45-46). After the incident with the adulterous woman, Jesus continued to teach in the Temple off and on for the remainder of that day. Some in the crowd considered his teaching to be blasphemous, and, at one point, some threatened to stone him, but he passed through their midst. While Jesus was walking elsewhere in the Temple, he encountered a man blind from birth, who he healed. The healed man was hauled before the Pharisees and chief priests to see if they could find a reason to condemn Jesus (John 8:12-10:21), but he gave them no reason to do so. Sometime during a meeting of the chief priests and Pharisees, Nicodemus spoke up to dissuade them from condemning Jesus without a trial (John 7: 50-51). On the last day of the festival, the eighth day that was considered to be a festival sabbath day, Jesus once again taught in the Temple (John 7:37-52). Then, on the day after the eighth-day festival sabbath ended, the people returned to their homes (John 7:53).
Having established that the incident with Jesus and the woman caught in adultery happened on the regular Sabbath day, which occurred midway through the Feast of Tabernacles in 29 CE, we can now focus on Jesus’ actions and their meaning during the event. The reader will recall that after the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman to Jesus and made their accusations of adultery as a way of testing him, Jesus stooped down to write in the dust with his finger.
Normally, writing in any form was prohibited on the Sabbath, that prohibition being a manmade Pharisaic addition to the biblical commandment not to desecrate the Sabbath (the day of rest) with work of any kind. The Pharisees had determined that writing more than two letters was to be considered a form of work. However, writing in the dust was permissible, since it was not permanent. Later Rabbinic writings reflect the rules that were operable in Jesus’ time. For example, “If one writes with fluids, fruit juice, dirt from the street, writer’s sand, or with anything that does not leave a lasting mark, he is exempt from punishment.” (Mishnah Shabbat 12:5). So, Jesus was not violating the Sabbath by his action.
More important than how he wrote what he wrote with his finger, though, was the content of what Jesus wrote. We are not told in Scripture what he wrote, but, based on the fact that the event happened on a Sabbath day, and drawing a logical conclusion from the subsequent actions of the woman’s accusers, it is probable that the first time Jesus stooped and wrote in the dust he wrote the words of the Pharisaic prohibition against picking up a stone on the Sabbath, and followed that action by saying, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (John 8:7).
The Pharisees who read what he wrote and heard what he said were immediately faced with a dilemma. Jesus, in his response upholding the Law of Moses by telling the woman’s accusers to stone the woman, was putting them in a position in which they would have to commit a sin in their own eyes by breaking their manmade Pharisaic law against picking up a stone on the Sabbath in order to uphold God’s Law. So, instead of the entrapment devised by the scribes and Pharisees, making Jesus choose between the Law of Moses and the authority of Rome, Jesus had turned the tables by making them have to choose between God’s Law and their own manmade law.
Not yet finished with his rebuke, Jesus again stooped and wrote with his finger in the dust a second time, and it has been speculated 3 that he wrote the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.” (Jeremiah 17:13) 4 Or, perhaps he wrote once again the Pharisean prohibition against picking up a stone on the Sabbath. Whatever he wrote, it was effective. As recorded in Scripture, “And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.” (John 8:9)
Some have questioned whether Jesus had himself broke the Law of Moses. He did not. The Law stated, “At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death” (Deuteronomy 17:6), and “One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15). In fact, there were no witnesses to testify against the woman after her accusers had been convicted in their own consciences by Jesus’ actions and words. The Law had been upheld to the letter. Jesus, knowing all things and that the woman was indeed a sinner, chose not to condemn her either, demonstrating God’s mercy instead. His final words to the woman were, “Go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)
1 Some scholars propose that John 7:53-8:11 was a later addition to the text, since some of the earliest and most trusted manuscripts do not have those verses. However, there is consensus among modern scholars that the story was circulated orally in the early church and faithfully records a real event in Jesus’ life.
2 In ancient Israel, adultery was prohibited by the Ten Commandments, the seventh commandment forcefully declaring: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14), and the Law was very clear about the punishment for adultery, saying: “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10) and “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die” (Deuteronomy 22:22).
3 Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (2nd edition; translated by S.H. Hooker; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), p. 228.
4 Several days later Jesus would refer to obtaining living water through faith in him (John 7:37-38).