What Did Jesus Write in the Dirt in John 8:1-11? Big Name Theologians Weigh In

While poking around some different articles on the treatment of women in Leviticus, I stumbled across some wacky interpretations of what Jesus wrote in the sand in John 8:1-11. Let me refresh your memory on that passage (with a verse from chapter 7 to make sure we don’t start in the middle of a sentence):

53 Then they all went home,

but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

What did Jesus write? It’s important enough that it’s referenced twice at crucial story moments, but apparently not important enough to tell us anything about it. I’ve heard people say he was writing a passage from Leviticus 20 indicating that BOTH people were supposed to be stoned, revealing that they would be breaking the law if they stoned her because they failed to produce both parties. Others have said that he was writing the names of every accuser along with the sins that they had recently committed. I’ve even heard that he drew a line in the sand for people to cross if they felt they were worthy. There are a lot of takes out there, but most of them aren’t really founded on much apart from one person’s random guesswork. What have the major theologians of the Christian tradition said about the writing in the sand?

Naturally, I started with Augustine (because you can never go too far wrong with Augustine). Luckily for me, he preached a series of sermons about the book of John and his take was customarily good. He suggested the trap the Pharisees laid was in making Jesus choose between gentleness and justice. If Jesus approved of the women’s death, he’d be the guy that condemned peasant women and his popularity would suffer. If he didn’t approve of her death, he was speaking against God’s justice and was officially a transgressor of the law! Jesus navigates the dilemma with his typical craftiness by taking neither option. But what about the finger writing?

You have heard, O Jews, you have heard, O Pharisees, you have heard, O teachers of the law, the guardian of the law, but have not yet understood Him as the Lawgiver. What else does He signify to you when He writes with His finger on the ground? For the law was written with the finger of God; but written on stone because of the hard-hearted. The Lord now wrote on the ground, because He was seeking fruit. You have heard then, Let the law be fulfilled, let the adulteress be stoned. But is it by punishing her that the law is to be fulfilled by those that ought to be punished? Let each of you consider himself, let him enter into himself, ascend the judgment-seat of his own mind, place himself at the bar of his own conscience, oblige himself to confess… Each looking carefully into himself, finds himself a sinner. Yes, indeed. Hence, either let this woman go, or together with her receive ye the penalty of the law… [H]aving struck them through with that dart of justice, [Jesus] deigned not to heed their fall, but, turning away His look from them, “again He wrote with His finger on the ground.” 

Augustine, Sermon on John Chapter VII. 40–53; VIII. 1–11

Brilliant! Rather than focus on non-existent content, he’s looking at the symbolism of the act itself. Why would Jesus write on the ground? Because God wrote the law on stone the first time, and now he’s writing on the ground. This is the same dust that people were created from. Were they fertile enough to bear fruit after all these years? Or were their hearts still hard as the rocks that the commandments were once written on? He even returns to his idea of gentleness by indicating that Jesus didn’t stare them down after the incident, shaming them for their sin. He just keeps writing. Really nice work here.

Other patristic authors are less worthy of sharing. John Chrysostom has a sermon series on John that deliberately skips over this particular story and a lot of ancient theologians (especially in the East) follow suit, leading some to believe that they had copies of John that didn’t contain these verses. In Against the Pelagians, Book 2, Jerome suggests Jesus was writing out the names of the accusers to to fulfill Jeremiah 17:13 “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust,” (a passage which seems to have been intended to be more poetic than literal). By and large, Augustine’s logic seems to have been attractive. Thomas Aquinas carries it forward to the Middle Ages in his mega-commentary Catena Aurea and includes support from Venerable Bede and Alcuin of York to back him up.

In the Reformation, John Calvin comes out swinging against Augustine and approaches the story without interest in allegory:

By this attitude he intended to show that he despised them. Those who conjecture that he wrote this or the other thing, in my opinion, do not understand his meaning. Nor do I approve of the ingenuity of Augustine, who thinks that in this manner the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is pointed out, because Christ did not write on tables of stone, (Exodus 31:18,) but on man, who is dust and earth. For Christ rather intended, by doing nothing, to show how unworthy they were of being heard; just as if any person, while another was speaking to him, were to draw lines on the wall, or to turn his back, or to show, by any other sign, that he was not attending to what was said. Thus in the present day, when Satan attempts, by various methods, to draw us aside from the right way of teaching, we ought disdainfully to pass by many things which he holds out to us.

John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on John 13:1-11

Gone is the speculative symbolism! Instead, we have a Jesus that’s just not listening. Pharisees are coming around, asking questions that they already know the answer to, and Jesus just starts doodling in the sand. That’s how little he cares what they have to say. When he says “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone,” Calvin reads that as a deliberate reference to their own sinfulness. They know they aren’t being sincere. They’re scheming, conniving, wretched men trying to kill someone to prove their own point. It’s not that the law isn’t legitimate; it’s that they aren’t being legitimate, and they know it. Again, Calvin is sticking to the Scripture pretty thoroughly and avoiding wild speculation about the writing. Well done.

The Reformation seems to be a bit of a hinge in historical interpretation. After the Reformation, commentaries that I can find seem to take a more practical approach to the matter. The symbolic dimension is swallowed up by the practical. Some lean more heavily on WHY he wrote (to avoid meddling in politics, to calm people down, etc.) while others focus on WHAT he wrote (names, sins, passages of the law, etc.). John Wesley is one of the better big-name interpreters to marry the practical and the symbolic, but his notes are still ruthlessly pragmatic:

God wrote once in the Old Testament; Christ once in the New: perhaps the words which he afterward spoke, when they continued asking him. By this silent action, he,

1. fixed their wandering, hurrying thoughts, in order to awaken their consciences: and,
2. signified that he was not then come to condemn but to save the world.

John Wesley, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, John 8:1-11

Obviously there are oodles of others well worth reading, but these were the ones that I thought were worthy of lifting up. They’re all respected enough for their words to carry weight, and each seems to represent the general stream of mainstream interpretation within their era.

Ultimately, I’m really pleased with what I found. I expected to find some really wacky stuff, but a shocking majority of commentators avoided wild speculation about the specifics of the writing and interpreted in light of the information that they had, rather than what they didn’t have. Frankly, that was my bias from the outset. If the Bible doesn’t say what Jesus wrote, it couldn’t have been all that important to the story (sorry Jerome). But really, it was phenomenal to see all the directions people went with it. I have a soft spot for that symbolic dimension. It emphasized the weight of each action within the passage in a way that was far beyond the mundane. So what did he write? Beats me. As much as I like Augustine, I’ll side with Calvin for the sheer delightful possibility of Jesus rolling his eyes and playing tic tac toe against himself in the dirt while they were trying to talk to him.

THE NEPHILIM! A Word Study and History of Interpretation

Be there giants?

2 Timothy 3:16 famously says that all scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.  Unfortunately, not all of it is easy to understand.  So let’s pick out a really weird verse and see what God has to say in it!  We’ll take a good look at the verse itself, explore the history of its interpretation, and see what we can make of it.

Genesis 6:1-8

6 When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

What on earth is happening in this passage?  For me, the pinnacle of weirdness is in verse 4: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” What the heck?

To make heads or tails of this passage, we have to be able to identify 3 different groups: the sons of God, the daughters of man, and the Nephilim.  Unfortunately, it’s incredibly hard to translate the Hebrew here with any level of certainty.  Not only are the words and phrases vague enough that they leave several interpretive possibilities on the table, but exact phrases like these are used so rarely in the Bible that we don’t have a lot of clues to help us out.

First, we have the sons of God or “bene haelohim”.  The phrase appears two other times in the Bible (Job 1:6 and Job 2:1) and in each instance it clearly means “angels.”  That being said, Genesis and Job weren’t written at the same time, and there are several other translations that would be well within the bounds of reason.  It could mean something like “men who follow God” or “men who are like God,” (aka godly men).  To add even more confusion to the matter, the word “elohim” can mean “God” or it can be used to refer to any being that’s particularly impressive.  It could mean “king.”  It could mean “angel.”  You get the picture.  Bene haelohim could easily mean “sons of kings” or “sons of warlords.”

Clearly the “daughters of humans” (a phrase uncommon in Scripture and more clearly rendered “daughters of man” in Hebrew) are intended to be the opposite of whatever the sons of God are.  If we say that the sons of God are angels, then thinking of them as human women makes the most sense.  If the sons of God are godly men, the daughters of man are intended to be worldly women.  If we say that the sons of God are the sons of kings or warlords, then they are intended to be peasant women.

Finally, we have the Nephilim.  You know a word is bad when Bible translators don’t even touch the thing.  There’s a few options here as well.  The literal translation from the Hebrew is “the fallen ones,”  It appears in two other places in the Bible: once in Numbers when the Hebrew spies look over at Canaan to see if it is safe to inhabit and they see nephilim (usually rendered “giants” in English) and again in Ezekiel 32 to describe warriors that have fallen on the battlefield.  In a battlefield context, the word could also be used to talk about strong attackers, or those who “fall upon” their opponents with attack after attack.  The giants idea might seem out of left field, given the English translation, but an ancient Greek manuscript grants us a little insight.  The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament from the 3rd century BC) has Nephilim translated as “gigantes” or giants, so there’s some kind of cultural or linguistic link there, even if it’s not immediately apparent.

Where does that leave us?  Well, we have three story options starting to emerge.  This could be a story about angels coming to earth, having children with humans, and giants being born as a result of that union.  It could be a story about righteous men of God having children with worldly women, leading to a slow compromise of faith over the generations.  Then there’s the option that it could be about the sons of rich merchants mistreating peasant women and raising a generation of fierce warriors.  Each of these seems viable.

So what now?  Well, time to look at tradition.

The oldest interpretation I could find was from the Book of Enoch.  This little apocryphal book (book that didn’t make it into the Bible) was probably written between 200 and 300 BC.  And obviously Enoch didn’t write it.  Enoch is the guy who was famously “taken away” by God in Genesis 5:24 (and there’s much speculation about what THAT means, but that’s a story for another time), so someone else must have written it and popped his name on it.  The book is basically an attempt to retell the story of Genesis more thoroughly, filling in all the plot holes that the original has.  In the retelling of this story, the sons of God are DEFINITELY angels that come to Earth to have children with human women:

And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied, in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’

1 Enoch 6:1-2

Not only do they have children with human women; they give humans science and technology!  Unfortunately for them, God is not best pleased with this development:

Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the great day of judgment he shall be cast into the fire.

1 Enoch 10:4-6

Bad times for Azazel.

Does the story sound familiar to you?  It sounds suspiciously like the Greek myth of Prometheus to me!  A lesser divine being comes to Earth, hands out some tech, and gets banished to torment in a barren wasteland for their sin against the divine being/beings in charge.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this book starts showing up around 200-300 BC considering that Alexander the Great did his grand crusade of the world between 356 BC and 323 BC.  Would it be so crazy if an Israelite that heard the Greek myth was looking for greater clarity in their Scriptures and took a little inspiration from the Greeks?  I don’t think so.  Mind you, that’s a disputed point, but the dates and the narratives are too similar for me to dismiss.

In any case, we’ve got the angels and giants theory on the table.  How does mainstream Judaism react in the coming years?  They don’t seem to care for it much.  Not only is the Book of Enoch never canonized, but a majority of rabbinic writings that emerge tend to favor readings that cast the sons of God as tyrants and the Nephilim as powerful warriors.  These readings gain more and more momentum over time.  Nonetheless, the apocryphal books have their supporters.  There are certainly people, especially at the fringes, that strongly support a supernatural reading.

When Christians start popping up, they’re a little more interested in the whole angels and giants thing.  After all, a lot of early Christians were on the fringes of Judaism.  Apocalyptic Judaism was a fringe movement that focused heavily on the coming of the messiah, and the Book of Enoch was very popular with them.  If mainstream groups didn’t like the Book of Enoch, it was because they were scared of its prophecies concerning the messiah!  And so early Christians inherited the angels/giants theory from some of their earliest supporters.

Mind you, its momentum didn’t last long.  After about the year 300, the angel/giant theory seems to take a nosedive in popularity within the Christian community.  Not only did they slowly accept 1 Enoch as “not legit,” but they started asking questions.  What is an angel?  What can an angel do?  Are angels all male?  When did angels fall?  Why does the term say “angels” when clearly disobedient angels are devils?  Jesus said specifically in Mark 12 that Angels have no interest in procreation.  Why did the angels do that?  What happened to them? And what happened to the giants, because if you render that word “giants” to resolve their appearance in Numbers, you need them to survive a world-ending flood that the Bible deliberately says they would not have survived.  The whole interpretation is just incredibly bizarre and doesn’t make logical or narrative sense. So theologians started speaking out against it.  You have heavy hitters like Clement and Augustine weighing in against it.  Chrysostom goes so far as to call the theory “blasphemous.” 

To read the passage well, Christians looked back at what happened previously in Genesis and tried to think about how this puzzle piece fit.  Genesis 5 is highly interested in genealogies.  Seth is born to Adam “in his image and likeness.”  Genesis 1:26 previously established that Adam was made in God’s image and likeness.  To some interpreters, this was a symbolic passing of the torch.  Seth inherited his godliness from his father, and his people would continue to strive for godliness in the coming generations.  There became two types of people on the Earth: the children of Seth, and the children of Cain.  These two branches seem to be symbolic, more than biological.  The devout and the worldly both lived on the earth, though living in very different ways.  This, then, is a story in which people of faith decide to compromise their beliefs to intermingle with the attractive people of the Earth.  As Eve tempted Adam, so now the daughters of man tempt the children of God.  The resulting offspring are fallen; they do not know God, even though they know the ways of the world quite well.  The only truly devout man left is Noah.  You know how the story goes from there.

By the time the reformation rolls around, there seems to be broad consensus that this view is correct.  Martin Luther presents it as the obvious meaning.  John Calvin only brings up the angels and giants thing only to ponder why ancient thinkers would possibly have thought something so odd:

That ancient figment, concerning the intercourse of angels with women, is abundantly refuted by its own absurdity; and it is surprising that learned men should formerly have been fascinated by ravings so gross and prodigious.

Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis 6:2

The matter seems settled.  But lo and behold, the angels and giants make their way back into popular Christian thought around the 18th century.  At this point, modernists (a group that considered their Bibles to likely contain large amounts of mythology) started re-investigating the issue.  If the Bible is full of myths that aren’t literally true, why can’t this be a story about angels and giants?  Ironically, some fundamentalists reached the same conclusion, but through very different methodology.  If the Bible is always true and you don’t need tradition to understand it, then why shouldn’t you be willing to believe a fantastical story about angels and giants?  It’s one of those weird points in history where really conservative people go one way and really liberal people go another, and somehow they end up making a giant loop and meeting up at the same point.

But now we’ve looked at all the interpretive options and poked around all the major strands of tradition.  What do I believe?  Well, you ought to know that I’d rather be wrong with the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin than right with anybody else.  Not only is their interpretation the most well-represented in Christian tradition, but it just makes sense.  It’s logical.  It fits the Biblical narrative leading from genealogy to flood, and it addresses a constant theme in the Bible: don’t compromise your faith to fit into this world more comfortably (Deut 7:3, 2 Corinth. 6:14, Deut 16:21, etc).  To be a true disciple of Christ, you can’t afford to compromise any part of the truth.  You have to live your whole life in constant worship and obedience.  Not only do I think this is a good interpretation, but I think it’s something that’s an important reminder as we try to live out our faith today.  We live in a world that’s increasingly secular.  Our culture is more than happy to accommodate Christians that are willing to compromise on the things that they believe.  If you’re willing to make a few concessions, you’ll fit in easier.  You’ll be the “right kind” of Christian. Your life will be significantly attractive on the outside.  If you don’t?  Well, things might get difficult. 

As people made in the image and likeness of God, we can’t afford to compromise truth for temporary gain.  After all, we know truth itself in the person of Jesus Christ. The only way for us to live well is to hold fast to truth and to continually honor God, rather than ourselves.

That’s my take!  But rather than end on a dramatic note, I’ll end with some humility.  It’s a tough passage!  If you think I missed something or want to dig around on your own, check out some of the resources below!  See what you think!   Either way, wrestle with those tough verses when you find them.  If all Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, sometimes we have to do a little bit of wrestling to see what God is saying.

Great articles if you want to know more:
https://www.biblicalcyclopedia.com/B/bene-elohim.html
https://biblehub.com/interlinear/genesis/6.htm
https://lutheranreformation.org/get-involved/bible-study-luther-genesis-61-8/