What Did Jesus Write in the Sand? – John 7:53—8:11

Our passage today of Jesus dealing with the accusers of the woman caught in adultery is among the dearest of stories about the Lord. Depicted beautifully in a myriad of film portrayals, we have seen the fearful and disheveled woman with terrified eyes and tears rolling down a dirtied face. The angry men in robes drag her before Jesus who does not even look up from his preoccupation with a tic-tac-toe game in the sand. Surely the framed question is, as intended, inscrutable for answering; yet Jesus stands and says that those without sin should toss the first stone. The camera closes in on the hands holding rocks, as the audio goes suddenly silent apart from the fearful wails of the accused woman. One by one the stones are heard to hit the ground with a thud as the men turn and walk away. And the scene ends with an intense stare of Jesus into the soul of the broken and contrite woman who, in the absence now of accusers, is told to go and sin no more.

It is a great story. And perhaps that is all that it is.

At the risk of you concluding that Pastor Randy is wantonly ripping sections out of the Bible, let me tell you that the bulk of biblical scholars do not believe this passage belongs in the text. And I agree with that assessment. Along with it oddly breaking up the flow of the narratives before and after this section, the oldest manuscripts do not contain the passage. (Remember also that chapter and verse references are not original either.)

Evaluating the textual evidence surrounding the variant readings of thousands of manuscripts is a very academic exercise. I’ll not go into it deeply, but will simply say from my evaluation of this evidence – this being the heart of my major as a seminarian – that the argument for this passage being original to the pen of John is exceptionally weak. The differing style of writing is more profoundly obvious in Greek than it is in English. None of this is to say that anyone should lack any confidence in the Scriptures you read. These sorts of debated passages are really quite rare, and the disputed sections of the Bible do nothing to change the meaning or interpretation of any truth.

The likely scenario as to why this is included is that there was an oral tradition passed along that this event occurred, and it was eventually written and included at this point, being copied over and over by scribes. The Bible says, even in John’s Gospel, that Jesus did many more deeds than are recorded. So it is quite probable that this event did indeed happen, though it is very unlikely that John wrote these words and intended them to be in his account.

However, the event is truly totally believable and consistent with Christ. There is the turning upside-down of the efforts of the religious leadership to catch Jesus in his words or beliefs. The Lord is seen as a person of mercy toward lost sinners, who more readily respond to extended grace than the allegedly “righteous” accusers. The account affirms the accurate theology that we are all sinners … that we are all guilty and imperfect people.

Even folks who are not very religious will quote this story with a glib “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  I sometimes wonder if they really even know where that saying originated. And it has often struck me that the quotation is employed to say something like, “Well, none of us are perfect, so, we should just overlook this situation and forget about it.”  Well, the “none of us are perfect” part of the sentence is true for sure, but the concept that sin is no big deal is terribly wrong in light of the rest of the story of the Scriptures. It is a big deal … big enough to put Christ on the cross as the only way it could ever be rightly atoned (covered) and forgiven. Such grace and sacrifice is the biggest part of the bigger story that is surely true – that Jesus is God Up Close.

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