According to the text (John 7:53–8:11), the episode takes place not in the streets of Jerusalem, but in the Temple courts—a much different setting to be sure, and one where a public execution would have been forbidden. We also know from the Temple Mount Sifting Project that the courts of the Temple were probably paved in geometric patterns of colorful marbles called opus sectile. In reality, there was probably little to no dirt at all for Jesus to stick his finger into and write mysterious messages for onlookers. As McGrath writes, “Wherever Jesus traced his finger through the dust of the Temple floor, whether tracing letters or the edges of tiles, his aim could not have been to communicate something through specific words he wrote. Nothing he wrote that way could have been legible.”As the excerpt hints, this essay is a summary of an article by Professor James McGrath in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
I have a few comments on the proposed connection with the Sotah rite. I have not seen the full BAR article, which is behind the subscription wall. James may address these points there.
First, as everyone knows, John 7:53-8:11 is an independent passage that was secondarily added here in some manuscripts of John. Many manuscripts leave it out. In others it appears elsewhere in John or in various places in Luke. We don't know where it came from. Scholars tend to take it as a real incident in Jesus' life. Could be. It could also be entirely fictional. I don't see strong evidence either way.
Second, it's true that the episode is placed at the Temple. But how much can we infer from this? If it's a legend, we don't know if it preserves any memory of what the Temple court was like. It migh assume it had a dirt floor.
Third, all that said, the connection with the Sotah rite (Numbers 5:11-31) is intriguing. Jesus writes in or on the "dirt" (Greek gēn, γην). The Septuagint uses the same (granted very common) word in Num 5:17. Professor McGrath could be right. The catchword principle is arguably in play. I can't do better.
In any case, Jesus' writing on the ground has served as a marvelous koan for two thousand years.
By the way, this is a good excuse to mention James's new book, What Jesus Learned from Women (Cascade, 2021).
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