Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Earth Accuses Earth: Tracing What Jesus Wrote on the Ground

  • Jennifer Knust (a1) and Tommy Wasserman (a2)

The story of the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53–8:11) has a long, complex history. Well-known in the Latin West, the story was neglected but not forgotten in the East. Incorporated within Late Antique and Early Medieval Gospel manuscripts, depicted in Christian art, East and West, and included within the developing liturgies of Rome and Constantinople, the passage has fascinated interpreters for centuries despite irregularities in its transmission.1 Throughout this long history, one narrative detail has been of particular interest: the content and significance of Jesus— writing. Discussed in sermons, elaborated in manuscripts, and depicted in magnificent illuminations, Jesus— writing has inspired interpreters at least since the fourth century, when Ambrose of Milan first mentioned it. Offering his opinion on the propriety of capital punishment, the bishop turned to the pericope in order to argue that Christians do well to advocate on behalf of the condemned since, by doing so, they imitate the mercy of Christ. Nevertheless, he averred, the imposition of capital punishment remains an option for Christian rulers and judges. After all, God also judges and condemns, as Christ showed when, responding to the men questioning him and accusing the adulteress, he wrote twice on the ground. Demonstrating that “the Jews were condemned by both testaments,” Christ bent over and wrote “with the finger with which he had written the law,” or so the bishop claimed.2 Ambrose offered a further conjecture in a subsequent letter: Jesus wrote “earth, earth, write that these men have been disowned,” a saying he attributes to Jeremiah (compare Jer 22:29),3. As Jeremiah also explains, “Those who have been disowned by their Father are written on the ground,” but the names of Christians are written in heaven.4

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Paul Foster , “Educating Jesus: The Search for a Plausible Context,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 4 (2006) 733

J. Chris Keith , “Recent and Previous Research on the Pericope Adulterae (John 7.53–8.11),” Currents in Biblical Research 6 (2008) 377404

George Aichele , “Reading Jesus Writing,” Biblical Interpretation 12 (2004) 353–68

Joan Wallach Scott , “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991) 773–97

Scott , “Fantasy Echo: History and the Construction of Identity,” Critical Inquiry 27 (2001) 284304

James Keith Elliott , The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation Based on M. R. James (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) 4867

William L. Petersen , “ΟΥΔΕ ΕΓW ΣΕ [κΑτΑ]κRIΝW: John 8:11, the Protevangelium Iacobi, and the History of the Pericope Adulterae,” in Sayings of Jesus: Canonical and Non-Canonical: Essays in Honor of Tjitze Baarda (ed. William L. Petersen , Johan S. Vos , and Henk Jen de Jonge ; Leiden: Brill, 1997) 191221

Hugh A. G. Houghton , “The St Petersburg Insular Gospels: Another Old Latin Witness,” JTS 61 (2010) 110–27

Hugh Houghton , “Chapter Divisions, capitula lists and the Old Latin Versions of John,” Revue Bénédictine 121 (2011)

Carl Nordenfalk , “Canon Tables on Papyrus,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 36 (1982) 2938

Paul Meyvaert , “Bede, Cassiodorus, and the Codex Amiatinus,” Speculum 71 (1996) 827–83

Valerie I. J. Flint , “Susanna and the Lothair Crystal: A Liturgical Perspective,” Early Medieval Europe 4 (1995) 6186

“The Susanna Crystal of Lothair II: Chastity, the Church, and Royal Justice,” Gesta 31 (1992) 2539

Denis Brearley , “The Expositio Iohannis in Angers BM 275: A Commentary on the Gospel of St. John showing Irish Influence,” Recherches augustiniennes 22 (1987) 151221

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Harvard Theological Review
  • ISSN: 0017-8160
  • EISSN: 1475-4517
  • URL: /core/journals/harvard-theological-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 1
Total number of PDF views: 14 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 188 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 24th July 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.