What did Jesus write on the ground during the trial of the woman taken in adultery?

Jesus wrote two separate things on the ground. Most likely Jesus wrote:

"Produce the adulterer, or be EXECUTED as false witnesses!"

(a loose paraphrase of God's false witness law in Deuteronomy 19:16-21), and

"Two or three eyewitnesses are required to put someone to death" (Deuteronomy 17:6 & 19:15).

It is clear (at least to me) that the Pharisees left the trial for FEAR of their lives, NOT because they were SHAMED into leaving.  The following essay explains my reasoning.

Everyone remembers Jesus' famous line, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone", from the story about the woman taken in adultery. But very few people remember that Jesus was actually writing something on the ground with his finger both before and after Jesus said his famous line.

Before I explain what Christ probably wrote on the ground, let's first review the story in John 8:2-11 (NIV), and then I'll give you three reasons why the traditional answer—"Christ wrote the sins of the Pharisees on the ground"—cannot possibly be correct.  And once you realize why the traditional answer cannot be correct, you'll be more ready to accept what I believe is the only possible solution.  So here is the story.

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. Jesus straightened up and asked her,

“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared.

“Go now and leave your life of sin.”


(As an aside, please note that when Christ said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone", he was certainly not requiring judges to be sinless in order to sentence anyone to death, nor was Christ requiring the Jewish people themselves to be sinless in order to participate in an execution, otherwise Christ would be invalidating more than 20 of Jehovah's Old Testament Civil Laws that prescribed execution for various capital crimes.)

So what exactly was Jesus writing on the ground during the trial? Well, the traditional answer is, 

“No one knows what Christ wrote on the

ground because the Bible never tells us.

But most scholars believe he wrote the

sins of the Pharisees on the ground."  

The problem with the traditional answer from the "scholars" is that it presumes that the Pharisees left the trial simply because they were shamed after reading their various sins that Christ had written on the ground.  I believe this idea is incorrect for three reasons. 


First, it would be quite out of character for the Pharisees to leave the trial simply because they felt a little shame over their sins. You see, Christ had been publicly rebuking the Pharisees aloud for their sins during many previous encounters, yet it is never recorded that the Pharisees ever became ashamed and left the scene. Instead, the Pharisees always stayed at the scene and just became angry. Consequently, even before the woman's trial began, the Pharisees were already prepared for Christ to say something insulting about their sinfulness. But surprisingly, during the trial of the woman taken in adultery, Christ didn't mention the sins of the Pharisees at all. In fact, this was actually one of the most polite encounters between Christ and the Pharisees ever recorded. Therefore, since the Pharisees were unswayed by Christ's continual public rebukes, it would be quite out of character for them to be influenced simply by something Christ wrote on the ground, especially when in this instance, Christ uttered no verbal rebuke at all. Furthermore, there was no reason for what Christ wrote the ground to embarrass the Pharisees in front of the large crowd of Christ's actual followers, since his closest followers were all probably sitting down (and so were not at the correct visual angle to read what Christ had written on the ground) and the only followers of Christ who might have been standing would probably have been in the back of the crowd (and so were too far away to read what Christ wrote on the ground anyway).

Second, it is highly likely that the Pharisees had become so evil that they could no longer feel any shame in the first place. In fact, rather than being "righteous by the Law" (as we are commonly taught), Jesus taught just the opposite, that as a group, the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law...

1. were murderers (Matthew 23:34-35)  (Luke 11:48-51),

2. adulterers (Matthew 12:39), and

3. thieves (Matthew 21:13, Luke 19:46), who

4. dishonored their parents (Matthew 15:4),

5. cursed their parents (Matthew 15:4),

6. did not love God (John 5:42),

7. did not love their neighbor (Luke 10:29-37),

8. devoured widows houses (Like 20:47),

9. did the unpardonable sin (Matthew 12:24-32),

10. were unrepentant (Luke 18:10-12),

11. covetous (Matthew 23:25),

12. hypocrites (Matthew 23:27), who

13. neglected the more important matters of the Law—justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23), who

14.  let go of the commandments of God and held on to the traditions of men (Mark 7:8), who

15. swore oaths by the wrong things  (Matthew 23:16-22), and

16.  were proud, arrogant, show offs (Matthew 23:5-7)   

17. were blind guides, whitewashed tombs, and a brood of vipers (Matthew 23:16,27,33),    

18. and they did many sins as well.


So the Pharisees were certainly NOT "righteous by the Law" (even though we are frequently taught that erroneous idea by our Church leaders).  It is no wonder Christ said, 

"For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that

of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly

not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:20 NIV)

Therefore, it is highly likely that the Pharisees and the Teachers of the law had become so evil that they could no longer feel any shame at all and so they couldn't possibly have been shamed into leaving the trial of the woman that was supposedly taken in adultery.   

Third, whenever Christ accused the Pharisees of various sins, in order for Christ to remain sinless, he specifically had to avoid committing the sin of slander (as recorded in Leviticus 19:16). So whenever Christ accused the Pharisees of various sins, he never accused them as individuals.  He always accused them as a group, and as I said, all that did was make them more angry. 

But Christ could never accuse any individual Pharisee of a particular sin unless he was a personal eyewitness to that sin, otherwise Christ himself would be committing the sin of slander and Christ himself could then be placed on trial for slander. (Remember, just because the Father may have told Christ exactly which Pharisee committed which particular sin does not automatically make Christ a personal eyewitness to that sin, and God's own laws in Deuteronomy 17:6 & 19:15 specified that you must be an actual eyewitness to a particular sin in order to give testimony about that sin in a trial.)

To summarize, if what Christ wrote on the ground that day was simply the sins of the Pharisees as a group, it would only have made the Pharisees more angry. They would not have left the trial and they would have continued to press Christ to pass judgment on the adulteress. On the other hand, if what Christ wrote on the ground was designed to match a specific sin to a specific individual Pharisee, then Christ himself would be committing the sin of slander because Christ was not an actual eyewitness to those sins.  


So for those three reasons, the Church's traditional teaching that “Christ wrote the sins of the Pharisees on the ground" cannot possibly be correct.

To explain what actually happened at the trial, I need remind you of another story in the Bible.  In Luke 12:13-14, a man said to Jesus,

“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”


Jesus answered,   

"Man, who appointed me a judge

or an arbiter between you?"


Christ's answer reveals that Jethro's advice to Moses in Exodus 18:21 about having religious leaders (such as Moses) appoint Godly men to be judges was still the Jewish custom at the time of Christ 1400 years later, and that Jesus would have been willing to act as a judge if he were indeed appointed by some of the Pharisees or Teachers of the Law.  Well, this is exactly what happened at the trial of the woman taken in adultery.  For the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law 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? 

The Pharisees' question to Christ, "Now what do YOU say?" is tantamount to them appointing Christ to be the official judge at the woman's trial. But once officially appointed as judge, Christ not only had the legal authority to order the execution of an adulterous woman, he also had the legal authority to order the execution of false witnesses (i.e. the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law). 


You see, because the Pharisees did not bring the adulterer to the trial along with the adulteress, the duly appoint judge (Christ) would naturally conclude that the Pharisees did NOT actually catch the adulterer in the act of adultery.  But if the Pharisees did not actually catch the adulterer in the act of adultery, then the Pharisees couldn't possibly have caught the adulteress in the act of adultery either, which means their claim of catching her in the act of adultery is false, which is strong evidence that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law are actually FALSE WITNESSES—and the punishment for being a false witness in a capital crime like adultery is death without mercy! For it is written:


"If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse

someone of a crime, the two people involved in the

dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before

the priests and the judges who are in office at the time.

The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if

the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony

against a fellow Israelite, then do to the false witness

as that witness intended to do to the other party. You

must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the

people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again

will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no

pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for

hand, foot for foot." (Deuteronomy 19:16-21 NIV)


As the appointed judge in the case, Christ could easily have explained to his large group of followers why bringing the adulteress to the trial without the adulterer was strong evidence that the Pharisees never really caught either of them in the act of adultery to begin with, and because of this, the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were false witnesses who deserved to be executed by the entire crowd of Christ's followers who were all gathered in the temple that morning to hear Christ preach.

However, if Christ had spoken this truth aloud, the large group of Christ's followers would have immediately surrounded the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, preventing their escape.  And because God's Law forbids showing mercy to false witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:16-21), then to avoid committing a sin, Christ would have had no choice but to order the execution of all the false witnesses (i.e. all the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law that falsely claimed to have caught the woman in the act of adultery).   Of course, stirring up the crowd to execute the Pharisees would have likely interfered with the history of the crucifixion.


So, to avoid being forced into ordering the execution of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, Christ simply wrote on the ground how the application of God's false witness law would put the lives of the Pharisees in danger if they proceeded with the trial.  


By simply writing on the ground, "Produce the adulterer, or be EXECUTED as false witnesses", no one else would recognize that Christ was providing the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law a way to escape the trial with their lives without the crowd of Christ's followers realizing what was actually happening.  Remember, only the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law who were standing up could see what Christ had actually written, whereas Christ's followers (who were most likely sitting on the ground) would not be in the correct position to read what Christ had written).  

So, imagine Christ straightening up and (perhaps even pointing who what he had just written), saying,

"Let him who is without sin throw the first stone."

And as the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law move closer to Christ to see what he has written on the ground, they read something like,

"Produce the adulterer,

or be executed as false witnesses!"

This meant the Pharisees had to quickly produce the adulterer or they themselves would be identified by the judge as false witnesses and would be marked for execution.  So, before the trial started, Christ wrote something on the ground to remind them of what God's laws required of witnesses, thereby giving the Pharisees a chance to withdraw their charges before the trial began.  In this way, Christ would be able to spare the lives of the false witnesses without actually sinning as a judge, simply because the false witness dropped their charges before the trial started.  


However, if Christ had not written on the ground, "Produce the adulterer, or be executed as false witnesses!", and instead Christ chose to explain out loud to his followers why the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were indeed false witnesses, then in order for Christ (the duly appointed judge) to "show no pity" to the false witnesses, Christ would be forced to insist that the false witnesses not be allowed to leave, and that they must now stay for their own execution. 


In the mean time, Christ bent down to write something extra on the ground.  What did he write the second time?  He probably paraphrased Deuteronomy 17:6, and wrote something like,

"Two or three eyewitnesses are required

to put someone to death!"

And since all the false witnesses had left the trial for fear of their lives, Jesus could now say to the woman,

“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said. [Now imagine Jesus looking at what he just wrote on the ground, how God's law requires two or three witnesses to condemn her to death, yet all the witness have fled the trial in fear for their lives, and so Jesus says...]

“Then neither do I condemn you,”Jesus declared.

“Go now and leave your life of sin.”

So what Jesus wrote on the ground that day did not make the Pharisees feel ashamed; it made them frightened for their very lives!  And THAT is why they left the trial.  

By merely writing on the ground the laws of God which were pertinent to cases of adultery, Christ followed the letter of the Law in every aspect of the trial.  Furthermore, he also followed the spirit of the Law by looking for (and then finding) a reason to show mercy to the woman as well!  (See Micah 6:8 about "loving mercy".) 

Jesus neither abolished nor changed any of the Mosaic Laws of justice during the trial.  For had Jesus broken any of God's laws during the trial, then he couldn't have remained without sin himself, and therefore his death on the cross could not have atoned for our sins!  It is only our ignorance of the details of the Old Testament Laws which allows us to come to the erroneous conclusion that Jesus changed the law in this passage.  And, just as ignorance of God's Law causes Christians to mistakenly conclude that Christ changed the Law, so also, ignorance of God's Law caused the Pharisees to mistakenly conclude that Christ broke the Law!


In fact, the failure of the Teachers of the Law to anticipate the legal paradox of this story and foresee the obvious outcome of the trial shows how poorly they understood the practical applications of God's laws in the first place.  For it should have been obvious to any first year Israelite Law student, that any time a group of supposed "witnesses" brings a woman before a judge and claims they caught her in the act of adultery (without bringing the man as well) that the eyewitnesses must quickly produce the adulterer or the judge will naturally accuse them of being false witnesses and they will be executed!

But evidently, the Teachers of the Law were only teaching their students to recite the Law, and not teaching them how to practice the Law in a courtroom the way God had intended! No wonder Jesus said to them,

"You tithe of you mint, dill and cumin but neglect the

weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy and faith.  (Mathew 23:23) 

So why is it that our modern Christian scholars have never been able to recognize what Christ wrote on the ground?


Simple.  It is because the attention of our moderns Christian scholars and leaders is focused elsewhere (i.e. on evangelism and other important issues). Consequently, neither the ancient Pharisees nor our modern Christian leaders have had any interest whatsoever in making all God's Old Testament Civil Laws  to become the regularly enforced laws of the State of ancient Israel or to become the regularly enforced laws of the State of modern America.  (This will only happen during Christ's future millennial reign—see Ezekiel 44:24.)  So this bias naturally prevents both groups from understanding how the practical application of God's Old Testament Civil laws would have been very beneficial for the courts of both ancient Israel and modern America, and how even an elementary knowledge of how God's laws function in a courtroom to eliminate false witnesses would greatly pertain to the trial of the woman taken in adultery in John 8.