In what way did Jesus use dust to protect the adulteress Mary from the casting of the first stone?
We probably don’t like to admit that media and pop culture influences the way we read and interpret the biblical text. Most of the time we don’t even know it happens. Many of us have enjoyed gazing at works of art based on biblical episodes, or have spent countless hours watching great films such as The Ten Commandments or King of Kings, so it’s only natural. According to James F. McGrath, one episode in particular illustrates this quite well—Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.
Our minds are immediately filled with a particular favorite portrayal of the scene. The most famous in recent memory is likely found in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, where the woman in question is played by Italian actress, Monica Bellucci. (The fact that the woman has been equated with Mary Magdalene for centuries is another problem altogether.) In these scenes, the woman is usually dragged through the streets of Jerusalem by a cadre of seething men carrying stones and thrown down at the feet of an unsuspecting Jesus to wallow in the dirt, fearful of her fate. The trial is not meant for the woman, however, but for Jesus. The Pharisees are testing his sense of righteousness. After Jesus delivers his famous “You who are without sin” declaration, the men drop their stones onto the street and move on, defeated, leaving the woman with Jesus. The scene in The Passion even shows Jesus stooping down to write in the dirt of the street—an act from the passage that has left many who read the story puzzled and has led to any number of creative possibilities.
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As McGrath shows, much of the puzzlement comes from the aforementioned preconceived notions about how this scene plays out. 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.”
Putting the scene back into its original setting helps us shed light on the mystery of Jesus’ actions, which likely had less to do with communicating something to the Pharisees and more with interpretation of the Law. According to Numbers 5:11–31, if a woman has been accused of adultery by her husband yet denies the truth of the claim, she is to be brought before God and subjected to a ritual which involved drinking “bitter waters” or sotah—holy water mixed with dust from the Temple floor. As McGrath writes, “When Jesus lowered his finger to the dust, perhaps Jesus was asking, why not subject the girl to the sotah ritual? However unpleasant that practice might seem, it was preferable to stoning.”
This is but one instance of how archaeology can help illuminate the biblical texts to create a much more accurate scene than any Hollywood could ever produce.
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