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.
Dig into more than 9,000 articles in the Biblical Archaeology Society’s vast library plus much more with an All-Access pass.
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.
Read more about Jesus’ actions and the Temple Mount floor in Epistles: “The Writing on the Floor” by James F. McGrath published in the Spring 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review
Jesus and the Cross
Most scholars believe that early Christians did not use the cross as an image of their religion. So how did the cross become modern Christianity’s most popular symbol?
Jesus Holding a Magic Wand?
Did Jesus use a magic wand when performing his miracles? It seems so—if we are to judge by some of the earliest depictions of Jesus in Christian art.
Jesus Before Pilate
The Gospels offer a surprisingly excusatory depiction of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea directly responsible for Jesus’ death. While the contemporary sources do not mention Pilate’s fatal involvement with the itinerant rabbi from Galilee, they reveal a governor determined to promote Roman religion in Judea and to ruthlessly suppress any form of dissent.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Dig into the illuminating world of the Bible with a BAS All-Access membership. Combine a one-year tablet and print subscription to BAR with membership in the BAS Library to start your journey into the ancient past today!Subscribe Today
Was this event prophesied in Jeremiah 17:13? Christ had just declared himself the “fountain” of “living waters.” All who desired this “living water” were to come to Him and “drink.” (John 7:37-38) But those who had “forsaken” Him conspired to test Him, and had their names “written in the earth.” And being “ashamed,” they left.
O LORD, the [miqveh] of Israel,
All who forsake You shall be ashamed.
“Those who depart from Me
Shall be written in the earth,
Because they have forsaken the LORD,
The fountain of living waters.”
On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:37-38)
This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (John 8:6-11)