Earth Accuses Earth: Tracing What Jesus Wrote on the Ground
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. 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. 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). 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.
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