This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)John 8:4. The last words, in italics, which are an explanatory gloss, should also be omitted. The verse will then read, “But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground”—or, more exactly, was writing on the ground. It is the imperfect of the continued action, and it points to the narrator’s vivid remembrance of the scene. What precise meaning we are to attach to this action is, and must remain, uncertain. Any inquiry as to what He wrote is excluded by the fact that the narrative would certainly have recorded it had it been known; and though writing on sand was practised in the Rabbinic schools, this writing was on the pavement of the Temple (John 8:2). We have to seek the meaning, then, in the symbolism of the action, remembering that the teaching by action and gesture, common everywhere, has always been specially common in the East; and of the many interpretations which may be given, that which seems upon the whole least liable to objection is, that He deprecated the office of judge which they wished to impose on Him, and chose this method of intimating that He took no interest in what they were saying. The commentators tell us that this was a common method of signifying intentional disregard.
An alternative interpretation may be suggested. They had quoted the Law, and asked for His opinion. They were themselves the interpreters of the Law. He claimed no such office. (Comp. Luke 12:14.) He stoops down and writes, and the action intimates that the Law of God was written on tables of stone, and its decrees were immutable. They, by their technical interpretation and tradition, were making it of none effect. He came to fulfil it. The majesty of duty is sinned against by these refinements of casuistry. They are now daring to violate the sacredness of law by making it the subject of a question by which they hope to encompass His death. The solemn silence, as He stooped down in that Temple and wrote upon its pavement, must have spoken in a power greater than that of words.Luke 15:2); and they wished, doubtless, to make it appear that he was gluttonous, and a winebibber, and a friend of sinners, and disposed to relax all the laws of morality, even in the case of adultery. Seldom was there a plan more artfully laid, and never was more wisdom and knowledge of human nature displayed than in the manner in which it was met.
Wrote on the ground - This took place in the temple. The "ground," here, means the pavement, or the dust on the pavement. By this Jesus showed them clearly that he was not solicitous to pronounce an opinion in the case, and that it was not his wish or intention to intermeddle with the civil affairs of the nation.
As though he heard them not - This is added by the translators. It is not in the original, and should not have been added. There is no intimation in the original, as it seems to be implied by this addition, that the object was to convey the impression that he did not hear them. What was his object is unknown, and conjecture is useless. The most probable reason seems to be that he did not wish to intermeddle; that he designed to show no solicitude to decide the case; and that he did not mean to decide it unless he was constrained to.
with his finger wrote on the ground—The words of our translators in italics ("as though He heard them not") have hardly improved the sense, for it is scarcely probable He could wish that to be thought. Rather He wished to show them His aversion to enter on the subject. But as this did not suit them, they "continue asking Him," pressing for an answer. At last, raising Himself He said.
that they might have to accuse him; that should he agree with Moses, then they would accuse him to the Roman governor, for taking upon him to condemn a person to death, which belonged to him to do; or they would charge him with severity, and acting inconsistently with himself, who received such sort of sinners, and ate with them; and had declared, that publicans and harlots would enter into the kingdom of heaven, when the Scribes and Pharisees would not; and if he should disagree with Moses, then they would traduce him among the people, as an enemy to Moses and his law, and as a patron of the most scandalous enormities:
but Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground; some think (o) he wrote in legible characters the sins of the woman's accusers; and the learned Wagenseil (p) makes mention of an ancient Greek manuscript he had seen, in which were the following words, "the sins of everyone of them": Dr. Lightfoot is of opinion, that this action of Christ tallies with, and has some reference to, the action of the priest at the trial of the suspected wife; who took of the dust of the floor of the tabernacle, and infused it in the bitter waters for her to drink; but it is most likely, that Christ on purpose put himself into this posture, as if he was busy about something else, and did not attend to what they said; and hereby cast some contempt upon them, as if they and their question were unworthy of his notice: and this sense is confirmed by what follows,
as though he heard them not; though this clause is not in many copies, nor in the Vulgate Latin, nor in any of the Oriental versions, but is in five of Beza's copies, and in the Complutensian edition.
(See Jeremiah 17:13, "they that depart from me shall be wriiten in the earth". It could be that Christ was writing their names in the earth, thus fulfulling this prophecy in Jeremiah. They knew the Old Testament and this passage, and were convicted in their hearts. Editor.)This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)John 8:6. Πειράζοντες αὐτόν] denoting, not a good-natured questioning (Olshausen), but, agreeably to the standing synoptical representation of the relation of those men to Jesus, and in keeping with what immediately follows, malicious tempting. The insidious feature of the plan consisted in this: “If He decides with Moses for the stoning, He will be accused before the Roman authorities; for, according to the Roman criminal law, adultery was not punishable with death, and stoning in particular was generally repudiated by the Romans (see Staeudlin and Hug). But if He decides against Moses and against stoning, He will then be prosecuted before the Sanhedrim as an opposer of the law.” That they expected and wished for the former result, is shown, by the prejudicial way in which they introduce the question, by quoting the express punishment prescribed by Moses. Their plan here is similar in design to that of the question touching the tribute money in Matthew 22. It is objected that the Romans in the provinces did not administer justice strictly in accordance with their own laws; but amid the general immorality of the times they certainly did not conform to the rigour of the Mosaic punishment for adultery; and how easy would it have been before the Roman magistrates to give a revolutionary aspect to the hoped-for decision of Jesus in favour of Moses, even if He had in some way reserved the competency of the Roman authorities! If it be said that Jesus needed only to declare Himself in favour of execution, and not exactly for stoning, it is overlooked that here was the very case for which stoning was expressly appointed. If it be urged, lastly, that when Jesus was required to assume the position of a judge, He needed only to refer His questioners to the Sanhedrim, and to tell them to take the woman thither (Ebrard), that would have amounted to a declining to answer, which would, indeed, have been the surest way of escape from the dilemma, but inappropriate enough to the intellectual temperament of Jesus in such cases. Other explanations of πειράζειν—(1) They would either have accused him to the Romans imminutae majestatis, because they then possessed the jus vitae et necis, or to the Jews imminutae libertatis (Grotius), and as a false Messiah (Godet). But that prerogative of the Romans was not infringed by the pronouncing of a sentence of condemnation; it was still reserved to them through their having to confirm and carry out the sentence. Accordingly, B. Crusius gives this turn to the question: “Would Jesus decide for the popular execution of the law … or would He peradventure even take upon Himself to pass such a judgment” (so, substantially, Hitzig also, on Joh. Markus, p. 205 ff., and Luthardt), where (with Wetstein and Schulthess) the law of the Zealots is called in by way of help? But in that case the interrogators, who intended to make use of a negative answer against Him as an overturning of the law, and an affirmative reply as an interference with the functions of the authorities, would then have put no question at all relating to the thing which they really wanted (i.e. the execution, and that immediate and tumultuous). (2) As the punishment of death for adultery had at that time already fallen into disuse, the drift of their question was simply, whether or not legal proceedings should be instituted at all (Ebrard, following Michaelis). The words themselves, and the design expressed in the κατῃγορεῖν, which could not take place before the people, but before the competent judges, as in Matthew 12:10, are quite opposed to this explanation. (3) Dieck, in the Stud. u. Krit. 1832, p. 791, says: As the punishment of death for adultery presupposes liberty of divorcement, and as Jesus had Himself repudiated divorce, He would, by pronouncing in favour of that punishment, have contradicted Himself; while, by pronouncing against it, He would have appeared as a despiser of the law. But apart from the improbability of any such logical calculation on the part of His questioners as to the first alternative,—a calculation which is indicated by nothing in the text,—the ἵνα ἔχ. κατηγ. αὐτ. is decisive against this explanation; for a want of logical consistency would have furnished no ground for accusation. (4) The same argument tells against Augustine, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Aretius, Jansen, Cornelius à Lapide, Baumgarten, and many other expositors: according to whom an affirmative reply would have been inconsistent with the general mildness of His teaching; a negative answer would have been a decision against Moses. (5) Euthymius Zigabenus, Bengel, and many others, Neander also, Tholuck, Baeumlein, Hengstenberg (who sees here an unhistorical mingling of law and gospel), are nearer the mark in regarding the plan of attack as based upon the assumption, which they regarded as certain, that in accordance with His usual gentleness He would give a negative answer: γινώσκοντες γὰρ αὐτὸν ἐλεήμονα κ. συμπαθῆ, προσεδόκων, ὅτι φείσεται αὐτῆς, καὶ λοιπὸν ἕξουσι κατηγορίαν κατʼ αὐτὸν, ὡς παρανόμως φειδομένου τῆς ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου λιθαζομένης, Euthymius Zigabenus. But this explanation also must be rejected, partly even on à priori grounds, because an ensnaring casuistic question may naturally be supposed to involve a dilemma; partly and mainly because in this case the introduction of the question by ἐν δὲ τῷ νόμῳ would have been a very unwise method of preparing the way for a negative answer. This latter argument tells against Ewald, who holds that Christ, by the acquittal which they deemed it probable He would pronounce, would have offended against the Mosaic law; while by condemning, He would have violated as well the milder practice then in vogue as His own more gentle principles. Lücke, De Wette, Brückner, Baur, and many other expositors renounce the attempt to give any satisfactory solution of the difficulty.
τῷ δακτύλῳ ἔγραφεν εἰς τ. γῆν] as a sign that He was not considering their question, ὅπερ εἰώθασι πολλάκις ποιεῖν οἱ μὴ θέλοντες ἀποκρίνεσθαι πρὸς τοὺς ἐρωτῶντας ἄκαιρα καὶ ἀνάξια. Γνοὺς γὰρ αὐτῶν τὴν μηχανὴν, προσεποιεῖτο γράφειν εἰς τ. γῆν, καὶ μὴ προσέχειν οἷς ἔλεγον, Euthymius Zigabenus. For instances of behaviour like this on the part of one who turns away from those around him, and becomes absorbed in himself, giving himself up to his own thoughts or imaginings, from Greek writers (Aristoph. Acharn. 31, and Schol. Diog. Laert. 2. 127) and from the Rabbins, see in Wetstein. Isaiah 17:13 does not here serve for elucidation. What Jesus wrote is not a subject even of inquiry; nor are we to ask whether, by the act, He was symbolizing any, and if so what, answer (Michaelis: the answer “as it is written”). There is much marvellous conjecture among the older expositors. See Wolf and Lampe, also Fabricius, Cod. Apocr. p. 315, who thinks that Jesus wrote the answer given in John 8:7 (after Bede; comp. also Ewald, Gesch. Chr. p. 480, ed. 3, and Godet). Suffice it to say, the strange manner in which Jesus silently declines to give a decisive reply (acting, no doubt, according to His principle of not interfering with the sphere of the magistracy (here a matter of criminal law, Matthew 22; Luke 12:13-14), bears the stamp of genuineness and not of invention, though Hengstenberg deems this procedure unworthy of Jesus; the tempters deserved the contempt which this implied, John 8:9.
Observe in ἔγραφεν the descriptive imperfect. The reader sees Him writing with His finger. The additions in some Codd. καὶ τροσποιούμενος, and (more strongly attested) μὴ προσποιούμ., are glosses of different kinds, meaning “though He only pretended (simulans) to write;” and, “without troubling Himself about them” (dissimulans, Ev. 32 adds αὐτούς). See Matthaei, ed. min, in loc.
 Observe also, in reference to this, the οὖν in ver. 5, which logically paves the way for an answer in agreement with Moses.
 What they really wished was to accuse Him, on the ground of the answer He would give. Hilgenfeld therefore is in error when he thinks they sought to force Him to give a decisive utterance as the obligation of the Mosaic law. By an affirmative reply (he says) Christ would have recognised this obligation, and by His non-observance of the law (John 5:18, John 7:23) He would have been self-condemned; by a negative answer He would have been guilty of an express rejection of the law. Viewing the matter thus, they could not, indeed, have accused Him on account of His answer if affirmative; they could only have charged Him with logical inconsistency. This tells substantially also against Lange’s view, viz. that they wished to see whether He would venture, in the strength of His Messianic authority, to set up a new law. If in this case He had decided in favour of Moses, they could not have accused Him (to the Sanhedrim).
 According to Baur (p. 170 sq.), there is nothing historical whatever in the story; it has a purely ideal import. The main idea he holds to be the consciousness of one’s own sinfulness breaking the power of every sin, in opposition to the accusation brought against Jesus by the Pharisees, that He associated with sinners, and thus was so ready to forgive.
 According to Luthardt, to show that the malice of the question did not deserve an answer. But the numerous testing questions proposed to Him, according to the Synoptics, by His opponents, were all of them malicious; yet Jesus did not refuse to reply to them. According to Lange’s fancy, Jesus assumed the gesture of a calm majesty, which, in its playful ease, refused to be disturbed by any street scandal. Melancthon well says: “Initio, cum accusatur mulier, nihil respondit Christus, tanquam in aliam rem intentus, videlicet prorsus a sese rejiciens hanc quaestionem pertinentem ad cognitionem magistratus politici. Postea, cum urgetur, respondet non de muliere, sed de ipsorum peccatis, qui ipsam accusabant.”John 8:6. τοῦτο δὲ … αὐτοῦ. “And this they said tempting Him,” hoping that His habitual pity would lead Him to exonerate the woman. [“Si Legi subscriberet, videri poterat sibi quodammodo dissimilis,” Calvin. προσεδόκων ὅτι φείσεται αὐτῆς, καὶ λοιπὸν ἕξουσι κατηγορίαν κατʼ αὐτοῦ ὡς παρανόμως φειδομένου τῆς ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου λιθαζομένης, Euthymius.] The dilemma supposed by Meyer is not to be thought of. See Holtzmann. Their plot was unsuccessful; Jesus as He sat (John 8:2), κάτω κύψας … γῆν, “bent down and began to write with His finger on the ground,” intimating that their question would not be answered; perhaps also some measure of that embarrassment on account of “shame of the deed itself and the brazen hardness of the prosecutors” which is overstated in Ecce Homo, p. 104. The scraping or drawing figures on the ground with a stick or the finger has been in many countries a common expression of deliberate silence or embarrassment. [ὅπερ εἰώθασι πολλάκις ποιεῖν οἱ μὴ θέλοντες ἀποκρίνεσθαι πρὸς τοὺς ἐρωτῶντας ἄκαιρα καὶ ἀνάξια, Euthymius.] Interesting passages are cited by Wetstein and Kypke, in one of which Euripides is cited as saying: τὴν σιωπὴν τοῖς σοφοῖς ἀπόκρισιν εἶναι.6. tempting him] The Greek word for ‘tempting’ is frequent in the Synoptists of trying to place Christ in a difficulty; never so used in S. John, who, however, uses it once of Christ ‘proving’ Philip (John 6:6).
that they might have to accuse him] This clause must be borne in mind in determining what the difficulty was in which they wished to place Him. It seems to exclude the supposition that they hoped to undermine His popularity, in case He should decide for the extreme rigour of the law; the people having become accustomed to a lax morality (Matthew 12:39; Mark 8:38). Probably the case is somewhat parallel to the question about tribute, and they hoped to bring Him into collision either with the Law and Sanhedrin or with the Roman Government. If He said she was not to be stoned, He contradicted Jewish Law; if He said she was to be stoned, He ran counter to Roman Law, for the Romans had deprived the Jews of the right to inflict capital punishment (John 18:31). The Sanhedrin might of course pronounce sentence of death (Matthew 26:66; Mark 14:64; comp. John 19:7), but it rested with the Roman governor whether he would allow the sentence to be carried out or not (John 19:16): see on John 18:31 and John 19:6.
stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground] It is said that this gesture was a recognised sign of unwillingness to attend to what was being said; a call for a change of subject. McClellan quotes Plut. ii. 532: ‘Without uttering a syllable, by merely raising the eyebrows, or stooping down, or fixing the eyes upon the ground, you may baffle unreasonable importunities.’ ‘Wrote’ should perhaps be ‘kept writing’ (comp. John 7:40-41), or ‘began to write, made as though He would write’ (comp. Luke 1:59). Either rendering would agree with this interpretation, which our translators have insisted on as certain by inserting the gloss (not found in any earlier English Version), ‘as though He heard them not.’ But it is just possible that by writing on the stone pavement of the Temple He wished to remind them of the ‘tables of stone, written with the finger of God’ (Exodus 31:18; Deuteronomy 9:10). They were hoping that He would explain away the seventh commandment, in order that they themselves might break the sixth.John 8:6. To accuse) of having violated the law. They were aware of the leniency of Jesus towards the guilty, as being one who had not come into the world for the sake of executing judgment.—δέ, but) Men at leisure, when immersed in thought, are wont at times to employ various gestures, which also resemble those of persons writing; and omit these gestures, when anything serious occurs. Very different is the gesture which the Saviour uses here, upon the case having been now submitted to Him by the Scribes and Pharisees; and this He does more than once.—κάτω κύψας, τῷ δακτύλῳ ἔγραφεν εἰς τὴν γῆν, stooping downwards, He began writing with His finger on the earth) Once only God wrote in the Old Testament, namely, the Decalogue; once too, in the New Testament, Christ wrote: moreover He wrote with His finger; for He who was Wisdom itself did not use a pen [stilus]: also He wrote on the earth, not in the air, not in a tablet; He wrote, in other words, drew, either the forms of letters composing words, perhaps the very words which are mentioned at John 8:7, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her;” or else lines and strokes, not having a distinct signification; the characters in either case, when His finger rested, either remaining or disappearing, Comp. Daniel 5:5, [At Belshazzar’s feast] “came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall of the kind’s palace.” Writing is wont to be used with a view to future remembrance. Therefore this action seems evidently to require to be interpreted from the words that follow, that the Lord may signify this: Moses wrote the law: I also can write; nay, the law of Moses was My writing. Ye, Scribes, write judgments against others; I also can write against you, John 8:26, “I have many things to say and to judge of you.” Your sins have been written in your heart; and your names in the earth: Jeremiah 17:1; Jeremiah 17:13, “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond; it is graven upon the table of their heart;—they that depart from Me, shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord.” (What suppose that He wrote the names of the accusers?) This writing of Mine ye do not now understand; but hereafter it will be made evident to the whole world what I have written, when the books shall be opened, and your foul acts shall all be disclosed. Therefore Jesus, first, by means of this silent action fixed the wandering, hasty, and careless thoughts of His adversaries, and awakened their conscience; second, He intimated, that He at that time had not come to deliver forensic judgments; and that He preferred to do that, which would seem to the unseasonable accusers an idle act, to devoting His attention to a case of that kind (it is to this that the ancient Gloss refers, “He wrote on the earth, μὴ προσποιούμενος, signifying that this business does not belong to Him;” instead of which more modern copies have καὶ προσποιούμενος); that the time when He Himself shall act as Judge, as well with respect to this case, and to these the actors in it, as also with respect to all men, the unjust and just, and that, concerning all things, is not now, but shall be hereafter; that in the meantime all things are recorded in the books; that hereafter the earth will not cover the foul deeds of hypocrites. Isaiah 26:21, “Behold, the Lord cometh out of His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; the earth also shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain:” Job 16:18, “O earth, cover not thou my blood.” For writing is wont to be employed for the sake of remembrance against the time to come: Exodus 17:14, “Write this for a memorial in a book;” Psalm 102:18, “This shall be written for the generation to come.” Evidently this action of Jesus Christ has a certain degree of likeness to that ceremony, which was wont to be employed in the case of an adulterous woman: Numbers 5:13; Numbers 5:17; Numbers 5:23, etc. [the trial of jealousy by holy water with dust in it from the floor of the sanctuary]: “And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and shall blot them out with bitter water:” but there is also a dissimilarity; for the law refers to the case of a woman suspected, but this passage, to that of a woman caught in the act; and in the law, the woman drinks the letters written by the priest in a book, and washed out with water, together with the [bitter] water and dust from the ground; but the letters which Jesus wrote on the earth itself, the woman was not able to drink with water, much less without water. Hence it may readily be seen, that, in this action of Jesus, as far as concerns the accused, there is something as it were broken of and left in suspense, in order that He may appear to intimate, that He is indeed the Judge, but that His judgment shall be accomplished not now (for which reason He dismisses the accusers only wounded [not destroyed] for the present), but hereafter; and that then also this adulterous woman shall have her share either of punishment or of complete acquittal.Verse 6. - But this they said tempting him, that they might have (whereof) to accuse him. They sought a ground of formal accusation against Jesus. This implies some court before which the charge they desired to formulate it might be brought. The precise accusation is difficult to determine, and sundry distinguished scholars, Lucke, De Wette, and Alford, declare the problem or question insoluble. Augustine has been followed by a great body of expositors, who have supposed that an affirmative reply would have been inconsistent with the gentleness and mildness of our Lord's treatment of sinners, while a negative reply would at once have given them a charge to bring before the Sanhedrin of such a relaxation of the Law as would endanger his position as a Rabbi, still more as the Prophet like unto Moses. Almost all critics agree as to the use to which Christ's enemies were ready to put a negative reply, and therefore they coincide with Augustine in this part of his explanation. But the interpretation put upon the affirmative reply would not furnish the ground of any accusation before any court. An apparent inconsistency would be no civil charge, and would have no weight before any legal tribunal. The condemnation of adulterers to death by stoning would have been Christ's allowance of the letter of the Law to stand. The Romans could take no umbrage at this until the act had been carried into execution. It may probably have been known that, let the Sanhedrin record what verdict and punishment they pleased, the Roman magistrates would not have carried it into capital execution. How, then, could the scribes and Pharisees have carried an accusation or information before a Roman tribunal? The solution was suggested by Baumgarten-Crusius and Luthardt, and adopted by Moulton, that Christ was asked to say "Aye" or "No" to an instant, tumultuous act of vengeance upon the adulteress. Let him say "No," they would accuse him of deliberately ignoring and repudiating the authority of the Law of Moses; let him say "Yes," they were ready to stone the woman there and then, and subsequently to throw the responsibility of such violation of Roman jurisdiction upon the Lord Jesus as its instigator. Meyer's objection, that no question at all had been put to Christ on this supposition, is not clear. It was this. Clearly apprehending that adultery is a capital offence, and that there was a case before them upon which no doubt could be thrown, they ask him, with the stones in their hands, "Shall we kill this damsel or not?" If he says "No," then they were prepared to denounce the Prophet for his dogmatic trifling with the Law; if "Yes," they are ready to do the deed, and fasten upon Jesus all the shame and guilt of the proceeding before the Roman governor. It was a very analogous problem to that concerning the tribute money recorded in Matthew 22. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger was writing on the ground (εἰς τὴν γὴν, into the earth). Some manuscripts, E, G, and about ninety cursives, add, μὴ προσποιούμενος, "not troubling himself with them" - "as though he beard them not" (Authorized Version). This act is unparalleled in Scripture, even if the custom is still occasionally practised in the East. Mr. O'Neil, in his instructive volume, 'Palestine Explored,' records a curious instance of a youth, who, after playing some practical joke upon an old man, feigned utter ignorance of the surprise and cry of the old man by instantaneously assuming the position of one entirely abstracted from all sublunary thought, in fact, by sitting on the ground and scribbling with his finger in the dust, "as though he heard and saw nothing of what had happened." Such an intention can only be attributed to our Lord on the understanding that it was a current method of indicating an indisposition to have anything to say to the intruders. He was seated; he turned aside from the excited crowd, and by a significant symbol expressed his displeasure at their proceedings, and his perception of their craftiness. Conjecture has been busy, but vainly, with the inquiry as to what our Lord wrote on the ground, and some have urged (Godet) that he wrote the memorable sentence which follows, as a judge might write the verdict upon the case submitted to him. This is not probable, and it would detract from the symbolism of the act.
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