At least for me, this is one of the most enigmatic moments in the New Testament. Jesus, almost oblivious to the going-ons around him, crouches, scribbling something on the ground. Just what he wrote is never revealed and the text indicates that Jesus' spoken words- not the written words- were what affected the scribes and Pharisees. Yet, was the act of writing really unrelated to the events? From a literary point of view, I would have to say absolutely not. First off, the act of stooping and writing appears twice. It is obviously more than just an irrelevant aside, besides, I see no indication of the author of John being that execrable an author. Also, most early versions and references do not mention the act of writing.
And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
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.
So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
An odd detail to add if it had no bearing on Jesus' words. Furthermore, is it reasonable to suppose that the scribes and Pharisees paid no attention whatsoever to Jesus' strange behaviour, that none even attempted to see what he was writing?
It seems likely to me at least that the writing had some bearing on the words Jesus spoke. The solution adopted by the author (or authors) of the N-Town play, The Woman Taken in Adultery, is as good a guess as any. By fleshing out the dry bones of a story, drama can often reveal important insights. A story has to be shown in order to be effective. Mere declamation wont do.
The N-Town author discovered an important plot device in the act of writing on the ground, using it to propel the story forward to its conclusion.
Jesus. Look which of you that never sin wrought,
But is of life cleaner than she;
Cast at her stones, and spare her nought,
Cleant out of sin if that ye be.
Here Jesus, again stooping down, shall write on the ground, and all the accusers, as if put to shame, shall go apart into three separate places.
Pharisee. Alas, alas I am ashamed!
I am afeard that I shall die;
All my sins, even properly named
Yon prophet did write before mine eye.
If that my fellows that did espy,
They will tell it both far and wide;
My sinful living if they out cry,
I wot never where my head to hide.
Accuser. Alas, for sorrow mine heart doth bleed!
All my sins yon man did write;
If that my fellows to them took heed,
I cannot me from death acquit.
I would I were hid somewhere out of sight,
That men should me me nowhere see ne know;
If I be take, I am afflight
In mickle shame I shall be throw.
Scribe. Alas the time that this betid!
Right bitter care doth me embrace;
All my sins be now unhid:
Yon man before me them all doth trace.
If I were once out of this place,
To suffer death great and vengeance able,
I will never come before his face,
Though I should die in a stable.
As in John 8, Jesus invites the scribes and Pharisees to execute the law in its full severity, provided they are free from sin. Ashamed, the accusers all leave in different directions, each having seen Jesus write out the exact sins they were guilty of commiting. That, according to the N-Town play, was the purpose of writing on the ground. The play in its entirety, in the original Middle English is available online. In terms of simplicity, immediacy and emotional impact, The Woman Taken in Adultery is one of the finest medieval plays.
Adapted by A. C. Cawley, "Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays," pp. 140-141.