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Biblical Archaeology Review 47:1, Spring 2021

Epistles: The Writing on the Floor

By James F. McGrath

Biblical Archaeology Review

Writers and readers of texts ignore floors. Characters stand on them, their words echo off them, but more often than not we pay them no attention. Indeed, if a floor gets a mention at all, it is probably significant—although, even then, readers may not notice. Archaeologists, on the other hand, pay attention to floors, piecing them together from fragments. Recent archaeological work on a particular floor provides a piece we have long been missing to help us puzzle out the significance of a text with unanswered questions: the story of the woman accused of adultery in John 8:2-11. The floor I am referring to is that of the Temple.

As reported in BAR in 2016, the Temple Mount Sifting Project reassembled geometric patterns of opus sectile tiles that were found in at least covered porticoes and perhaps much more of the Temple.a Even though the story tells us that Jesus was in the Temple courts and “wrote” on the floor, readers often ignore this. Our inattention to the precise context—that it took place specifically on the floor of the Temple courts—has led us to miss an important clue to the significance of Jesus’s action. It doesn’t matter whether we can reconstruct the precise flooring the author of the story envisaged being underneath the characters as the drama unfolds. We just need to notice and pay attention to the floor as part of the Temple setting.

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