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How should πῶς οὗτος γράμματα οἶδεν μὴ μεμαθηκώς; (NA27) be translated in John 7:15?

While a similar question was asked at Does John 7:15 mean Jesus was untaught?, the answers to that question did not deal with the variation in how this question has been translated. The possible meanings of γράμματα (accusative plural) and μεμαθηκώς (perfect active participle nominative masculine singular) have a wide range of possibilities.

Here’s the lexical meanings from BAGD:

γράμμα, ατος, τό … 1. letter of the alphabet… 2. a document, piece of writing, mostly in pl., even of single copies… a. letter, epistle… b. a promissory note… c. writing, book… 3. The mng. of γράμματα J 7:15 is connected w. 1 above; γρ. without the article used w. a verb like ἐπίστθασθαι, εἰδέναι means elementary knowledge, esp. reading and writing…

μανθάνω … 1… παρά τινος learn from someone as teacher… 2. learn or come to know… 3. find out… τὶ ἀπό τινος find someth. out fr. Someone… 4. learn, appropriate to oneself less through instruction than through experience or practice…

A literal translation of this question would seem: “How is this man literate without schooling?” But how should this be translated to best fit the context? There is also a disagreement about whether the Jews asking this were serious or being sarcastic because Jesus challenged traditional interpretations of the Law. We don’t know who the Jews (οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι) were, the offended leaders or sympathizers. There’s also the question of how much formal education did Jesus have.

Appendix: Further word study of the context

ἐθαύμαζον οὖν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι λέγοντες· (First part of John 7:15, NA27)

ἐθαύμαζον (imperfect active indicative 3rd person plural) tends to support that the question was a serious question.

θαυμάζω … 1. act.—a. intr. wonder, marvel, be astonished … b. trans. admire, wonder at w. acc. … 2. as dep. w. 1 aor. and 1 fut. pass. …

οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι – John refers to the Jewish leaders in this manner (eg. John 1:19).

Appendix 2: first-century Jewish schools

If possible, the Jewish schools were even more numerous than the Synagogues. Then there were the many Rabbinic Academies; …

Edersheim, A. (1896). The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Vol. 1, p. 119). New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.

But while the earliest religious teaching would, of necessity, come from the lips of the mother, it was the father who was ‘bound to teach his son.’ To impart to the child knowledge of the Torah conferred as great spiritual distinction, as if a man had received the Law itself on Mount Horeb…. Directly the child learned to speak, his religious instruction was to begin—no doubt, with such verses of Holy Scripture as composed that part of the Jewish liturgy, which answers to our Creed.1 Then would follow other passages from the Bible, short prayers, and select sayings of the sages. Special attention was given to the culture of the memory, … The regular instruction commenced with the fifth or sixth year (according to strength), when every child was sent to school. There can be no reasonable doubt that at that time such schools existed throughout the land. We find references to them at almost every period; indeed, the existence of higher schools and Academies would not have been possible without such primary instruction. ...

Ibid. (Vol. 1, p. 230).

Suffice it that, from the teaching of the alphabet or of writing, onwards to the farthest limit of instruction in the most advanced Academies of the Rabbis, all is marked by extreme care, wisdom, accuracy, and a moral and religious purpose as the ultimate object.

Ibid. (Vol. 1, p. 231).

The teaching in school would, of course, be greatly aided by the services of the Synagogue, and the deeper influences of home-life. We know that, even in the troublous times which preceded the rising of the Maccabees, the possession of parts or the whole of the Old Testament

Ibid. (Vol. 1, p. 232).

It was in such circumstances, and under such influences, that the early years of Jesus passed. To go beyond this, and to attempt lifting the veil which lies over His Child-History, would not only be presumptuous, but involve us in anachronisms. Fain would we know it, whether the Child Jesus frequented the Synagogue School; who was His teacher, and who those who sat beside Him on the ground, earnestly gazing on the face of Him Who repeated the sacrificial ordinances in the Book of Leviticus, that were all to be fulfilled in Him. But it is all ‘a mystery of Godliness.’ We do not even know quite certainly whether the school-system had, at that time, extended to far-off Nazareth; nor whether the order and method which have been described were universally observed at that time. In all probability, however, there was such a school in Nazareth, and, if so, the Child-Saviour would conform to the general practice of attendance. We may thus, still with deepest reverence, think of Him as learning His earliest earthly lesson from the Book of Leviticus. Learned Rabbis there were not in Nazareth—either then or afterwards. He would attend the services of the Synagogue, where Moses and the prophets were read, and, as afterwards by Himself, occasional addresses delivered.1 That His was pre-eminently a pious home in the highest sense, it seems almost irreverent to say. From His intimate familiarity with Holy Scripture, in its every detail, we may be allowed to infer that the home of Nazareth, however humble, possessed a precious copy of the Sacred Volume in its entirety. At any rate, we know that from earliest childhood it must have formed the meat and drink of the God-Man. The words of the Lord, as recorded by St. Matthew and St. Luke,c also imply that the Holy Scriptures which He read were in the original Hebrew, and that they were written in the square, or Assyrian, characters. Indeed, as the Pharisees and Sadducees always appealed to the Scriptures in the original, Jesus could not have met them on any other ground, and it was this which gave such point to His frequent expostulations with them: ‘Have ye not read?’

Ibid. (Vol. 1, p. 233-234).

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In your question you phrased a possible translation as

How is this man literate without schooling?

I guess it depends on where you are headed with the question. One might read this translation as suggesting that the Jews believed Jesus couldn't read. I don't think this is what they were implying at all. It was a question to do with how Jesus could teach so authoritatively without having been taught by the Rabbis. Certainly one problem with your translation is it doesn't seem to take in the significance of οἶδεν -- (to know) and γράμματα (letters or books) together. Yours is also based on the BAGD association with #1 in the BAGD listing as you will see below I think it is closer to #3 -- specifically the writings of the Rabbis.

Your parts about the Rabbinic schools is very helpful and correct.

There are a couple of questions that help here:

  1. How was Jesus teaching them in verse 14? The questions in verse 15 seem to imply that Jesus was teaching them the Old Testament. Certainly that is how I would take verse 14 and verse 15.
  2. Implicit in the question and in Jesus' answer in verses 16-19 is the question of authority. If you keep in mind that most Bible exposition in the first century and beyond in Jewish circles was based on the knowledge of the great Rabbis. So one would introduce your points by saying Rabbi X said Y and then you might go on by saying Rabbi Z said A. In this model a Jew could never expound the Scriptures based on his own authority. It was always based on the authority of the rabbis. Yet here was Jesus speaking on His own authority. Normally a knowledge of the Rabbis was gained by attending a Rabbinical school from around 10-11 till adulthood. Paul is an example of a Jew who had been taught in the school of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).

Based on this I think the term γράμματα has a wide range but seems to actually indicate the Scriptures in this context. Or at the very least the Scriptures combined with the teachings of the Rabbis.

μὴ μεμαθηκώς would then point to having never been taught at the foot of a master like Paul had been in Acts 22:3

If I were to offer a non-literal translation that gets at the heart of the question, based on the answer given by Jesus I would suggest something like this

And the Jews marveled, saying, "How does this one know the writings, without having learned from the Rabbis?

I chose writings as intentionally vague, implying it might be the Scriptures or probably in this case a knowledge of the rabbinic writings that gave their interpretations of the Scriptures.

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The context shows what they are marvelling at: not only does Jesus know the scripture, but He ventures such interpretations as to penetrate the inner core, the essential meaning of the text, for in the immediate sequel He reprimands Jews for adhering only to letter of the law, on the one hand circumcising on Sabbath, not regarding that the Law is violated by this, and, on the other hand forbidding Jesus to heal people, for if circumcising is a divine thing and as such cannot deviate from the Law of keeping from work in Sabbath, so much more divine thing is to heal an ailing man! (John 7:21-24). And, thus, how stupid is to reprimand the healer, Jesus, for this deed!

Thus, Jesus, lacking the formal education of professional theologians, and being "unlearned" in this sense (for He was surely literate and could both read (Luke 4:17) and write (John 8:8)) could understand Scripture deeper than they by applying dialectics and heartfelt Holy Spiritual morality to the letter of the Law. He intimated in this sense that He Himself is the Giver of the Law to Moses and the Giver Himself surely can interpret better than any theologian, and in order to demonstrate to them that they do not really understand the Law, He even more dramatically spots their murderous thoughts, which is the clear violation of the commandment "you shall not kill", and as the heart-knower God (Acts 1:24), tells them their inner intent to kill Him (John 7:19).

Thus, Jesus is illiterate in the sense of lacking formal education; yet, He, as the Giver of the Law does not need this formal education at all, for the Source of the Law does not need any to understand it. That He is the very Source He intimates by HolySpiritual explanation of the Scripture through divine dialectics and divine philanthropy that cannot suffer man suffering and works for helping a sufferer regardless Sabbath or non-Sabbath. He, furthermore, corroborates that He has divine authority by reading and revealing their hidden thoughts, that no creature can do, but only the Creator.

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