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).