John 7:15 (ESV):

The Jews therefore marveled, saying, “How is it that this man has learning,1 when he has never studied?”

The footnote is:

7:15 Or this man knows his letters

So there are two questions:

  1. Which translation gets the original meaning across better in English?

  2. Does this mean Jesus was never formally trained?

  • The question sprung from a chat session. – Jon Ericson Oct 25 '11 at 16:46
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    I would translate this verse: The Jews were shocked. They said, "How does he know the Scriptures? He never studied ⸤to be a rabbi⸥. (If the there is a character which is not rendering correctly before to and after rabbi, those are lower square brackets, which I use to denote an inserted phrase. If you are running Windows your font may not show them.) – Kazark Dec 24 '11 at 22:51

Jesus lacked the formal education that the religious authorities had.

He was, you'll remember, a carpenter. It was unusual for someone with Jesus's background to be as learned as the religious authorities.

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    It was actually quite usual for rabbis belonging to the Pharisee sect to be well-learned. This answer is factually incorrect and offers no sources for its assertions. – Dan Jun 10 '14 at 18:52

Nowhere in scripture does it say that Jesus took up the trade of his father. In fact, the absence of of any writing about his life from 13-30 would lead an Israelite reader to assume that he DID have formal rabbinic training, and rather, the verse here is a blatant statement from John that Jesus did not, however, state his first teaching on any other rabbi's teaching to validate his statement.

When a rabbi would begin his teaching years, he would never teach on his own merit. He would constantly quote his authorities. Jesus doesn't do this and it it was shocking. He stands on his own authority from his very first words, which in tradition was, again, unheard of. You had to earn that stature from years of proving yourself first in Rabbinical learning structure, then in teaching from the masters who'd gone before you. THEN if you gained reputation through the years, you could add your own commentary that diverged from the past and/or added to it.

When we look at the culture and tradition in which the gospels were written, it seems that the most logical assumption (for that is all we can make, is educated guesses on what happened in those 15-20 years) is that Jesus was in fact a trained Rabbi. This is beautiful. From age 12 he was so in tuned with the Father that he was asking rabbis intelligent questions in the temple and then told his mom that that's where he was supposed to be. Asking questions was not the same format as question asking we think of today. Question asking was not what people who didn't understand did, its what the TEACHER did to stimulate pensive thought, discussion and debate. His questions were stumping the Rabbis in the temple at age 12. THAT was immediate reason to be recruited by them for education. His parents would have been rebuked if they denied a child of this intellect this path.

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    Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics. The only editing I did was a spelling error or two and spacing. Keep it up. – Frank Luke Aug 28 '13 at 13:26

Yes, you are correct. Jesus never had formal training as a rabbi. He was never anyone's disciple.

Regarding question 1, both translations are valid. Another possible interpretation is "this man knows his writings". As for which communicates more clearly? That's a bit of a judgment call. What they were asking is "How does he know so much?" Either interpretation can indicate this (providing you understand "letters" or "writings" as the holy texts).

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    While I agree that Jesus never had any formal training as a rabbi, there are scholars who would disagree with the idea that "he was never anyone's disciple". There are those who suggest that Jesus was a disciple of John's, who began his own ministry after John's arrest. Gerd Theissen is the scholar who immediately springs to mind; there are others. – lonesomeday Oct 26 '11 at 20:45
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    @lonesomeday John's attitude towards Jesus (for example, at his baptism) makes that seem extremely unlikely. – Kazark Dec 24 '11 at 22:48


The Jews marveled that Jesus was not educated at rabbinic schools, was considered uneducated, and yet at the same time, was able to locate the scriptures with ease, and were amazed at the gracious words coming out of his mouth. (Luke 4:16-22)

John 7:15-17 (NASB)

15 “The Jews then were astonished, saying, “How has this man become learned, having never been educated?"

Jesus explains his source of his teachings are from God, verses 16 and 17 we read:

16” So Jesus answered them and said, “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me. 17 If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself.”

Jesus told them that his education was from God.

John 12:49 (NASB)

49” For I did not speak [a]on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak.”

John 7:16 (NRSV)

16 “Then Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me.”


42And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. 43And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.
46And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. 47And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
-- Luke 2:42-43, 45-47 (KJV)

Does anyone imagine that during the remainder of Jesus' youth and early adulthood he wasn't a frequent visitor to the Temple, that he didn't continue asking the doctors questions, learning from them whatever was needed "to know his letters", i.e. to be literate?

Matthew says this:

54And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? 55Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?
-- Matthew 13:54-55 (KJV)

Jesus continued to astound in regard to the depth of his knowledge and understanding. Now, it might be forgivable for some of Jesus' own town to be unaware of what he did during his visits to Jerusalem, but it is not forgivable for those of them who attended the synagogue on the Sabbath, because Luke says this:

16And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. 17And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, ...

It is clear that Jesus was literate, and was familiar enough with the text of the scriptures to immediately look up a relevant passage when the need arose.

Matthew records Jesus saying to his listeners:

  1. "Have ye not read what David did ..." (Matthew 12:3)

  2. "... have ye not read in the law ... (Matthew 12:5)

  3. "Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female," (Matthew 19:4)

  4. "... have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?" (Matthew 21:16)

  5. "Did ye never read in the scriptures ..." (Matthew 21:42)

  6. "But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read ..." (Matthew 22:31)

Jesus' own words declare him to be a reader, so people are without excuse for continuing to believe that Jesus was simply an illiterate carpenter.

Those who claim to be literate themselves, have you never read about the time Jesus stood up in the synagogue to read?

The OP asks, "Does John 7:15 mean Jesus was untaught?". The answer is no. John 7:15 would be a typical resort for those who might be intimidated by someone of lower station having a better grasp of the scriptures than they do -- playing the man, not the ball (so to speak).

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