How Does this Man Know “Letters”?

By Wayne Jackson

“What did the Jews mean when they described Jesus with these words: ‘How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?’ (John 7:15 — KJV, ASV). If he had never learned, how did he write on the ground (John 8:6,8)?”

Some appreciation of the background behind John 7:15 is helpful in understanding the meaning of this passage.

In chapter 5 of John’s Gospel, there is the record of a Jewish feast in Jerusalem (likely the Passover). There was a crippled man positioned near the Pool of Bethesda, having been in that pitiful state for 38 years. Christ pronounced the man healed, and immediately the gentleman was made whole. Taking up his pallet, he walked away (John 5:9).

But because it was on the Sabbath day that this miracle was wrought, some of the Jews (ever seeking some opportunity for “evidence” against the Lord), charged Jesus with a violation of the law of Moses (v. 16). In fact, they would have killed him then, had they been able. Christ subsequently explained that his deeds and words were by God’s authority.

At some point later, Jesus traveled to Galilee in the north. Probably about a year following the previous incident (cf. 6:4), the Lord was teaching on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. It was here that he performed the great miracle of feeding some 5,000 men (not including women and children) with only two small fish and five barley cakes — a boy’s lunch (6:9-10).

These two incidents are mentioned to illustrate the fact that the fame and influence of Christ was rapidly spreading — both by his benevolent deeds (as buttressed by supernatural signs), and by the opposition of the Jewish leaders who noised abroad reports concerning him.

In the autumn, Christ made his way to Jerusalem (rather privately so as to escape notice), as the Hebrews flocked to the city to observe the Feast of the Tabernacles (cf. John 7:1-13). There was a great stirring of the crowds as Jesus was the “hot” topic of conversation, some acknowledging that he was a “good man,” while others denied it, charging that he was leading the people astray.

About midway during the celebration of the feast, Jesus entered into the temple complex and began to teach the masses thronging the area. It is out of this context that the Jews “marveled” (imperfect tense; they kept on expressing amazement), asking, “How does this man know letters, having never learned” (v. 15).

It is here that one must probe beneath the English translation and extract the significance of the Greek phraseology. The English word “letters” is a rendition of the Greek term, grammata. The subsequent expression, “not having learned,” reflects a participle form of the verb manthano. Let us momentarily consider each of these terms.

The word grammata literally does mean “letters,” but the term, in certain contexts, is employed to suggest the idea of one who is “literate,” i.e., one who possesses educational skill. In this case, it probably alluded to Jesus’ knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures. There are many examples of this word’s equivalency with “literary proficiency” in the Greek papyri (see: J.H. Moulton & George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament Illustrated From the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1963, p. 131).

Observe, for instance, how Festus, the Jewish ruler, lashed out at Paul, charging that the apostle’s “much learning” (literally, “many letters”) was making him (Paul) “mad” (enraged, insane) (Acts 26:24).

The term manthano frequently was used of formal training at the feet of the celebrated rabbis (cf. A.J. Kostenberger, “John,” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, Clinton Arnold, Ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, Vol. 2, pp. 74-75).

The meaning of John 7:15, then, is this. With amazement, the people asked: “How is it that this man is so literate [so informed of the scriptures], since he has never had formal rabbinic training?”

While it is true that Christ learned volumes of information during the first thirty years of his life (cf. Luke 2:46-47,52), it also is a fact that his teaching was not his own; rather, he spoke the wisdom and will of his Heavenly Father. Note John’s record: “Jesus therefore answered them, and said, ‘My teaching is not mine, but his that sent me’” (v. 16). Even the celebrated Jewish scholar, Nicodemus, conceded that as a Teacher, Christ had no peer (John 3:2).

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.