It was a way of these people gaining respect and standing in their community - if only from the postman.
In the West, we are equally bewitched by letters, education and knowledge. There is no difference in this attitude between the world and the church. Browse the websites of Bible Colleges (even the ones you might think would beat to a different drum) and all you will find is a list of the lecturers' degrees, papers and publications.
I sometimes wonder whether the unlettered Jesus would be permitted anywhere near these places - he certainly wouldn't be allowed to teach (unqualified you see).
Why does it matter?
There is a triple tragedy in this obsession with secular qualifications. First, secular qualifications are completely irrelevant to the work of the ministry. Nowhere in the New Testament is formal education at a Bible College a requirement to serve in the greatest Kingdom of the world. I have personally yet to find any New Testament connection between a woman or a man's secular qualifications and his or her ability, suitability or fruitfulness to serve in the Kingdom of Christ.
A Warning to the West
But thirdly, across this love - this worship - of education, error can pass unnoticed. If someone has great education we can easily honour them - even if they don't preach the truth.
This is what urges me to write this blog.
I recently came across two examples of premier evangelical colleges, one in the northern and one in the southern hemisphere extolling the writings of NT Wright, who has been the gateway of liberal theology into the Evangelical world. Why should evangelicals become fans of someone who sidelines the cross of Christ? What's the attraction of this new and different gospel?
And for some silly Evangelicals all you need is a few initials before or after a name, be the author of some tome, and bingo, the man is a superstar.
We need to get back to the NT where nothing but character and the gifting of the Spirit matters in our appraisal of men. Instead of viewing people 'after the flesh' we then shall view them as they are, mere servants of Christ. And then, too, we won't be seduced by meaningless and worthless human qualifications.