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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Speaking in Tongues

Don Stewart :: Were the Tongues in Scripture Known Languages?

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Were the Tongues in Scripture Known Languages?

The Gift of Speaking in Tongues – Question 20

Only two portions in Scripture mention speaking in tongues. We find the use of them recorded in the Book of Acts and in First Corinthians. There has been a debate among Bible-believers as to the nature of the utterance in tongues. Are the tongues referred to in these two sections known earthly languages? Perhaps they are some heavenly language unknown to people on earth. It is also contended that the tongue speaking may have been some type of ecstatic utterance and not a language at all. What is the best answer to this question?

The Case for Tongues Being Known Earthly Languages

One popular answer is that the tongue speaking in the Bible always referred to known earthly languages. The arguments for this are as follows.

Tongues Speaking In The Book Of Acts Indicates Known Languages

The first recorded episode of tongue-speaking was on the Day of Pentecost. In obedience to the words of Jesus, the disciples waited in Jerusalem for the promise of God the Father. The Book of Acts states the following.

In one of these meetings as he was eating a meal with them, he told them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you what he promised. Remember, I have told you about this before” (Acts 1:4 NLT).

They were commanded not to leave the city of Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them in a unique way.

On the Day of Pentecost, the prediction of Jesus was fulfilled. The Bible says the following things happened.

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.... And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians–we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:4, 6-11 ESV).

Luke records the fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction with respect to the Holy Spirit. There are a number of observations we can make about this passage.

The People Heard the Disciples Speak in Their Own Language or Dialect

First, the Greek word heteros, translated “other” in verse 4, means “different” tongues or “different” languages. Acts 2:4 says they spoke with “other” tongues. However in Acts 2:6 it says that each heard in his own “language.”

Therefore the words “other tongues” in verse 4 refers to the dialects or languages of verse six. This makes it clear that these people heard the wonderful works of God in their own particular language or dialect. In fact, the Greek word is dialectos from which the word “dialect” is derived.

This Was a Miracle

Second, the disciples spoke in languages in which they had not previously learned. These languages were unknown to them. Consequently what took place here was something which was entirely supernatural.

Jews from Different Nations Were Present

In addition, there were Jews present from every a number of different nations. They had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Weeks, of Pentecost. This took place fifty days after the Passover. In other words, it was a gathering of Jews from across the Roman Empire who spoke many different languages and dialects.

The People Understood What the Disciples Were Saying

Next, the Scripture is clear that the people understood what the disciples spoke in their own unique language or dialect. Indeed, they had no trouble understanding what the disciples were saying even though the disciples themselves could not understand the words they were uttering.

The Content of Their Speech Was God’s Great Works

Finally, the content of the languages spoken were the wonderful works of God. In other words, they were testifying to the goodness and greatness of God.

In sum, on the Day of Pentecost the disciples of Jesus spoke in a number of different languages and dialects of the Roman Empire – languages they had not previously learned. The miracle was that the disciples spoke in languages that were unknown to them. The crowd knew these languages and understood what these disciples were saying. The miracle was in the speaking – not the hearing.

Thus, the first recorded instance of tongue-speaking is clearly an episode of people speaking in actual languages. This is important to note.

Acts 10 Does Not Reveal the Nature of the Languages Spoken

Other occasions in the Book of Acts do not reveal whether the tongues that were used were known earthly languages, ecstatic utterances or some heavenly language. But the indication is that they were known languages. The evidence is as follows.

When the gospel went to the Gentiles at the house of Cornelius, Scripture indicates that the tongues were similar to those spoken on the Day of Pentecost. We read the following account of what took place on that day.

And there could be no doubt about it, for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God (Acts 10:46 NLT).

Later, when Peter recounted this episode, he gave this comment on what had transpired with the Gentiles.

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning (Acts 11:15 ESV).

“The beginning” is a reference to the Day of Pentecost. The same sign of tongues, as had happened on the Day of Pentecost, was given to the Gentiles in Caesarea when they believed in Jesus. The content of the tongue-speaking was the same as Pentecost – they were exalting and magnifying God. This seems to indicate that Cornelius and his household were speaking known languages as we find on Pentecost.

Furthermore, since Peter and his group understood the content of the tongue-speaking as magnifying God, then it seems that someone in his party must have been able to understand the languages, or dialects, in which they were speaking. However we are not told whether or not this was the case.

Paul and the Disciples in Ephesus: Acts 19

The third and last occasion in the Book of Acts where tongue-speaking is specifically mentioned is Acts 19. The Bible says the following took place.

When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied (Acts 19:6 NRSV).

On this occasion there is no indication whether the tongues spoken were known languages or whether anyone could understand what they were saying. Since the same phrase is used of their experience as in the previous two occasions where the gift of tongues was exercised, it would seem logical to assume that known languages were also spoken on this occasion. However we cannot be certain of this.

In sum, as we look at the evidence from the Book of Acts it is logical to assume that on each occasion the tongues were known earthly languages.

The Tongues in Corinth Were Also Known Languages

It also seems that the tongues exercised at the church in Corinth are of the same nature as the ones in the Book of Acts, known languages. This can be seen in the following ways.

The Same Greek Words Are Used to Describe Both Instances

To begin with, the uniform use of the word “tongue” in the New Testament shows that languages are involved. Every time the Greek term glossa is used in the New Testament, if refers to a definite language. The only exception is when the physical organ is in view. This is also true for the Greek Old Testament as well as Greek usage outside of the Bible; it always refers to a definite language.

Furthermore, the word glossa does not ever have the idea of ecstatic speech. Again we stress that it always means “language” or “dialect.” So from the word itself it seems that we are looking at a known language.

The Verb Used Means to Translate a Language

In addition, the Greek verb, diermenueuo, which means, “to interpret,” is used only of translating from one language to another. We find Paul using this word used in describing the interpretation of the tongue-language. He wrote.

Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.... Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. (1 Corinthians 14:5,13 ESV).

This is another indicate that we are dealing with actual languages.

Therefore, from the words used to describe what is going on, it seems clear that we are dealing with actual languages. Unless there is a compelling reason to understand the word glossa in a different sense in First Corinthians, it must be understood in the way it is commonly used everywhere else– a known earthly language.

The Word Unknown Is Not in the Original Text

While some translations put the word “unknown” before the word tongues in six places in First Corinthians 14 (verses 2, 4, 13, 14, 19, and 27) the word unknown is not in the original. Rather the translators have supplied the word. Instead of clarifying the issue, it has only caused confusion. It gives the impression that the languages involved were unknown to humanity. This is not what the original text says.

The Prophecy of Isaiah Referred to Actual Languages

In First Corinthians Paul compared the speaking in tongues to a prophecy in the Book of Isaiah. He wrote as follows.

In the Law it is written: “Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord (1 Corinthians 14:21 NIV).

This refers to Isaiah 28:11, 12. It reads.

Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people, to whom he said, “This is the resting place, let the weary rest”; and, “This is the place of repose”—but they would not listen (Isaiah 28:11-12 NIV).

Isaiah predicted that the Jewish people in captivity would be spoken to in other languages. These spoken languages would constitute a sign of God’s judgment upon them. This was fulfilled with the captivities of Assyria and Babylon and the worldwide dispersion of Israel. This fulfilled a prophecy that was made earlier by Moses.

The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand (Deuteronomy 28:49 ESV).

These tongues predicted by Moses were definitely foreign languages. When the Apostle Paul applied this prophecy to speaking in tongues, he implied that they also were foreign languages.

In addition, it is likely that Paul would not have used the same Greek term, glossa, unless he was referring to actual foreign languages.

Therefore the tongue-speaking at Corinth were also foreign languages as they were at Pentecost.

God Would Not Have His People Speak in Meaningless Sounds

There are also other arguments that favor the tongues in Scripture as actual languages. For one thing, God would not have His people speaking meaningless words. It does not seem consistent with the character of God to have His people using words and phrases that have no apparent meaning.

While pagan religions spoke nonsensical ecstatic utterances, God’s people did not. Any speaking of things unknown would be in actual languages, not gibberish.

Ecstatic Speech Predates Christianity

There is also the fact that ecstatic utterances, in a religious context, are not uniquely Christian. Accounts of tongue speaking among pagans go back to over 1,000 years before the time of Jesus Christ. The mystery religions of the Roman Empire, which flourished around the time of Christ, also practiced ecstatic speaking.

Therefore, the fact that the early Christian spoke in similar ecstatic utterances would certainly not be anything unique. Since other religions and cults practiced the same thing it would not have been beneficial as a sign if the tongue-language only consisted of ecstatic utterances.

To be a genuine sign to unbelievers, the tongue speaking had to consist of actual known languages that were unknown to the speaker as well as to the interpreter. Otherwise it would not be any different than the ecstatic utterances of pagans. This type of tongue-speaking would have no value as a supernatural sign to either believers or unbelievers.

Does Biblical Chronology Solve the Question?

Some people appeal to biblical chronology to solve this question. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written from the city of Ephesus. This letter predates the writings of Acts by approximately six years. Luke, the writer of the Book of Acts, would have been familiar with First Corinthians and with Paul’s usage of the Greek word glossa for speaking in tongues.

Likewise, Luke used the word glossa when referring to episodes of tongue-speaking. If he were aware of Paul’s usage of the word to the Corinthians, then both instances are speaking of known languages.

In sum, there are a number of good arguments as to why the “tongues” in the Bible are known languages and not some type of meaningless ecstatic utterance.

The Tongues in Acts and Corinth Were the Same

Though the situation in Acts and Corinthians are different, the tongues are still the same. Since the first instance of tongue-speaking in Acts refers to known languages, one could assume that known languages were spoken in the other instances as well.

Answering Some of the Objections

There are certain objections to the earthly language point of view that need answering. They can be summed up as follows.

1. Paul’s Mention of the Tongues of Angels Was Theoretical

When Paul mentions speaking in the tongues of angels (1 Corinthians 13:1), he probably meant it theoretically. There is nothing to indicate that he could actually speak in angelic languages. Indeed, in the same verse Paul also speaks of having all knowledge; something which is impossible. Thus, if it was impossible for Paul to have all knowledge it seems to follow that it was impossible for him to speak in the languages of angels.

2. Speaking to God Does Not Mean Humans Cannot Understand

First Corinthians 14:2, when Paul says the tongue-speaker is speaking to God, it refers to the general audience as not understanding the uttered language, and has nothing to do with a heavenly language. In addition, Paul is saying that the tongue-speaker is directing his words to God and not to the congregation.

3. the Speaker Did Not Always Understand

First Corinthians 14:14, when Paul says his understanding is unfruitful, it refers to the one praying in a language which he himself does not understand. This does not necessarily refer to a language which nobody understands. Indeed, it may be a foreign language in view.

This sums up the main arguments for the position is that the tongues recorded in Scripture were indeed known earthly languages.

Summary – Question 20
Were the Tongues in Scripture Known Languages?

There is a debate as to whether the episodes of speaking in tongues that are recorded in Scripture consist of known languages or mere ecstatic utterances. Those who argue that they are known languages do so as follows.

The tongues that were spoken by the disciples on the Day of Pentecost were, without doubt, known languages. Indeed, the text specifically says so. Consequently, the first time that the New Testament records that humans were able to supernaturally speak in tongues is clearly an example of speaking in known languages which these people had never before learned. Nobody doubts this.

In Acts 10, the second occasion of tongue-speaking in the Book of Acts, Peter likened it to the same phenomena that occurred at Pentecost. This would give the impression that known languages were involved. Since Peter said the same thing that happened to the Gentiles had previously happened to them the inference is that the Gentiles also spoke in languages which they had never before learned.

In Acts 19, the last reference to tongue-speaking in the book of Acts there is no comment, one way or the other whether known languages or dialects were involved.

However, since the same word used to describe what happened is the same word previously used to describe the other two episodes of tongue-speaking, it follows that what we also have here are known languages.

In First Corinthians, Paul cites a passage from Isaiah when he talks about speaking in tongues. In the Isaiah passage, known languages are definitely involved.

Again, there is no doubt about this. Indeed, it goes back to an actual prediction recorded by Moses concerning how the people would be judge by another nation; a nation whose language they did not understand.

These reasons have lead people to conclude that every example of speaking in tongues in Scripture involved known earthly languages.

There is also the argument from biblical chronology. First Corinthians was written a few years before Luke wrote the Book of Acts. It is likely that Luke would have been familiar with First Corinthians and Paul’s discussion on tongues.

Since Luke used the same phrase in describing what occurred it may indicate that he understood the tongues in Corinth to be known languages as the tongues in Acts.

Since the tongues in Acts are seemingly known languages we should assume the same in Corinth unless there is convincing evidence to the contrary. It is argued that there is not.

Moreover, Paul was only speaking hypothetically about being able to speak in the languages of angels. Indeed, in the next verse he wrote about the possibility of having all knowledge. This, we know, is impossible. In the same manner, it was impossible for him to speak in angelic languages.

When Paul said the tongue-speaker was speaking to God he was emphasizing where his gift was directed; it was praise to God. He is not saying that no human could understand his language.

While there are good Bible-believing Christians who hold that the tongues in Corinth were somehow different that the tongue-speaking recorded in Acts there is no convincing evidence that this is the case.

While it certainly is possible that we are dealing with two different types of tongue-speaking it seems that the better case can be made that earthly languages are in view in every instance.

Could Tongue-Speaking Actually Be Ecstatic Utterances or Heavenly Languages Rather than Known Earthly Languages? ← Prior Section
If Certain Tongue Speaking Does Not Come from God, Where Does It Come From? Next Section →
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