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The Blue Letter Bible

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

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Don Stewart

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Only two portions in Scripture mention speaking in tongues: the Book of Acts and 1 Corinthians. Are the tongues referred to in these two sections known earthly languages or a heavenly language unknown to people on earth? Those who believe the tongues are always known languages do so for the following reasons:

Tongues In Acts

The first recorded episode of tongue-speaking was on the Day of Pentecost.

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance . . . And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were amazed and marveled, saying one to another, "Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphlia, Egypt, and parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs - we hear them speaking in our tongues the wonderful works of God" (Acts 2:4,6-11).

The tongues on this occasion, were known earthly languages that the disciples had not learned. The multitude that gathered consisted of people from all over the Roman Empire. Each of them heard the disciples speak in their own particular dialect. This, of course, was a miracle, and there seems to be little doubt that the tongues were a known language.

Do Not Reveal

Other occasions in the Book of Acts do not reveal whether the tongues were known earthly languages or some heavenly language. But the indication is that they were known languages. 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.

For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God (Acts 10:46).
When Peter recounted this, he added:

And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning (Acts 11:15).

"The beginning" is a reference to the Day of Pentecost. The same sign of tongues was given to the Gentiles when they believed. This may indicate that the tongues were also known languages, but of this we cannot be sure. On another occasion, Acts 19, we are not told one way or another whether the tongues were earthly languages or heavenly languages.

Prophecy Of Isaiah

A prophecy in Isaiah refers to speaking with tongues:

For precept must be upon precept, line upon line, line upon line. Here a little, there a little. For with stammering lips and another tongue He will speak to this people (Isaiah 28:10,11).

Isaiah predicted that the Jewish people in captivity would be spoken to in other languages. 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 afar, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flies, a nation whose language you will not understand (Deuteronomy 28:49).

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.

Biblical Chronology

Some people appeal to biblical chronology to solve this question. Pauls 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 Pauls usage of the word tongues. Likewise, Luke used the word tongues. If he were aware of Pauls usage of the word to the Corinthians, then both instances are speaking of known languages.

Therefore we can sum up the situation as follows:

1. The tongues on the Day of Pentecost are most likely known languages.

2. The remainder of the instances of tongue-speaking in the Book of Acts were probably known languages.

3. The tongues in Corinthians can also be understood as known languages.

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