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Gift of Tongues

It is not stated that the Samaritans received this gift when the Spirit was imparted to them, but the request of Simon to buy the power to bestow the Spirit indicates that some external manifestation did result (Acts.8.14-Acts.8.19). The Pentecostal phenomenon clearly appeared again when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius (Acts.10.44-Acts.10.46). Here again it served as a miraculous token of the divine approval and acceptance of these Gentile believers (Acts.11.15-Acts.11.17; Acts.15.7-Acts.15.9). The appearing of the phenomenon in connection with the twelve disciples at Ephesus (Acts.19.6), who dispensationally stood before Pentecost, marked the full incorporation of this group into the church and authenticated Paul’s teaching.

The gift of tongues is mentioned by Paul as one of the spiritual gifts so richly bestowed on the Corinthian believers. Their reaction to this gift drew forth Paul’s discussion of the varied gifts. They are enumerated, compared, and evaluated by their usefulness to the church. He lists the gifts twice and places tongues and their interpretation at the very bottom of the scale (1Cor.12.8-1Cor.12.10, 1Cor.12.28-1Cor.12.30), thus rebuking the Corinthians’ improper evaluation of this spectacular gift. He emphasized the comparative value of tongues and prophecy by insisting that “five intelligible words” spoken in the church were of more value than “ten thousand words in a tongue” not understood (1Cor.14.19). Paul felt it necessary to regulate the use of tongues in their assembly; the ideal place for their exercise was in private (1Cor.14.28). He insisted that not more than two or three speak in tongues, and that they do so in turn, and one should interpret; no one was to speak in tongues if no interpreter was present (1Cor.14.27-1Cor.14.28). Speaking in tongues was not prohibited (1Cor.14.39), but intelligent preaching in understandable words was vastly superior. He further insisted that women were not to speak in their meetings (1Cor.14.34).

Two views are held as to the exact nature of the Corinthian “tongues.” One view holds that they were foreign languages that the speakers were miraculously enabled to speak without having previously learned them. This view is demanded by Acts.2.1-Acts.2.13, unless it is maintained that the two phenomena are quite distinct. That they were intelligible utterances is urged from the fact that they could be interpreted and were the vehicle of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving (1Cor.14.14-1Cor.14.17).

Modern commentators, however, generally hold that the Corinthian tongues were not identical with the tongues at Pentecost but were ecstatic outbursts of prayer and praise in which the utterances often became abnormal and incoherent and the connection with the speaker’s own conscious intellectual activity was suspended. It is held that the utterances were incomprehensible to the speaker as well as to the audience (1Cor.14.14) and that the resultant edification was emotional only (1Cor.14.4). But 1Cor.14.4 may only mean that the person’s understanding was “unfruitful” to others. Its advocates further hold that this view is indicated in the fact that interpretation was likewise a special gift (1Cor.12.10).

From 14:27-28 it is clear that this speaking in tongues was not uncontrollable. It was very different from the religious frenzy that marked some pagan rites in which the worshiper lost control both of reason and the power of will. Any manifestation of tongues that is not under the speaker’s control is thereby suspect (1Cor.14.32).——DEH

GIFT OF TONGUES. See Spiritual Gifts; Gift of Tongues.

TONGUES, GIFT OF (γλω̂σσαι). One of the ninefold “gifts of the Spirit” (1 Cor 12:4-11), a list reiterated elsewhere in the NT in slightly varying form. The clearest exhibition of this gift in the NT is in Acts 2, describing the Day of Pentecost; the best extended treatment is in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Whether these two refer to the same phenomenon is sometimes disputed.

Tongues in the OT.

The NT doctrine of tongues—ecstatic spiritual utterances not consciously or rationally controlled by the speaker, but believed to be a direct product of divine operation and Spirit-filling—has a long pre-history in the OT. When Peter explained this phenomenon to the crowds of Jewish pilgrims gathered at Jerusalem, he did so in terms of the words of Joel (Acts 2:15-21). Secondly, in 1 Corinthians 14:21f., Paul explained the evidential nature of tongues to the unbeliever from Isaiah (Isa 28:11).

Most scholars would agree that the ecstatic experience recorded of the seventy elders (Num 11:24-29) is an OT reference to “speaking in tongues,” although the word used in the text is “prophesied.” Clearly the phenomenon is, in this context, the outward sign of the Spirit’s coming and presence. This ecstasy is not directly attributed to Moses himself; indeed, his position is contrasted with that of the ordinary “prophet” (12:7, 8). It may be that the OT נָבִיא, H5566, (prophet) actually means “ecstatic speaker.” Samuel also was surrounded by a group of ecstatics (1 Sam 19:18-24); their infectious “prophesying,” which seems to have been at least akin to “tongues,” was held to be a sign of Yahweh’s presence; yet Samuel’s reputation as a prophet was based on something else (1 Sam 3:20). The same is true of Elijah and Elisha. There is also evidence for similar ecstatic behavior at this time on the part of the prophets of Baal, prob. included ecstatic utterances (1 Kings 18:28). In the later days of the great “writing prophets” of Israel, there is no reference to any such phenomena whatsoever, unless the “trances” of Ezekiel should be so considered.

Tongues in the gospels.

The experience of Pentecost.

At first sight, the description in Acts 2 is crystal clear. All were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues—foreign tongues—hitherto unknown to the disciples, but meaningful to the pilgrims then gathered in Jerusalem. This seems proved by v. 6, “in his own language.”

Some scholars, however, feel that such a simple interpretation is inconsistent both with the vague term “noise” mentioned in v. 6 (a “noise” sufficiently unusual to attract a crowd) and the fact that others were able to interpret the whole expisode as drunken babbling (v. 13). They further point out that, elsewhere in the NT, the “tongues” spoken seem to be incomprehensible unless accompanied by a spiritual “interpretation,” and do not seem to be recognizably human languages (does 1 Cor 13:1 refer to them as angelic languages?). These scholars feel that Luke is describing an occurrence of ordinary glossolalia (as at Corinth) but in such a way as to show that Pentecost was the antithesis of Babel, where men’s tongues were confused (Gen 11:9) and also to demonstrate that Pentecost corresponded to the “giving of the law,” which, by standard Jewish tradition, was delivered simultaneously in all the languages of the world. Early Christian scholars suggested that the miracle was one of hearing rather than speaking; v. 8 would lend some support to this. Less convincing are the suggestions that Jews from all the above-mentioned lands would have understood Gr. or Aram., both of which tongues the apostles presumably knew well, and either of which they could therefore have used on this occasion; or that phrases from foreign languages, once heard but long forgotten, welled up from the subconscious and were spoken aloud for the first time, striking an answering chord in the hearers. When modern scholars speak of “intuitive understanding” or “thought rapport” or “thought transference,” they are either returning to the first explanation (the miracle of hearing) or else saying in Pauline terms that the hearers were given, on that occasion at least, the gift of interpretation.

Later evidence from Acts.

If the gift of tongues had a peculiar evidential value as showing the initial coming of the Spirit, then it was appropriate that it should also appear at the Pentecost of the Gentiles (Acts 10:46, the Caesarean converts) and prob. at that of the Samaritans (8:17). Although tongues are not specifically mentioned, there are obviously some clear outward signs of the Spirit’s coming. It is also specifically mentioned of the Ephesian converts (19:6); if they were disciples of John the Baptist (and not merely illinstructed Christians, as is sometimes claimed) there would be an appropriateness here also.

Whether or not others spoke with tongues on receiving the Holy Spirit, is uncertain. It is possible (as being an outward sign clearly seen by all) but more cannot be affirmed, for Acts does not record it. For instance, Paul could speak with tongues later (1 Cor 14:18). Did he receive this at baptism? Or were these tongues after Pentecost foreign languages or mystic utterances? Lastly, there was no set rule: sometimes, as at Pentecost, the gift came to those long baptized; at Caesarea, it came before baptism, and indeed was the ground of baptism. At Samaria, if it came, it was at “confirmation.”

Tongues in the Pauline epistles.

What, then, is Paul’s assessment of “tongues”? First, he freely admitted it as a spiritual gift, and indeed one in which he excelled (14:18), but one which, along with “interpretation of tongues,” he placed lowest on the list of spiritual gifts (12:10, 30) next to “healing” and “miracles.” He did not expect all to speak with tongues (12:30), nor did he associate this gift with the fullness of the Spirit or with special sanctity.

Within these limits, Paul was happy that the Corinthians would exercise their gift of tongues, even if it be often only in the realm of private devotion (14:28). Certainly he did not have it forbidden—a point which is sometimes overlooked today.

Tongues in the postapostolic church.

Perhaps owing to increased institutionalism, little was heard of tongues in the postapostolic age, except in “fringe sects,” of which the Montanists are a good example. Perhaps, official disapproval led to an unbalanced isolation of, and emphasis on, this spiritual gift. Certainly in these “fringe groups,” it was accompanied by great enthusiasm, coupled with lack of theological balance. By the 4th cent., it must have virtually disappeared, for most Church Fathers were utterly at a loss to understand the Biblical references (as can be seen from the commentaries produced). Nevertheless, in time of spiritual stress or renewal, it has frequently reappeared; the present age seems a clear instance of this. See Spiritual Gifts.


Eusebius, History of the Church; L. Christenson, Speaking in Tongues (1963); J. L. Sherrill, They Speak with Other Tongues (1964); Standard Bible Commentaries on Acts and 1 Corinthians.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

1. Basic Character of 1 Corinthians 14:

A spiritual gift mentioned in Ac 10:44-46; 11:15; 19:6; Mr 16:17, and described in Ac 2:1-13 and at length in 1Co 12-14, especially chapter 14. In fact, 1Co 14 contains such a full and clear account that this passage is basic. The speaker in a tongue addressed God (14:2,28) in prayer (14:14), principally in the prayer of thanksgiving (14:15-17). The words so uttered were incomprehensible to the congregation (14:2,5,9, etc.), and even to the speaker himself (14:14). Edification, indeed, was gained by the speaker (14:4), but this was the edification of emotional experience only (14:14). The words were spoken "in the spirit" (14:2); i.e. the ordinary faculties were suspended and the divine, specifically Christian, element in the man took control, so that a condition of ecstasy was produced. This immediate (mystical) contact with the divine enabled the utterance of "mysteries" (14:2)--things hidden from the ordinary human understanding (see Mystery). In order to make the utterances comprehensible to the congregation, the services of an "interpreter" were needed. Such a man was one who had received from God a special gift as extraordinary as the gifts of miracles, healings, or the tongues themselves (12:10,30); i.e. the ability to interpret did not rest at all on natural knowledge, and acquisition of it might be given in answer to prayer (14:13). Those who had this gift were known, and Paul allowed the public exercise of "tongues" only when one of the interpreters was present (14:28). As the presence of an interpreter was determined before anyone spoke, and as there was to be only one interpreter for the "two or three" speakers (14:28), any interpreter must have been competent to explain any tongue. But different interpreters did not always agree (14:26), whence the limitation to one.

2. Foreign Languages Barred Out:

These characteristics of an interpreter make it clear that "speaking in a tongue" at Corinth was not normally felt to be speaking in a foreign language. In 1Co 14:10 English Versions of the Bible are misleading with "there are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world," which suggests that Paul is referring directly to the tongues. But tosauta there should be rendered "very many," "ever so many," and the verse is as purely illustrative as is 14:7. Hence, foreign languages are to be barred out. (Still, this need not mean that foreign phrases may not occasionally have been employed by the speakers, or that at times individuals may not have made elaborate use of foreign languages. But such cases were not normative at Corinth.) Consequently, if "tongues" means "languages," entirely new languages must be thought of. Such might have been of many kinds (12:28), have been regarded as a fit creation for the conveyance of new truths, and may even at times have been thought to be celestial languages--the "tongues of angels" (13:1). On the other hand, the word for "tongue" (glossa) is of fairly common use in Greek to designate obsolete or incomprehensible words, and, specifically, for the obscure phrases uttered by an oracle. This use is closely parallel to the use in Corinth and may be its source, although then it would be more natural if the "ten thousand words in a tongue" of 14:19 had read "ten thousand glossai." In no case, however, can "tongue" mean simply the physical organ, for 14:18,19 speaks of articulated words and uses the plural "tongues" for a single speaker (compare 14:5,6).

3. A State of Ecstasy:

A complete explanation of the tongues is given by the phenomena of ecstatic utterances, especially when taken in connection with the history of New Testament times. In ecstasy the soul feels itself so suffused with the divine that the man is drawn above all natural modes of perception (the understanding becomes "unfruitful"), and the religious nature alone is felt to be active. Utterances at such times naturally become altogether abnormal. If the words remain coherent, the speaker may profess to be uttering revelations, or to be the mere organ of the divine voice. Very frequently, however, what is said is quite incomprehensible, although the speaker seems to be endeavoring to convey something. In a still more extreme case the voice will be inarticulate, uttering only groans or outcries. At the termination of the experience the subject is generally unconscious of all that has transpired.

For the state, compare Philo, Quis rerum. divin., li-liii.249-66: "The best (ecstasy) of all is a divinely-infused rapture and `mania,’ to which the race of the prophets is subject. .... The wise man is a sounding instrument of God’s voice, being struck and played upon invisibly by Him. .... As long as our mind still shines (is active) .... we are not possessed (by God) .... but .... when the divine light shines, the human light sets. .... The prophet .... is passive, and another (God) makes use of his vocal organs." Compare, further, the descriptions of Celsus (Origen, Contra Celsus, vii.9), who describes the Christian "prophets" of his day as preaching as if God or Christ were speaking through them, closing their words with "strange, fanatical, and quite unintelligible words of which no rational person can find the meaning." The Greek papyri furnish us with an abundance of magical formulas couched in unintelligible terms (e.g. Pap. Lond., 121, "Iao, eloai, marmarachada, menepho, mermai, ieor, aeio, erephie, pherephio," etc.), which are not infrequently connected with an ecstatic state (e.g. Reitzenstein, Poimandres, 53-58).

Interpretation of the utterances in such a state would always be difficult and diversities of interpretation would be unavoidable. Still, with a fixed content, such as the Christian religion gave, and with the aid of gestures, etc., men who felt that they had an understanding of such conditions could undertake to explain them to the congregation. It is to be noted, however, that Paul apparently does not feel that the gift of interpretation is much to be relied on, for otherwise he would have appraised the utility of tongues more highly than he does. But the popularity of tongues in Corinth is easily understood. The speaker was felt to be taken into the closest of unions with God and hence, to be an especial object of God’s favor. Indeed, the occurrence of the phenomenon in a neo-convert was irrefragable proof that the conversion was approved by God (Ac 10:44-48; 11:15; 19:6). So in Mr 16:17 the gift is treated as an exceptional and miraculous divine blessing (in this verse "new" is textually uncertain, and the meaning of the word, if read, is uncertain also). Moreover, for the more selfish, the gift was very showy (1Co 13:1 suggests that it was vociferous), and its possession gratified any desire for personal prominence.

4. The Account in Ac 2:

The account in Ac 2 differs from that of 1Co 14 in making the tongues foreign languages, although the ability to use such languages is not said to have become a permanent apostolic endowment. (Nor is it said that the speech of Ac 2:14-36 was delivered in more than one language.) When the descent of the Spirit occurred, those who were assembled together were seized with ecstasy and uttered praises to God. A crowd gathered and various persons recognized words and phrases in their own tongues; nothing more than this is said. That the occasion was one where a miracle would have had unusual evidential value is evident, and those who see a pure miracle in the account have ample justification for their position. But no more than a providential control of natural forces need be postulated, for similar phenomena are abundantly evidenced in the history of religious experience. At times of intense emotional stress the memory acquires abnormal power, and persons may repeat words and even long passages in a foreign language, although they may have heard them only once. Now the situation at Jerusalem at the time of the Feast gave exactly the conditions needed, for then there were gathered pilgrims from all countries, who recited in public liturgical passages (especially the Shemoneh `Esreh) in their own languages. These, in part, the apostles and the "brethren" simply reproduced. Incomprehensible words and phrases may well have been included also (Ac 2:13), but for the dignity of the apostles and for the importance of Pentecost Luke naturally cared to emphasize only the more unusual side and that with the greatest evidential value. It is urged, to be sure, that this interpretation contradicts the account in 1Co 14. But it does so only on the assumption that the tongues were always uniform in their manifestation and appraisement everywhere--and the statement of this assumption is its own refutation. If the modern history of ecstatic utterances has any bearing on the Apostolic age, the speaking in foreign languages could not have been limited only to Pentecost. (That, however, it was as common as the speaking in new "languages" would be altogether unlikely.) But both varieties Luke may well have known in his own experience.

5. Religious Emotionalism:

Paul’s treatment of the tongues in 1Co 12-14 is a classical passage for the evaluation of religious emotionalism. Tongues are a divine gift, the exercise is not to be forbidden (14:39), and Paul himself is grateful that he has the gift in an uncommon degree (14:18). Indeed, to those who treat them simply with scorn they become a "sign" that hardening is taking place (14:21-23). Yet a love of them because they are showy is simply childish (14:20; 13:11), and the possessor of the gift is not to think that he has the only thing worth obtaining (1Co 12). The only gift that is utterly indispensable is love (1Co 13), and without it tongues are mere noise (13:1). The public evidential value of tongues, on which perhaps the Corinthians were inclined to lay stress, Paul rates very low (14:21-23). Indeed, when exercised in public they tend to promote only the self-glorification of the speaker (14:4), and so are forbidden when there is not an interpreter, and they are limited for public use at all times (14:27,28). But the ideal place for their exercise is in private: "Let him speak to himself, and to God" (14:28). The applicability of all this to modern conditions needs no commentary. Ultra-emotionalistic outbreaks still cause the formation of eccentric sects among us, and every evangelist knows well-meaning but slightly weak individuals who make themselves a nuisance. On the other hand, a purely intellectual and ethical religion is rather a dreary thing. A man who has never allowed his religious emotions to carry him away may well be in a high state of grace--but he has missed something, and something of very great value.



Plumptre in DB is still useful. Wright, Some New Testament Problems (1898), and Walker, The Gift of Tongues and Other Essays (1906), have collections of material. Of the commentaries on 1 Corinthians those of Heinrici (latest edition, 1896), Lietzmann (1907) and J. Weiss (1910) are much the best, far surpassing Robertson and Plummer in ICC (1911). For the Greek material, see ... in the index of Rhode’s Psyche. Gunkel, Die Wirkungen des heiligen Geistes (1888, 2nd reprint in 1909), was epoch-making. For the later period, see Weinel, Die Wirkungen des Gelstes und der Geister (1899); Lake, The Earlier Epistles of Paul (London, 1911); and see Inge in The Quarterly Review (London, 1914).