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Part IV - Were Tongues a Known Language
in The New Testament?

 Carol Brooks

Edited by Vicki Narlee

Index To All Six Sections

Ch. 1. Tongues - Introduction: Deception in The Church. The Holy Spirit in The Old and New Testaments. The 'Second Blessing' and the 'Initial Evidence' doctrine. The Controversy and It's Importance

Ch. 2. Tongues In The Gospels and Acts: The Purpose of Tongues in The New Testament. Mark 16:17. Speaking in Tongues in The Book of Acts. Pentecost - Distinguishing Factors. What All Three Occurrences Had in Common. Not Everyone Spoke in Tongues On Pentecost. Was the Spirit Given Before Pentecost?

Ch. 3. Tongues In Corinthians: The overall message of 1 Corinthians 14. Disregarding Most of What Paul Said About The Gift of Tongues. How Important Were Tongues in The New Testament?

You Are Here 001orange Ch. 4.  Tongues - A Known Language?: A Known Language or Unintelligible Utterances on and after Pentecost. Unknown Languages or Ecstatic Speech?. Tongues of Angels? Ignoring Matthew 6:7

Ch. 5. Tongues - What Spirit?: Neither Tongues nor Erratic Movements are Restricted to Born Again Christian Believers. How Did a Different Spirit Infiltrate The Church? - A Brief History of Pentecostalism May Provide The Answer. Voodoo. Circumstantial Evidence? Common Signs of Demon Possession. Comparing the Lwa with New Testament Demonic Possession.

Ch. 6. Tongues - Conclusion: According to The Bible Who Receives God's Holy Spirit? According to The Bible How Does One Receive God's Spirit? What It Means To Have The Spirit of God Dwelling In Us. The Gifts of The Spirit. Why People Don't Speak In Tongues?



A Known Language or Unintelligible Utterances?

Pentecost - Speaking In Other Languages
And was it necessary?

After Pentecost... Speaking In Other Languages?
How did Peter know that the Romans had received the same gift as the disciples did on Pentecost?

Unknown Languages or Ecstatic Speech?

Tongues of Angels?
Literal language or hyperbole?

Matthew 6:7
Jesus' whole point was in favor of short and meaningful prayers.


A Known Language or Unintelligible Utterances?
Some instances of the tongues spoken within the charismatic movement today have been examined by linguistic scholars, and found not to be any real, human language. This brings up the question of whether there is any solid evidence in the Bible that the gift of tongues was a known human language, rather than unintelligible utterances.

Pentecost - Speaking In Other Languages

As previously mentioned, Pentecost was the Greek name for Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks when Jews celebrated the completion of the harvest season on the fiftieth day of Passover. This was one of three annual feasts when it was mandatory for all males to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which accounts for the fact that the multitude gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost were from all over the Roman empire (verses 9-11 lists 15)

The evidence is overwhelming for the view that the disciples, who were Galilean Jews, were communicating in the languages or dialects spoken by the multitude of people that had gathered in Jerusalem that day... languages that the disciples themselves had no knowledge of. Luke wrote...

     When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  (2) And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. (3)  And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.  (4) And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other (Gk. heterais) tongues (Gk. glossa) , as the Spirit was giving them utterance. (5)  Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.  (6) And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language (Gk. dialektos) .  (7) They were amazed and astonished, saying, "Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  (8) "And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?  (9) "Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, (10) Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  (11)  Cretans and Arabs--we hear them in our own tongues (Gk. glossa) speaking of the mighty deeds of God."  (12)  And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"  (Acts 2:1-12 NASB)

In his account of what happened next Luke used two different Greek words - dialektos and glossa that, quite obviously mean the same thing. Note: We get the English dialect from dialektos.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples began to speak in other languages they had neither previously learned nor understood. In other words tongues were distinct, understandable languages, given as a sign to confirm that both the men and the message they proclaimed were from God. This convinced many that this phenomena was a mighty display of the power of God and they became believers in Jesus Christ.

However what is particularly interesting is the fact that ...

Speaking In Other Languages On Pentecost Was Not Necessary
It is commonly believed that on Pentecost the disciples were preaching to the crowd in tongues, which is not true. As the account says, the disciples were "speaking of the mighty deeds of God" in the various languages of the multitude present. This is exactly what happened when the Holy Spirit was poured out on Cornelius and his household in Acts 10. Verse 46 reads "For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God"

The concept of people being bilingual or even trilingual may be foreign to most Americans, but was (and is) common in many parts of the world.

Like virtually everyone else who moves to another country or region, the Jewish diaspora would have learned the language or dialect of the region they moved to.  At the same time, because Greek was commonly spoken throughout the Roman Empire, most of the Jews who were living abroad in the regions listed in Acts 2:9-11, would have Greek as their first language. See Footnote In fact, Greek had become so common that many Jews living away from Israel were rapidly losing touch with Hebrew. (Note: This is the reason the Old Testament was translated into standard Koine Greek, i.e. the Septuagint. Koine being the Greek word for "common", as in "the common dialect")

Which is why, when Peter stood up and addressed the crowd (Acts 2:14), he did so in the one language which everyone seemed to understand without difficulty - Greek. However, when the disciples spoke in tongues, they were praising God and speaking of His mighty deeds  in the various dialects and languages represented in the crowd.

So, on Pentecost, glossolalia or tongues was not used to overcome a language barrier, but to convince the Jews living outside Israel that a miracle had taken place. The disciples, residents of Galilea, were magnifying God in languages that they had never learned.

After Pentecost... Speaking In Other Languages?
Peter's Comparison
Peter drew a very close parallel between what happened to the household of Cornelius and the experience of the disciples on Pentecost. In fact, he twice acknowledged the connection between the two events, the second time when recounting the incident to the elders in Jerusalem

    And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. "And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' "Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way? (Acts 11:15-17 NASB)

How did Peter know that the Romans had received the same gift as the disciples did on Pentecost? Acts 10:46 tells us that they were using tongues to "magnify God". Obviously the Jews understood what was being said, which would not have been the case if what they said was unintelligible.

Terms Used By Luke and Paul.
Both Luke and Paul used exactly the same Greek word to describe tongues in the book of Acts and tongues in the Corinthian church.

Although we commonly assume that the book of Acts was written first, in actuality it was written a few years after Paul's epistle to the Corinthians. Thus Luke, who was also Paul's traveling companion, had to have read, or at least been familiar with Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, in which the word glossa was used some 21 times.

If Luke knew that the manifestations of tongues on Pentecost were different from those Paul spoke about in 1 Corinthians, why didn't he give even the slightest hint that this was the case. Instead, he used exactly the same word - glossa - to describe the phenomena in Acts 2.

Unknown Languages or Ecstatic Speech?
An "Unknown" Tongue
One of the commonly made arguments for the gift of tongues being not a different language, but a non language comes from a single phrase "unknown tongue", used five times in the King James version and a couple of other translations...

    For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries. (1 Corinthians 14:2 KJV)

     He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.  (1 Corinthians 14:4 KJV) Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret. (1 Corinthians 14:13 KJV)

    For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. (1 Corinthians 14:14 KJV)

    Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.  (1 Corinthians 14:19 KJV)

    If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. (1 Corinthians 14:27 KJV)

The problem being that the word "unknown" does not occur in the original Greek in any of these verses. Perhaps for the very simple reason that there is no such thing as an "unknown tongue".  If it is a "tongue" (Gk. glossa), it is a language which someone, somewhere, uses and understands.

However, the word apparently added by the translators to explain that the language being spoken was not understood by the Greek speaking congregation, therefore "unknown" to them. However, this addition has caused a great deal of misunderstanding - the word  "unknown" often been taken to mean that the language being spoken was not known on earth.

However, I suspect that the gibberish spoken at charismatic and Pentecostal meetings is a language known to someone or something out there.

"Ecstatic" Speech?
 Many believe that while foreign languages were spoken in Acts 2, and may have been spoken in the other instances in Acts, tongues in the book of Corinthians was "ecstatic speech", not a foreign language.

The English word ecstatic describes the psychological state of the speaker, and means a) feeling or expressing overwhelming happiness or joyful excitement, or b) in a trancelike state of great rapture or delight.

However, it should be noted that ecstatic comes from the Greek word ekstasis used seven times in the New Testament, and translated either amazement or trance. None of the occurrences have any connection to the gift of tongues. See Footnote

In his discussion of tongues in 1 Corinthians, Paul neither uses ekstasis nor says anything about the emotional or mental state of the speaker, instead concentrates on whether or not the tongues were interpreted. In other words, the problem was not speaking in tongues per se, but speaking in tongues without interpretation, which seems to be exactly what the Corinthians were doing. Additionally, when Paul said...

    If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. (1 Corinthians 14:27-28 NASB)

... he clearly indicated that the speaker was in complete control of his speech, i.e. not in an ecstatic or trance like state.

Speaking Mysteries
In 1Corinthians 14:2, Paul says

    For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries (Gk. musterion). (1 Corinthians 14:2 NASB)


We usually think of a mystery as something that we have to figure out. For example, a murder mystery is a "whodunit" (who done it?). However, when the Bible speaks about "mysteries", it is not referring to something that is incomprehensible, or even difficult to be understood, but to some truth that has either not yet been revealed or, more commonly, some truth that was once hidden but is now revealed. As Jesus said 

    And the disciples came and said to Him, "Why do You speak to them in parables?" Jesus answered them, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. (Matthew 13:10-11 NASB)

Also See The Mystery of God is Finished (Revelation 10:5-7)

The communication of "mysteries" did not require ecstatic speech. Paul clearly revealed and taught mysteries ... in Greek..

    Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery (Gk. musterion) which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; (Romans 16:25-26 NASB)

    Behold, I tell you a mystery (Gk. musterion); we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 NASB)

Tongues of Angels?

The argument is often made that there are two different kinds of tongues... a language spoken somewhere on earth and one spoken in heaven by the angels. This argument centers around a highly enigmatic comment made by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1.

    If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1 NASB)

There are two responses to this - The first from a scientific one perspective, and the second is the Biblical context

A Scientific Perspective:
In 1972, William J. Samarin professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Toronto, published a thorough assessment of Pentecostal glossolalia in his book Tongues of men and angels; The religious language of Pentecostalism, available on Amazon.

In summary, languages have a sound pattern that can be discerned by linguists, whether or not they know the language.  In an assessment based on a large sample of glossolalia recorded in public and private Christian meetings around the world, William Samarin came to the conclusion that the sounds tongues speakers bear no resemblance to any known human language be it extinct or extant.

 Much to the contrary, the person who is speaking in tongues duplicates the sounds (phonemes) of his or her native language. Thus the sounds made by an American speaker consistently has distinctly different phonemes from a Japanese speaker. On the other hand, there is strong uniformity among the people of a particular ethnicity or group.

Samarin's conclusion is that tongues is not a distinct universal language but is closely connected to the speaker's linguistic experience.

    glossolalia consists of strings of meaningless syllables made up of sounds taken from those familiar to the speaker and put together more or less haphazardly .... Glossolalia is language-like because the speaker unconsciously wants it to be language-like. Yet in spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia fundamentally is not language (Nickell, 108).

If there is one 'angelic language' one has to ask why every ethnic group has their own version of it, or do angels speak in different 'dialects' conveniently related to the  speaker's primary language?

In any case, every Biblical instance of interaction between angels and humans demonstrates that angels speak human languages quite capably. In fact, John understood them perfectly well even when they were speaking to each other (See Revelation 7:2), which should cause us to lean away from the idea that angels have a language all their own.

Inexpressible Words? So what did it mean when Paul said that when he was caught up to Paradise, he heard unspeakable (KJV) or inexpressible (NASB) words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter" (2 Corinthians 12:4. Emphasis Added).  "Inexpressible words" was translated from the Greek arrheta rhemata, that doesn't necessarily mean inexpressible in human language, but forbidden to divulge or secret.

In other words, Paul understood everything he heard, but he word "lawful" indicates that he was not permitted to repeat what he had heard.

The Biblical Context:
What is necessary in this case (as in all others) is to come to a Biblical understanding of what the passage means, rather than automatically swallowing denominational teaching without bothering to do what the Bereans did, i.e. see if what is being told us is true according to the Bible.

As always, the context steers us in the right direction.

We should all know by now that there were no chapter and verse divisions in the original text, but were added later for convenience. However, it is not unknown to have a division in the most unsuitable places, and this is one of them. Chapter 13, solely devoted to the subject of love, is a continuation of the previous chapter in which Paul introduces the subject of the various spiritual gifts which the Holy Spirit confers on Christians.

These gifts are clearly stated to be for the common good (12:7) - the strengthening and edifying of every member of the body. And, as Paul pointed out, because there was a need for an assortment of gifts that contributed to the healthy functioning of the body, no one should consider that their gift was more important or less important than anyone else's. Each one should be willing to use their gift for the good of all.

In the final verse of chapter 12, Paul told the Corinthians to "earnestly desire the greater gifts" but he would show them a "more excellent way" - words that are an introduction to the next chapter, in which "the more excellent way" is shown to be 'love' 

The first three verses of chapter 13 all use exactly the same format. Although all five assertions are related we have decided just one of them is literal.

    If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1 NASB)

    If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2 NASB)

    And If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:3 NASB)

The fact is that in all five statements, Paul was using hyperbole (a form of literary exaggeration) to emphasize the point he was making to the quarrelsome Corinthians, i.e. regardless of how elevated, any gift is useless to the giver if he doesn't have love. And, the answer to the question of what Paul meant by 'tongues of angels' is embarrassingly simple.

How many times have you heard someone say "She has the face of an angel" - obviously not a literal statement since no one knows what an angel looks like. How about someone having a "heavenly voice" or a dessert being "heavenly" which simply means the voice was outstandingly sweet and the dessert really superb.

Similarly, "the tongues of angels" is simply hyperbole for the 'highest' speech one can possible imagine - not a literal language.

Matthew 6:7
And finally, we need to pay attention to Jesus' instructions to His disciples

    And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition (Gr battologeo) as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.  (Matthew 6:7 NASB)

The word translated "repetition' is the Greek battologeo, unfortunately used just once in the New Testament. However, according to Thayers it means

    to repeat the same things over and over, to use many idle words, to babble, prate. Some suppose the word derived from Battus, a king of Cyrene, who is said to have stuttered; others from Battus, an author of tedious and wordy poems.

There are two possible logical interpretations of Jesus' instructions. Either He was referring to long prayers in the speaker's own language, or to the repeated sounds we hear in glossolalia.

 However, the word 'meaningless' steers us away from the first possibility because, even if prayers in a known language are long and the person praying tends to repeat himself, the words are not necessarily meaningless. They mean something even if they are said over and over again.

If this is true, and it certainly seems to be so, Jesus was specifically instructing us to not indulge in glossolalia

In any case, Jesus' whole point was in favor of short and meaningful prayers. This is nowhere more clear than when He gave us the Lord's Prayer as a pattern. It is a short prayer that covers a very broad spectrum of subjects but does not contain a single repetition. One has to ask why Jesus would teach a standard of prayer that is the exact opposite of the babbling one hears in so many Pentecostal/Charismatic churches today.

Modern tongues speakers use unknown words, tend to be long winded, and endlessly repeat themselves. Jesus' prayer 'pattern' is short, uses our languages and never repeats itself. A typical example of mindless repetition can be hard in this video of Kenneth Hagin speaking in tongues -  starting at about the 4:15 minute mark. He sounds like a bleating goat for a few seconds beginning at the 10:10 mark. WATCH

So, the million dollar question is, if tongues were a known language in the New Testament, and there is absolutely no evidence to show that it was some form of ecstatic or 'angelic' speech, and Paul instructed that everything was to be done decently and in order, where does the unintelligible gibberish, jerking, twitching, falling on the floor etc. all come from?


Continue On To Part V -  Tongues -  A Gift of The Spirit? But What Spirit? HERE


Footnote I
Greek was the official language in Parthia located in what is now north-eastern Iran

Cyrene was an ancient Greek colony and the residents probably all spoke Greek.

"Visitors from Rome" would have likely spoken both Latin and Greek, since much of the culture of ancient Rome was inspired by the other civilizations they conquered and assimilated.

Mesopotamia, the region lying between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BC, and remained under Hellenistic rule for another two centuries, therefore, "residents of Mesopotamia" would have also spoken and understood Greek.

The Phrygian language is considered to have been closely related to Greek. Except a few of the most backward Phrygian towns, all education was Greek, and there was probably no writing except in Greek.

Cappadocia, to the east of Phrygia, was one of the places to which Peter directed his first epistle written in Greek. (See 1 Peter 1:1)

Footnote II

    Mark 5:42 - the raising of a dead girl.  Immediately the girl got up and began to walk, for she was twelve years old. And immediately they were completely astounded.

    Mark 16:8 - when the women saw the angel sitting in Jesus' empty tomb. They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

    Luke 5:26 - the healing of the paralytic.  They were all struck with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filled with fear, saying, "We have seen remarkable things today."

    Acts 3:10 - The healing of a man lame from birth. and they were taking note of him as being the one who used to sit at the Beautiful Gate of the temple to beg alms, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

    Acts 10:10 - Peter praying on the roof prior to receiving a vision.  But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance;

    Acts 11:5 - Ditto. "I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object coming down like a great sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me,

    Acts 22:17 Saul praying in the Temple.   "It happened when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I fell into a trance.


Index To Tongues