GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Glossolalia - speaking in tongues
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
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tongues, speaking with, ‘glossolalia,’ the act of speaking in a language either unknown to the speaker or incomprehensible (in both ot and nt, the word ‘tongue’ sometimes refers to a language, frequently an alien or incomprehensible language). Apparently, the phenomenon of glossolalia played a prominent role in the life of at least some early Christian communities.
Paul addresses the matter of ‘speaking in tongues’ as a possible problem in the church at Corinth. Although he acknowledges that the ability to speak in ‘various kinds of tongues’ and the ability to interpret these tongues are ‘spiritual gifts’ (1 Cor. 12:10), he is aware not all are to speak in tongues (1 Cor. 12:30), and advises his readers to seek ‘the higher gifts’ (1 Cor. 12:31). In 1 Corinthians 13, he makes it clear that he thinks of love as the greatest spiritual gift. Love is contrasted with speaking ‘in the tongues of men and of angels’ (1 Cor. 13:1); love endures, while tongues will cease (v. 8). Thus, in 1 Cor. 14:1, Paul directs that his readers make love their aim ‘and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.’ In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul gives a number of directions about the use of glossolalia. Speaking in tongues is not helpful to the community, he says, because it is incomprehensible (14:2). Only when there is interpretation is there edification (v. 5). When the community convenes, no more than three should speak in tongues, each in turn, and there must be an interpretation (v. 27). Paul feels that uncontrolled and uninterpreted speaking in tongues does not edify the community and that it gives outsiders the impression that believers are mad (v. 23). Yet, he allows this activity to take place, so long as it is done in orderly fashion and is accompanied by interpretation. In 1 Corinthians, it seems clear that ‘speaking in a tongue’ means speaking an incomprehensible language, a language that probably was thought of as the language of angels (1 Cor. 13:1).
Acts 2 contains a narrative about the events of the first Pentecost after Easter. On that day, the apostles gathered together, and, after hearing a sound like wind and seeing tongues like fire, they began ‘to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance’ (Acts 2:4). The author of Acts goes on to list various nationalities of persons who heard the apostles speak, all hearing in their own languages. Although the story may suggest that the apostles spoke an incomprehensible language (v. 13), the dominant idea is that they were speaking known foreign languages. In this respect, the phenomenon described here differs from the glossolalia known to Paul and practiced in Corinth.
The phenomenon of speaking with tongues is mentioned twice more in Acts. After Peter preached in the house of Cornelius, the Gentiles there began to speak in tongues (Acts 10:46). This was taken as a sign that the Holy Spirit had been poured out among Gentiles and that they should be baptized. In Acts 19, Paul met some disciples of Apollos at Ephesus. These disciples, who had been baptized ‘into John’s baptism’ (Acts 19:3), had never heard of the Holy Spirit. Paul instructed them, baptized them in the name of Jesus, and laid his hands on them. Then, ‘the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied’ (v. 6). The author of Acts probably thought of these two incidents as similar to the one described in chap. 2.
Both in 1 Corinthians and in Acts, the gift of glossolalia is associated with the Spirit. Paul’s treatment of it as ecstatic, incomprehensible speech probably reflects actual practices in his churches. In Acts, the phenomenon is treated as a dramatic sign authenticating various communities of Christian believers: the original Jerusalem Christians in Acts 2; Gentile Christians in Acts 10; and the disciples of Apollos in Acts 19.
Kittel, Gerhard, and Friedrich, Gerhard, Editors (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985)
This article is by Johannes Behm. In the unabridged edition of the TDNT, this subject is covered in Volume I, pages 722-26. You are strongly recommended to add the one-volume edition of the TDNT book to your library. It is available at Border's Books at http://www.borders.com or Christian Book Distributors at http://www.christianbook.com.
a. Speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 12-14; cf. Mk. 16:17; Acts 2:4) is a gift (1 Cor. 14:2). This speaking is primarily to God (14:2, 28) in the form of prayer, praise, or thanksgiving (14:2, 14-17). Its benefit is for the individual rather than the community (14:4ff.). In it the nous is absorbed so that the words are obscure (14:2, 9, 11, 15-16). Since the sounds are not articulated, the impression of a foreign language is left (14:7-8, 10-11), and uncontrolled use might suggest that the community is composed of mad people (14:23, 27). Yet tongues are a sign of God’s power (14:22). To make them useful either the speaker or someone else must interpret (14:5, 13, 27-28; 12:10, 30). If parallels may be found in other religions, Paul discerns a difference in the religious content (1 Cor. 12:2-3). He can thus accept and even claim the charisma (1 Cor. 14:18, 39) but demands that it be subject to edification, order, limitation, and testing (1 Cor. 14:26ff.). Prophecy is superior to it, and above all the gifts is love (1 Cor. 13).
b. It should be noted that, while there are Hellenistic parallels for tongues, there is also an OT basis. Thus the seers of 1 Sam. 10:5ff. seem to be robbed of their individuality, and their fervor finds expression in broken cries and unintelligible speech (cf. 2 Kgs. 9:11). Drunkards mock Isaiah’s babbling speech (Is. 28:10-11). The later literatare, e.g., Eth. En. 71:11, gives similar examples of ecstatic speech (not necessarily speaking in tongues).
c. The event recorded in Acts 2 belongs to this context. Like the speaking in tongues depicted by Paul, it is a gift of the Spirit (v. 4) which causes astonishment (v. 7) and raises the charge of drunkenness (v. 13). But in this case the hearers detect their own languages (vv. 8, 11). Since they are all Jews (v. 9) and an impression of confused babbling is given, it is not wholly clear what this implies. Perhaps there is a reflection of the Jewish tradition that at Sinai the law was given to the nations in seventy languages. In any case, the orderly proclamation of Peter quickly follows (vv. 14ff.).
d. Why glossa came to be used for this phenomenon is debatable. Speaking (only) with the physical tongue is a most unlikely explanation in view of Paul’s gene glosson in 1 Cor. 12:10 and the plural in 14:5. Nor is it likely that the phrase “tongues as of fire” of Acts 2:3 underlies the usage. The meaning “unintelligible sound” might seem to fit the case, but Paul sharply criticizes this aspect and glossa is for him more than an isolated oracle (1 Cor. 14:2, 9, 11, 26). It seems, then, that “language” is the basic meaning; here is a miraculous “language of the Spirit” such as is used by angels (1 Cor. 13:1) and which we, too, may use as we are seized by the Spirit and caught up to heaven (2 Cor. 12:2ff.; cf. 1 Cor. 14:2, 13ff. as well as the stress on the heavenly origin of the phenomenon in Acts 2:2ff.).
a. “Speaking another language,” “of an alien tongue”; b. “speaking different languages.” The only NT use is in 1 Cor. 14:21, where Paul applies Is. 28:11-12 (originally spoken of the Assyrians) in his teaching about the use of tongues in the community: As God will speak to Israel by the Assyrians, so he will give the sign of tongues to unbelievers. Paul offers us here an instructive example, paralleled in the rabbis, of his use of the OT.
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