Glossolalia - speaking in tongues

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

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.

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume

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 or Christian Book Distributors at

3. Glossolalia.


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