The Gift of “Speaking with Tongues”
There are “tongues speakers” in the Christendom who have been convinced that speaking with some kind of unintelligible, unclear tongues is to them a sign or evidence of being “baptized in the Holy Ghost”.
The “tongues speakers” claim the utterances that come out of their mouths are revelations from “the Holy Ghost”, which they cannot interpret; in other words, they utter something but do not know what it is.
If someone claims that he or she has a gift from above, i.e. “speaking with tongues”, or other phenomenon, who has the sufficient authority to reject it? To do this the rejecter must stand between the recipient of the gift and his or her Creator and be a part of that experience.
However, this is what we can do: we can examine the questionable texts and conclude whether these claims are Scriptural or not, not whether the claimer has a gift from heaven.
Likewise, we do not have the purpose or intent to proof or disproof the phenomenon of “speaking with tongues”, but to explain in a simple way the plain meaning of the texts in question, undistorted by emotions or personal bias. And this we shall do concerning the “gift of speaking with tongues”.
Before doing this for the purpose of being objective, we need to put aside any preconceived ideas and everything we have heard in the Church about “speaking with tongues”.
The strange prayer
There was a man Elkanah, an Ephrayimite, who had two wives: Channah and Peninnah; Peninnah had children, but Channah was barren. And Channah’s life was bitter and she prayed to YHVH and wept greatly.
And she made a vow to YHVH Elohim that if He would look on her affliction and give her a son, then she would give him to YHVH all the days of his life. (1Sa 1:1-11) And it came to be, as she kept on praying before YHVH, that Eli the High Priest was watching her mouth.
And Channah spoke in her heart, only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard. So Eli thought she was drunk. (1Sa 1:12-13)
Then Eli said to her, “How long are you going to be drunk? Put your wine away from you!” But she said, “No, my lord, I am a woman pained in spirit. And I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before Yehovah. (1Sa 1:14-15) And it came to be that Channah bore a son and called his name Shemu’el.
Channah was not drunk, nor was she under influence of some kind; she was praying quietly in her heart, yet the High Priest perceived it as something suspicious.
What does this story proof?
We should see that moving the lips in an inaudible manner or even worse uttering unintelligible speech was not well accepted in the ancient Hebraic culture. And indeed, there is no evidence in the Hebrew Scripture of such a phenomenon of speaking unintelligibly.
Some may argue, as they do, that that was in “the Old Testament”; but in “the New Testament” times it is different: “the Holy Spirit” is being poured out freely to all who believe, the free gifts of “speaking with tongues and healing are given to the elected ones.
Can we rethink this? Is there any evidence in “the New Testament” to this claim?
“Speaking with tongues in Acts
When the fiftieth day of counting of the omer came, the disciples gathered together for the Festival of Shavuot (Greek pentecost, “fiftieth”). We are told that they all came “with one mind in one place”.
This place must have been the Temple area, where all males were required to gathered, according to the Torah. Then, suddenly a sound from the heaven came, as of a mighty wind, and it filled “all the house where they were sitting”. And tongues, as of fire, appeared on them.
And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. (Act 2:3 KJV)
Then, King James’ version of the Bible (KJV) says that the disciples began speaking with those “tongues”.
And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Act 2:4 KJV)
The problematic translation here is of the phrase “speak with other tongues” and the word “tongues” itself. Why was this whole line of words necessary? Because, as we will reason below, this would not agree with the Greek language employed here.
We should not err and conclude prematurely from the words “speak with other tongues” that some kind of a mystic uttering took place, as it is commonly accepted.
First of all, KJV of verse 3 is very specific to say that “cloven tongues like as of fire” sat on each of them. We should note here that whatever sat upon the disciples was “like as of fire”, but not real fire, and “tongues of fire” or “flames of fire” in that case is used metaphorically, not literally.
The definition of the word “tongue” (aside of being an organ in the human body) is any long thin projection that is transient; for instance, like in the phrase “tongues of flame” or “tongues of river” in Exo 7:19 and Exo 8:5 referring to “the Nile River delta”.
But while Greek uses one word for “tongue” in both cases, alluding to the same event (Hebrew uses two different words), the confusion that the disciples were speaking with “tongues of fire” is evident.
Besides, Greek does not use the phrasal verb “to speak with” or “to speak in” but “to speak”, which makes us thing that “with” or “in” were inserted into the text to make it work.
The last but not the least, in English, “to speak” is a transitive verb characterized by having or containing a direct object that does not require prepositions like “with” or “in”, i.e., “to speak English language”, not “speaking with English language”, unless used in phrases like “speaking with an accent” or “speaking in a whisper” with specific meanings.
Also, the word “tongue”, which KJV uses, is an old English word for “language”. Therefore, we are talking about in intentional or unintentional alteration of the translation.
“Speaking with or in tongues”, therefore, is as a strange thing to say as “speaking with flames”, as we will explain this below in more details.
Now, if we want to understand what indeed took place at that time we must pay attention to what follows next.
We are told that many Jews, dedicated men from “every nation under the heaven”, came in Jerusalem for that festival. And when the disciples began speaking, they were all confused, because “everyone heard them speak in his own language” (Act 2:5-7) saying,
And how do we hear, each one in our own language in which we were born? (Act 2:8)
The disciples were speaking the native languages of the Jews who were dispersed throughout the known world. A closer look at the text will convince even the doubter that, according to its plain meaning, such a conclusion is the only possible reading of the above verses.
And if we want to be consistent in our reasoning and keep on reading, we will find out that these Jews, who came from every nation under the heaven, were Parthians, Medes, Persians, Cretans and Arabs and many others: all who dwelled in Mesopotamia, Judaea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Egypt, Libya, and Rome, Jews and proselytes alike, everyone speaking his own native language (Act 2:9-11).
Throne of tongues of fire
All saw tongues of fire that came upon the disciples. But where did those tongues come from? We read in Daniel thus,
I was looking until thrones were set up, and the Ancient of Days was seated. His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like clean wool, His throne was tongues of fire, its wheels burning fire. (Dan 7:9)
These tongues of fire are proceeding from the throne of the Ancient of Days, as if the throne itself was of fire, and the wheels of His throne are scattering forth the fire. Fire is the constant phenomenon of the manifestation of the Creator in the finite world.
The appearance of the Creator in a fiery gleam of light upon the throne was of a figure resembling a man, fiery-looking from the loins upwards and downwards. This impression is heightened by the tongues of fire which are seen to go forth from His throne. We find the same similitude in Eze 1:4 as the great cloud of fire.
Then Daniel continued to marvel as his breath in his body was pained, and the awesome visions he saw affrighted him at the appearance of “One like the Son of man” who came to the Ancient of Days,
I was looking in the night visions and saw One like the Son of man coming with the clouds of the heavens! And He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. (Dan 7:13-14)
Ezekiel saw the no less frightening appearance of the Ancient of Days “like glowing metal with the appearance of fire” in heaven,
And above the expanse over their heads was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like a sapphire stone. And on the likeness of the throne was a likeness as the appearance of a man on it above. And from the appearance of His waist and upward I saw what looked like glowing metal with the appearance of fire all around within it. And from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw what looked like fire, and brightness all around. (Eze 1:26-28)
Indeed, we may argue that those tongues of fire that sat upon the disciples must have come from the throne of the Ancient of Days, as His Ruach gave them the ability of utterance.
So, where do we see in Acts 2 the strange, “Holy Ghost filled” unintelligent jabbering, i.e. “speaking with tongues”, which many Pentecostals claim for themselves? Such a phenomenon is just not there.
With that being said, we may argue that it would have been appropriate then to say “speaking different languages”, rather than “speaking with other tongues”, much less “speaking with flames”. If so, we can translate and interpret verse 4 thus,
And they were all filled with the Set-apart Ruach and began to speak different languages, as the Ruach gave them to speak. (Act 2:4)
Therefore, it is most evident from the plain translation and reading of the text that the apostles were speaking known and existing languages: the languages of the Jews and proselytes, who came in Jerusalem for the Festival of Shavuot, not strange tongues they were speaking with.
But what was the purpose of this unexpected free gift to speak foreign languages that the disciples received? Soon they would recall that Mashiach himself had already sent them to the east to witness to the lost tribes of Israel.
Therefore, the disciples did not gather together in Peter’s upper room, nut at the upper deck of the Temple, and the so-called “Pentecost” was not the “birth of the Church” but one of the appointed times of the Creator: Chag Shavuot, or the Festival of Weeks.
And the “speaking with other tongues” was not the so-called “Holy Ghost filled” tongues or flames, but a free gift the disciples received through His Ruach (Hebrew “Wind”, “Breath”) for the purpose to reach out to the Lost Tribes of Israel.
Let us recall that Yeshua sent his disciples to their lost brothers with the words,
Do not go into the way of the nations, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans, but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, proclaim, saying, “The reign of the heavens has drawn near”. (Mat 10:5-7)
I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Mat 15:24)
Thus equipped with the gift of speaking foreign tongues, the disciples became ready to go on the mission to the lost tribes of Israel.
With the confusion of “speaking with tongues” being removed, we can proceed to another confusion concerning “speaking with tongues”: that in 1Corinthians 14.
The gift of prophecy
In 1Corinthians 14, Apostle Shaul speaks a lot about spiritual gifts and especially the gift of prophecy, which has become the main theme throughout the chapter.
But in order to properly understand the words of the apostle in 1Corinthians 14, we need to keep in mind what we learned in the first part of this study: the apostles were given the gift of speaking foreign languages for the purpose of spreading the Good News.
We will note here that the apostles were not trained in foreign languages or born in a foreign culture, like Shaul was, but received this gift freely.
Apostle Shaul, however, was learned in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek, in addition to his mother tongue Hebrew. This ability of speaking other languages allowed him to reach out to not only the Latin and Greek speaking Jews, but also to the Romans and Greeks alike (1Co 14:18).
We will also note of Shaul’s complex language in his letters, concerning which Apostle Shimon bade us to be aware of. Shimon knew that Shaul’s teachings would be twisted and misunderstood,
and reckon the patience of our Lord as deliverance, as also our beloved brother Shaul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him, as also in all his letters, speaking in them concerning these matters, in which some are hard to understand, which those who are untaught and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do also the other Scriptures. (2Pe 3:15-16)
The word prophesy is used largely in Scripture not in the limited sense of foretelling the future but of pouring forth heaven-given speech.
A prophet is not someone who predicts the future: this is a fortuneteller. The role of the prophet is to receive the message from YHVH and relay it to the people in order to repent. And if the people do not listen to YHVH their Elohim to repent, then the prophet begins telling them the future as it is given to him from above.
With that being said, we learn from the very beginning of the chapter that there was a strong tendency among some in Corinth to exaggerate the use of “speaking with tongues”; the tongues the assembly could not understand.
Shaul rebuked this and said that it was far better to be able to speak to the edification of the hearers, than to speak something no one could possibly understand.
We have the strong reason to believe that the phrase “speaking with tongues” is (1) a mistranslation, as we explained above, and (2) its proper translation “speaking tongues” or “speaking languages” refers either to “speaking strange languages”, or it is a metaphor for “speaking in vain”, i.e. “speaking without understanding”. The present author tends to assume the former rather than the latter.
Having clarified this, we will begin our explanation below,
But now, brothers, if I come to you speaking [unknown] tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you, either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by teaching? (1Co 14:6) … So also you, if you do not speak by the tongue that is understandable, how shall it be known what is spoken? For you shall be speaking into the air. (1Co 14:9)
As an indistinct sound of a trumpet conveys no meaning and has no purpose in battle, reasons Shaul, so does the mere speech of an unknown or strange language without understanding. And teaching without understanding is nothing; it is like a voice in the desert.
If then I do not know the meaning of the voice, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks be a foreigner to me. (1Co 14:11)
“Say something meaningful”, continues in the same line of words the apostle, “that will be understood”. Speaking without understanding brings no edification of the hearers, and to them it is nothing.
So also you, since you are ardent for spiritual gifts, seek to excel in the edifying of the assembly. Therefore, he who is speaking in an unknown tongue, let him pray that he may interpret. (1Co 14:12-13)
On the other hand, speaking with understanding promotes edifying, and edifying builds up in faith and obedience to the Word.
In the Law it is written, “With men of other tongues and other lips I shall speak to this people. And even so, they shall not hear Me, says YHVH“. (1Co 14:21)
Here Shaul speaks of people to whom YHVH would speak jabbering tongue (lit. “a mocking lip“) of men. By quoting Deu 28:49 and Isa 28:11, the apostle meant in mind Ephrayim here used as a general name for the Northern Kingdom of Israel (see Isa 28:1). The House of Israel was sent in exile and exposed to unknown to them foreign languages of the gentiles they do not understand, even so, they would not hear Him.
Then, Shaul draws parallel between a believer and un unbeliever and how they are exposed to strange languages and prophecy. Since he has already defined the terms “believer” and “unbeliever” in 2Co 6:14-16, we learn that “unbeliever” is the one who has disobeyed and tramped down the commandments, lives in darkness, is subject to Beliya’al, and therefore one who still serves idols.
In contrast, a “believer” is the one who guards and does the laws, and is of the Messiah. Read more in the article “The two things one needs to get saved“.
After this explanation, Shaul goes on to say that “speaking with tongues” is for unbelievers, and prophesying is for believers.
So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers, and prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe. (1Co 14:22)
In other words, speaking strange language is a sign to those who are unbelievers or unlearned in the Scripture.
We know to whom the sign of tongues is, but a sign for what?
If all in the assembly are speaking unclearly, and if an unlearned or unbeliever comes in and hears them, he will think they are all crazy, because he would not understand a thing; their words would have no effect on him.
But if all in the assembly are prophesying, juxtaposes Shaul, and he comes in and hears the words for repentance, he will be reproved and examined by their words that he might repent (14:23-25); thus the words of prophecy will have a strong effect on him.
Therefore, what Shaul is saying is this: Whenever you have a teaching, you want to speak or have a revelation or an interpretation, all must be done for building up of the assembly (1Co 14:26).
If someone has to speak in his native language, he has to also interpret it or has someone interpret it for him, otherwise his words will be like a trumpet that makes an indistinct sound; there is no use of it. If there is no interpreter, then do not speak or interpret it by himself (14:27-28).
But if someone has words to speak to repentance, or has a revelation to make, let the hearers discern and build up knowledge, but everything must be done in order: he who has words to speak, let him speak, but the others are to listen up (14:29-33).
But those who choose not to listen and learn, let them be ignorant; but do not forbid prophecy and speaking as far as it is done decently and in order (14:37-40).
The issue of speaking in Corinth
What was the necessity for Shaul to employ the phrase “speaking in or with tongues” in his letter to Corinth?
As we explained above, “speaking in or with tongues” is rather “speaking tongues” or “speaking languages”. But notice the plural form “languages”. When one is speaking, he or she is speaking a language, i.e. “speaking Hebrew, Greek”, etc., not languages.
Why did Shaul specifically employed plural, and not singular? Also, why did he not specify what languages were spoke in Corinth, if indeed he meant spoken languages such as Hebrew or Greek?
We have the strong reason to believe that the phrase “speaking languages” is metaphor for “speaking different languages”, or “speaking differences”.
When two are in disagreement, they are not speaking in accord. Each one is speaking his own agenda and is not listening to the other party in the dispute; there is no conversation. In such a case, they do not understand each other, as if they are “speaking different languages”.
Let us recall the confusion of the language at the Tower of Bavel. The whole earth was of one language and of one speech (Gen 11:1). And YHVH said, “Look, they are one people and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do! (Gen 11:6). And He confused their language, so that they did not understand one another’s speech (Gen 11:7). Since then mankind is speaking different languages, and the nations are always in disagreement.
In contrast, when two are in agreement, we say, “they are on the same page”, as if they are speaking one language. And this is what we find in Acts when Luke said: “they were all with one mind in one place”. All disciples of Yeshua gathered together in accord at the Temple for the Festival of Weeks.
With all that being said, we can conclude that there might have been one or even two issues in Corinth: (1) language barrier resulting from speaking different languages in the assembly; (2) disagreements resulting from talking over each other, when two or more people talking at the same time, each trying to win the argument.
As the Messianic assembly in Corinth was growing in numbers and more gentiles were joining the movement, we can expect that they were speaking different tongues and dialects. That must have contributed to the miscommunication in the assembly. By joining the assembly, they also brought in their cultures, customs, and rites.
In such a melting pot, misunderstandings, disagreements, and even conflicts between the members of the community are not uncommon. Perhaps, the new members brought in their old religious views that came into conflict with the established principles of the faith.
Therefore, apostle’s words “tongues are for a sign to unbelievers, and prophesying is for those who believe”, mean that speaking strange language, i.e., words that lead to misunderstandings, disagreements, and conflicts, are signs common for the unbelievers, this is a sign they can be recognized by; but those who believe speak words for repentance.
If that was the case in Corinth, here is what Shaul was teaching in summary in his letter to the Corinthians in order to restore the common sense in their assembly:
(1) to say a prayer or praise which the hearers could not understand, and to speak meaninglessly, is nonsense and benefits no one;
(2) instructions and teachings are to be the most necessary part of the life of an assembly for reproof and edifying;
(3) the unbelieving and the unlearned in the Scripture must always be in mind of the one who speaks. If the unbelieving and the unlearned hears and understands what is spoken of, he will be built up to the truth and grow in faith.
(4) disagreements and disputes between the unbelieving and the unlearned in the Scripture and on the other hand the learned ones must be tolerated, as far as it is done decently and in order.
What complicates the issues, however, is that the “gift of speaking with tongues” is today seen as a special sign of the filling of the so-called “Holy Ghost”.
Where did the “speaking with tongues” come from?
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica quoting the 4th-century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, Montanus, founder of Montanism entered into an ecstatic state and began prophesying in the region of Phrygia, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). He founded a schismatic movement of Christianity.
Before his conversion to Christianity, he was a priest of the Oriental ecstatic cult of Cybele, the mother goddess of fertility. After the conversion, Montanus became the leader of a cult of illuminati (“the enlightened”) that existed until the 9th century. The cult members exhibited the frenzied nature of their religious experience by enraptured seizures and utterances of strange tongues.
Montanus claimed that that his utterances were the voice of the “Holy Ghost” under a trance. He believed he was a prophet of God and that the Holy Ghost spoke through him. Tertullian, one of the “Church fathers”, converted to Montanism about 207.
This cult stayed buried until the 20th century when it was revived by the modern day “tongue-speaking” Pentecostal and Charismatic churches claim to experience identical phenomenon.
In conclusion, Shaul and his disciple Luke speak of none other but intelligible, spoken, and written languages, not “Holy Ghost” inspired unintelligent utterings, i.e. “speaking with tongues”.
We proved to be true that the term “speaking with tongues” is a mistranslation on the part of the KJV translators for “speaking tongues” or as we simply say today “languages”.
Then, there are those who read these mistranslations and misunderstand the apostles’ teachings.
And finally, there are “those who are untaught and unstable in these matters, twist Shaul’s teaching to their own destruction, as they do also the other Scriptures”.
We shall have no more to say upon this point presently.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.