Many who speak to the question of biblical tongues assume they are of two kinds: (1) the tongues at Pentecost, which were known languages, and (2) the Corinthian tongues, variously described as “ecstatic utterances,” “babbling,” or “gibberish.” But seldom is exegetical support offered for the second part of this assumption; there is only a superficial psychologizing of the phenomenon.

The description “ecstatic utterance” has the support of some Bible translators. Biblical lexicons describe the phenomenon as “the broken speech of persons in religious ecstasy,” or “strange utterances, rugged, dark, disconnected.” Commentaries variously score tongues as “some outlandish jargon, if not positively gibberish.” And in an article in the December 6, 1968, issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Carl G. Tuland characterized the Corinthian tongues as “ecstatic utterance or babbling.”

Such assumptions are not even informed opinions until we ask and seek to answer the question, How did the apostolic community understand the phenomenon?

To those most intimately concerned, tongues represented a dynamic self-manifestation of the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost the disciples spoke in other tongues “as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). The tongues at Corinth were a “manifestation of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:7).

The biblical writers understood these utterances to be bona fide languages. At Pentecost believers spoke the “dialects” of the assembled multitude (Acts 2:6). The Corinthians spoke “families of languages” (1 Cor. 12:10), expressly defined as “the languages of men and of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1). The “other tongues” at Pentecost were unknown to the speakers but intelligible to those who spoke those particular dialects (Acts 2:11). In the ...

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