Passages in the Bible describe "speaking in tongues" as two very different
The author of Luke-Acts describes Pentecost as an event where the listeners each heard
the Apostles talk in the listeners' own language. This may have been an example of
xenoglossia. 1 The author describes "speaking in tongues" as occurring at
three major turning points in the early Christian movement: Pentecost, the first outreach
to Gentiles, and the baptism of some followers of John the Baptist.
St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, describes tongues as
glossolalia. 2 The
congregation is generally unable to understand what is being said. The person speaking in
tongues is described as communicating with God. A person with the special gift of
interpretation is needed to translate the words. Paul describes speaking in tongues as the
least important of the possible gifts of the Holy Spirit, and implies that they are a
routine occurrence in at least the church at Corinth.
The Bible contains 35 passages which mention speaking in tongues. 4 Some of the passages in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) which discuss speaking
in tongues are:
Mark 16:17: This section, verses 15 to 18 include instructions by Jesus
to the 11 remaining apostles to travel throughout the world and proclaim the gospel to
everyone. Jesus describes that believers will speak in new tongues (sometimes translated
as "languages") Unfortunately, the verses in Mark 16:9-20 were not
written by the author of Mark; the passage is a later addition by an
unknown forger. Their validity are thus questionable.
Acts 2:1 to 21 describes miraculous events during the Feast of Weeks
(originally established in Leviticus 23:15-21). The holy day had become
known as Pentecost, because it was observed 50 days after Passover. (The Greek word for
50'th day is "pentecoste.") The apostles and other followers were
gathered in a house in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descended upon each of them. They
began to speak with other tongues. Devout men from "every nation"
assembled and were amazed. "Every man heard them speaking in his own language."
(ASV) Among the people on that day were visitors from at least 15 various nations:
"Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors
from Rome...Cretans and Arabs..." etc. (NIV).
Unfortunately the precise
meaning of the passage is obscure. The author of Acts does state that the visitors all
heard the preaching in their own language. This contrasts with St. Paul's writings in 1
Corinthians where he mentions that people speaking in tongues
cannot be understood by most observers, but have to be first
interpreted. The Pentecost speaking can be interpreted in many ways:
Verse 13 refers to some skeptics in the audience who stated that the men were drunk.
Unfortunately, the passage is unclear as to who "the men" are. It could refer to
an event in which the apostles spoke in glossolalia and the listeners were believed to be
so drunk that they thought that the apostles were speaking in the listener's own language.
Some Bible interpreters believe that the apostles spoke either in a language that they
had always known, or perhaps using glossolalia. The Apostles were from Galilee where the
predominant language was Aramaic, but where many people spoke Greek as a second language.
A miracle is described in which each person in the audience heard the words as if they
were spoken in that person's native tongue. In some miraculous way, the original language
became translated before being sensed by each listener's brain. This would be a
manifestation of neither conventional glossolalia nor xenoglossia. It would have been a
Other Bible interpreters believe that the apostles exhibited
xenoglossia. That is, they
were given a gift by the Holy Spirit of being able to speak in a second or third language.
One might have spoken in Latin; another in the language of the Medes; another in Egyptian
etc. Under this interpretation, each apostle might have spoken to a separate group of
visitors. Alternatively, the apostles might have spoken in sequence in a variety of
In subsequent verses of this passage, Peter delivers a sermon about Jesus' death and
resurrection. It is not clear whether:
Peter spoke in Greek (or perhaps in glossolalia) and was heard by each visitor in the
latter's language as a miracle
Peter spoke in Greek and was understood by each visitor. (Knowledge of Greek as a second
language was common in the Middle East at the time)
Peter became capable of xenoglossia, and delivered a series of sermons, each in a
different language to a portion of the audience. Eventually, all of the visitors would
have had a chance to hear the message in their own tongue.
Acts 2:41: After the speaking in tongues during the Pentecost
experience, 3,000 Christians were baptized.
Acts 10:44-47: Tongues appear again in Caesarea when Christianity is
first taken to the Gentiles.
Acts 19:4-7: St. Paul is described as meeting about a dozen followers
of John the Baptist in Ephesus. He baptized them in the name of Jesus. (Early Christian
baptisms were apparently made only in Jesus' name, not in the names of the Trinity.) The
Holy Spirit came upon them and they began to speak in tongues. The passage is not clear
whether xenoglossia or glossolalia was involved. Acts 10:44-48 and Acts
19:4-7 describe similar events.
1 Corinthians 12:4-12: St. Paul explains how the Holy Spirit gives to
each new believer a gift. This gift may be wisdom, knowledge, faith, ability to heal
others, ability to perform miracles, prophecy, discernings of spirits, speaking in
tongues, or interpretation of the words of a person speaking in tongues. Some see this
passage as implying that each believer receives only one gift - or at most a few gifts.
1 Corinthians 12:27-31: St. Paul tells the Corinthians that God has
given many types of gifts to the members of the church: being an Apostle, prophet,
teacher, miracle worker, healer, helper, organizer or being able to speak in tongues. But
no one person receives all of the possible gifts. And all members do not receive the gift
of speaking in tongues or the gift of understanding and translating what others speak in
tongues. He ranks the gifts in order of importance, with the gift of tongues of least
1 Corinthians 13:1: St. Paul writes of the possibility of people
speaking in the tongues of men (also translated as humans, men, mortals) and of angels.
This might imply that some believers had the gift of glossolalia, which is the language
used by angels, whereas some have the gift of xenoglossia and are able to speak in other
human languages which they had never been previously fluent in. Again, the meaning is
1 Corinthians 13:8: implies that at some time in the future (as viewed
by Paul in the middle of the 1st century CE) people will no longer prophecy or speak in
1 Corinthians14:1-14: St. Paul explains that a person
who speaks in tongues will be talking to God but not to the other Christians present. The
speaker will themselves grow spiritually. Here, Paul differs from the writer of Acts. Paul
states that the rest of the congregation will be unable to understand the words spoken.
Other Christians will only be able to understand and grow spiritually if a person with the
gift of interpretation is present who will translate the tongues into an understandable
language. Paul suggests that a person who has received the gift of tongues pray for the
ability to interpret his/her own words so that they can afterwards explain to the
congregation what they have said.
downplays the importance of speaking in tongues. He said that he would rather speak 5
words that people can understand rather than 10,000 words in tongues.
1 Corinthians14:20-25: Paul discusses tongues in
relation to missionary work. He suggests that a non-Christian would be repelled if they
were to attend a meeting where many people were speaking in tongues. He cites prophecy as
being influential in the conversion of non-believers.
1 Corinthians14:27: St. Paul instructs believers to
restrict the number of people speaking in tongues during a religious meeting at one time
to two or, at most, three individuals. He also instructs the church at Corinth to provide
interpreters - people able to interpret the message to the congregation. If no interpreter
is available then St. Paul instructs the believers to remain quiet during the meeting.
1 Corinthians14:27: St. Paul instructs the church at
Corinth to allow people to speak in tongues.
Xenoglossia: (a.k.a. Zenolalia, Xenoglossia) This is the
miraculous ability to spontaneously speak a foreign language without first
having learned it, or even been exposed to it.
Glossolalia: The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible
defines glossolalia as: "the ecstatic utterance of emotionally agitated religious
persons, consisting of a jumble of disjointed and largely unintelligible sounds. Those who
speak in this way believe that they are moved directly by a divine spirit and their
utterance is therefore quite spontaneous and unpremeditated." 3
C.M. Laymon, Ed., "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible,"
Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, (1971), Page 807.