Making Sense of Confusing Tongues in Corinth

Our 1&2 Corinthians class recently went through the Greek text of 1 Cor. 12 (which deals with spiritual issues within the congregation). The noun γλῶσσα appears in three verses:

For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit…to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues…And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues…All do not speak with tongues, do they? -1 Cor. 12:8-10, 28, 30)

I found it interesting that the phrase translated “various kinds of tongues” in the NASB is γένη γλωσσῶν (12:10, 28). It is true that γένος can refer to a different “kind” of whatever is being described. The noun’s NT occurrences which have this definition (only two) are as follows:

Matt. 13:47 (various kinds of fish),

Mark 9:39 (this kind of unclean spirit can only come out by prayer).

However, it seems that the vast majority of the instances which γένος occurs deals with its primary definition: a ethnic/racial identifier. Consider the remainder of its appearances (outside of 1 Corinthians):

Mark 7:26 (The Gentile woman was of the Syrophoenician race), 

Acts 4:6 (Annas, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander…all who were of high-priestly descent),

Acts 4:36 (Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth),

Acts 7:13 (Joseph’s family was disclosed to Pharaoh), 

Acts 7:19 (Pharaoh took shrewd advantage of our race and mistreated our fathers),

Acts 13:26 (sons of Abraham’s family in addition to the Gentile God-fearers),

Acts 17:28-29 (we also are His children…being the children of God),

Acts 18:2 (Aquila, a native of Pontus),

Acts 18:24 (Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth),

2 Cor. 11:26 (Paul discusses his dangerous experiences involving rivers, robbers, his countrymen, the Gentiles), 

Gal. 1:14 (I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen),

Phil. 3:5 (Paul was circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel),

1 Peter 2:9 (But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation).

In each of these instances the noun γένος involves a race/ethnic group, often distinguishing the Jew from the Gentiles. This is an important piece of data when attempting to make sense of the tongues (languages) in 1 Cor. 12. Is Paul simply referring to various kinds of languages, miscelanous in detail? Or is he distinguishing various languages spoken by ethnic groups, such as Aramaic, Greek, Latin, etc.? It seems that the latter is more likely the case, since one of the overriding themes in 1 Corinthians is Paul’s strategy to get a congregation divided on social and racial issues to live as a unified group in Christ. If this is indeed the case, then I more appropriate translation of the γένη γλωσσῶν in 1 Cor. 12:10 and 28 would be “racial languages” or even “ethnic languages.” 

ImageIf Paul was indeed trying to bring order to a congregation characterized by chaotic speech in each person’s own ethnic tongue, then it seems the modern Pentecostal phenomenon of tongues of gibberish would be something quite other than what is described in 1 Corinthians 12. 

I’d be curious to get some responses from my readers. What do you think?

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5 thoughts on “Making Sense of Confusing Tongues in Corinth

  1. What is confusing to me is that some say that all are able to speak in tongues. Makes no sense to me. Not unless all are apostles, prophets, etc.
    I do think Paul wrote to bring order to disorder. Paul wrote about it because something was wrong!
    I think the article is contending that all tongues were of a known language.
    So what is tongues of angels?

  2. 2 points I would make. First, it seems that every time an angel spoke in the Bible, it was an understandable language. In no case is there a biblical instance where angels speak nonsense or gibberish.
    Secondly, angelic tongues/languages are not among the gifts offered in the list of 1 Cor. 12. Rather, Paul says it is the ethnic/racial languages (as I argued above).

  3. ” Is Paul simply referring to various kinds of languages, miscelanous in detail? Or is he distinguishing various languages spoken by ethnic groups, such as Aramaic, Greek, Latin, etc.? ”

    Having spoken in tongues for over 30 years and knowing a few hundred others who speak in tongues and having helped many others speak in tongues for the first time, it seems to me that Paul is referring to various kinds of languages. Some of the context of the chapter is “in the church”. In the church–when the church is gathered—do all speak in tongues? No, In their private prayer lives do all speak in tongues? Hopefully. In 30 years I have not known anyone who wanted to speak in tongues, who, when correctly taught, did ot speak in tongues. I have seen some strange videos on youtube where people act crazy and get all emotional. The speaking in tongues may be real, but it has nothing to do with the way the people choose to act. Every single person I have known in 30 years who speaks in tongues, does so in a very calm and controlled manner and just speaks like they would when speaking their own native language.And it always sounds like a legitimate language.

  4. I would agree with Dustin’s premise here that the various “kinds” meant ethnic, racial, or cultural languages. The whole point of any language is to communicate with others. For God through His Holy Spirit to give someone the “gift” of speaking in a “tongue” meant a real language that humans speak for the purpose of communication – just one that you didn’t previously know. It would be like me going to Germany and God moved me to speak a message he wanted me to present to non-English speaking Germans and I suddenly through His Spirit could speak German to them (and I currently know nothing but the three words for yes, no, & thank you – Ja, Nein, & Danke). And while I have no problem with anyone feeling moved with the Spirit (as long as it really is YHWH’s holy spirit) and uttering whatever they feel being moved to say, I just don’t feel that the biblical instances of “speaking in tongues” was talking about that kind of modern day non-actual language gibberish. IMO – it was actual human language of the time.

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