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.”
If 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?