Acts 2:1-21

Commenting on Acts 2, British biblical scholar Michael Goulder (A Tale of Two Missions. London: SCM Press, 1994, 46), “Tongues were a new phenomenon, in the sense that we have no evidence of them in the Old Testament, or rabbinic sources.” Yet one must wonder at such a claim, when we now understand that so many of the major concepts within the Gospels and in Acts are rooted somehow in the Jewish tradition which proceeds or parallels them.The outpouring of many languages in Acts 2:4 is sometimes referred to as glossolalia, though a careful comparison of the Acts text with various Pauline passages in 1 Corinthians will prove that glossolalia does not accurately describe the first human response at Pentecost. The Greek word “glossa” can mean both “tongue” and “language,” and the difference between these two is significant.

The best known passage about glossolalia is 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak human language or even angelic language, but I do not have love…” Ecstatic utterances as both product and proof of divine inspiration are common in the pre-New Testament world of Hellenistic culture (Plato, Cicero, Dio Chrysostom), in the Hebrew Bible (the ravings of prophetic bands in 1 Samuel, and see Isaiah 28:10 in the Hebrew), and in the intertestamental period (Testament of Job 48-52; Josephus, Antiquities 4:119). Such glossolalia originally referred to speech-like babbling that was widely esteemed, thought to derive from “possession by the deity,” or “enthusiasmos” in Greek (Luke Timothy Johnson. The Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992, 42). “Speaking in tongues,” then, cannot be defended as a uniquely Christian phenomenon, but is a practice common to many cultures in the ancient world out of which Christianity evolved.

We have no idea how wide-spread glossolalia was in the early church (C. K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles. ICC. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994, 1.115-6). While esteemed in Corinth, there is no significant evidence of its practice in any of the other Pauline churches. It is significant that Paul does not use the term “problem” when he discusses glossolalia. Apparently it is a gift, a charismata, and Paul himself claims to be expert at it (1 Corinthians 14:18). But Paul argues that “tongues” (a) must never be considered as a sign of spiritual superiority; (b) is a private matter not necessarily even to be shared with the congregation; (c) does not build a sense of community within a parish, but rather increases jealousy and competition; and (d) should never be employed in public evangelism (Krister Stendahl. “Glossolalia – The New Testament Evidence,” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976, 109-124).

All the New Testament mentionings of “ecstatic speech” also require an interpreter who can translate “the tongues of angels” into comprehensible human speech, except for Acts 2. The point is exactly the opposite in Acts 2: that no interpreter was needed, for “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” The speech that Luke refers to, then, is intelligible, communicative speech, rather than unintelligible, ecstatic speech, and certainly is not glossolalia in the manner it is understood in contemporary pentecostal Christianity.

The distinction between intelligible and unintelligible speech is a common principle of exegesis in early Judaism. The medieval commentator Maimonides make the difference clear (The Guide of the Perplexed II.33 to Deut. 4:12. Trans. by Shlomo Pines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963, 363-365). When the Hebrew text uses “dabbar” to mean “says,” it refers to speech which does not need interpretation. When the Hebrew text uses “amar” to mean “says,” it refers to speech which is open to interpretation, speech in which the meaning must be drawn out exegetically or homiletically, and which can be understood in a variety of says. In Exodus, when God speaks to Moses, the word is “dabbar”; when Moses conveys God’s instructions to the people, the word is “amar,” implying that there is room within the words of divine inspiration for humans to interpret them and to make decisions concerning their application. Using this same argument, both patristic and early rabbinic authors could claim that every verse of Scripture has multiple meanings (see Philip Culbertson, A Word Fitly Spoken: Context, Transmission, and Adoption of the Parables of Jesus. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995, chapter 2). Because all biblical texts are received through human mouths, God’s original “dabbar” only comes to us as “amar.”

The “speech act” in Acts 2, then, is unique. Nowhere else in the New Testament or in the early extra-canonical literature is there ever a reference to such an event. Oddly, such a unique event hardly figures in the New Testament. While virtually all Christian literature hails the event of Easter, there is no reference to Pentecost as an event except in Acts (Stendahl, 118). And surely no one would lay more emphasis on the Spirit than Paul (e.g., Romans 8:9), but he knows nothing of that Spirit-filled day in Jerusalem (Barrett, 100). The description of the event itself takes only four verses (2:1-4) and is extremely circumspect. There is something which is LIKE a strong wind blowing, and something which is LIKE tongues of fire, but beyond these analogies, we have no accurate description of what happened (Johnson, 45). How is it possible that the “founding event” of the new Christian community appears totally insignificant to all NT writers except Luke? If this event occurred some twenty years before St. Paul penned his epistles, why does he seem unaware of it?

Many biblical scholars presume that the entire event is a Lukan construction. Even the conservative Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (ed. by Gerhard Kittel, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964, 1:725) refers to it as a “legend.” But rather than concentrating on the obvious lack of factual basis behind Acts 2, we should rather ask what are the theological points which would cause Luke to construct such a story.

First, Luke wishes to highlight the scandalously inclusive nature of Christianity by portraying a reversal of Genesis 11:1-9, the Tower of Babel. There the divisions in the human family created by human brokenness destroyed the human attempt to build a tower into heaven where humanity and divinity could be united. The symbol of that division was the confusion of languages. Now Luke was saying that in the outpouring the Holy Spirit, the human family was invited anew into God. And in that divine presence human divisions ceased, the barrier of different languages was overcome, oneness with God and with one another was established. The Tower of Babel’s confusion was finally overcome because the language of love is universal. It was a great story, a great truth being communicated in a Jewish style. (John Shelby Spong, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. 319)

Second, he wishes to portray a unique beginning of a new and distinctive religious community, by paralleling the Christian day of Pentecost with the Jewish Feast of Pentecost, or Shavuot. When the Torah was given at Sinai, it was accompanied by wind and fire. The Ten Commandments of the Torah were heard in seventy languages, so that each nation received the commandments in its own tongue (see bT Shabbat 88b). John Calvin (Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 1-13. Trans. By John Fraser and W. J. G. McDonald. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1965, 50-51) remarks that if the Gospel had been proclaimed at Pentecost in only one language, the recipients would not have comprehended its universal intent. C. K. Barrett (111) summarizes: “The gift of Torah was an act of divine revelation in which the nature and will of God were made known on the basis of his gracious act of deliverance and with the result of a covenant between himself and his people; the Christian Pentecost is the new revelation through the Holy Spirit, based upon the new act of redemption and deliverance and issuing in the formation of a new, or renewed, people of God, based upon a new covenant.”

Third, Luke parallels Christ’s baptism with the baptism of this new community. In both cases, the Spirit descended and thereby created a special relationship between humanity and God. Both events were public, witnessed by many; both events assumed a willingness to receive God’s grace freely given. And both unleashed a potentially transformative power in the world.

Approaching Acts 2:9-10 as a manifestation of glossolalia obviates the point Luke wishes to make, though even here he is obscure. We must remember that those gathered in Jerusalem would have been, perhaps exclusively, Jews, gathered for the great pilgrim festival of Shavuot. The “catalogue of nations” which Luke presents, however, is primarily a list of non-Jewish ethnic groups, coinciding with the “Sons of Noah” (bnei Noah) listed in Genesis 10. (Michael Goulder, Type and History in Acts. London: SPCK, 1964, 153) So Luke claims that faithful Jews from “every nation under heaven” were assembled (for they were the only ones to have reason to be making pilgrimage to Jerusalem), and then for reasons I do not comprehend, presents instead what the biblical tradition assures us is a list of all the ethnic groups within humanity, 90% of whom are not Jews. Nor do they represent “every nation”; the mainland of Greece is missing, as are all the nations of Europe (J. A. Brinkman, “The Literary Background of the ‘Catalogue of the Nations’ (Acts 2,9-11).” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963), 419). We are stuck with the choice of calling Luke (the learned physician) “geographically challenged,” or comprehending that he has presented us with a symbolic map. Indeed, the catalogue moves more or less from the East toward Rome, which is after all the shape of the Gospel’s spread throughout the book of Acts. This symbolic geography is further confirmed when we realize that the catalogue of the Sons of Noah in Genesis 10 connects immediately with Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel.

The last interpretive word must go to the great Reformation preacher John Calvin. The Lukan Pentecost story must not be preached as a factual reporting of an event, but as a challenge to the formation of Christian identity, couched in type and symbol. Formation is the result of seeking, and seeking begins with questions. Calvin (54) remarks that while it is important that the listeners were astonished to hear, each “in our own languages,” it is even more important that they were moved to ask questions, saying to one another “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12). Preaching any Biblical text as literal gives the listeners no room to ask questions, for all the easy answers are provided. Only God can provide a revelation whose meaning is absolutely clear (“dabbar”); once we enter the realm of human discourse and preaching, the meaning is available only to those who ask and seek.

Philip Culbertson
Auckland, New Zealand

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