Did the Montanist’s speak in tongues, and is this the historical antecedent for tongues in the Church today? Two scholars take opposite conclusions.
The arguments both hinge on the brief account by Eusebius in his Historiae Ecclesiasticae that recalled two Montanist followers who went into a state of ecstasy and uttered strange sounds.
Christopher Forbes, who “is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient History, and Deputy Chairman of the Society for the Study of Early Christianity” at Macquarie University, argued that there is no conclusive evidence the Montanists used glossolalia.
“If Montanist prophecy was in any sense analogous to glossolalia it is quite remarkable that no ancient writer ever noticed or commented on this fact. Though it is certainly true that Montanist prophecy was characterised by ecstasy (in the modern sense), and occasionally by oracular obscurity, there is no unambiguous evidence whatsoever that it took glossolalic form.”
Rex D. Butler, Associate Professor of Church History and Patristics, at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary goes in the opposite direction. He reported that the elements of the Montanist text all correlate with glossolalia. He gave numerous arguments against Forbes’ position. His first argument rests on the role of the interpreter. If the prophecy was given in intelligible speech why would the service of the prophetess Maximillia, an interpreter ἑρμηνεύτην, be required? Secondly, he charged that Forbes failed to recognize that the prophets utilized both intelligible and unintelligible speech. Third, he argued against Forbes definition of ξενοφωνεῖν. Forbes believed it to mean to speak as a foreigner while Butler believed it to mean to speak strangely. Butler further adds if it is combined with λαλεῖν, which is found in the Eusebius text as λαλεῖν καὶ ξενοφωνεῖν, should be translated as chatter or babble. Finally Butler concluded, “Forbes arguments are not suffficient to overturn the historic understanding that Montanists engaged in glossolalia.”
The arguments on both sides rest on ancient sources and linguistics. Therefore it is necessary to take a further look into the subject matter.
What is Montanism and the source texts for this controversy
The old publication, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 6 covers the movement in the best detail. In a simplified form, it was begun by a man named Montanus around 162 AD and aided by two women, Maximilla and Priscilla. Montanism lasted up until the 6th century.
The movement is revealed through three major sources, Eusebius of Caesarea, Epiphanius Bishop of Salamis, and Tertullian. The first two write about the Montanists in very negative and vitriolic terms while Tertullian defended them. There are a number of works that allude to Epiphanius correlating Montanism with ecstatic utterances but substantiation or a source text similar to these claims has yet to be found. There are other accounts too, such as Jerome and Didymus of Alexandria, but these do not refer to the Montanist glossolalia controversy.
The most important source for the Montanists and glossolalia is Eusebius’ account. One must keep in mind that Eusebius’ account is a critical report of the Montanist movement. It contains over-the-top rhetoric which makes the reader wonder why so much resources and time were utilized against them. The strong attack causes one to either pity the Montanists or think there is an ulterior motive by the established Church against them. Judging by the voracity of words, the Montanists must have been a populist movement that the institutional Church felt threatened by.
Eusebius himself has his own internal doubts about the account provided to him by an unknown author and stated, “They say that these things happened in this manner. But as we did not see them, O friend, we do not pretend to know.”Therefore, Eusebuis’ history should be taken with a degree of skepticism.
If one looks closely into the details, the actual historic evidence that equates Montanism with the gift of tongues is very weak. The critical greek keyword glôssa/γλῶσσα which is required to connect Montanist glossolalia with the Ecclesiastical rite does not appear in the text.
This is a very crucial point. In order to reinforce this fact, the Greek, Latin and an English translation can be found at the following link: Eusebius on Montanism. Here it will demonstrate to any reader that the critical Greek keyword does not exist in the text. The absence of this keyword is a major weakness in the pro-Montanist synergy camp. One will also find the full text, not just the snippets shown here.
Eusebius’ source was trying to demonize the Montanists in almost every way. The wording and semantics are purposely kept distant from anything familiar to the Christian faith. Yet the history of glossolalia counts them as the last corporate movement until at least the 1700s to practice it.
The Correlation between Montanist Glossolalia and Ecclesiastical tongues
Butler failed to fully address Forbes argument. He neglected to cite Forbes complete comment which included, “If Montanist prophecy was in any sense analogous to glossolalia it is quite remarkable that no ancient writer ever noticed or commented on this fact.” Forbes is right. No writer, Christian or otherwise made this correlation. The research done so far on the Gift of Tongues Project is restricted to Ecclesiastical literature and the conclusions so far aligns with Forbe’s position. In fact the Montanist account from Eusebius pales in comparison to the greater amount of literature found about the Donatists — a popular fourth century and onwards group that viewed themselves as the true Church and their use of tongues was one of the evidences. This would have been a much better argument from an ecclesiastical writing perspective.
The only account that may connect Montanism with glossolalia is a very short item by Tertullian, a Montanist, who wrote a list of the offices in the Church, including prophecy, healing and “diverse kinds of tongues”, who does affirm a continued existence, but in no way describes it. It is therefore of no use to any researcher.
Prophecy, Interpretation and Tongues
The Butler argument on prophecy and interpretation is one of his strongest arguments. If the prophecy was given in intelligible speech why was the prophetess Maximillia an interpreter ἑρμηνεύτην required? The actual reference by Butler on Maximillia is from Epiphanius’ Adversus Hæreses (Lib. II, Tom I. XLVIII. MPG Vol. 41 Col. 875). However Butler is taking the concept of interpreter too literally, it does not necessarily mean to translate from one language to another. It is also meant to clarify known speech, thoughts or dreams.
The ancients recognized that some thoughts and concepts, even explained in intelligible speech, is sometimes difficult for a general audience to understand. An important role of the interpreter was to take a difficult subject or pattern of speech and convert it into a form that the common public could understand. An analogy is the modern day intellectual speaking in high, articulate scientific language and the media converting his findings into everyday common speech.
Plato wrote in respect to prophecy and dreams that interpreters are necessary to understand prophecy because the the one doing the prophecy has temporarily lost his wits and cannot explain his thoughts correctly:
And he who would understand what he remembers to have been said, whether in a dream or when he was awake, by the prophetic and inspired nature, or would determine by reason the meaning of the apparitions which he has seen, and what indications they afford to this man or that, of past, present or future good and evil, must first recover his wits. But, while he continues demented, he cannot judge of the visions which he sees or the words which he utters; the ancient saying is very true, that “only a man who has his wits can act or judge about himself and his own affairs.” And for this reason it is customary to appoint interpreters to be judges of the true inspiration. Some persons call them prophets; they are quite unaware that they are only the expositors of dark sayings and visions, and are not to be called prophets at all, but only interpreters of prophecy.
Aristotle describes how the art of interpreting is a special gift that is especially required when circumstances get more difficult to find meaning.
The most skilful interpreter of dreams is he who has the faculty of observing resemblances. Any one may interpret dreams which are vivid and plain. But, speaking of ‘resemblances’, I mean that dream presentations are analogous to the forms reflected in water, as indeed we have already stated. In the latter case, if the motion in the water be great, the reflexion has no resemblance to its original, nor do the forms resemble the real objects. Skilful, indeed, would he be in interpreting such reflexions who could rapidly discern, and at a glance comprehend, the scattered and distorted fragments of such forms, so as to perceive that one of them represents a man, or a horse, Or anything whatever. Accordingly, in the other case also, in a similar way, some such thing as this [blurred image] is all that a dream amounts to; for the internal movement effaces the clearness of the dream.
The fourth century Church in Egypt apparently made the function of interpreters an ecclesiastical order which had a ranking below the readers. G.W.H. Lampe proposed this in his Patristic Greek Lexicon and attributes it to Serapion Thmuitanus from the work, Euchologium.
Thomas Aquinas extended the function of interpreting and applied it to the Ecclesiastical rite of tongues. His works theologically favoured prophecy over tongues, seeing the latter inferior. He believed that whoever used the office of tongues and gave an interpretation is a simple act of translation, which the translator understands the literal words but not the overall meaning. It hardly used the mind or intellect. Prophecy on the other hand had the ability to not only translate but to understand the true meaning behind the words.
…the interpretation of whatsoever difficulty relates to prophecy.
I said that the gift of tongues without the gift of prophecy has no value. …since the process of interpreting is an act of prophecy which is more excellent than that [of the gift of tongues].
Aquinas was the first evidence of the tongues definition shifting into the realm of prophecy in the Ecclesiastical world.
Butler’s argument, if no glossolalia was not present, why the need of an interpreter, weakens with this historical evidence. Maximillia, the Montanist prophetess may not have been translating a heavenly language or glossolalia. An interpreter was required for a simplified explanation to a lay audience of an intelligible but complex speech made by the speaker.
Another argument Butler contended was that the prophets understood both intelligible and unintelligible words. It could not be restricted, as he accused Forbes of doing, to only intelligible language. Butler could be right on this count, but his argument is once again weak because it omits almost eighteen hundred years of ecclesiastical coverage of the subject in drawing his conclusions. Ecclesiastical literature overwhelmingly supported the miracle of tongues as human language. How this exactly happened and worked was the nature of disputes in the ecclesiastical realm up until the nineteenth century. It was never about a heavenly, earthly inspired partial or non-human language.
Third, the important coverage of the tongues debate by the eleventh century neo-platonist Michael Psellos is totally overlooked. It is a must-have in any argument that connects modern scholarship results with original tongues phenomena. Psellos described in detail that the ancient Greek prophetesses went into a form of ecstasy and spoke in foreign languages unlearned by them. They were not possessed of any faculty of reason while under this psychic state — this is where Psellos strongly separated the Christian rite from the Greek pagan one. The apostles used their intellect and knowingly spoke in foreign languages. This further erodes Butler’s position and strengthens Forbe’s initial one.
Fourth, Butler hinges on the English translation of λαλεῖν καὶ ξενοφωνεῖν. At first glance it would primitively render “speaking and saying foreign things,” which Forbes leans towards. Butler takes ξενοφωνεῖν to mean to chatter or babble, hence it was glossolalia. The Greek Dictionaries are split with both parties on this one. Stephanus and the Donnegan Greek Dictionaries agree moreso with Butler, while the Sophocles Greek Dictionary aligns with Forbes. The Stephanus Greek Dictionary, being the oldest of the dictionaries available and the least influenced by modern grammarians, gives Butler the edge on this one.
An Analysis of the Actual Eusebius text
The axis of both arguments rest on understanding the Eusebius text on Montanism which has hardly ever been critically evaluated. A look into this actual text may provide more clues into whether Forbe or Butler has the more accurate interpretation.
There first, they say, when Gratus was proconsul of Asia, a recent convert, Montanus by name, through his unquenchable desire for leadership, gave the adversary opportunity against him. And he became beside himself, and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by tradition from the beginning.
One must be always mindful that the English translation is taken from the old volume, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. The English translations of the Greek, found in these volumes sometimes follow the Latin instead of the Greek because some early Greek authors such as Eusebius, Origen, and Chrysostom use Alexandrian Greek, which is not represented well in Dictionaries. This was even more a problem before the advent of digital technologies. Therefore this English translation cannot be taken at face value. It must be reassessed.
There is a hidden difficulty with translating ancient Alexandrian texts and that has to to do with a lack of a comprehensive translation toolkit. There are no Greek dictionaries or grammars that target specifically Alexandrian Greek. This can bring on some diverging thoughts.
Therefore it is necessary to dig deep down into this text. Many readers may find this too critical but it is necessary to find the right understanding. The first step is to look at both the Greek and Latin to build a new translation. Here is the foundational Greek text:
ἔνθα φασί τινα τῶν νεοπίστων πρώτως, Μοντανὸν τοὔνομα, κατὰ Γράτον Ἀσίας ἀνθύπατον, ἐν ἐπιθυμίᾳ ψυχῆς ἀμέτρῳ φιλοπρωτείας δόντα πάρoδον εἰς ἑαυτὸν τῷ ἀντικειμένῳ, πνευματοφορηθῆναί τε καὶ αἰφνιδίως ἐν κατοχῇ τινι καὶ παρεκστάσει γενόμενον, ἐνθουσιᾶν, ἄρξασθαί τε λαλεῖν καὶ ξενοφωνεῖν, παρὰ τὸ κατὰ παράδοσιν καὶ κατὰ διαδοχὴν ἄνωθεν τῆς Ἐκκλησίας ἔθος δῆθεν προφητεύοντα.
Here is an updated English translation:
They say at that time a certain one of the first converts, Montanus of which is the name, under the proconsul Gratus of Asia, in the excessive desire of the flesh concerning the ambition for first rank, grants the grand entrance for himself as one who opposes things, that all of a sudden he was both inspired by the spirit and in some type of a catatonic stupor, going into a state of spurious ecstasy,  of divine frenzy that [he] began to both speak and to utter strange sounds contrary to the custom, specifically the act of prophecy, set beforehand with respect to the tradition handed down and taught belonging to the Church.
The following is a defense of such a translation.
The Montantist description by Eusebius is pointing to a synthesis of some form of the Montanists integrating ancient Greek rites into their Christian belief system, which the Church rejected and did not accept as part of its customary traditions. This can be found by tracing the usage of the word ecstasy in the text. Stephanus’ Lexicon (Vol. III Col. 1088) refers to religious frenzy ἐνθουσιᾶν as a divinely inspired frenzy but the association is with the pagan Greek world of prophecy and the gods. The dictionary has a number of options for translating but this has the closest application: “genus μανιας distinguens itidem inter παρακινῶν, Insanus, et ἐνθουσιων. Numine afflatus. Divino numine afflatus et in vatem mutatus ista hariolatur.” “A kind of madness one distinguishes in a manner between one who is out of his senses, insane, and divinely inspired… Having been inspired in the divine will and the one having been transformed speaks *nonsense (*or it could be translated as “speaks prophetically”).” The context has an association with functions of the ancient Greek prophetic office.
The Catholic based New Advent website takes a slightly different approach to the translation of the keywords that produce a different result:
The anonymous opponent of the sect describes the method of prophecy (Eusebius, V, xvii, 2-3): first the prophet appears distraught with terror (en parekstasei), then follows quiet (adeia kai aphobia, fearlessness); beginning by studied vacancy of thought or passivity of intellect (ekousios amathia), he is seized by an uncontrollable madness (akousios mania psyches).
This reflects the difficulty of translating texts that are in Alexandrian Greek. There is so little information available on many Alexandrian words that there are no unanimous English translation equivalents. Although the New Advent results are convincing, it does not declare where it found its information. It may perhaps be a later interpretation of the Eusebius text.
The question of divine inspiration appears to be an important question throughout the Eusebius’ text. The Church did not find fault that there was some sort of divine illumination. It was a question of its source. Was it from God or some other entity? This was the struggle which the Church had and determined that the Montanist practice was outside customary Church practice.
There is also a word play going on here in the Greek. Montanus “grants the grand entrance (πάρoδον) for himself as one who opposes things,” and “with respect to the tradition handed down (παράδοσιν).” πάρoδον is matched against παράδοσιν. It was a subtle reference to Montanus trying to make his version of frenzy be the Church tradition but instead it fell short and was only showmanship.
The Latin translation was done somewhere between the 17th and 19th century. It not only gives a picture of how the Latin translator approached this topic during his time, but sets a reference point to see if the interpretation had changed after his writing.
In quo aiunt Monatanum quemdam ex iis qui fidelium numero recens ascripti fuerant, immodica primi loci cupididate captum, primum sub Grato Asiæ proconsule aditum in se adversario spiritui præbuisse : et dæmone repletum subito quodam furore ac mentis excessu concuti cœpisse, et nova quædam atque inaudita proloqui ; hariolantem ac prædicentem futura, præter morem atque institutum Ecclesiæ a majoribus traditum et continua deinceps successione propagatum.
In which they say a certain Montanus from those recent ones who had been reckoned in the rank of the faithful, having been enamoured with passion beyond measure for the prime position, having been undertaken first under Grato of Asia’s proconsul that supplied in regard to his adversarial spirit. And having been filled with a demon suddenly some kind of thing in madness and in excess of mind that [he] began to shake violently, and that new and also unheard of things are being spoken out, talking nonsense and foretelling the future, contrary to the custom and also the foundation of the Church, which has been increased by the most greatest tradition and by continuous succession thereafter.
The Latin here is much stronger in its defamation of Montanus than the original. The use of Montanus having a demonic spirit, which did not exist in the Greek, demonstrates some didactic teaching here. The Eusebius Greek text demonstrated the Church’s struggle over the issue while the Latin had already judged the issue as wrong.
With all the information provided, the Eusebius key-text on Montanism published in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, is not bad from a general point of view, but not helpful when looking critically.
It was quite a bit of technical details to work through, but this critical look at the Eusebius text ultimately ends in ambiguity. It is neither for or against either point of view. If anything it is a poor source text to base any major thesis on.
With all the research that this Gift of Tongues Project has provided so far and the extent of literature available in the Patristic writings, it has been concluded that the Montanists are not part of the real story on the history and evolution of the tongues dogma in the Church. However, since it has been a central part of the glossolalia doctrine for well over a century, it had to be addressed.
If one takes away all the ancient Church references to tongues, then Butler’s point of view, along with many others, make good sense. If one is aware of the wealth of Church writings on the subject and traces its development over the centuries, the Montanist argument is moot. Montanism doesn’t fit anywhere in the evolution of tongues practice in the Church. One paragraph by Eusebius is not enough to overturn chapters on the subject produced by Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, Cyril of Jerusalem, John of Damascus, Cyril of Alexandria, Epiphanius, Michael Psellos, Thomas Aquinas and many more.
One may well be seeing a different phenomenon that is not Christian tongues speaking but an entirely different movement that was special to the Montanists. Butler is right in the sense that there is a correlation between Montanism and ancient Greek prophecy. How exactly that was performed by the Montanists is unknown. There is not a strong case for christian glossolalia here, though there is the possibility.
For more information:
Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 6 By John McClintock, James Strong