The Unknown Tongues in the English Bible

How the adjective “unknown” became a crucial contributor to the Christian dogma of tongues.

The Authorized King James version of the Bible made the the translation, unknown tongues in the Book of I Corinthians a universal term, and fueled a later theology.

The problem is, the adjective unknown or in different English Bible editions, strange, diverse or other, does not exist in any ancient Latin or Greek text of I Corinthians.

It may be one of the most misused words in contemporary Christian mysticism.

How did this adjective get added to the English Bible, what influences led up to this, and what did they mean by it?

This article will look into the mystery of this adjective.

This phrase did not exist in early Christian literature but began to surface in the 13th century and rose to prominence in English Bible translations during the Reformation.

Misunderstandings of this text can be traced at least to the eighth century. The Venerable Bede commented on Acts 2:4 how the Greek should be understood as aliis linguis (other languages) rather than variis linguis (various languages). Bede believed that Pentecost was not about people hearing different languages, but a fulfillment of Isaiah 28:11, where the people heard languages they did not know. Aliis suited this position better.[1]

The first known reference to unknown tongue or alternatively translated, unknown language, can be found by the great 13th century Catholic teacher, Thomas Aquinas:

“”I give thanks to God that I speak more than you all,” and it is being said, “they were speaking in various languages, etc.” (Acts 2:4) and many more had obtained this gift from God in the early Church, but in Corinth because they were curious, they were more cheerfully wanting this gift than the gift of prophecy. Because it is now being said here to speak in a tongue, the Apostle means in an unknown language, and not having these things explained, as if he was to speak in the German tongue to some Gallic [person] and the result that it is not explained, this is speaking in a tongue. From whence all speech having not been understood nor explained, no matter what it is, is specifically speaking in a tongue.”[2]

It is the first documented time that the term unknown tongue is dogmatically used in reference to the Christian rite of tongues. The Aquinas text in Latin reads, lingua ignota. This Latin phrase was also used by Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century regarding a self-made secret language,[3] but it is an isolated case not related to Ecclesiastical usage.

Lingua ignota is not used in the Latin Bible, but quietly began to develop in the English translations. It was popularized by the English Geneva Bible and subsequently followed by the King James version, which made the concept universal in the English speaking world.

Aquinas undoubtedly had influence on later leaders but this correlation has not been concretely made.

The preface to the 1611 Authorized version holds an important as to why unknown tongues was added to their Bible:

“But how shall men meditate in that, which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknowen tongue? as it is written, Except I know the power of the voyce, I shall be to him that speaketh, a Barbarian, and he that speaketh, shalbe a Barbarian to me. The Apostle excepteth no tongue, not Hebrewe the ancientest, not Greeke the most copious, not Latine the finest. Nature taught a naturall man to confesse, that all of us in those tongues which wee doe not understand, are plainely deafe; wee may turne the deafe eare unto them. The Scythian counted the Athenian, whom he did not understand, barbarous: so the Romane did the Syrian, and the Jew, (even S. Jerome himselfe calleth the Hebrew tongue barbarous, belike because it was strange to so many) so the Emperour of Constantinople calleth the Latine tongue, barbarous, though Pope Nicolas do storme at it: so the Jewes long before Christ, called all other nations, Lognazim, which is little better then barbarous. Therefore as one complaineth, that alwayes in the Senate of Rome, there was one or other that called for an interpreter: so lest the Church be driven to the like exigent, it is necessary to have translations in a readinesse. Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtaine, that we may looke into the most Holy place; that remooveth the cover of the well, that wee may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which meanes the flockes of Laban were watered. Indeede without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacobs well (which was deepe) without a bucket or some thing to draw with: or as that person mentioned by Esau, to whom when a sealed booke was delivered, with this motion, Reade this, I pray thee, hee was faine to make this answere, I cannot, for it is sealed.”[4]

This preface tried to remedy two serious problems within the Catholic Church at the the time. First of all it was the reading out loud of Scripture in the Latin vernacular, which the majority of worshipers did not understand. Secondly, the King James preface promoted that the Bible was to be available in any language for anyone to read or listen to. This was a powerful argument at the time and had gone viral throughout Christendom. It was also perceived as a threat to the authority of the Church.

This uprising eventually led to the Council of Trent which began in 1545 — presided by Pope Paul III. Pope Paul began his leadership of the Catholic Church in 1534, which was the same year the Tyndale version first produced other tonges shall cease” in I Corinthians 13:8. It demanded a response.

The Council of Trent, 4th Session came up with strong language that all publications had to be approved by the Church authorities prior to printing. Special emphasis was on the Latin Bible as being the only authentic one, all the rest are inferior. It failed to address the fact that the majority of the Church audience did not understand Latin or how to remedy this problem.

” Moreover, the same sacred and holy Synod,–considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic,–ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.

Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, It decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall,–in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, –wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,–whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures,–hath held and doth hold; [Page 20] or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published. Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established.

And wishing, as is just, to impose a restraint, in this matter, also on printers, who now without restraint,–thinking, that is, that whatsoever they please is allowed them,–print, without the license of ecclesiastical superiors, the said books of sacred Scripture, and the notes and comments upon them of all persons indifferently, with the press ofttimes unnamed, often even fictitious, and what is more grievous still, without the author’s name; and also keep for indiscriminate sale books of this kind printed elsewhere; (this Synod) ordains and decrees, that, henceforth, the sacred Scripture, and especially the said old and vulgate edition, be printed in the most correct manner possible; and that it shall not be lawful for any one to print, or cause to be printed, any books whatever, on sacred matters, without the name of the author; nor to sell them in future, or even to keep them, unless they shall have been first examined, and approved of, by the Ordinary; under pain of the anathema and fine imposed in a canon of the last Council of Lateran: and, if they be Regulars, besides this examination and approval, they shall be bound to obtain a license also from their own superiors, who shall have examined the books according to the form of their own statutes. As to those who lend, or circulate them in manuscript, without their having been first examined, and approved of, they shall be subjected to the same penalties as printers: and they who shall have them in their possession or shall read them, shall, unless they discover the authors, be themselves regarded as the authors. And the said approbation of books of this kind shall be given in writing; and for this end it shall appear authentically at the beginning of the book, whether the book be written, or printed; and all this, that is, both the approbation and the examination, shall be done gratis, that so what ought to be approved, may be approved, and what ought to be condemned, may be condemned.”[5]

One naturally has to look at the German by Luther at this time period to see if there are any similarities of approach. He does not follow the same convention of the English translators about adding the equivalent adjective of unknown in the German language. However, he does meddle with the Corinthian texts on tongues. Heinrich August Meyer noted in his Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Corinthians, wrote that “Luther too, up to 1528, had “tongues” but from that date onwards has “languages.” In chap. xiv., however, he has still “tongues” in 1545.”[6] Why did Luther change from tongues to languages and vacillate between the two? It is not known.

R.P. Spittler did give some clarity to why this was done, though it is not final, “For Luther and his foes, “speaking in tongues” had to do with Roman Mass offered in Latin. Luther said the vernacular.”[7]

So now it is becoming clear that unknown tongues was becoming a popular dogma in 1534 as a dispute against the Catholic Church. It was a strong statement that anything said in Latin, and not the local vernacular was not profitable.

This was a debate between Roman and Protestant Latin leaders based on Latin religious dogma. The intensive study of Greek Scripture had not arrived.

Where and when did the adjective get added to the tongues sequences? The solution to the addition of unknown tongues can be found in the history of the translation of the English Bible.

The Wyclif Bible, the earliest known English translation published in 1380, does not contain the adjective at all. It also predominately used the word langagis (languages) instead of tongues in the key-texts.

The Tyndale begins adding an adjective first in 1534 but not significantly. The Geneva Bible expands on this pattern in 1557 and the King James entrenched this phrase in 1611.

The adjective and noun Unknown tongues in the King James became one of the framework pieces for a later phenomenon of tongues speaking, which is defined as a heavenly, prayer, ecstatic, or private language. See the The History of Glossolalia for more information.

For more detailed information on how the English Bibles evolved with this adjective, see The Unknown Tongues in the English Bible Part 2.



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