Tongues or language, gift of tongues or glossolalia? The challenges of translating and narrating the historical texts on the subject.
This noun as outlined in the Bible and consequently in later Patristic Greek texts is a difficult one to capture in one word.
The translation of the word has to properly reflect English literary tradition, linguistic changes over the last 200 years, historical and political influences, and adherence to the intended meaning penned by the original authors.
When the Greek keyword appears or if it is found in a Latin text, which is lingua, my mind always wants to automatically translate it as tongues.
The word tongues, which is seldom used in our modern language to specifically mean a modern, regular or contemporary language, is usually understood to be something out-of-this-world, unusual or even weird. Sometimes it is used a synonym to language, but rarely in contemporary literature is it used as the predominant descriptor.
As I have worked over both Greek and Latin Patristic texts, from the likes of Greek writers such as Irenaeous, Origen, Gregory Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, Epiphanius, John of Damascus etc., to the Latin writers of Augustine, the Venerable Bede, Thomas Aquinas, the Ambrosiaster authors, and many more, they do not contain references to the gift being a strange, mystical or heavenly language that needs a new definition.
It would not be fair to translate the Church Fathers on the subject using ‘tongues’ instead of ‘languages’. It significantly changes the nuance of the text when it is done.
One could argue that I am forcing my own interpretation on the text. However, it is believed that “language” is more accurate to what the writers meant. So, against my own feelings and sticking to the facts, “language” is the word of choice on the majority of occasions. Every once in a while tonguesis inserted for stylistic purposes when the noun “language” appears too often in a text and a synonym is required.
Secondly, one must keep in mind that the noun “language” was the dominant English word used to translate glôssa γλῶσσα before the introduction of the Geneva Bible in 1534. This change was highlighted as a Protestant polemic against the Catholic Church’s stance on Latin as the divine and exclusive language of instruction, liturgy, religious correspondence and education.
More detailed information on this change can be found in a previous post The Unknown Tongues in the English Bible.
The revolt to this was the fact that the majority of constituents were not familiar with Latin. It was hindering rather than helping the vast array of peoples and languages in their personal and corporate growth. This was one of the fundamental points of the Reformation.
Another similar problem is associating a catch-phrase. In religious circles gift of tongues is standardly used to describe this phenomena. There are so many aspects to the subject, the Corinthian tongues Church problem, the Tongues of fire at Olivet, and a variety of different expressions over the centuries that it is dangerous to lump them all into one simplistic category. For the more liberal scholars, glossolalia is the conventional phrase. This too is over-simplistic. For the most part, I try to avoid gift of tongues and glossolalia because they already subscribe to a bias. Miracle of Tongues is used more commonly in these works because it is a general statement. Even this can be misleading because not all the tongues controversies in the Church are miraculous.
A significant problem with avoiding gift of tongues in these works is with the Google search engine. By minimizing the phrase gift of tongues Google Search ranks all my articles lower because the general readership definitively links this subject with those keywords. Consequently many great articles generated here that have no real competition in this genre ranks sometimes in the 100′s instead of in the top 10 or 20. There are also other factors that affect ranking as well.
There is also the major problem of asking the right questions, Few do word searches for Church leaders such as Gregory Nazianzus, Epiphanius, Thomas Aquinas, the Irvingites or more. The only one consistently searched one on the subject is Origen and most web articles are extremely vague or contradictory when referring to his works.
However, this site’s first priority is not Google success, but staying true to the facts, and by using gift of tongues more frequently would not be true the story of tongues in Corinth, Olivet, and the evolution of this dogma from its infancy until now.