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An analysis of Gregory of Nyssa on speaking in tongues

Gregory of Nyssa on divine speech, human languages, and Pentecost.

gregory_of_nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa, along with Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and Gregory Nazianzus, set the framework for the christian doctrine of tongues from the fourth-century and onwards. Although there are other narratives during this period such as John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Pachomius, these did not have the future impact on this doctrine as the above three accomplished.

The focus of this article is on Gregory of Nyssa. His name is hardly known, if at all, in chapels, streets, or coffee shops today, but in his time, he was a powerful writer, speaker, and teacher. His influence was widespread throughout all christendom.

Gregory of Nyssa was a fourth-century Bishop of Nyssa – a small town in the historic region of Cappadocia. In today’s geographical terms, central Turkey. The closest major city of influence to Nyssa was Constantinople – which at the time was one of the most influential centers of the world.

Gregory of Nyssa, along with Gregory Nazianzus and Basil the Great were named together as the Cappadocians. Their influence set the groundwork for christian thought in the Eastern Roman Empire. Gregory of Nyssa was an articulate and a deep thinker. He not only drew from christian sources, but built his writings around a Greek philosophical framework.

His theory of divine speech and human languages demonstrate an important perspective in the history of the christian doctrine of tongues.

Nyssa’s idea of divine and human language

Gregory wrote a detailed treaty against a man named Eunomius who had a large following in the christian community, but in matters of theology slightly changed some constants that better suited his philosophy of god and life. There were many subtle shifts that go beyond this study. However, the controversy brings to light Gregory’s views of speaking in tongues.

Eunomius brought up the question whether God spoke in human language, specifically the Hebrew language. Gregory answered by building his thesis around the confusion of languages written in the Book of Genesis. His observations gave a number of valuable thoughts. The first one being that language is a human invention allowed to grow and develop, and that God Himself does not speak in human language as His normal mode of communication.

As he wrote in Contra Eunomium:

So that our position remains unshaken, that human language is the invention of the human mind or understanding. For from the beginning, as long as all men had the same language, we see from Holy Scripture that men received no teaching of God’s words, nor, when men were separated into various differences of language, did a Divine enactment prescribe how each man should talk. But God, willing that men should speak different languages, gave human nature full liberty to formulate arbitrary sounds, so as to render their meaning more intelligible.(1)NPNF2-05. Gregory of Nyssa Pg. 276

Whenever Gregory referred to God speaking, he left the word ambiguous in Greek as voice (phônos — φῶνος).

The avid reader may find that the English translation of the treatise Contra Eunomium found in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. second series doesn’t prove this theory. This is a problem of the English translation which in other areas is a good one, but fails when it comes to differentiating between the Greek nouns, glossa which is the noun for language and phonos which means sound or voice (γλῶσσα and φῶνος).

Secondly, Gregory believed that there was only one language before the confusion of languages at Babel. What exactly this language was, he doesn’t know. He left this one ambiguous too, using voice again, rather than language in the majority of occasions, especially highlighted in this key passage “μιᾷ συνέζων φωνῇ πάντων ἀνθρώπων τὸ πλήρωμα,” “the aggregate of men dwelt together with one voice among them.” The word here for voice is φωνῇ not language as the original English translation of this text provided.(2)See a href=”http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf205/Page_276.html”>NPNF2-05. Gregory of Nyssa Pg. 276 for the full text

He didn’t believe man’s original language was the language of God because God did not use human language as the basis of His natural way of communicating. Aware that Hebrew was proposed as the first original language, he reckoned that Hebrew is neither the oldest language of the world and impossible for this to be the case.

But some who have carefully studied the Scriptures tell us that the Hebrew tongue is not even ancient like the others. . .(3)NPNF2-05. Gregory of Nyssa Pg. 276

Nyssa’s idea of Pentecost

Gregory does not make the Pentecostal event related in the Book of Acts as a reversal of Babel. Instead, he sees parallels between the two stories on the nature of language with different outcomes. In the Pentecost story, he explained it as one sound dividing into languages during transmission that the recipients understood.

The emphasis on God speaking in an ambiguous voice (φῶνος) remains consistent between the two stories:

For at the river Jordan, after the descent of the Holy Ghost, and again in the hearing of the Jews, and at the Transfiguration, there came a voice from heaven, teaching men not only to regard the phenomenon as something more than a figure, but also to believe the beloved Son of God to be truly God. Now that voice was fashioned by God, suitably to the understanding of the hearers, in airy substance, and adapted to the language of the day, God, “who willeth that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.(4)NPNF2-05. Gregory of Nyssa Pg. 275

Gregory believed the sound of God speaking at in the events of Jesus’ baptism, and the transfiguration was not a language, rather, it was a sound that had the ability to adapt during transmission into a targeted human language.

Now when one reads his accounts of Pentecost, this same formula is found with those imbued with the fiery tongues.

In his treatise Contra Eunomium he wrote:

We read in the Acts that the Divine power divided itself into many languages for this purpose, that no one of alien tongue might lose his share of the benefit.(5)NPNF2-05. Gregory of Nyssa Pg. 276

And then again in his homily De Spiritu Sancto sive in Pentecosten:

Consequently, the narrative of the Book of Acts says that while these people are gathered in the upper room, is the dividing up in each one the pure and supernatural fire in the form of languages according to the number of disciples.

So then these people are thus discoursing in Parthian, Mede, and Elamite in the other remaining nations, adapting their voices with respect to authority to every state language. Even as the Apostle says, “I wish five words to speak with my mind in the Church in order that I may benefit others than a thousand words in a tongue.” Truly at that time the benefit was the same language begotten into foreign languages so that the preaching to those ignorant of the truth would not be in vain when those preaching thwart them by a single voice. Now indeed while existing according to the same sounding language, it is necessary to seek after the fiery tongue of the Spirit for the illumination of those who dwell in darkness through error.(6) My translation from Migne Patrologia Graeca. Vol. 46. Col. 695Ff

Gregory of Nyssa’s homily on Pentecost is a happy tome which began with his reference to Psalm 94:1, Come, let us exalt the Lord and continues throughout with this joyful spirit. In reference to speaking in tongues, he wrote of the divine indwelling in the singular and the output of a single sound suggesting a miraculous multiplication into languages during transmission. This emphasis on the singularity may be traced to the influence of Plotinus — one of the most revered and influential philosophers of the third-century. Plotinus was not a christian, but a Greek/Roman/Egyptian philosopher who greatly expanded upon the works of Aristotle and Plato. He emphasized that the one supreme being had no “no division, multiplicity or distinction.”(7)As found in the Philosophy Basics website Nyssa strictly adhered to a singularity of expression by God when relating to language. The multiplying of languages happened after the sound was emitted and therefore conforms to this philosophical model. However, Nyssa never mentions Plotinus by name or credits his movement in Contra Eunomium so it is hard to make a direct connection. I believe that there is some influence here.

What then was the sound that the people imbued with the Holy Spirit were speaking before it multiplied during transmission? Nyssa is not clear. It is not a heavenly or divine language because he believed man would be too limited in any capacity to produce such a mode of divine communication. Neither would he believe it to be Hebrew. Maybe it was the first language mankind spoke before Babel, but this is doubtful. Perhaps the people were speaking their own language and the miracle occurred in transmission. I think speaking in their own language with a miraculous transmission is the likeliest possibility. Regardless, Gregory of Nyssa was not clear in this part of his doctrine.

The differing views between Nyssa and Nazianzus on Pentecost

Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus were acquaintances in real life, perhaps more so because of Gregory of Nyssa’s older brother, Basil the Great. Gregory Nazianzus and Basil the Great had a personal and professional relationship that greatly impacted the church in their dealings with Arianism and the development of the Trinity doctrine. Unfortunately, a fallout happened between Gregory Nazianzus and Basil the Great that never was repaired.(8)Frienship in Late Antiquity: The Case of Gregory Nazianzen and Basil the Great

Gregory Nazianzus recognized the theory of a one sound emanating and multiplying during transmission into real languages. He seriously looked at this solution and posited this against the miracle of speaking in foreign languages. He found the one sound theory lacking and believed the miracle of speech was the proper interpretation. Perhaps this is a personal objection to Nyssa or a professional one based on research. There are no writings between Nyssa or Nazianzus that allude to a contested difference between them on the subject. Nyssa’s contribution to the christian doctrine of tongues has long been forgotten in the annals of history, but Nazianzus has survived. On the other hand, the theory itself posited by Nyssa never did vanish. These two positions by Nyssa and Nazianzus set the stage for an ongoing debate for almost two millennia.

The story doesn’t end here. It is just the beginning. The debate continues to grow and the results are found in a series of articles on Gregory Nazianzus on the doctrine of tongues

References   [ + ]

Fifth-Century Basil of Seleucia on Pentecost

An English translation on Pentecost written by Basil of Seleucia in the fifth-century.

As translated from Migne Patrologia Graeca Vol. 64. Col. 420 to 421. Supplementum Ad S.J. Chrysostom Opera. Homilia in S. Pentecosten.


As it transpired in the past; and the flame was flickering upon mount Sinai and Moses was being taught about establishing the framework of the Law in the midst of the fire. Now then from the highest place a fire was kindling a flame, running above the apostles heads. Moses at that time is the one who set the Laws for the Hebrews in motion for the salvation of the nations. For this reason the memory of the ancient wonder is being mixed together for new things, and once more the fire is being aroused in the same semblance of the exhibitions, that those things in the present times are believed to be about the one and the same God. For that reason it is the fashioning of divided languages so that it would make those who are receiving this, teachers. So that those moved in the midst of the fire, were authorized as masters of the inhabited world.

For in the past, one voice and also one language rules over all, the audacity of the tower brought on division, and a struggle of languages that ensued, brought to an end the war against heaven. And innumerable languages, with myriads of sounds thoroughly frightened, and nevertheless they did not find the one sound heard, because they were not in agreement on the singular voice. But a single language was diced apart, and divided the minds, and a dissolved language restrained the hands. Now, on the other hand, the gift has synthesized the divided tongues upon the mouth into each one the specific language. The outward grace extends the boundaries of the master, and births the many roads of faith.

O incredible wonders! The Apostle was speaking and an Indian was being instructed. A Hebrew was uttering a sound, and a foreigner being educated. The sound of grace being made known, and the hearer understanding the word. Goths were recognizing the sound. The Ethiopians recognized the language. Persians were marveling upon this one speaking, and who was teaching foreign nations by the agency of one language. How much the nature was enlarged for the various races, so great the outward grace was being richly adorned with languages. On this account then the nature of the fire, which is dividing, is multiplying exponentially the work, for a stream of light is the richness of the gift. By all means the nature of the fire which was kindled was not seen to diminish, but the impartation is growing. Thus, the gift being poured forth is multiplying the river. In fact the one torch-fire is in the process of kindling infinite yellow-flames, and demonstrates that all these things are arranged with luminous wonders. And the light of the torches is not passing away. In this way the gift of the Spirit crosses over from one to the other, and fills those, and from these proceeds to the others.

On this account the gift comes at that moment upon the apostles first, and among these as if the gift had seized the Acropolis and flows to the believers. All are being filled and it does not stop the streams of the gift. Therefore, the language of fire was lighting upon. Additionally, each disciple was a vessel of innumerable languages, and they were loquaciously speaking to those present, and these people debate about the teachers prize. And those present were spectators of the wonder. And the multitude of hearers, who have been divided by the nation, was not lacking, because with the words in the local vernaculars belongs the apostle’s persuading language. For even as having been immersed in things, these are receiving the sound by the touch of the fire. The knowledge they grasped was instantaneous. And a faith that was being explained, and a gift that was astonishing, and a God that was made known. ■


For background notes and analysis relating to this translation see Basil of Seleucia on Pentecost: Notes.

For more information on the authorship, see A Chrysostom Conundrum.

For the actual Greek and Latin source, see Basil of Seleucia: Greek and Latin text.

Notes on the Doctrine of Tongues in De Trinitate

An analysis of the Church doctrine of tongues found in the fourth century Alexandrian work De Trinitate — traditionally attributed to Didymus of Alexandria.

The authorship of this work is not settled. Tradition ascribes the author to be Didymus of Alexandria. This writer, grammarian and teacher, stands at the forefront as one of Alexandria’s most prominent leaders. Although his name has lost prominence within the annals of history, his influence and contribution to the Christian world during his time was immeasurable.

However, there is a dispute on the authorship. Alisdair Heron argues in the book, The Making of Orthodoxy that it is not certain that Didymus is the author of this work.

For some two hundred years following its mid-eighteenth-century discovery by Mingarelli in a manuscript lacking title page and the opening chapters, the De Trinitate was regarded as the chief surviving work of Didymus the Blind (313–98), the last really distinguished leader of the catechetical school in Alexandria. Mingarelli based his ascription in part on the numerous and striking verbal parallels between this work and Didymus’ De Spiritu Sancto, which survives only in Jerome’s Latin translation. The last generation, however, has seen a remarkable shift in scholarly opinion on the matter: the discovery of the Toura papyri in 1941 and the ascription to Didymus of a series of extensive biblical commentaries contained in them has led in turn to comparisons of these works with the De Trinitate which seemed to support the conclusion that Didymus could not also have been the author of the latter. If correct, this conclusion not only requires a radical revision of the entire picture of Didymus and his theological teaching developed before the discovery of the Toura papyri; it also leaves the De Trinitate – a major work by any standards – floating in the void of anonymity. In recent years, study of Didymus has concentrated on the Toura commentaries; the De Trinitate has received relatively scant attention, though it is arguably more theologically substantial and significant than the commentaries, whether or not Didymus is the author.

Bryce Walker also addresses manuscript problems with another work attributed to Didymus’ De Spiritu Sancto, which may have an impact on understanding De Trinitate. He described on his blog that the oldest text of De Spiritu Sancto is in Latin.(1) http://www.bryce-walker.com/2012/11/24/fun-with-manuscript-traditions-didymus-the-blinds-de-spiritu-sancto/ There was no mention of De Trinitate having the same problem. I wasn’t aware of this background information while translating De Trinitate until completion, but found on a few occasions that the Greek was following Latin structure and wondered if this was a later Greek reproduction based on the Latin. However, some of the Greek word usage is old and reminiscent of this Alexandrian era. There is not enough convincing evidence to prove that this is a later Greek translation from the Latin. However it is tenable that there were emendations or editorial inserts done by Latin based copyists.

Or it could be a collective effort of the fourth century Christian community based in Alexandria? It was one of the most influential theological centers within Christendom. Its influence can be found in almost any subject during this period.

Perhaps it was a person or movement trying to copy the diction and prose of an earlier generation in their writing style.

In the case of the Gift of Tongues Project, dating a text is more important than authorship for discovering and analyzing the transmission of this doctrine over the centuries. It appears most of the work is fourth century, and has an Alexandrian style. It may or may not be Didymus as the original author, though tradition has ascribed it as such.

Regardless, De Trinitate is a well written theological work.

Consequently, when one comes across an Alexandrian based work such as De Trinitate, it requires careful attention.

This work is an important one to study for the Gift of Tongues Project to proceed in it’s goal of tracing the development and evolution of the doctrine of tongues in the Church from inception until now.

It is also hoped that this document will clarify the theology outlined by Gregory Nazianzus. If one reads the coverage of Gregory Nazianzus and later writers on this subject, the doctrine of tongues has three potential interpretations. One is that the speakers emitted sounds and the hearers miraculously understood it in their own language, or that the speakers miraculously spoke in every language, or it was a miracle of both hearing and speaking. The presently available Gregory texts leaves too much ambiguity as to which one was the most historically accepted.

The base copy worked from was the Greek text found in Migne Patrologia Graeca. The Latin parallel was closely watched for any differences.

If Didymus did write this, then this document is the only place where he made reference to the doctrine of tongues. His works in Migne Patrologia Graeca have been visually scanned for relevant coverage on this topic, and only three references have been located, and they are all found in De Trinitate. It is a large work that not only has the Trinity as the central theme but seeks to integrate all forms of Christian thought into this ideology. Thus the doctrine of tongues has slight references to this.

The relevant passages have been digitized, and translated. The English translation can be found at An English Translation of the Tongues Passages found in De Trinitate, and the original Greek text along with the Latin parallel translation, The Greek and Latin texts on the Doctrine of Tongues found in De Trinitate.

The first reference in De Trinitate concerning the doctrine of tongues can be found in the coverage about the division of languages in the Book of Genesis.(2) Didymi Alexandrini. De Trinitate Liber Primus. XVIII:31. MPG. Vol. 39 Col. 348 This one hardly provides any substantial detail. It follows the customary path of early Christian interpretation of linking the doctrine of tongues with the confusion of languages rather than connecting it to the voice or voices God spoke to Moses with at Mount Sinai.

The second reference in De Trinitate has more information.(3) Didymi Alexandrini. De Trinitate Liber Primus. XVIII:31. MPG. Vol. 39 Col. 348:

And they were speaking as well in different languages, “even as”, it says, “the Spirit was giving them to utter.” And the Galileans were understanding the instruction of Parthians, Medes, Persians; and the different sorts of foreign speech of mankind, including also Greek, and the Ausonian language. Many voices were indeed produced, and were showing of such things, we are destined to discover about the age to come, when having been liberated from the bonds of this present world, which corresponds to the voice of Paul, “Where there is not among them Greek, Barbarian, Scythian, but Christ is the all and in all.” And clearly he meant the same identical essence as according to the Trinity, “Christ is all and in all.” Where seeing that we seek. . .

There are a number of clues that can be picked-up from here. The text offered support for the miracle being those speaking in foreign languages, but the wording suggests that these people miraculously spokes sounds too, which parallels the second theory of the miracle being in the hearing.

The text defined those who were miraculously endowed Galileans. By leaving this so general, the author(s) recognize that more people just than the Apostles were gifted on that day, but who and how many, is left for the reader to decide.

It is clear here from the text that those who were endowed not only miraculously spoke but also understood foreign languages. It does not clarify if this was a temporary event, or a gift which these people possessed for the rest of their lives.

The text also added the Greek and the Ausonian to the list of languages being spoken at Pentecost. Ausonian was the language of Southern Italy. It is argued to be close to, if not Latin, while others state it is independent and older than that of Roman Latin. The written intent was to transform the Pentecost phenomenon from a semitic event, to a universal one.

There are new keywords to the tongues doctrine never used before:

  • συνίεσαν to understand as found in:

    And the Galileans were understanding the instruction of Parthians, Medes, Persians. . .

    This verb is found in Homeric and other classical Greek works. This would not be unusual to find with Alexandrian authors whose vocabulary is often similar. It also could mean that the Apostles were competently hearing or perceiving other languages.

  • ὁμιλίαν instruction. This is found in the same sentence shown above, but will show it once more to avoid confusion:

    And the Galileans were understanding the instruction of Parthians, Medes, Persians. . .

    This word can be found also in Acts 20:11 but is seldom used in the New Testament, nor in reference to the doctrine of tongues. It is the source by which we use the word Homily in many Church services today. It meant here that those who were endowed understood the instruction, that is, the philosophy and religion of the foreign nations, and could speak the Gospel within that context.

  • ἀλλοθρόων which root is speaking a strange tongue, strange, alien:(4) The lexicon definition found at Perseus.

    . . .and the different sorts of foreign speech of mankind

    This sentence portion is from the Greek καὶ ἀλλοθρόων ἄλλων ἀνθρώπων. The writer(s) is once again strengthening the argument through these word selections that the miraculous endowment is a universal one, not just a localized event that only the semitic nations could comprehend.

  • πολύφωνοί having many tones, having many voices, loquacious, talkative, manifold in expression:(5) The lexicon definition found at Perseus.

    Many voices were indeed produced

    The text noted that the speech was in manifold voices. This causes some confusion. Up until now, it is clear that the people miraculously spoke in foreign languages. It is assumed that one person spoke in Persian, while another Mede, and the list goes on. Here it is not clear. Was it each person speaking in manifold voices at one moment? Or was the person sequentially going through the languages of the nations while speaking? This is a mystery many of the Church fathers have so far left ambiguous and the text also does not clarify.

The third reference in De Trinitate to tongues speaking is weak.(6) Didymi Alexandri. De Trinitate Liber Secundus. MPG. Vol. 39. Col. 501 It strings together a number of references relating to the Holy Spirit and fire, including the tongues sequence in the Book of Acts. It simply is quoting Acts 2:4 among other Bible quotes without expressing any explanation to the meaning of the passage itself. It was translated, analyzed and posted in keeping with one of the goals of the Gift of Tongues Project — to be as comprehensive as possible. In the past, many researchers have selectively chosen passages to support their cause while omitting other pertinent information.

The writing style of De Trinitate contains rapid sequential thoughts. It is depending on the audience to know their Bible and topics at hand, and to fill in the obvious blanks. It skips very quickly from one thought to another. It also created difficulty translating because it was hard to understand one specific sharp transition — the text containing the negative example of Ananias to the positive example of those possessing the Holy Spirit. The transition was too fast and unclear.

De Trinitate on the doctrine of tongues does not reveal any new concepts additional to that of Gregory Nazianzus. It is clear that the text supported a miraculous form of comprehending and speaking many human languages. There are no references to the Montanists or Donatists. They were not a central or controversial part of the tongues doctrine during his time.

References   [ + ]

Bede’s Book of Reflection on the Acts of the Apostles 2:1-18

The Venerable Bede on the doctrine of tongues. An English translation of his Book of Reflection on the Acts of the Apostles chapters 2:1-18.

Translated by Charles A. Sullivan from MPL. Vol. 92. Bedæ Venerabilis: Liber Retractationis In Actus Apostolorum. Col. 998-1000


A Book of Reflection on the Acts of the Apostles

Chapter 2

“And when the days of Pentecost were completed, they were all together in the same place,” Some of the other Codices(1)Bede had an extensive Library of Old Latin and the Septuagint texts to choose from and was well aware of textual errors see Calvin B. Kendall’s coverage on this topic. wrongly have Pentecost in the accusative case. For Pentecost in the nominative case is called the fiftieth — in the genitive, is called of the fiftieth, in the accusative [it is simply] the fiftieth day(2)Bede is making an important distinction in the Latin use of cases, which do not exist in English. He is arguing that Pentecost, a word directly derived from the Greek, and the Latin equivalent, Quinquagesima, which both mean fifty, are synonyms. It can be called by either name. In the old Latin Pentecost was called Quinquagesima. It was the official name of the holy day, not just a number or adjective. If it is used in the accusative, it is just a number or adjective. Moreover not one account permits this to be spoken this way, so that when we say Pentecost in the accusative case, when really it ought to be said, “when the day of Pentecost was completed.” certainly it is said without doubt to be with the singular number in the Greek.

“And when the days of Pentecost were completed.” Of course in the very same day of prayer it should be mentioned as well, “These ones celebrate the most sacred Pentecost day,”(3)diem sacratissimum Pentecosten celebrantes — this quotation by Bede is a sacred part of the Catholic tradition of celebrating Pentecost. An alternative English translation could be “celebrating the most sacred Pentecost day. that is, the fiftieth. The solemnity of this day is being reckoned by the tradition of such a word, by which some who do not know the Greek language, even now ought to call Pentecost in the nominative case.

“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming: and it filled the whole house where they were sitting,” etc.(4)Douay-Rheims And the actual distinction is most apparent in the giving of the law and in grace with the Old and New testaments. Where it says the group(5)plebs was resting far away, fear, not love was present. They continually dreaded thus far, as they were saying to Moses, “Speak to us, and let not the Lord speak to us, lest we die.” [Exodus 20:19] Then God descended, as it was written, on Sinai as fire, but the frightened group stands still far away, the law by a finger in the stone, nor was it written by the spirit itself in the heart. However, when the holy Spirit came here, the faithful were joined together as one — not even scared on the mountain but entered into the house. Indeed, a sound suddenly came from heaven, so that [the group] was affected also as if a violent wind made a noise, but was not terrified. You have heard the sound. Consider the fire, because each was also on the mountain. And the fire and sound, and yet also smoke, this fire, as if the fire of divided languages. Can it be that it continues to frighten those far away? Let it be far from the hearts of the faithful. For it rested on each one of them and they began to speak in languages, even as the Spirit gave them utterance. Hear the language being spoken, and understand the Spirit writing not in stone, but in the heart.

“And there appeared to them parted tongues, as it were of fire: and it sat upon every one of them.”(6)Douay-Rheims It is of this fire, [which is in the genitive case], not this fire [which is in the nominative case]. For in the Greek it has πυρὸς(7)Greek for the word “fire” in the genitive case not πῦρ.(8)Greek for the word “fire” in the nominative case So that this kind of distinction was easy to figure out. As if it was to be said with an added word “And there appeared parted tongues, as it were of a glowing fire,”(9)Apparuerunt dispartitæ linguæ tanquam ignis ardentis or as it were of a brilliant fire, so that it may be understood regarding the definition of fire to be distributed languages.

“And they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak. Now there were dwelling at Jerusalem, Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.”(10)Douay-Rheims It does not have in the Greek in this place, divers tongues but other tongues. For Isaiah expressed that “In other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people: and neither so will they hear me, saith the Lord.”(11)Douay-Rheims. Bede is lifting this quote directly from I Corinthians 14:21, not from Isaiah 28:11 So that the blessed Luke no doubt was inferring this prophecy which was to be fulfilled by gift of the Spirit, likewise the same word was what he saw in the prophecy, he took care to set down in this sacred history.

“Because that every man heard them speak in his own tongue. And they were all amazed, and wondered, saying: Behold, are not all these that speak Galilean? etc.”(12)Douay-Rheims. I know to hold myself back from this matter because I have said this thought can be understood in two ways; or rather that I was obligated to find-out how it ought to be understood. I am going to respond briefly to this matter that everything whatsoever of the same sentiment I have written in my previous book. I did not mention this by reason of personal experience, but from the words of the holy and faultless teacher in every respect, that is, I take up Gregory Nazianzus. It is certainly agreed that the apostles filled with the holy Spirit were speaking in all languages,(13)linguis omnibus loquebantur — it is purposely left vague by Bede on purpose. neither is it permitted to be questioned by anyone(14)ulli: from ullus — any, anyone. strange that this is the only occurrence used by Bede in any document I have translated. A later interpolation? about this. But in the manner how they were speaking it is to be asked without reservation. It could be the speech of the Apostles had so much power, that they became familiar with the diverse languages by all those, the hearer then is equally able to understand. Or can it be whichever one was being spoken, one was necessary in regards to being appropriate of so great a multitude, with the others left silent, at the moment producing a word of instruction,(15)interim sermonem proferre doctrinæ the person who was speaking at first to the Hebrews, that it produced the speech in Hebrew, while the others do not know what was being said. Then to the Greeks, while those who are ignorant in the Greek language and with the others left waiting. Next to the Parthians, after this the Medes, and so Elamite, and whichever ones are being listed through an order by the nations, its own particular language was to have been spoken, each one at a time awaiting, and being silent, until its order arrives, something was being spoken, they were understood, and so they were to render the approval of the faithful by the words of these teaching,(16)et sic verbis docentium fidei assensum præberent Moreover Luke reports Peter speaking to the crowds and he did not report that he [Peter] spoke repeating the same things the second or third [time], but that these [crowds] in whom have received the plan of salvation are hardly consecrated in the mysteries of the Christian faith.(17)sed tantum eas accepto salutis consilio Christianæ fidei consecratas esse mysteriis — a nice way of saying the crowd didn’t know very much about what was happening. They were spectators, not theologians, and they only thing they could have explained was that they saw and experienced this event.

On the other hand I do not think this to be an error. If either of the two can be trusted to have taken place, and that the apostles in the holy Spirit clearly understood the languages of the nations and had the ability to speak, and the words too were in whatever language expressed by a great miracle, to all who were hearing, that they equally had the ability to learn.(18)qui audiebant æque potuissent cognosci — this is the first time cognosco is used by Bede in relation to the tongues doctrine. Why such a sudden change? The last few sentences have changed in structure from the rest of the chapter, and is not typical of Bede in a number of other translations I have done. I wonder if this is a later emendation.

“And those who inhabit Mesopotamia, Cappodocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia.”(19)Bede is quoting from a different text than the one used for the initial commentary on Acts. The initial has “Et qui habitabant Mesopotamiam, et Judæam, et Cappadociam” and Reflections has “Et qui habitant Mesopotamiam, et Cappodociam, Pontum et Asiam, Phrygiam et Pamphyliam.” These provinces which are named [in the text] after Judea, are uttered in the Greek language, but if nothing diverse were sounding out in the native usage, so by no means were they to record the fine distinction of languages. From whence the Spirit was to actively be seen in the wonderful grace among the apostles, which not only taught them the diversity of all the languages, and certainly also the distinction of qualities in every language equal the total of provinces which they make use of in this way, he did to be knowledgeable in their utterances.(20)in eorum fecit loquelis agnosci. Lidell and Scott make a distinction between the use of agnosco and cognosco. “As if to know a person or thing well, as having known it before, to recognize: agnoscere always denotes a subjective knowledge or recognition; while cognoscere designates an objective perception; another distinction v. in II.)”

“And strangers of Rome.” The more proper way was contained in the Greek, “Roman foreigners,” that is Jews who were leading the foreign life of Rome, just like others elsewhere, of which had been written above. For this reason the strangers were in this place, who in the Greek were called proselytes, that is, those who from the gentiles to Judaism, leaving the religion of the gentiles(21)relicto gentilitatis ritu — the same construct as found in Judith 14:6 had come together. It is made clear from the following verse when it says, “Jews also, and proselytes.”.(22)Douay-Rheims.(23)Bede makes the same assertion in his initial commentary on Acts that the Jews mentioned in Acts 2:10 were converts from other nations. Why he emphasized this interpretation is not clear to me.


Need information on Bede and the subject matter? The following link may help: The Venerable Bede on the Doctrine of Tongues.

References   [ + ]

The Venerable Bede on the Doctrine of Tongues

The goal of this multi-article study is to find out and articulate Bede’s understanding of the Church rite of tongues.

The secondary purpose is to collate, digitize the Latin texts, and translate into English any works completed by the Venerable Bede relating to this doctrine.

There have been two discoveries so far. Bede’s initial commentary on the Book of Acts chapter 2:1-18, and Bede’s reflections on his commentary on the Book of Acts 2:1:18. The latter book done later on in his life.

Although it is only two books that have been discovered that has any substance to the topic, the results are rich. If more texts are found by Bede relating to the topic, it will be added to this multi-series.

The Venerable Bede was an 8th century monk, priest, astronomer, mathematician, historian, theologian, poet, and song writer. He lived in Northumbria, which is now Northern England/South-Eastern Scotland.

Bede’s works are a standard above most Christian authors, and this is why he is credited with being a ‘Doctor of the Church’ — a title rarely given.

The manuscript used for digitizing text, and the translations are from Migne Patrologia Latina. The text appears fairly straightforward. The presence of a few emendations of a later copyist/editor are noticeable. Word usage tends to be inconsistent, but then Bede is playing with an older language Latin text and is attempting to explain it in terms relevant to his audience. A closer look would be required to explain how much changes later copyists and editors have done to this work. However, it is safe to say the intent still belongs to Bede, and this work reflects a medieval mindset. Therefore textual criticism isn’t of serious consequence in this situation.

An initial translation and analysis of Bede’s initial commentary on the Book of Acts was originally published under The Neo-Tongues Movement: Part 3 which has been removed from circulation. It no longer fits in with the changes in the structure of the Gift of Tongues Project. This supersedes any account found in Google cache, any file repository, print-out, or download relating to the Venerable Bede on the topic of tongues done previously by me.

The commentary does not always follow verse-by-verse. Bede, or the copyist/editors, simply ignore some verses because of its irrelevance. This English translation is an exact reproduction of 2:1-18.

Here are the links to all his works related to the doctrine of tongues so far:

Take advantage of the footnotes. There are important notes and information in them.