Tag Archives: foreign languages

Commentary of Psellos’ Tongues of Pentecost

A commentary on Michael Psellos’ text concerning the miracle of Pentecost as outlined in the Book of Acts.

The eleventh-century Michael Psellos resolves a number of critical issues in the contemporary debate over the meaning and definition of the tongues of Pentecost.

The results are gleaned from the translation and analysis of his Greek text found in Michaelis Pselli Theologica. Vol. 1. Paul Gautier ed. BSB B.G. Teubner Verlagsgesellschaft. 1989. Pg. 293-295. In this portion of Pselli Theologica, he covers the Pentecost event and the controversies that have surrounded it.

He first of makes it abundantly clear that the miracle was the ability to speak in foreign languages that the speaker did not know beforehand. He also added new Greek keywords that point to this fact.

Secondly, he clarified the old tongues debate that had raged over seven centuries which started with Gregory Nazianzus. Nazianzus posited two theories, that it was either a miracle of hearing or speaking. He sided with Gregory’s preference that it was a miracle of speaking. Psellos reinforced this with a further explanation.

He was not aware, or at minimum does not cite, any other alternative movements or theories than this.

Psellos had a detailed knowledge of the pagan Greek prophets and explains that the ancient female prophets of Phoebe would go in a form of frenzy and speak in foreign languages. This is a very early and important contribution to the modern tongues debate where there has been much contemporary scholarly attention given to the ancient Greek prophets going into ecstasy and producing ecstatic speech. A connection is made by many modern scholars to the christian miracle as simply being a synergism of the ancient Greek practice of ecstatic speech — an attempt to make the christian faith a universal one.

This has been a large source of controversy within scholarly circles, and has been noted in this blog before in A Critical Look at Tongues and Montanism where Christopher Forbes argued that there is no substantive evidence that the ancient Greek prophets ever spoke in ecstatic utterances — and his argument is quite strong because there is indeed little direct evidence. Rex D. Butler countered that ancient texts do infer ecstatic utterances. Michael Psellos declared that it was simply foreign languages that the Greek prophets practised. He does not make any reference to ecstatic utterances.

This may be the oldest direct text on the subject and must be given significant weight. His knowledge of ancient Greek philosophy and religion is unparalleled even by modern standards. It is also seven hundred years older than most works that address the relationship between the Christian event and the pagan Greek rite.

Psellos went on to describe that those who spoke at Pentecost did so with total comprehension. He went into detail how it exactly worked. The thought process remained untouched but when attempting to speak, their lips were divinely inspired. The speaker could change the language at any given moment, depending on what language group the surrounding audience belonged to.

The total control of ones mind while under divine influence was what differentiated the Christian event from the pagan one. The Greek prophetesses, as he went on to describe, did not have any control over what they were saying. There was a complete cognitive disassociation between their mind and their speech while the Apostles had complete mastery over theirs.

Last of all Psellos introduces a concept of tongues-speaking practised in the Hellenic world that has to do with the use of plants to arrive in a state of divine ecstasy. He also quickly described pharmacology too in this context, but it seems the text infers it was used in the art of healing. His writing is somewhat unclear at this point, but there was a relationship between the two. Perhaps tongues speaking practised by the ancient Greeks was part of the ancient rite of healing. It is hard to be definitive with this because his writing style here is so obscure. He warns to stay away from the use of exotic things that assist in going into a state of divine ecstasy. ■

For more information: