Praying in tongues, hymns and more: intro

Praying in tongues were part of Paul’s list of liturgical activities which include speaking in tongues, hymns, psalms and the amen construct found within the Corinthian assembly.

They all point to the fact that the Corinthian assembly had inherited the liturgical rites of their greater global Jewish community.

The Gift of Tongues Project has successfully approached Paul’s reference to speaking in tongues as an inherited Jewish liturgical practice. For those new readers unfamiliar with the GOT project, the study concluded the above solution. Here is a larger summary: many or all synagogues around the first century, especially those outside of Israel, performed teaching and reading in Hebrew while an interpreter simultaneously rendered either one into the local vernacular. The application of this rite caused problems within the Corinthian assembly—a group that represented different Greek ethnic groups and languages. They couldn’t agree on the standard Greek language for liturgical use.

For more in-depth coverage and substantiation, see the many articles in the Gift of Tongues Project under the sub-heading, the Tongues of Corinth.

When one compares Paul’s list of liturgical rites with the Jewish ones of his time, they are almost identical. There is little mystery or mysticism attached to these rites. In light of this connection, the activities of Pentecost, or any supernatural phenomenon, had no relationship in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

If the answer to speaking in tongues in the Corinthian assembly is found in the synagogue liturgy, then all the other rites, including praying in tongues are found here too.

The data at making such a correlation is a daunting task for the researcher—largely due to the scarceness of first-century literature on the subject. Worse yet, even less, almost none, from a Jewish Diasporan Greek perspective. Historically, the solutions were from fourth-century or later references found in the Jewish Babylonian Talmud.

Unfortunately, this approach has a serious caveat. Matters of liturgy can dramatically change over 300 years. Observations of the liturgies within the present day church show that dramatic shifts can happen in less than forty years. Fortunately, the more recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls creates a clearer window to the first-century synagogue liturgies and provides a research bridge between the Talmud and the assembly of Corinth. This bridge does not necessarily endorse the later Talmudic dictums, but gives an idea why they developed.

If one discards the Dead Sea Scrolls evidence for a moment, and solely concentrate on the references found in the Jewish Babylonian Talmud, it is still better than the two more popular alternatives.

The first alternative was especially espoused by German theologians in the 1800s and early 1900s and has become the defacto interpretation. They believed speaking and praying in tongues was a synergy with ancient pagan Greek practices so as to make Christianity a universal religion. The connections are prominently made from the ancient Greek priestesses at Delphi and a later second-century Christian sect called the Montanists. This popular interpretation dominates the Greek dictionaries, encyclopedias, and commentaries. This popular theory is the doctrine of glossolalia.

The glossolalia doctrine has some key weaknesses. It does not take into account the Talmud, the Dead Sea Scrolls, first-century Judaism, or ecclesiastical writings to arrive at their conclusions.

For more detailed information see: The Doctrine of Glossolalia series.

The second alternative is from a Pentecostal and Charismatic perspective. They believe that the institutional church had suppressed the gifts for over 1800 years. This conclusion is derived from an altogether different problem. The majority of ecclesiastical writings are not translated, and those that do exist are not popularly available. This lack, especially English translations, have led to an erroneous conclusion that the church was silent or even repressive on the subject when it was not. The ignorance of the original texts, combined with the anti-Catholic sentiments in early Protestantism, which transformed into the subconscious realm of later Protestant movements, has allowed over 1800 years of history to be forgotten.

Furthermore, a detailed study demonstrates that the Pentecostal concept of speaking/praying in tongues as a private prayer language was a later doctrine developed after the Azusa Street Revival in 1906. The creation was an antidote for the missionary tongues crisis after Azusa. People supposedly imbued with the supernatural power of speaking in foreign languages went to the foreign fields and discovered that they did not have this ability.

Pentecostals solved this theological quandary by modifying the works of the German turned American historian and theologian, Philip Schaff; the Anglican writer, theologian and Dean of Canterbury, Frederick Farrar; the Anglican theologians Conybeare and Howson, and a very short list of other authors and publications. These authors promoted tongues as glossolalia. Early Pentecostal leaders pentecostalized the word glossolalia, stripping away the academic language, and redefined it as a private prayer or heavenly language. Although Pentecostals hold today that spontaneous missionary tongues can still occur, the primary emphasis is on praying in tongues.

There is no ecclesiastical history that supports the Pentecostal doctrine of praying in tongues before 1908.

For more detailed information see the series: Pentecostal Solutions to the Missionary Tongues and Gibberish Crisis.

Both alternatives leave the reader wanting for a more thorough historical rendering. Although we are still missing features within the Jewish writings about the first-century synagogue, it remains the best approach we have on the subject.

Interpreting the Corinthian rites through a first-century synagogue lens leads to many questions. We already know that the connection between Paul, Judaism, and the synagogue was very strong.

This was previously investigated. See the Tongues of Corinth series for more information.

Pertinent questions about this relationship still remain: why did Paul never use the word synagogue, συναγωγή, in his address to the Corinthians? He used the word ekklesia, ἐκκλησία, instead. If he didn’t use the word synagogue in addressing the Corinthians, then why should we assume he integrated the synagogue liturgy in the early Corinthian assembly?

Also, a common discussion revolves around the introduction of prayer into the synagogue rite. Some believed this happened after the first century, though all indications support that it happened earlier. This argument requires a further look, as it has a direct impact on understanding prayer in the Corinthian assembly.

In respect to praying in tongues, we do know that later Rabbis permitted synagogue prayers to be performed in any language and certain ones were to remain in their original. Their discussions indicate a previous tension on the subject of whether only one language, probably Hebrew or Aramaic, was allowed for prayer. Perhaps, this was unsettled during Paul’s first-century life. Were Paul and the assembly of Corinth caught in the crosshairs of this debate?

Or was this topic already settled and people were praying in so many different languages that the majority had no clue what was being uttered? Did this situation cause Paul to bring in some structure? A detailed look will be made investigating these perspectives.

We also know through the Dead Sea Scrolls that prayers, hymns, and psalms were a prominent feature of Jewish worship around the first century.

The Dead Sea Scrolls also have a celestial type of feeling to them. Often there are references to the combination of men and angels in their worship. Is this why Paul referred to the tongues of men and angels? Was he drawing from the spiritual fervor of the times?

So the Dead Sea Scroll writings require a careful examination before drawing any conclusions.

Most frequent readers to this blog will not accept such summaries as credible. They rightly want substantiation. Of course, a series of articles are in development on this topic. Stay tuned.

Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.

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