A History of Pentecost as One Sound and Many Languages Heard

A history of Pentecost being the miracle of one voice emitted and the sounds converted into a relevant human language while in the air or in the minds of the hearers.

This theory was a part of the christian doctrine of tongues that existed at least in the third century, worked its way into the seventh, and has a spotty appearance after this time.

The following is the result of collating, compiling, examining, researching and comparing a wide-range of Patristic authors, a sampling of Jewish literature, and a small dose of classical Greek writings found on the topic.

This article was originally published over 10 years ago with the premise that this doctrine was the central framework within the church about Pentecost for many centuries. Later on, this premise was discovered incorrect and the article was withdrawn from charlesasullivan.com. This complete withdrawal was a mistake because the one voice doctrine1 has important value to the christian doctrine of tongues. It was given too high a status and then moved for a long period to a state of neglect. The following is a remedy to both extremes and puts this doctrine in its proper place within the history of the christian doctrine of tongues.

The following will proceed with uncovering this doctrine, its development and theology.

Philo of Alexandria (20 BC to 50 AD)

The first century Hellenistic Jewish Biblical Philosopher,2 Philo of Alexandria, gives clues that this theory is old and predates the first Pentecost. He believed the voice of God was a special one and non-human in origin. When the voice of God went forth, it bypassed the ears and was processed directly in the mind. He asserted this thought by referring to the time when God spoke directly to Moses and the people about His covenant.

IX. (32) This, then, may be enough to say on these subjects; but it is necessary now to connect with these things what I am about to say, namely, that it was the Father of the universe who delivered these ten maxims, or oracles, or laws and enactments, as they truly are, to the whole assembled nation of men and women altogether. Did he then do so, uttering himself some kind of voice? Away! let not such an idea ever enter your mind; for God is not like a man, in need of a mouth, and of a tongue, and of a windpipe, (33) but as it seems to me, he at that time wrought a most conspicuous and evidently holy miracle, commanding an invisible sound to be created in the air, more marvellous than all the instruments that ever existed, attuned to perfect harmonies; and that not an inanimate one, nor yet, on the other hand, one that at all resembled any nature composed of soul and body; but rather it was a rational soul filled with clearness and distinctness, which fashioned the air and stretched it out and changed it into a kind of flaming fire, and so sounded forth so loud and articulate a voice like a breath passing through a trumpet, so that those who were at a great distance appeared to hear equally with those who were nearest to it. (34) For the voices of men, when they are spread over a very long distance, do naturally become weaker and weaker, so that those who are at a distance from them cannot arrive at a clear comprehension of them, but their understanding is gradually dimmed by the extension of the sound over a larger space, since the organs also by which it is extended are perishable. (35) But the power of God, breathing forth vigorously, aroused and excited a new kind of miraculous voice, and diffusing its sound in every direction, made the end more conspicuous at a distance than the beginning, implanting in the soul of each individual another hearing much superior to that which exists through the medium of the ears. For the one, being in some degree a slower kind of external sense, remains in a state of inactivity until it is struck by the air, and so put in motion. But the sense of the inspired mind outstrips that, going forth with the most rapid motion to meet what is said.3

Origen (184–253 AD)

This controversial third century leader, whose combination of piety and intellect, is the praise of many historians and readers. The following comment from Against Celsum demonstrates that Origen supported the one voice theory.

For the Lord of all the languages of the earth hears those who pray to Him in each different tongue, hearing, if I may so say, but one voice, expressing itself in different dialects. For the Most High is not as one of those who select one language, Barbarian or Greek, knowing nothing of any other, and caring nothing for those who speak in other tongues.4

Gregory of Nazianzus (329–390 AD)

“As a classically trained speaker and philosopher he infused Hellenism into the early church.”5 He was also one of the greatest contributors to the Trinitarian theology. His writings bridged both the Eastern and Western Churches.

Although this great teacher thought that the first Pentecost was a miracle of speech, he was well aware that there was an alternative theory of it being a miracle of hearing. He does attach this value in other parts of his significant work called Orations to this influence.

Gregory wrote:

As supposed: in the first manner it was one voice being sounded forth, and on the other, many being heard, to such an extent the air emitting a loud sound, so that I should say more clearly; from the one sound many sounds were made.

Gregory’s particular word usage in his Orations, chapter 41, is reminiscent of the Neoplatonic leader and writer, Plotinus in his work entitled the Ennead 6.4.12.

Think of a sound passing through the air and carrying a word; an ear within range catches and comprehends; and the sound and word will strike upon any other ear you may imagine. . .”6

This is too close to be accidental. Neoplatonic theory, and especially Plotinus, would likely have assigned the miracle of Pentecost of a sound emanating from the lips and the receiver converting the sound into whatever they want. This one sound theory have been an easy association for fourth-century Greeks to make. Gregory acknowledged this theory in his coverage of the Pentecostal tongues miracle.

Gregory then went on to answer the problem of the Divine One and language. The One theoretically was restricted by Neoplatonic theory to speaking in only one language because He is perfect. If the One spoke in more languages, this would indicate imperfection. This conflict brought on a serious theological dilemma. Gregory posited a solution that was common though he disagreed.

. . . so that I should also say more clearly; from the one voice being the basis of many voices which come into existence.7

With this theory, the divine One did not speak through the people in many languages, but spoke in only one sound, and the recipients heard the voice in their own language. It was a miracle of hearing. Gregory reversed the outcome of the tongues miracle than what he normally preferred in order to build his argument.

Another weaker reference is again from his Orations.

He attached the gift of tongues as a sign of the Trinity. In his homily on Pentecost, he tried to explain how ‘another Paraclete’ in John 14:16 worked in the Trinitarian formula. He was especially trying to explain how the Biblical word another worked in the persons of the Trinity framework. His answer led to a slight concept about the fourth century opinion on tongues:

In this way equal rulership and indeed also not a disgraceful name. For I know, another is being read, not according to belonging to other entities, but according to the same natures. Moreover in languages, on account of the kinship with the Word.8 10

In modern terms, the miraculous use of tongues was the primary evidence of the Trinity. The one nature having manifested itself through the agency of languages. This reference may not fit in this paradigm about the nature and purpose of speaking in tongues but placed as a potential one for consideration.

Gregory of Nyssa (335–395 AD)

Gregory of Nyssa was a contemporary and friend of Gregory of Nazianzus. This church leader attempted to balance Platonic and Christian traditions.11

His writings favoured the one voice and sounds adapting for the hearers theory. Two snippets are shown here taken from, An Analysis of Gregory of Nyssa on Speaking in Tongues,:

The first quote reflects a similar theme as Plotinus. The sound was transformed in the air into the language of the hearers.

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.”12

Gregory of Nyssa 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.

The second reference refers to the original Pentecost event, though it is not as descriptive as the above:

We have read about this in Acts, that the sounds were being divided into many according to the power of God, so then no one would be bereft of their language.13

An important factor to note is his exclusive use of the one voice theory with no reference to any alternative one. He was friends with Gregory of Nazianzus and certainly would have been aware that Nazianzus favoured the miracle of speech. This omission is puzzling.

Theodoret of Cyrus (393-457 AD)

This influential theologian was deeply embroiled in the christological controversies that raged within Eastern and Western Christendom at the time.

Theodoret penned a work called De Principio that had a principle concern about the equality between the members of the Trinity. In a few strokes of a pen, he combined the confusion of languages, the one voice theory, and the creation of man to signify this equality. His argument is not a great intellectual exposition. However, weak as it is, one can glean some information. He used the one voice theory as an example on how a single, unified deity can be expressed in the form of the Trinity. Just as the one voice broke out into many languages and the the divided voice still remained divine, so can the Trinity exist.

“Come and descend let us divide their tongues,” and especially this, “descend let us divide,” shows the equal honor. For he did not say, “You descend!” Or, “Let him descend,” like he joins with the the ones who gave ear and are obedient but, “Descend let us divide,” this clearly demonstrates equality. So that “Come,” signifies the Son and the Spirit: the companions of creation. Seeing that in the process of making humankind he stated, “Let us make man according to our image and likeness.” Naturally then also dividing the one voice into many, it brings companions the Son and the Holy Spirit. 14

This reference is a difficult one to translate and explain as it is deeply embedded in the nuances of the Greek language. The outcome too, even if expressed properly, may not be the strongest connection in comparison to the other authors listed. Theodoret’s direct connection between the Trinity and one voice elevates the one voice theory to a higher status. Perhaps, this view is only restricted to Theodoret and his circle, but such a correlation with the Trinity would make the one voice theory an indisputable dogma.

There is likely much more to this connection but it requires to delve into the doctrine of the Trinity which is beyond the scope of this article.

Augustine (354–430 AD)

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, may not have believed that the miracle of hearing was the principal interpretation of Pentecost, but he was aware of the doctrine. He also promoted it in certain circumstances against the rival Donatist movement.

  • “Each man speaking in every language”,15
  • “Each man was speaking in every language, it was being announced beforehand because the Church was about to be in every language. One man was a sign of unity. Every language by one man, every nation in unity.”16
  • His coverage is found in several other Sermons17 and his work on the Psalms. In Enarratio in Psalmum he wrote the following entry which especially aligns with the one voice theory; “See that sounds went out in every language.”18

For more details, see Augustine on the Tongues of Pentecost

Basil of Seleucia (mid–400s AD)

This bishop, a professed follower of Chrysostom, mixed both the miracle of speaking and hearing in his works. He does not necessarily endorse an undetermined sound being issued. Rather one language uttered while the recipients heard in the their particular one. A slight edge is given to the miracle of hearing.

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 about this one speaking, and who was teaching foreign nations by the agency of one language.19

For more information see, Basil of Seleucia’s Explanation of Pentecost

Gregory the Great (540–604 AD)

Gregory the Great, also known as Pope Gregory I, lived in an era of serious upheaval. The papacy was severely weakened through perpetual wars and many of them losses. He was surrounded by plagues, hunger, starvation, and environmental disasters. Somehow, his thoughts rose above these calamities and he temporarily deliberated on Pentecost. His idea of Pentecost combined the concept that God was above the limitations of language. In relation to language, the Divine can only be described as the voice without sound. When Pentecost arrived and the fiery languages were distributed, He did so by a miraculous internal process.

For that it was written about the coming of the Holy Spirit, “And suddenly a sound was made from heaven as if of a mighty wind coming and filled the whole house where they were sitting and apportioned languages appeared among them as if a fire, sitting upon each one of them. ” God indeed appeared by means of fire, but inwardly made the speech by Him and neither did it make a noise but that which was externally produced. This was expressed in respect to what was conducted on the inside. That it rendered within the disciples as ones who had come on fire with zeal and skill in the word, the outside showed the fiery languages. Therefore, the elements had been brought up in accordance with an outward sign, that the bodies were experiencing the fire and the sound by the true invisible fire and the hearts were being taught by the voice without sound.20

The Venerable Bede cites this comment by Pope Gregory I in his initial commentary on the Book of Acts.21 The placement of the quote within the context of Bede’s work suggests it supported the miracle of hearing. It is hard to tell if this is true. Pope Gregory advanced the idea that the Divine was internally working within the person to overcome the limitations of the mind. It does not overtly promote the one sound theory but one must grant that it may allude to it.

The Venerable Bede (673–735 AD)

The Venerable Bede was a talented multi-disciplined Benedictine monk from a northern England location called Jarrow. He first believed it was a miracle of hearing, and then altered to a lukewarm stance on speaking.

It is rumoured that did not initially know Greek when he penned his first commentary on the Book of Acts. This condition is likely true given his response in his revision of his Act’s commentary.22 He demonstrated a shift from the Latin to the Greek text on the subject.

The focus in this article is on his initial commentary where he believed it was a miracle of hearing. If you want to read about his change of opinion, read: Bede’s Book of Reflection on the Acts of the Apostles 2:1–18

The following was his initial thought on Pentecost:

Or rather was it more astonishing to this than their speech that whatever language was being spoken, these ones proclaimed in the hearing of each and every person, they were understanding according to their own language. That with the word of grace by whichever apostle in the Church teaches (In fact it was necessary to speak one [language] and one speech with leaving the rest silent in order to reach everyone who heard). The speech itself was to possess this in its own power, that while the hearers were of the diverse nations, each one according to their language coming from this one speech itself, which had been uttered by the Apostle, that it entered upon the hearer and seized the intellect. Except perhaps according to this, it seemed those who are hearing to be a greater miracle than those who speaking.23

Talmudic References (300–600 AD)

When Philo of Alexandria touched on a Jewish interpretation about the voice of God, it piqued interest to see if this concept passed down in the Jewish community. Perhaps, the Greek influence that Philo of Alexandria borrowed from evolves later in Jewish thought. It is not inconceivable that Judaism and Christianity developed this doctrine from the same source or borrowed from each other.

There are elements in Jewish literature that support the one voice theory.

The Midrash Rabbah tried to explain how God communicated to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It asserts that God spoke in all the languages of the world which consisted symbolically of 70 languages. “R. Johanan said: it was one voice that divided itself into seven voices and these into seventy languages. R. Simeon Lakish said: [it was the voice] from which all subsequent prophets received their prophecy… The meaning, however, of ‘the voice of the Lord is with power’ is that it was with the power of all voices,”24

Added to this is a quote from Shab. 88b. “Every phrase which issued from the mouth of the All-powerful divided itself into seventy languages.”25

This theory is not a universal position. There have been thoughts found in both Jewish and Christian writings that believe the personal language of God is Hebrew. One could argue that God spoke in Hebrew and then it divided in the air for the benefit of the hearers. However, the emphasis in both Talmudic passages is not on Hebrew or any language in particular. It is above the construct of human languages.

See Hebrew and the First Language of Mankind for more information.

Midrash Rabbah and Shab. 88b. similarly echoes to what Gregory the Great wrote. Some may infer from the Talmud that the subject of one voice many sounds pre-dates Gregory the Great theologically. One must be careful. The Talmud was penned between the third and sixth centuries, and the contributors were not immune to Neoplatonic influences. This factor may have shaped their coverage of the divine language.

800 AD and Later

After the Venerable Bede, literature rarely comes up on the subject. The Easter Greek statesman based in Constantinople, Michael Psellos (1018 –@1082 AD), brings up the tension between Pentecost being a miracle of speaking and hearing. He winds it down it down through his own waxed philosophical way to a miracle of speech.26 He may have played with both possibilities out of intellectual curiosity with no reference to any active debates.

There is an absence of any medieval accounts of the miracle of hearing for almost two hundred years. The trajectory seems to be moving towards Pentecost as a miracle of speaking in both practice and theology. However, this was only the case for a short period of time. There is an account of the Portuguese Catholic Priest, St. Anthony of Padua (1195–1231 AD). He allegedly spoke in either Spanish or Portuguese and the people from distinct nations and languages heard him in their language.27

The great scholastic writer and teacher, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274 AD), was aware of the two theories. He takes little time to dwell on the hearing aspect, and much more copy is devoted to the miracle of speaking.28

The immensely popular and charismatic Dominican missionary, Vincent Ferrer (1315–1419 AD), only spoke and preached in his native Valencian29 language but the people miraculously understood it in their own language.30

Pope Benedict XIV (1675–1758) is considered one of the most intellectual and scholarly persons to ever to lead the Catholic Church. The gift of tongues as a criterion for Sainthood as found in Pope Benedict the XIV’s treatise, De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione (published around 1748 AD) is a carefully written and well documented work into what constitutes the gift of tongues. He outlined procedures required to investigate the phenomenon and the need for stringent evaluation of any events.

He noted both the miracle of speaking and hearing in his historical synopsis and accepts both as a divine expression.31

Pope Benedict XIV applied any assertion of tongues and miracles for any inquiry for Sainthood to a higher standard of investigation. After this time, the instances of the gift of tongues are almost negligible in the Catholic Church.

The Protestant movement at first denied the present reality of all miracles and the gift of tongues was outside of any regular discussion. There were brief intellectual queries from persons such as Jean Calvin who addressed it in historical terms, but nothing significant. As the tightening grip of cessationism began to loosen in the Protestant world, Pentecost was viewed as the miraculous endowment of a foreign language. No serious consideration was given for the miracle of hearing.

The change in the Protestant world from the miraculous ability to speak of a foreign language to ecstatic utterances or the like is a large question to answer and is beyond this article. For more information on this transformation, see the Gift of Tongues Project under the Protestant header for more information.

  1. I called it the Neo-Tongues Movement in its first iteration.
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philo
  3. http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book26.html This is a digitized copy similar to what is found in: The Works of Philo Judaeus: the Contemporary of Josephus translated by C. C. Yonge (1855). For the Greek source text, see Philonis Alexandrini Opera quae supersunt Pg. 275ff
  4. The Writings of Origen. Vol. II. Contra Celsum: Books II-VIII. Transl. by Frederick Crombie. Edinburgh: T and T Clarke. 1872. Pg. 522. The Greek reads: καὶ ὁ πάσης διαλέκτου Κύριος τῶν ἀπὸ πάσης διαλέκτου εὐχομένων ἀκούει ὡς μιᾶς, ἵν’ οὕτως ὀνομάσω, φωνῆς τῆς κατὰ τὰ σημαινόμενα ἀκούων, δηλουμένης ἐκ τῶν ποικίλων διαλέκτων. Οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐπὶ πᾶσι θεὸς εἷς τις τῶν κεκληρωμένων διάλεκτόν τινα βάρβαρον ἢ ἕλληνα καὶ μηκέτι τὰς λοιπὰς ἐπισταμένων ἢ μηκέτι τῶν ἐν ἄλλαις διαλέκτοις λεγόντων φροντίζειν.
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_of_Nazianzus
  6. http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1271&chapter=4120&layout=html&Itemid=27. Thanks to Alex Poulos for pointing this out.
  7. τῆς φωνῆς φωνὼν γινομένων
  8. My translation from MPG Vol. 36. S. Gregorii Theologi. Oratio XLI In Pentecosten. Col. 445
  9. the Latin translator clarified the text about how the another fits in the narrative. The Holy Spirit “…is shown with languages, on account of His relationship which it has together with the Word.”9My translation from MPG Vol. 36. S. Gregorii Theologi. Oratio XLI In Pentecosten. Col. 446
  10. Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Byzantine philosopher and theologian by Edward R. Hardy. He further added “Platonic and Christian inspiration combine in Gregory’s ascetic and mystical writings, which have been influential in the devotional traditions of the Eastern Orthodox church and (indirectly) of the Western church.”
  11. NPNF2-05. Gregory of Nyssa Pg. 275
  12. My translation from MPG.Vol. 45. Col. 997 Contra Eunomium, Lib. XII
  13. This is an expanded version of an earlier edition of this article. My translation from MPG. Vol. 83. Theodoreti Episcopi Cyrensis. Graecarum Affect. Curatio. – II De Principio. Col. 848 . « Δεῦτε, καὶ τὸ μὲν, καταβάντες συγχέωμεν αὐτῶν τὰς γλώσσας. » καὶ τὸ μὲν, « Καταβάντες συγχέωμεν, » δηλεῖ τὸ ὁμότιμον · οὺ γὰρ εἷπεν, Κατάβηθι, ἤ Καταβήτω, ὅπερ δὴ τοῖς ὐπηκόοις καὶ προσταττομένοις ἁρμόττει · ἀλλὰ, « Καταβάντες συγχέωμεν, » ὅ σαφῶς δηλοῖ τὴν ἰσότητα. Τὸ δὲ, Δεῦτε, τὸν Υἰόν καὶ τὸ Πνεῦμα σημαίνει, τῆς δημιουργίας τοὺς κοινωνούς. Ἐπειδὴ γὰρ καὶ διαπλάττων τὸν ἄνθρωπον ἔφη, « Ποιήσωμεν ἄνθρωπον κατ’ εἰκόνα ἡμετέραν καὶ καθ’ ὁμοίωσιν, » εἰκότως ἄρα καὶ μερίζων εἰς πολλὰς τὴν μίαν φωνὴν συνεργοὺς λαμβάνει τὸν Υἰὸν καὶ τὸ πανάγιον Πνεῦμα.
  14. Sermo CCLXV:10
  15. Sermo CCLXVI:2
  16. Sermo CCLXVII and CCLXVIII
  17. Enarratio in Psalmum CXLVII:19 (147:19)
  18. My translation
  19. My translation from Appendix Ad. S. Gregorii Opera Omnia. In Exposit. B. Job, lib. xxviii, num. 2. MPL Vol. 79. Col. 1086 “Quod enim de adventu sancti Spiritus scriptum est: Factus est repente de coelo sonus, tanquam advenientis spiritus vehementis ; et replevit totam domum ubi erant sedentes. Et apparuerunt illis dispertitae linguae quasi ignis : seditione supra singulos eorum. (Act. 1.) Per ignem quidem Deus apparuit ; sed per semetipsum locutionem interius fecit “ et neque ille sonitus fuit, sed per hoc quod exterius exhibuit, expressit hoc quod interius gessit. Quia enim discipulos et zelo succensos et verbo eruditos intus reddidit, foris linguas igneas ostendit. In significationem igitur admota sunt elementa, ut ignem et sonitum sentirent corpora : igne vero invisibli et voce sine sonitu docerentur corda. Foris ergo fuit ignis qui apparuit, sed intus qui scientiam dedit.”
  20. See Bede’s Book of Reflection on the Acts of the Apostles 2:1–18 for more information.
  21. There is no literature so far found that thoroughly discusses his learning of Greek
  22. My translation. For the complete translation go to Bede’s Initial Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles
  23. Midrash Rabbah. Trans. by S. Lehrman. London: Soncino Press. 1961. 3rd ed. Vol.? Pg. 336
  24. A. Cohen. Everyman’s Talmud. New York: Schocken Books. 1975. Reprint of the 1949 edition. Pg. 62
  25. Read Psellos on the Christian Doctrine of Tongues for more information
  26. St. Anthony of Padua’s Miraculous Speech. This may be a later addition to his legend.
  27. Thomas Aquinas on the Doctrine of Tongues: Conclusion
  28. alternatively known as Catalan
  29. Vincent Ferrer and the Gift of Tongues
  30. See Pope Benedict XIV on the Gift of Tongues

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