Gregory of Nazianzus’ Analysis of Acts 2:6

Gregory of Nazianzus has much to offer with his insights on the original Pentecost. His thoughts on Acts 2:6 opens up different possibilities than what we commonly conclude today.

This revered fourth-century leader stands out as one of the most influential on the subject.

The Gift of Tongues Project has previously traced the influence of Gregory of Nazianzus’ thought on the christian doctrine of tongues in the Latin and Eastern Church.1 His influence has spanned over millennia. However, the GOT Project never explored a detailed analysis of Acts 2:6 from Nazianzus’ perspective until now.

There are specific characteristics and features of the Acts 2:6 in the Greek that most English readers cannot capture unless they know the Greek language and its grammatical rules. Gregory, being a native Greek speaker, obviously understood the nuances. This journey has to dive into the Greek language in order to comprehend his mind.

The reader will find that although the discussion is very technical, the results are advantageous. One will come with a fresh look at the first Pentecost from an ancient perspective.

The translation below is to supply the reader with the context of the subject. The rest of the discussion moves into the realm of the Greek text, language, and grammar.

The English text of Acts 2:6 reads:

When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.2

The Sources for Discussion

The citation of Acts 2:6 passage in Greek is necessary for the rest of the discussion.

γενομένης δὲ τῆς φωνῆς ταύτης συνῆλθε τὸ πλῆθος καὶ συνεχύθη, ὅτι ἤκουον εἷς ἕκαστος τῇ ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ λαλούντων αὐτῶν.3

And here is Nazianzus’ rendering of this passage.

Ἐλάλουν μὲν οὖν ξέναις γλώσσαις, καὶ οὐ πατρίοις, καὶ τὸ θαῦμα μέγα, λόγος ὑπὸ τῶν οὐ μαθόντων λαλούμενος• καὶ τὸ σημεῖον τοῖς ἀπίστοις, οὐ τοῖς πιστεύουσιν, ἵν᾽ ᾖ τῶν ἀπιστων κατήγορον, καθὼς γέγραπται• Ὅτι ἐν ἑτερογλώσσοις, καὶ ἐν χείλεσιν ἑτέροις, λαλήσω τῷ λαῷ τούτῳ, καὶ οὐδ᾽ οὕτος εἰσακούσονταί μου, λέγει Κύριος. Ἤκουον δέ. Μικρὸν ἐνταῦθα ἐπισχες, καὶ διαπόρησον, πῶς διαιρήσεις τὸν λόγον. Ἔχει γάρ τί ἀμφίβολον ἡ λέξις, τῇ στιγμῇ διαιρούμενον. Ἆρὰ γὰρ ἤκουον ταῖς ἑαυτῶν διαλέκτοις ἕκαστος, ὡς φέρε εἰπεῖν, μίαν μὲν ἐξηχεῖσθαι φωνὴν, πολλὰς δὲ ἀκούεσθαι, οὕτω κτυπουμένου τοῦ ἀέρος, καὶ, ἵν᾽ εἴπω σαφέστερον, τῆς φωνῆς φωνὼν γινομένων• ἤ τὸ μὲν, ἤκουον, ἀναπαυστέον, τὸ δὲ, λαλούντων ταῖς ἰδίαις φωναῖς, τῷ ἐξῆς προσθετέον, ἵν᾽ ᾖ, λαλούντων φωναῖς ταῖς ἰδίαις τῶν ἀκουόντων, ὅπερ γίνεται, ἀλλοτρίαις• Καθὰ καὶ μᾶλλον τίθεμαι. Ἐκείνως μὲν γὰρ τῶν ἀκουόντων ἄν εἴη μᾶλλον, ἢ τῶν λεγόντων, τὸ θαῦμα• οὕτω δὲ τῶν λεγόντων• οἵ καὶ μέθην καταγινώσκονται, δῆλον ὡς αὐτοι θαυματουργοῦντες περὶ τὰς φωνὰς τῷ Πνεύματι.4

The English translation:

“For, they were speaking in foreign languages, and not in the accustomed ones, and this was the great miracle; the word being spoken by those who are unlearned. And the sign is for those who are unbelievers, not to those who believe, in order that [the sign] should accuse those who are unbelievers, not to those who believe, as it was written, “That in other tongues and in strange lips, I will speak to this people and so neither will they listen to me, says the Lord.”

“They were hearing.” Consider then a little, and question how you are to interpret the text. For the text has some ambiguity being caused by the punctuation. Was it each one was hearing in their own particular languages? As an example: 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 precisely; from the one sound many sounds were made.

Or, more importantly, “They were hearing.” A [punctuation] stop ought to be applied, and moreover, adding the other phrase following after it, “when they were speaking in their own voices.” That it may well be while these ones are speaking sounds of those who are hearing, the very thing is produced in foreign languages. I also much prefer regarding this. In the first sense, the miracle would have been preferred about those hearing than those speaking. In the second explanation, the miracle is about those who are speaking. These ones are also accused of drunkenness, visible proof as these are displaying works of wonder with the voices by the Spirit.

Moreover, indeed it is to be praised also the ancient division of voices (at the time, these evil and ungodly persons who speak in the same voice were building the tower even as now some dare to do) the like minded bond was broken with the separation of the one voice, it destroyed the undertaking.5

The Punctuation Question

τῇ στιγμῇ—the Punctuation

He points out that both options on the miracle of Pentecost, are based on how one applies the stigme, τῇ στιγμῇ, which means, with the punctuation. This noun is an umbrella word for the Greek punctuation system.

ἀναπαυστέον—comma, or a period?

Immediately after, he gets specific and states that if a punctuation style called an ἀναπαυστέον is inserted somewhere after ἤκουον, then it beckons a miracle of speaking.

There are two problems with translating ἀναπαυστέον. Firstly, is it suggesting a comma, pause, or period? Regardless of which choice, Nazianzus wants to make the miracle of speech as a subordinate clause. Whereas the miracle of hearing does not require this. Secondly, where should one put the ἀναπαυστέον in the sentence?

Unfortunately, we do not have much to go by with word ἀναπαυστέον. The usage is scarce, but it is important to find these rare occasions and build at least a primitive idea of this word.

On the question of ἀναπαυστέον, there are only two dictionary references. The Stephanus Lexicon is the first. Intermittendum, de interpunctione schol. [V. anapausis] (the nature of ceasing, pausing, etc., and a placing of points between words). Stephanus cites only one reference, D. Schol. Aristoph. Nub. 610 (Stephanus. Vol. 1b. Col. 486). A word search in the Aristophanes text yields no results. The complete entry is a start but does not give the necessary clarity. The Sophocles Greek Dictionary provides a partial answer that reads “The end of a period or a verse,”6 but fails to explain where he found the information. What both agree on is that the word was associated with punctuation. The word relates to the English equivalent of a period or pause.

The 16th-century French scholar, Jacques de Billy de Prunay, provides a clue about how to translate it into English. He re-translated the controversial Nazianzus passage into Latin with little or no reference to Rufinus’ text. Rufinus’ translation highly influenced the Latin world for centuries. Instead, de Prunay remained true to the Greek original. He translated ἀναπαυστέον as “punctum statuendum est”a pause ought to be set.

Secondly, where does the comma, pause, or period go? My English translation preference about the Nazianzus text is that it is a comma. It follows immediately after the words, each one was hearing.

A comma after εἷς ἕκαστος?

Εἷς ἕκαστος exists in Acts 2:6 but Gregory of Nazianzus omitted this phrase in his outline. Gregory assumes that the reader understands its inherent existence. Regardless, the importance of whether these two words are absent or present is secondary to the whole phrase. Luke’s concept can exist without it.

A consideration is necessary for figuring out its place within this discussion. If one imagines its existence in Nazianzus framework, the English mind, which is highly dependant on word order, would like the comma after εἷς ἕκαστος. Εἷς ἕκαστος (translated as each one) occurs after ἤκουον as in ἤκουον εἷς ἕκαστος. This situation does not follow proper English rules. Should not have Gregory placed the ‘comma’ ἀναπαυστέον after ἕκαστος? A technical question that needs resolution.

Here is a literal translation with the comma in yellow according to English word order: “When this sound was being produced, the multitude came together and were confounded because they were hearing, each one, while these ones were speaking in their own language.”

It sort of works, but does not flow very well.

The word order in Greek is not so significant because it is an inflected language. With that in mind, it is better translated this way:

“When this sound was being produced, the multitude came together and were confounded because each person were hearing, while these ones were speaking in their own language.”

The placement of the comma after hearing is the most suitable place in the English language to arrive at Nazianzus’ intended meaning.

Notes on Gregory’s Alterations of Acts 2:6

In the miracle of hearing, Nazianzus left out the words, λαλούντων αὐτῶν and slightly changed the word order from Acts 2:6. He instead states, ἤκουον ταῖς ἑαυτῶν διαλέκτοις ἕκαστος. He probably left it out to strengthen the hypothetical miracle of hearing argument, though he assumed the reader would fill in the blanks.

As discussed above, the use of ἕκαστος at the end is not a problem. Greek is an inflected language and word order has lesser prominence than the English language. The absence of εἷς as in εἷς ἕκαστος poses no difficulty as it is only emphatic. The meaning does not change without it.

His reference to the miracle of speaking creates greater interest. Gregory significantly changes the wording from τῇ ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ λαλούντων αὐτῶν in Acts 2:6 to λαλούντων ταῖς ἰδίαις φωναῖς. Λαλούντων is in the first position and a more suitable location for interpreting as a genitive absolute which is described in detail further below. More importantly, he switches διαλέκτῳ with φωναῖς.

Φωναῖς is the plural dative term for φωνή. It is a general term for sound, voice, speech, or utterance. Why would he do this?

There are four possible reasons for this. At first glance, the reason for this change would better suit the argument for the miracle of hearing. Nazianzus may have purposely done this to inspire the reader to think through this whole question. Secondly, he had to make some adjustments to parallel these two arguments and φωνή suits both arguments while διάλεκτος does not. Thirdly, one can construe that he was using this as a further theological insight. The Apostles and those others inspired were under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Thus, they produced unfamiliar languages that felt like unknown sounds to them. These miraculous speakers did not have the experience or qualifications to identify the languages. The designation of which spoken language occurred was up to the hearers to define. Lastly, he may have been using this word as a tie-in to the next paragraph not listed here where he encapsulates Pentecost as a reversal of Babel.7

The Obscurity of the Greek Genitive

The crux about Acts 2:6 is the the construct of λαλούντων αὐτῶν. It is in the genitive form which has a wide range of uses and in this case, allows two different interpretations.

Nazianzus observed these differences and reflected on them.

The following are the two options in understanding the phrase of Acts 2:6:8

  1. Double Genitive: “When this sound was being produced, the multitude came together, and were confounded because each person was hearing them speaking in their own language.”

  2. Absolute: “When this sound was being produced, the multitude came together and were confounded because each one was hearing, while these ones were speaking in their own language.”9

The genitive in the first option is in the double genitive category.10 This construct allows λαλούντων αὐτῶν to work as the object of ἤκουον.11

The genitive in the second option is a genitive absolute. It has a temporal feel. Grammatically, the genitive absolute normally starts at the beginning of a thought, not at the end, which it does in this location of the Acts 2:6 text. There are few exceptions, and this may be one of them. Gregory repositioned the phrase in his explanation to make sure the reader understood its role. He put λαλούντων αὐτῶν at the beginning of his subordinate clause.

The Double Genitive alludes to a miracle of hearing while the Absolute genitive indicates a miracle of speech. Gregory preferred to understand it as an absolute.

Gregory’s Preference

Although he listed both options: a miracle of hearing and one of speaking, he preferred speaking.

This position is discovered in four ways.

His use of an Enthymeme

First, his delivery mechanism was based on a Greek rhetorical device called an enthymeme. Nazianzus’ use in this context meant two propositions proposed with an inference to which option was the better one.12 He postured the miracle of speaking as the better alternative.

His Direct References

Nazianzus wanted to ensure that the reader understood his preference of the miracle of speech, so he added, Καθὰ καὶ μᾶλλον τίθεμαι, “I also much prefer regarding this.”

One may argue that the Greek text, καθὰ καὶ μᾶλλον τίθεμαι, was a later addition that the early Latin translator Rufinus was unaware of its existence. It is a thought that requires further investigation. A look into a Syriac version of Gregory’s work, which draws from manuscripts older than most Greek Oration texts, contains the miracle of speaking clause — though a modern editor of this text has a note that the sense here is not clear.13 Claude Detienne, a specialist in these works, believes the existent Syriac works of Nazianzus’ Orations show obvious signs of revision and cannot be relied upon as close to the original.14 However, Detienne fails to demonstrate how this is revised, or how it relates to this instance.

The structure of Oration 41 itself demonstrates it did exist. If one reads the Gregory text further where he goes on to correlate the tongues of Pentecost with that of Babel, it infers that he did support the miracle of speaking.

He certainly made sure the reader understood this even at the start of the discussion. The great theologian began the transition into the topic by stating, Ἐλάλουν μὲν οὖν ξέναις γλώσσαις, καὶ οὐ πατρίοις, “For, they were speaking in foreign languages, and not in the accustomed ones.”15

Ξέναις γλώσσαις, foreign languages has little difficulty transitioning into English. Both the adjective and the noun conform to foreign languages, nothing more, according to Nazianzus. The second phrase οὐ πατρίοις has a small problem translating into English. Liddell-Scott-Jones defines the noun in its singular nominative form, πάτριος, as belonging to one’s father, native, or accustomed.16 Donnegan’s Greek Dictionary promotes it as a father, or ancestor; deriving from or inherited from ancestors—paternal; hereditary.17 The dictionaries have a common theme about a domestic or language of birth. The emphasis Gregory of Nazianzus wished to make was that the miracle was a foreign language, not a cognate or a variant from surrounding regions.

His Use of the Particles μὲν and δὲ

Another clue for his preference is the use of the particles, μὲν and δὲ especially in its relationship with the keyword, ἤκουον. These two particles are important markers for divisions of thought. In English, the employment of paragraphs distinguishes between thoughts and secondary ones. The above particles in Greek served this purpose, among other things. Μὲν usually introduces the main thought, and δὲ provides additional information or an alternative.18

In the case of Gregory’s argument, he starts with the second choice indicated by the particle δέ, as in ἤκουον δέ. When he later arrives at the miracle of speaking, he demonstrates this is a the main thesis by stating, … μὲν, ἤκουον..

Perhaps, the particles are given too much attention in this exposition. There are other instances of these particles in this sequence that one could shape or organize the literary unit differently. Other Greek specialists could argue this case. Just like literary criticism in the English language, there can be varying points of view by Greek literary critics as well.

The Further Addition of ἀλλοτρίαις

The Gregory text certainly wanted the reader to understand that the one sound emitted produced foreign languages. The addition of the clause, ὅπερ γίνεται, ἀλλοτρίαις, allotriais, added another tidbit of information that reasserts this claim. Here it is in its context:

“That it may well be while these ones are speaking in the sounds of those who are hearing, the very thing is produced in foreign languages.”19

Ἀλλοτρίαις generally means other but in this circumstance means foreign languages which, of course, requires more investigation. The Latin piques some curiosity too on this word.

The Latin parallel translation completed in the 16th century provides the first clue. It has the equivalent word, externus italicized. Externus, according to Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary, means “with respect to one’s family or country, of or belonging to another country, foreign, strange.”20 The meaning here is quite obvious, they understood the apostles spoke in languages belonging to another country.

Secondly, the MPG editor(s) choose to italicize this word. The MPG translation is derived from the scholar mentioned above, Jacques de Billy de Prunay. If one takes a closer look at de Prunay’s official 1609 publication, the italic does not exist. The editors of Migne Patrologia Graeca chose to italicize this word, suggesting important religious significance.21 They do not give any further explanation is given as to why it is italicized.

A few more clues will unfold why the MPG editors italicized externus.

The Greek text from John Chrysostom’s 35th Homily on I First Corinthians gives a subtle help. He clearly wrote it in the dative, ἀλλοτρίᾳ to mean a foreign language.22

The Syriac produces a more literal approach to ἀλλοτρίαις. Its translation is ܢܘܟܪ̈ܝܬܐ, nukroyto, which the Payne-Smith dictionary described as “foreign, strange, unusual, alien.”23 The whole Syriac text on Oration 41 along with this keyword infers that they spoke in foreign languages that had no linguistic parent-child relationship with their domestic language. It was not a Hebrew speaker speaking in Aramaic, or Persian, where they share some basic commonalities, or an Attic speaker relating in Doric, which comes from the Greek lineage. What the people spoke at Pentecost was beyond their known language families. It went into far-off, strange, and exotic languages that could not be easily adapted or trained by the human intellect on such short notice. It was a miracle.

The editor(s) of Migne Patrologia Graeca italicized this word because they wanted to make sure the reader appreciated the above miraculous significance of Pentecost.

More on the Miracles of Hearing

The default reading of the text without understanding the complex discussion on punctuation is a miracle of hearing. Was this the normative perception of the christian doctrine of tongues during the fourth-century? Was speaking the second alternative? There are indications that this may be the case for this period, or perhaps it was a regional variation. A contemporary leader and friend of his, Gregory of Nyssa, held that it was a miracle of hearing. For more information on the history of the miracle of hearing doctrine, see A History of Pentecost as One Sound and Many Languages Heard.

Nazianzus and Glossolalia

If this universally recognized doctor of the Church were aware of an alternative reading of this passage, such as ecstatic utterances of a person in a frenzy, he would have included it in his observation. Neither does he cite any awareness of such a phenomenon in the Church.

  1. See the numerous articles relating to Gregory of Nazianzus on Pentecost at the Gift of Tongues Project.
  2. NIV
  3. Acts 2:6 (Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (1904/12)
  4. Migne Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 36. Col. 449-452. See Gregory of Nazianzus’ Oration 41:15–16 in the Greek for more information.
  5. My translation. Alex Poulos has supplied a current translation as well; Gregory’s Oration on Pentecost: A translation from 41.15-16
  6. Sophocles Pg. 148
  7. Thanks to Alex Poulos who alerted me to the question of φωνή in this context several years ago.
  8. Special thanks to Alex Poulos for first identifying this
  9. ἕκαστος is in the singular and ἤκουον is in the plural and usually this does not work. However, ἕκαστος is weird and can denote a plural state in certain circumstances such as this.
  10. I previously stated this was a possessive genitive but that was incorrect.
  11. Previously, I stated that it modified τῇ ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ. Nazianzus may have understood it this way, but I find this doubtful. For more information on ἤκουον (Its root form is ἀκούω) and λαλούντων αὐτῶν acting as an accusative, see Alexander Buttman, A Grammar of the New Testament Greek, Andober: Warren F. Draper. 1873. Pg. 301. The double genitive name is coined from a discussion found at
  12. Frederick W. Norris Gregory Contemplating the Beautiful as found in, Gregory of Nazianzus: Images and Reflections, Pg. 23. The definition of the enthymeme is a fleeting one as it has evolved over the centuries. Many attempts have been made to create a static definition and failed. For more information on the enthymeme see James Fredal’s The Enthymeme: Syllogism, Reasoning, and Narrative in Ancient Greek Rhetoric, Lloyd F. Blitzer’s Aristotle’s Enthymeme Revisited as found in Landmark Essays on Aristotelian Rhetoric, or Andrew P. Hofer’s Christ in the Life and Teaching of Gregory of Nazianzus
  13. “den Satz verstanden hat, ist nicht klar” Sancti Gregorii Nazianzeni opera. Versio Syriaca, II. Orationes XIII et XLI . Belgium: Brepols Publishing. 2002 Pg. 90
  14. Corpus Christianorum Series Graeca. Vol. 41. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers. 2000 Pg. 178
  15. My translation
  16. As found under πάτριος at Perseus
  17. James Donnegan. A New Greek and English Lexicon; Principally on the plan of the Greek and German Lexicon of Schneider. Revised and englarged by R. B. Patton. Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Co. 1836 Pg. 970
  18. This grammar explanation is a general one and varies from author, region, and whether Greek is their first or second language of the author. It is not always consistently applied. Nazianzus adhered to this convention.
  19. ᾖ, λαλούντων φωναῖς ταῖς ἰδίαις τῶν ἀκουόντων, ὅπερ γίνεται, ἀλλοτρίαις
  21. MPG Vol. 36. Col. 450 || Jac. Billius Prunaeus. Sancti Gregorii Nazianzeni Cognomento Theologi, Opera. Vol. 1. NP: Typis Regiis, apud Claudium Morellum. 1609. Pg. 715. It is given as Oratio 45
  22. MPG Vol. 61. In Epist. I Ad Corinth. Hom. XXXV. Col. 300
  23. J. Payne Smith – p. 332 as found at

1 thought on “Gregory of Nazianzus’ Analysis of Acts 2:6”

  1. Great job as usual. I’m not surprised Gregory did not connect tongues with the in filling of the Spirit, with ecstatic utterances. But the text does speak of those who heard them feeling they were drunk (Acts 2:15). Maybe Gregory never had that experience. There is a precedent in the Old Testament when the prophets were overshadowed by God they would act in ways that implied a change in behavior (1Sam10:10-11).


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