Ambrosiaster on the Tongues of Corinth

The Ambrosiaster Latin text with its beginnings in the fourth-century gives insight and much-needed clues on the mystery tongues of Corinth.

The Ambrosiaster author(s) believed Paul was describing the adoption of a synagogue rite. It consequently led to the misuse of Hebrew and Aramaic to an audience that did not understand these languages. There was no awareness of ancient Pythian prophetesses, ecstasy, Montanists, or glossolalia. Nor was there an association with speaking in tongues as a sign of a true believer.

Table of Contents


The Ambrosiaster text is an important earlier source on the Christian doctrine of tongues. It is a manuscript that few are aware of its existence. Even though an English translation has recently come on the scene, the text remains a mystery to the larger Christian community.

Every Christian and leader who holds to the modern speaking in tongues doctrine should consider this text in developing their outlook.

Curious? The details are shortly to follow. First, there are a few notes that require explanation.

The discovery of this document happened while identifying and collating ancient texts for the Gift of Tongues Project. It was surprising to find such important but overlooked information. At the time of discovery, there was no English translation available. Curiosity forced the author to polish his Latin skills and translate. The first edition posted on this website was the results of an intermediate skillset in the Latin language. The present second edition contains many tweaks and updates.

Gerald L. Bray has since published his Commentaries on Romans and 1–2 Corinthians by Ambrosiaster. It is a great work that sets about to overcome the difficult and curt language of the text. Bray chose to translate through the medium of a dynamic translation. My translation is static, which sometimes produces a rough, poorly constructed English equivalent. Such an outcome usually occurs with static translations. One will notice the difference if both translations are shown side-by-side. Not that either is wrong. Both have their strength and weaknesses.

There is an entire article dedicated to the purpose and mechanics behind my translation found at Notes on Translating Ambrosiaster’s I Corinthians 12–14. My translation is limited to I Corinthians 12, 13, and 14 and if you click on the links, you will be taken there. Since there is no important citations on the subject outside of these chapters, there was no need to translate the entire book.

If you want to see the actual Latin, this is provided at The Ambrosiaster Latin text on I Corinthians 12-14.

Enough about the details. Time to get into the weightier content.

The Continuance of Tongues in the Roman Church?

The text was written in the imperfect tense when relating to the doctrine of tongues. The writer(s) approached it historically with no reference to any modern practice; it solely wanted to convey what Paul and the Corinthian congregation were thinking or doing. Unlike the coverage on prophecy, which does go into some contemporary detail, the gift of tongues never goes beyond Paul’s description.

I Corinthians 14:19

I Corinthians 14:19 is the principle-text in the Ambrosiaster document when it comes to explaining the role of tongues, the Law, and the influence of Aramaic and Hebrew in the early Church.

“But in the Church,” it is said, “I wish to speak five words according to the Law that I may also build up others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” He [Paul] says it to be more useful speaking in small words in the making of a speech in order that everyone should understand than to have a lengthy speech in obscurity. These were from the Hebrews who at length in the Syrian language and, for the most part, in Hebrew were indulging in homilies or presentations for approval. For they were boasting calling themselves Jews according to the right of Abraham, that the same apostle held this to no account, teaching, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). Indeed, these ones who are mimicking, they prefer to speak in their unknown language to the people in the Church which belongs to them.

Two different Translations on Speaking out of Order

The explanation is clear that the problem tongues of Corinth were about certain Jewish participants speaking in Aramaic during the service. It is unclear of the agents who were speaking in Aramaic/Hebrew. It could be a male or female, depending on the interpretation of the sentence. Here is the actual Latin in question: Hi ex Hebræis erant, qui aliquando Syra lingua, plerumque Hebræa. The focus is especially on the word Hebraeis which can go either masculine or feminine. My translation work with other text finds the Latin words for Hebrews and Jews vary between authors and lack consistency. It is hard to make a hard-and-fast rule with this word. The understanding of the context also can influence the reader.

The Male Translation

The preferred translation is the male speaker, but there are some small doubts.

These were from the Hebrews who at length in the Syrian language and, for the most part, in Hebrew were indulging in homilies or presentations for approval.

The male interpretation is supported in Gerald Bray’s Translation

These people were descendants of Jews who used either Aramaic or Hebrew in their books and sacrificial rites, hoping to be admired for it.1

The Female Translation

These were from the Hebrew who at length in the Syrian language and, for the most part, by Hebrew women who were indulging in homilies or presentations for approval.

The female translation remained a part of my copy for nine years or so. A person requested that I relook into this translation, and indeed, the evidence points to this not being the case.2 Two factors influenced the change. The first one was the Whitaker’s Words Latin-English Dictionary. The first entry for Hebraeisreferred to Hebrew/Jewish woman. The Dictionary then states it was a later uncommon word. Since I regard Ambrosiaster as an evolving text with many later interpolations, the female interpretation of Hebraeis may be the proper translation. Secondly, the Ambrosiaster text soon after delves into the role of women in the Church. It has a minimal view of women and patriarchal. This passage about Hebrew Women speaking out seemed to flow nicely into the Ambrosiaster narrative that followed.

The overall evidence suggests it is Hebrew men. There is not enough information to overturn this verdict.

A Biblical Twist: The Law instead of Mind

The Ambrosiaster text of I Corinthians 14:19 provides an alternate Biblical text, I wish to speak five words according to the Law… Normally this reads, I desire to speak five words with my mind. . . (NASB). The New American Standard Bible represents a consistent translation among all traditional Biblical texts. The Ambrosiaster text departs from this custom.

Why the insertion of Law instead of mind? One must be cognizant of the fact that the difference in Greek between law and mind is one letter νὸμον law and νόος mind. It would be easy to mix these two up by a copyist. However, this is not the only place where Law is used. Epiphanius in his Against Haeresies text also acknowledged the use of this verse. He cited it in a translation by the heretic Marcion.3

The author(s) also had a much broader definition of what the Law comprised. The author(s) believed Isaiah 28:11 (See his commentary on I Corinthians 14:21) to be part of the Law. In some ancient Christian circles, the whole Bible canon was considered a legal text, which the Ambrosiaster manuscript promoted as well.

For example, the commentary of I Corinthians 12:1 supplies a fundamentalist view of Bible interpretation.4

The Bible quotation by the Ambrosiaster writer(s) was not an evaluation of Jewish custom or practice. Nor was it a novel theory proposed by them. It was citing a verse from their Bible. The Ambrosiaster author(s) were following their Bible. The early Latin Bible tradition does not have a clear trajectory, and no one can offer identification of the Biblical source texts.

Regardless of the origin of this variant reading of the text, the Ambrosiaster author(s) reinforce the idea that we are dealing with the legal or ritualistic aspect of the Christian experience, not a mystical one.

The Early Corinthian Church Inheriting the Customs of the Synagogue

According to this text, there are at least three functions inherited from the Synagogue.

The first was the role of the teacher found at I Corinthians 12:28.

“Third teachers.” That he says the teachers who were giving young men instruction in the church writings and readings that are in the act of being preserved from the custom of the Synagogue—whose tradition made a passage to us.5

The second is the rite of prophecy.

“For you are all to prophecy by each one at a time, that all are to learn, and all are to be encouraged.” This tradition is of the Synagogue which he wants us to follow because he is certainly writing to Christians but indeed to those who have been reared Gentiles, not Jews. So that the ones who are seated go about debating, seniors with rank in the chair, the ones that follow on the benches, the lesser ones on the pavement on the mats.6

The third is those who possess the gift of languages and the ability to interpret, which is the focus of this document.

Languages not Tongues

As previously noted, the Ambrosiaster text refers to human language. The following is an expanded explanation.

English Bible tradition has held since the Reformation that the Greek word glossa, γλῶσσα translates as tongue. This English word, 400 years ago, referred to foreign languages. More recently, the word has acquired a larger semantic range that can allow for heavenly or glossolalic language.7 The Ambrosiaster writer(s) over the centuries always understood it as language. The Latin word, lingua, does not support in its natural definition anything of a glossolalic nature. It would require explanation, an adjective, or replacement. The use of tongues as the English equivalent reinforces a possibly incorrect modern assumption.

The translation integrates language instead within its narrative. This approach works well with the copy.

Ambrosiaster succinctly states in his narrative about I Corinthians 12:28. The glossa (γλῶσσα) is the ability to know two or more languages.

“Kinds of languages.” That the gift of God is to know many languages.8 “Interpretation of words.” When this is granted to some by the grace of God that he has the expertise of languages which require translations.9

Further on, he compares the phenomenon of Latin men singing in Greek. He points to a liturgical aspect where a portion of the liturgy is in a foreign sacred language.

“For if I will have prayed in a language, my spirit prays but my mind is without fruit.” It is clear our soul is ignorant, if he should speak in a language which he does not know, just as Latin men who are singing Greek, by being a delightful sound of words, yet these ones do not know anything they are saying. However the Spirit which was given in baptism, knows anything the soul may pray for, while speaking or whether he concludes in an unknown language from it. But on the other hand, the mind which is the soul, is unfruitful. For who can have fruit who does not know what he is speaking?10

The author(s) then cover the problem associated with too many people speaking in a foreign language—it occupies too much time in the liturgy to translate and approve the contents. It pushes aside other parts of the service, namely teaching and instruction.

This is, two or three and no more are to be speaking in languages, but one at a time, not each at the same time. Lest they were to appear to be insane. “at the most three.” Lest the ones speaking in languages and their translations were to occupy the day and prophets do not have the time explaining the Scriptures who are the illuminators of the whole Church.11

When it comes to the content behind those speaking in a foreign language, these words are to be assessed by a third party. They are to confirm whatever has been said is accurate, and the audience understood its contents.

While he entrusted others to examine about those things which come in a doubtful state, or that which cannot be understood about matters whose natures are diverse,[ in order that they elucidate most plainly.12

The Language of Angels

Paul’s hyperbolic statement on the tongues of men and angels has the Ambrosiaster text give something of a puzzling reflection. The explanation identifies the existence of angelic languages. The statement does not further the case that humans can speak them. On the other hand, the reflection concedes that angels can inspire them to speak.

“If I should speak in the language of men and angels but I do not have charity, I am one just like a sounding brass or a ringing cymbal.” Certainly a great grace appears to speak in diverse languages. But it is something even more if it is possible to know any language of angels, that is, if one has become spiritually acquainted with having been moved of an angel. Truly he shows to those made subject that this is not to be reckoned according to merit, but according to the glory of God. Consequently, he says that it is a sounding brass or ringing cymbal.

Because as the brass resounds by another strike and the cymbal rings, therefore it is also in this place with the person who is speaking in languages, has the effect and movement of the Holy Spirit, as also the Saviour says in a different place, “for it is not you [plural] that are speaking but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you” (Matt. 10:20). For a she-ass also had spoken in a human language to Balaam son of Beor (Num. 22:28) when he was adjudging the majesty of God and young children broke out in praise of God to the confusion of the Jews (Matt. 21:16). For not only that, the Saviour but also shows the stones can cry out to the condemnation of the faithless ones and to the glory of God (Luke 19:40). And between the very origins to the committal of faith, those who were being baptized were speaking in languages (Acts 10:46).13

The Unknown Language

The explanations of I Corinthians 14:2, verses 14, 16, and 22 have the idiom unknown language.

(Vers. 2) “For the one who speaks in a tongue is not speaking to men but to God, but no one hears for by the spirit he is speaking mysteries.” This is what he says because he who is speaking in an unknown language [loquitur incognita lingua]. 14

This quote is an obscure one and can be understood as a weird, strange, foreign, or exotic language. It is too brief for any close examination.

The Gerald Bray translation renders it as, “someone who speaks in tongues.”15 His translation offers a wide semantic range which could include glossolalia.

I Corinthians 14:14 was already quoted above. It is cited again for the reader to focus on the unknown language aspect.

(Vers. 14) “For if I will have prayed in a language, my spirit prays but my mind is without fruit.” It is clear our soul is ignorant, if he should speak in a language which he does not know, just as Latin men who are singing Greek, by being a delightful sound of words, yet these ones do not know anything they are saying. However the Spirit which was given in baptism, knows anything the soul may pray for, while speaking or whether he concludes in an unknown language [aut perorat lingua sibi ignota] from it. But on the other hand, the mind which is the soul, is unfruitful. For who can have fruit who does not know what he is speaking?16

This usage identifies it as a foreign language.

(Vers. 16) “Else, if you should bless with the spirit.” It is this, if you are speaking the praise of God in an unknown language [lingua loquaris ignota] to those who are hearing, “who is to supply the realm of the uneducated? How is he to say amen upon your blessing because he does not know17

The reference here is to a blessing done in a foreign or sacred language that the ordinary person does not understand.

I Corinthians 14:22 has a twist in the Latin that is hard to translate into English. Although it is translated as unknown language or unknown tongues by Bray, it is not the same idiom. Instead of lingua ignota, it is incognita lingua. Incognita and ignota are interchangeable terms, especially later on when describing sea exploration. “Terra incognita or terra ignota (Latin “unknown land”; . . . is a term used in cartography for regions that have not been mapped or documented.”18 This interchangeability reinforces the concept of unknown language as a foreign language a person does not understand.

(Vers. 22) “Therefore languages they are as a sign.” It is this, the words of God concealed by a veil of unknown languages, [incognitae] nor do they appear by deceit, and when the unknown languages [incognitae linguae] are being heard,19 it is to be a sign, because it was made on account of faithlessness, lest the ones hearing are to understand.

The Latin reference to unknown language or more popularly in English religious circles, unknown tongue was commonly thought to have become popularized by Thomas Aquinas. The usage of the same idiom by the Ambrosiaster text demonstrates it is a much older one. However, one could argue that it was a general concept that existed in the Latin conscience for centuries and was codified by Aquinas. Thoughts on this subject may change if more documents appear with this usage.

Was the Ambrosiaster Writer Jewish?

One assumption some may make by reading this text was that the Ambrosiaster writer(s) was of Jewish descent or influence, having understood a Judaic background to the Corinthian saga. As one reads through the text, this is not the case. The author(s) had an appreciation of Judaism, but it was from afar, and they had an air of Christian exceptionalism. For example, the commentary on I Corinthians 14:21 reads:

Thus one is able also to understand that because many of the Jews were spiteful and therefore it was not worthy to speak to them the Gospel in a revelation, that they spoke to them in parables, and therefore that it is not being shown to them who are the ones who understand because they were wicked neither also would they reform themselves. While the ones who have merit were benefitting themselves to hear the words of God by means of the the exposition. 20

It is clear from the above texts that the writer(s) were not Jewish and were scape-goating the ethnic Jews with whatever problems existed in the Church.

  1. Pg. 186
  2. Many thanks to Dr. Philip Blosser for urging a relook
  3. More details on this can be found in the article, Epiphanius on the Problem Tongues of Corinth.
  4. “So also the ones worshiping God, they are to exist with the form of the Law of the Lord, these ones march as if it is to be pleasing with the Lord. In fact the form of every piece of the Law ought to appear in the occupation and the behaviour of the worshiper.” Ambrosiaster. I Corinthians 12:1. My translation
  5. Ambrosiaster. I Corinthians 12:28. My translation.
  6. Ambrosiaster. I Corinthians 14:31. My translation
  7. See my article, The Difference Between Language and Tongues for further information
  8. multas lingua. I am assuming that it should read multas linguas. It is a printing error.
  9. Ambrosiaster. I Corinthians 12:28. My translation.
  10. Ambrosiaster. I Corinthians 14:14. My translation.
  11. Ambrosiaster. I Corinthians 14:27. My Translation
  12. Ambrosiaster. I Corinthians 14:29. My translation.
  13. Ambrosiaster. I Corinithans 13:1. My translation
  14. Ambrosiaster. I Corinthians 14:2. My translation
  15. Commentaries on Romans and 1–2 CorinthiansPg. 184
  16. Ambrosiaster. I Corinthians 14:14. My translation
  17. Ambrosiaster. I Corinthians 14:16. My translation.
  18. Wikipedia entry on Terra Incognita
  19. Hoc est, velamine incognitæ obscurati sunt sermones Dei, ne videantur a perfidis, et cum audiuntur incognitæ linguæ
  20. Ambrosiaster. I Corinthians 14:21. My translation

Leave a Comment