A deep look at the data and debates about Montanism and speaking in tongues.
The association between Montanism and the christian rite of speaking in tongues is a matter of debate. The argument depends on which way one traces the lineage of speaking in tongues. The first one is through ecclesiastical literature, which chronicles the passing of this rite through the centuries. Its trajectory is the perceived miraculous speaking or hearing in a foreign language. Montanism does not play a role in the ancient church definition. The second and more prevalent way is to trace the lineage back to pagan Greek antecedents. This path leads to speaking in tongues as glossolalia. Montanism is one of the critical steps in this second order. Pentecostals and Charismatics take this second option further and claim Montanism and their alleged speaking in tongues as their historical parallel.
This article is an in-depth investigation to find whether Montanism plays an essential role in the earlier history of the christian doctrine of speaking in tongues. The provision of source texts, analysis, and comments follow the typical structure of the Gift of Tongues Project. Such details may seem boorish for the regular reader, but the lack of source literature and analysis are two of the most significant problems that have plagued the modern christian doctrine of tongues debate.
Table of Contents
- Montanism and the Source Texts for this Controversy
- The Montanist Link with Modern Pentecostal Tongues
- The Glossolalia Connection
- The Importance of Montanism in the Christian Doctrine of Tongues
- An Essential Missing Keyword
- Two Scholars, Two Different Outcomes
- The Lack of Correlation Between Montanist Glossolalia and Ecclesiastical Tongues
- Prophecy, Interpretation, and Tongues in this Context
- The Meaning of λαλεῖν καὶ ξενοφωνεῖν
- The Problems of the English Translation
- For Further Reading
In a simplified form, it was begun by a man named Montanus around 162 AD and aided by two women, Maximilla and Priscilla. Montanism lasted up until the 6th century. For a deeper historical overview of the Montanist movement, an old publication, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 6 covers the movement in the best detail to help the reader get up to speed with the debate at hand.
The movement is revealed through three primary sources, Eusebius of Caesarea, Epiphanius Bishop of Salamis, and Tertullian. The first two write about the Montanists in very negative and vitriolic terms while Tertullian defended them. Several modern publications allude an Epiphanius–Montanism connection with ecstatic utterances, but there is no demonstrable proof to support this claim.1 There are other citations about Montanists found in the writings of Jerome and Didymus of Alexandria, but these do not refer to the Montanist glossolalia controversy.
The most crucial source for the Montanists and glossolalia is Eusebius’ account. One must keep in mind that Eusebius’ account is a critical report of the Montanist movement. The attacks against them contain over-the-top rhetoric. The time and resources against them make the reader wonder. The sharp attack causes one to either pity the Montanists or wonder if there was an ulterior motive by the established Church against them. Judging by the voracity of words, the Montanists must have been a populist movement that the institutional Church felt threatened.
Eusebius himself has his internal doubts about the account provided to him by an unknown author and stated, “They say that these things happened in this manner. But as we did not see them, O friend, we do not pretend to know.”2 For that reason, Eusebius’ history should be taken with a degree of skepticism.
Eusebius’ source was trying to demonize the Montanists in almost every way. The wording and semantics are purposely kept distant from anything familiar to the christian faith.
The alleged Montanist experience is a brief account by Eusebius in his Historiae Ecclesiasticae who narrated about two Montanist followers who went into a state of ecstasy and uttered strange sounds. What exactly were the sounds? Were they foreign languages, ecstatic speech, or something else? Is this one of the earliest christian expressions of tongues after the first Pentecost? These questions are the crux of the discussion.
Here is the actual text :
There is said to be a certain village called Ardabau in that part of Mysia, which borders upon Phrygia. There first, they say, when Gratus was proconsul of Asia, a recent convert, Montanus by name, through his unquenchable desire for leadership, gave the adversary opportunity against him. And he became beside himself, and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by tradition from the beginning.
8. Some of those who heard his spurious utterances at that time were indignant, and they rebuked him as one that was possessed, and that was under the control of a demon, and was led by a deceitful spirit, and was distracting the multitude; and they forbade him to talk, remembering the distinction drawn by the Lord and his warning to guard watchfully against the coming of false prophets. But others imagining themselves possessed of the Holy Spirit and of a prophetic gift, were elated and not a little puffed up; and forgetting the distinction of the Lord, they challenged the mad and insidious and seducing spirit, and were cheated and deceived by him. In consequence of this, he could no longer be held in check, so as to keep silence.
9. Thus by artifice, or rather by such a system of wicked craft, the devil, devising destruction for the disobedient, and being unworthily honored by them, secretly excited and inflamed their understandings which had already become estranged from the true faith. And he stirred up besides two women, and filled them with the false spirit, so that they talked wildly and unreasonably and strangely, like the person already mentioned. And the spirit pronounced them blessed as they rejoiced and gloried in him, and puffed them up by the magnitude of his promises. But sometimes he rebuked them openly in a wise and faithful manner, that he might seem to be a reprover. But those of the Phrygians that were deceived were few in number.3
The important sequences are:
- . . . and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy. . . — πνευματοφορηθῆναί τε καὶ αἰφνιδίως ἐν κατοχῇ τινι καὶ παρεκστάσει γενόμενον, ἐνθουσιᾶν.
I don’t know how the English translator worked it out that way. An alternative would be: “that he was inspired by a spirit and suddenly became elated in some type of catatonic stupor and spurious ecstasy.”
- . . .began to babble and utter strange things. . . — ἄρξασθαί τε λαλεῖν καὶ ξενοφωνεῖν
- . . .spurious utterances. . . —
The interpretation of this text centres around the word glossolalia. If the Montanists were glossalists, then there is a potential connection to the ancient christian rite of speaking in tongues. If not, then there is no connection with the christian community and the discussion is irrelevant.
Anyone who tries to make this association assumes that glossolalia was a special rite of speech practiced by the ancient christian community. This assumption ignores that glossolalia is a new definition added to the christian doctrine of tongues that started in the early 1800s.4 This term should not be used to describe antecedents to the christian doctrine of tongues any earlier than this, but since the term glossolalia is so popular in the minds of contemporary scholars and readers alike, it will be permitted so that this discussion can run its course.
Pentecostal scholars such as Rev. Heidi Baker parallel their tongues-speaking experience with the Montanists.5 She also holds a widely held belief in Pentecostal circles that the primitivist virtues of the earliest church were lost when the church was institutionalized, regained by the Montanists, then forgotten again, until finally revived by the Pentecostal movement 1800 years later.6 The acclaimed Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements edited primarily by Stanley Burgess, a “distinguished professor of Christian history at Regent University and Professor Emeritus, Missouri State University”7 claims that that gift of speaking in tongues flourished with the Montanists and later influenced the glossolalic speaking eighteenth-century Camisards in south-central France. The Camisards then left a legacy for modern Pentecostals to follow.8
The Presbyterian minded Biblical scholar who has closely studied the Pentecostal movement, F. Dale Bruner, believes there is a connection between the two; “Montanism interests us as the prototype of almost everything Pentecostalism seeks to represent.”9
Indeed looking at the Montanist movement, especially the coverage given by the renowned nineteenth-century scholar, August Neander, as found in his book, The History of the Christian Religion and Church during the First Three Centuries (Page 327), demonstrates many parallels between the two parties. However, this commonality does not mean an automatic connection with speaking in tongues, which some suggest or want to happen. The Pentecostal affinity to the Montanist experience makes it necessary to see if the Montanist story is a serious contributor to the history of Christians speaking in tongues.
If one looks closely into the details, the actual historical evidence that equates Montanism with the gift of tongues is weak. The critical Greek keyword which used throughout the New Testament writings about tongues-speaking, γλῶσσα — glôssa does not appear in the text. This word is required to connect Montanist glossolalia with the church rite. However, this word connection does not exist.
This omission is a very crucial point. Some readers may have skepticism on this point. The provision of the Greek, Latin, and English translations are at the following link: Eusebius on Montanism. The source works substantiates that the critical Greek keyword is not there.
Christopher Forbes and Rex D. Butler try to answer the question about the Montanists and glossolalia but come up with different results.
Christopher Forbes, who is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient History, and Deputy Chairman of the Society for the Study of Early Christianity10 at Macquarie University, argued that there is no conclusive evidence the Montanists used glossolalia.
If Montanist prophecy was in any sense analogous to glossolalia it is quite remarkable that no ancient writer ever noticed or commented on this fact. Though it is certainly true that Montanist prophecy was characterised by ecstasy (in the modern sense), and occasionally by oracular obscurity, there is no unambiguous evidence whatsoever that it took glossolalic form.11
Rex D. Butler, Associate Professor of Church History and Patristics, at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, goes in the opposite direction.12 He reported that the elements of the Montanist text all correlate with glossolalia. He directly counters Forbe’s claims.
Butler’s first argument rests on the role of the interpreter. If the prophecy was given in intelligible speech, why would the service of the prophetess Maximillia, an interpreter ἑρμηνεύτην, be required?13
Secondly, he charged that Forbes failed to recognize that the prophets utilized both intelligible and unintelligible speech. Third, he argued against Forbes definition of ξενοφωνεῖν. Forbes believed it to mean to speak as a foreigner while Butler believed it to mean to speak strangely. Butler further adds if it is combined with λαλεῖν, which is in the Eusebius text as λαλεῖν καὶ ξενοφωνεῖν, then the phrase should translate as chatter or babble. Finally, Butler concluded, “Forbes arguments are not sufficient to overturn the historical understanding that Montanists engaged in glossolalia.”14
The arguments on both sides rest on ancient sources and linguistics. Therefore, it is necessary to take a further look into the subject matter.
Butler failed to address Forbes argument fully. He neglected to cite Forbes complete comment which included, “If Montanist prophecy was in any sense analogous to glossolalia it is quite remarkable that no ancient writer ever noticed or commented on this fact.” Forbes is right. No ancient writer, Christian or otherwise, made the connection between the Montanist and christian tongues. This conclusion parallels research done so far on the Gift of Tongues Project. The GOT project focuses primarily on ecclesiastical literature, and the conclusions so far align with Forbe’s position.
The only account that may connect Montanism with glossolalia is a concise note by Tertullian, a Montanist, who wrote a list of the offices in the Church, including prophecy, healing and diverse kinds of tongues.15 He affirms a continued existence and goes no further. He did not describe what tongues were or how they integrated within the church. The text is therefore of no use to any researcher.
The Butler argument on prophecy and interpretation is one of his strongest arguments. If the prophecy was given in intelligible speech why was the prophetess Maximillia, an interpreter, ἑρμηνεύτην required? The actual reference by Butler on Maximillia is from Epiphanius’ Adversus Hæreses (Lib. II, Tom I. XLVIII. MPG Vol. 41 Col. 875).
If one focuses on classical Greek works without reference to ecclesiastical writings, then Butler’s argument is a strong one. The function of interpretation was most useful in dreams, visions or prophecy.
Plato wrote concerning prophecy and dreams that interpreters were necessary to understand because the one doing the prophecy has temporarily lost his wits and cannot explain his thoughts correctly.16
Aristotle describes how the art of interpreting is a special gift that is especially required when circumstances get more difficult to find meaning.17
However, Butler stops here and does not wrestle with institutional Church usage. The historical use of interpreter within the Church did not mean the assistance of someone to translate heavenly or divine words or experiences. Instead, it had more practical worldly purposes.
For example, the fourth-century church in Egypt possibly made the function of interpreters an ecclesiastical order which had a ranking below the readers. G.W.H. Lampe proposed this in his Patristic Greek Lexicon and attributes it to Serapion Thmuitanus from the work, Euchologium.18
Aside from Lampe, there are fifth-century texts from Alexandria Egypt that give some clues. The Alexandrian church expanded the role of interpreters into different functions—the Keimonos and the Skopos. The church leaders in Egypt spoke in a high priestly language that was difficult for the average person to understand. They had two solutions to deal with this problem. The first was for the general audience, a person named the Keimenos (κείμενος), who would assist the lay-people in understanding what the priests were saying, singing, or doing. This office was a type of translator, but more of an intermediary. For the new converts, they had a person called a Skopos (σκοπὸς) who “sits near and interprets for the beginners.”19
The great thirteenth-century scholar and theologian, Thomas Aquinas pondered about the function of interpreting and applied it to the ecclesiastical rite of tongues. His coverage is in his Reportationes— a form of lectures taken down as notes by his students.20 He theologically favored prophecy over tongues. He believed that whoever used the office of tongues and gave an interpretation was a simple act of translation, which the translator understood the literal words but not the overall meaning.21
He did not perceive the lowly task of interpreting having any divine significance. It was simply fulfilling the duty of translating from one language to another, which did not involve understanding the meaning behind the text. The office of prophecy could both translate and understand the meaning which to Aquinas was of far greater importance. The definition fits in Butler’s idea of an interpreter, according to Aquinas’ schema. However, one cannot limit the prophetic office only to interpreting glossolalia. The office of prophecy has a wide variety of uses. This wide semantic range leaves the Montanist use of an interpreter ambiguous and not immediately tie into glossolalia. The requirement of more evidence is necessary for this scenario to make a connection. This evidence is lacking and establishing a connection is only by inference.
When one examines this issue with both classical Greek and ecclesiastical literature in mind, it is hard to sustain that the Montanists spoke in glossolalia. It is a possibility out of many contextualizations. Maximillia, the Montanist prophetess, may not have been translating a heavenly language or glossolalia. This event may have been complex human speech in hexameter poetry, metaphors or symbols that required someone else to explain.
Another argument Butler contended was that the prophets understood both intelligible and unintelligible words. It could not be restricted, as he accused Forbes of doing, to only intelligible language. Butler could be right on this count, but his argument is once again weak because it omits almost eighteen hundred years of ecclesiastical coverage of the subject in drawing his conclusions. Ecclesiastical literature overwhelmingly supported the miracle of tongues as human language. How this miracle of human language exactly happened and worked was the nature of disputes in the Church realm up until the nineteenth-century. It was never about a heavenly or non-human language. Butler failed to resolve this tension.
A critical question on the connection between Montanism and christian tongues hinge on what λαλεῖν καὶ ξενοφωνεῖν means. The first word, λαλεῖν is the easier one to translate. It means to speak. There is little debate about this verb. The second verb, ξενοφωνεῖν, is where the differences are found. At first glance, the text primitively renders speaking and saying foreign things, which Forbes leans towards. Butler takes ξενοφωνεῖν to mean to chatter or babble, hence, glossolalia.
In order to unravel the etymology of ξενοφωνεῖν, consultation of the Greek dictionaries was required. The results are mixed and can favor either side. In case the reader wants to review the information, here are the results of such an investigation. The etymologies start with oldest to newest dictionaries.
Stephanus’ massive Thesaurus Graecae Linguae, first published in 1572 and slightly revised in the 1800s, remains the definitive dictionary for ancient Greek. Subsequent dictionaries generally draw from or edit the results from this dictionary into a smaller footprint. The first entry into this dictionary on this word describes it as one speaking unwanted or unfamiliar things. It then describes it as speaking in the sound of a foreign language. 22
Donnegan’s New Greek and English Lexicon described it as to speak in a foreign tongue, or in a foreign, or unusual manner.23 Sophocles Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods notes: to speak or talk strangely.24 Lampe’s Patristic Lexicon depicts it as; to speak strange things; of Montanus. . . Lampe then adds a second definition: startle, perturb, astonish by strange words or teaching.25
The dictionaries, especially begun with Stephanus in the late 1500s, do not give an adequate background to the word. The ambiguity started with Stephanus and later dictionaries either followed the foreign language emphasis or the strange or exotic theme. G. H. Lampe strengthens the strange or exotic aspect by adding the Montanists as a source definition in the late 1900s.
The axis of both arguments rest on understanding the Eusebius text on Montanism. The text itself has received little critical evaluation. A look into this actual text may provide more clues into whether Forbe or Butler has a more accurate interpretation.
One must always be mindful that the above English translation is from the old volume, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church.26
The Montanist description by Eusebius is pointing to a synthesis of some form of the Montanists integrating ancient Greek rites into their christian belief system, which the church rejected and did not accept as part of its customary traditions. This position strengthens by tracing the usage of the word ecstasy in the text. Stephanus’ Lexicon (Vol. III Col. 1088) refers to religious frenzy, ἐνθουσιᾶν, as a divinely inspired frenzy connected with the pagan Greek world of prophecy and the gods. The dictionary has several options for translating but this has the closest application: “genus μανιας distinguens itidem inter παρακινῶν, Insanus, et ἐνθουσιων. Numine afflatus. Divino numine afflatus et in vatem mutatus ista hariolatur.” Roughly translated from the Latin it reads as, “A kind of madness one distinguishes in a manner between one who is out of his senses, insane and being inspired. Inspiration by the gods. Having been inspired by the divine gods, having been transformed foolishly speaks on account of the poet being inspired by the gods.” Though ecstasy is often a favorable term depending on its usage, it has negative connotations here. The context in the Eusebius text suggests there is a severe syncretism of pagan Greek practices being mixed with the christian rite that is not acceptable and actively frowned on.
The Catholic-based New Advent website takes a slightly different approach to the translation of the keywords that produce a different result, showing how difficult it is to understand properly, and further to translate this text:
The anonymous opponent of the sect describes the method of prophecy (Eusebius, V, xvii, 2-3): first the prophet appears distraught with terror (en parekstasei), then follows quiet (adeia kai aphobia, fearlessness); beginning by studied vacancy of thought or passivity of intellect (ekousios amathia), he is seized by an uncontrollable madness (akousios mania psyches).27
This reflects the difficulty of translating texts that are in Alexandrian Greek. There is so little information available on many Alexandrian words that there are no standard English translation equivalents. Although the New Advent results are convincing, it does not declare where it found its information. It may be a later interpretation of the Eusebius text.
The question of divine inspiration appears to be an essential question throughout the Eusebius’ text. The Church did not find fault that there was some divine illumination. It was a question of its source. Was it from God or some other entity? This dilemma was the struggle the Church had. Eventually, they determined that the Montanist practice was outside customary Church practice.
There is also a word play going on here in the Greek. Montanus “grants the grand entrance28 for himself as one who opposes things,” and “with respect to the tradition handed down.”29 There was a Greek play on words going on suggesting Montanus was trying to make his version of frenzy become the Church standard but instead it fell short and was only showmanship.
With all the research that the Gift of Tongues Project has provided so far and the extent of literature available in the Patristic writings, the conclusion is that whatever the Montanists uttered in a state of frenzy has no relationship with the christian doctrine of tongues. One paragraph by Eusebius is not enough to overturn chapters on the subject produced by Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, Cyril of Jerusalem, John of Damascus, Cyril of Alexandria, Epiphanius, Michael Psellos, Thomas Aquinas and many more.
The absence of the critical Greek word for tongues, γλῶσσα, in the Eusebius text severely weakens the Montanist connection with christian tongues. Without this, the connection of christian tongues with Montanism turns from a direct substantive source to inference.
The Montanists were practicing something that was not christian tongues-speaking but an entirely different effect special to them. Butler is right that there is a correlation between Montanism and ancient Greek prophecy, but the crossover to tongues is tenuous.
These points make the modern Pentecostal association with Montanist tongues-speaking a moot point. Pentecostals would be better served to use the Donatists as a historical reference if they should choose an external group outside of the mainline institutional church for speaking in tongues.
- Introduction to the History of Glossolalia
- A History of Glossolalia: Origins
- A History of Glossolalia: Did it exist before 1879?
- A History of Glossolalia: Objections
- A History of Glossolalia: Patristic Citation
- Eusebius on Montanism: the Latin and Greek text
- If more substance comes forward on the connection between Epiphanius and Montanism then this article will be modified.
- A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Second Series. Translated into English with Prologema and Explanatory Notes. Philip Schaff ed. Volumes I-VII. Eusebius Pamphilus. Church History. Volume 1. Michigan: Eerdmans. Pg. 234.
- A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church Pg. 231
- See my articles on the history of glossolalia for more information.
- Rev. Heidi Baker. Ph.D. thesis: Pentecostal Experience: Towards a Reconstructive Theology of Glossolalia. Kings College. University of London. 1995 Pg. 79
- Ibid Baker. Pentecostal Experience: Towards a Reconstructive Theology of Glossolalia. Pg. 79-80
- Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. Stanley M. Burgess, Gary B. McGee, ed. Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library. 1988. Pg. 339
- Frederick Dale Bruner. A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co. 1970. Pg. 37
- Christopher Forbes. Prophecy and Inspired Speech: In Early Christianity and Its Hellenistic Environment. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.1997. Pg. 160
- Rex D. Butler. The New Prophecy and “New Visions”: Evidence of Montanism in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas Pg. 32
- Rex D. Butler. The New Prophecy and “New Visions”: Evidence of Montanism in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas Pg. 33
- The Five Books of Quintus Sept. Flor. Tertullianus Against Marcion. Translated by Peter Holmes. Edinburgh: T&T Clarke. 1870. Pg. 410
- Timaeus. Third Main Section, by Plato. Translated by Benjamin Jowett
- On Prophesying by Dreams by Aristotle. Translated by J. I. Beare,
- A Patristic Greek Lexicon. G.H. Lampe. Ed. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1978. Pg. 459
- I Corinthians 14:2 catena
- On the meaning of Reportationes see: https://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/627278
- See Aquinas’ actual text: Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 388 lc2. And Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 389ff lc5.
- Henri Estienne, also known as Henricus Stephanus. Thesaurus Graecae Linguae. Paris: Guilielmus Dindorfus and Ludovicus Dindorfus. Vol. 5. Col. 1657
- James Donnegan. A New Greek and English Lexicon; Principally on the plan of the Greek and German Lexicon of Schneider. Revised and Enlarged by R.B. Patton. Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Co. 1836. Pg. 883
- Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1900. Pg. 790
- A Patristic Greek Lexicon. G. H. Lampe., ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1978. Pg. 932
- A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church Pg. 234
- παράδοσιν, πάρoδον is matched against παράδοσιν