A Critical Look at Tongues and Montanism

Did the Montanist’s speak in tongues and is this the historical antecedent for tongues in the church today?

The christian doctrine of tongues can be traced backward in two ways. The first one through ecclesiastical literature which chronicles the passing of this rite through the centuries and marks how it has evolved. The second and more popular way is to trace the lineage back to pagan Greek antecedents. Montanism is one of the key 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 an answer to the above question. In accordance with the goals of the Gift of Tongues Project, source texts are provided, analyzed and commented on. Such details may seem boorish for the regular reader, but the lack of source literature and analysis is one of the greatest problems that have plagued the modern christian doctrine of tongues debate.

What is Montanism and the source texts for this controversy?

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 major 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. There are a number of works that allude to Epiphanius correlating Montanism with ecstatic utterances but substantiation or a source text similar to these claims has yet to be found.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 important 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. It contains over-the-top rhetoric which makes the reader wonder why so many resources and time were utilized against them. The strong attack causes one to either pity the Montanists or think there is 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 by.

Eusebius himself has his own 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 actual text used to link Montanist with Pentecostal speaking in tongues

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? This is 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 alterntive 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 glossolalia connection

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.

One must keep in mind that the concept of glossolalia is a new one in the annals of Christian theology that started in the early 1800s.4 This description technically is not a proper mode to describe antecedents to the christian doctrine of tongues any earlier. However, 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.

The importance of Montanism in the christian doctrine of tongues

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.

An essential keyword missing.

If one looks closely into the details, the actual historic evidence that equates Montanism with the gift of tongues is very weak. The critical Greek keyword which is used throughout the New Testament writings in reference to tongues speaking, γλῶσσα, glôssa, does not appear in the text. This word is required to definitively connect Montanist glossolalia with the church rite. The connection does not exist.

This omission is a very crucial point. In order to reinforce this fact, the Greek, Latin and an English translation can be found at the following link: Eusebius on Montanism. The source work reinforces the skeptical reader that the critical Greek keyword is not there.

Two scholars, two different outcomes

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 Christianity”10 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 and directly counters Forbe’s claims.

  • His 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 found in the Eusebius text as λαλεῖν καὶ ξενοφωνεῖν, then the phrase should be translated as chatter or babble. Finally, Butler concluded, “Forbes arguments are not sufficient to overturn the historic 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.

The lack of correlation between Montanist Glossolalia and Ecclesiastical tongues

Butler failed to fully address Forbes argument. 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 parallels research done so far on the Gift of Tongues Project. The GOT project focuses primarily on ecclesiastical literature and the conclusions so far aligns with Forbe’s position.

The only account that may connect Montanism with glossolalia is a very short item by Tertullian, a Montanist, who wrote a list of the offices in the church, including prophecy, healing and “diverse kinds of tongues”,15 who does affirm a continued existence, but in no way describes it. It is therefore of no use to any researcher.

What does prophecy, interpretation and tongues mean in this context?

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). However, Butler is taking the concept of interpreter too literally. The historical use of interpreter does not immediately mean the assistance of someone to translate or recompose heavenly or divine words or experiences. The role of an interpreter has more everyday practical purposes than this.

Butler does not take into account the important role of interpreter within the church and the wide semantic range. Of course this mode was most useful in dreams, visions or prophecy as represented by both Plato and Aristotle.

Plato wrote with respect to prophecy and dreams that interpreters are necessary to understand prophecy 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, in the realm of church literature, the role of the interpreter had a more practical purpose.

The fourth-century church in Egypt apparently 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

Interpreters were stretched into different types within the Alexandrian church. It is known that 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.”20

Aquinas didn’t perceive the lowly task of interpreting as giving 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 would better fit in Butler’s idea of an interpreter according to Aquinas’ schema. But this still doesn’t fit because the prophetic office could not be narrowed only to interpreting glossolalia. The office of prophecy can be used for so many reasons, this would leave the Montanist use of an interpreter ambiguous. In other words, this role would not support Butler in winning his argument.

Butler’s argument, if no glossolalia was not present, why the need of an interpreter, weakens with this historical evidence. Maximillia, the Montanist prophetess may not have been translating a heavenly language or glossolalia. This event may have been exalted human speech that required someone else to explain what it all meant. The message was too complex for the average person to understand.

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 ecclesiastical realm up until the nineteenth-century. It was never about a heavenly or non-human language.

What exactly does λαλεῖν καὶ ξενοφωνεῖν mean?

Fourth, Butler hinges on the English translation of λαλεῖν καὶ ξενοφωνεῖν. At first glance, it would primitively render speaking and saying foreign things, which Forbes leans towards. Butler takes ξενοφωνεῖν to mean to chatter or babble, hence it was glossolalia. The Greek Dictionaries are split with both parties on this one. Stephanus21 and the Donnegan22 Greek Dictionaries agree more so with Butler, while the Sophocles Greek Dictionary23 aligns with Forbes. The Stephanus Greek Dictionary, being the oldest of the dictionaries available and the least influenced by modern grammarians, gives Butler the edge on this one. However, this is not enough for Butler to win the argument.

An Analysis of the Actual Eusebius source text and the problems of the English translation.

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 the more accurate interpretation.

One must be always mindful that the above English translation is taken from the old volume, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church.24

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 can be found 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 a number of 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 can be used positively, the context in the Eusebius text suggests there is a serious syncretism of pagan Greek practices being mixed with the christian rite that is not acceptable, and is strongly being 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 properly understand, 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).25

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 unanimous 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 important question throughout the Eusebius’ text. The church did not find fault that there was some sort of divine illumination. It was a question of its source. Was it from God or some other entity? This was the struggle which 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 entrance26 for himself as one who opposes things,” and “with respect to the tradition handed down.”27 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.

Conclusion: Forbes is right. Montanism doesn’t fit in with the christian tongues narrative.

With all the research that the Gift of Tongues Project has provided so far and the extent of literature available in the Patristic writings, it has been concluded 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 Montanists were practicing something that is not Christian tongues speaking but an entirely different effect special to them. Butler is right in the sense that there is a correlation between Montanism and ancient Greek prophecy. How exactly that was performed by the Montanists is unknown.

This makes 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.

For further reading:


  1. If information comes forward on this subject this article will be modified
  2. 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.
  3. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church Pg. 231
  4. See my articles on the history of glossolalia for more information.
  5. Rev. Heidi Baker. Ph.D. thesis: Pentecostal Experience: Towards a Reconstructive Theology of Glossolalia. Kings College. University of London. 1995 Pg. 79
  6. Ibid Baker. Pentecostal Experience: Towards a Reconstructive Theology of Glossolalia. Pg. 79-80
  7. http://nyupress.org/books/9780814799987/
  8. Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. Stanley M. Burgess, Gary B. McGee, ed. Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library. 1988. Pg. 339
  9. Frederick Dale Bruner. A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co. 1970. Pg. 37
  10. http://www.mq.edu.au/about_us/faculties_and_departments/faculty_of_arts/department_of_ancient_history/staff/dr_chris_forbes/
  11. Christopher Forbes. Prophecy and Inspired Speech: In Early Christianity and Its Hellenistic Environment. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.1997. Pg. 160
  12. http://www.nobts.edu/faculty/atoh/ButlerR/Default.html
  13. Rex D. Butler. The New Prophecy and “New Visions”: Evidence of Montanism in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas Pg. 32
  14. Rex D. Butler. The New Prophecy and “New Visions”: Evidence of Montanism in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas Pg. 33
  15. The Five Books of Quintus Sept. Flor. Tertullianus Against Marcion. Translated by Peter Holmes. Edinburgh: T&T Clarke. 1870. Pg. 410
  16. Timaeus. Third Main Section, by Plato. Translated by Benjamin Jowett
  17. On Prophesying by Dreams by Aristotle. Translated by J. I. Beare,
  18. A Patristic Greek Lexicon. G.H. Lampe. Ed. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1978. Pg. 459
  19. I Corinthians 14:2 catena

    Thomas Aquinas extended the function of interpreting and applied it to the ecclesiastical rite of tongues. His works theologically favored prophecy over tongues. He believed that whoever used the office of tongues and gave an interpretation is a simple act of translation, which the translator understood the literal words but not the overall meaning. Translation hardly used critical thinking skills. Prophecy, on the other hand, had the ability to not only translate but to understand the true meaning behind the words.19Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 388 lc2. And Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 389ff lc5.

  20. Stephanus Vol. 5. Col. 1100
  21. Donnegan Pg. 883
  22. Sophocles Pg. 816
  23. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church Pg. 234
  24. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10521a.htm
  25. πάρoδον
  26. παράδοσιν, πάρoδον is matched against παράδοσιν

3 thoughts on “A Critical Look at Tongues and Montanism”

  1. Excellent! Thanks, Charles. PS. I’ve long been mindful of Tertullian’s affinity for, some say conversion to, montanism. If you have something written or something more to say on that, I would find that fascinating reading as well.

  2. Scriptures cannot be interpreted with worldly wisdom and literature analysis. It needs to be seen in the light of the word of God and in a spiritual light. This golden rule has been grossly violated in the above analysis. Not even one bible verse has been quoted above in the analysis which involves an important biblical worship method.

    The article claims that glossolalia relates only after 1800s. Whereas this is not the case. Prophet Isaiah foretold about this in Isaiah 28: 11 says For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people.(KJV). Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people (NIV). In the first century St.Paul writes “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries” (KJV – 1 Corinthians 14: 2).

    In Acts chapter 2, we read about Xenolalia. Even today we can see this gift operating in the church. So, glossolalia is a God ordained practice.

    The important fact here is that one needs to connect the “fruits” of the people who involve in glossolalia. If their deeds are good, you know they are righteous and God’s people and their worship is true. If they are speaking glossolalia but their actions are wicked, then they are false people. So the best way to evaluate Montanists is not by literature evidence but by their deeds. If you have no evidence on their deeds, how they lived, whether they led a holy and faithful life before God, then leave this research and don’t conclude.

    I see that most of the research is denigrating a true Christian worship and is been done by a guy who doesn’t understand a bit of Christianity. Charles Sir, my humble request to you is to study the subject well using the right inputs and publish the truth.

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