Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues: Technical Notes on Acts

The nature, purpose and problems of translating a medieval narrative on Pentecost and tongues attributed to the fifth century Church Father, Cyril of Alexandria.

The initial purpose of translating was to find out and demonstrate to English readers Cyril of Alexandria’s position on Pentecost from his commentary on the Book of Acts.

The commentary on Acts is not available as a complete edition. Only a small part exists today.

This text is an odd work. It does not make complete sense, and is a large shift in thought from any Ecclesiastical literature on the subject–especially fifth century. Halfway through the Cyril text, it makes an abrupt literary transition. The author(s) write that the people speaking in tongues at Pentecost became arrogant and narrow minded. Whether this is referring to the actual apostles or the other 120 that spoke in tongues at this event is not clear.

A closer look reveals this is not a work that St. Cyril authored. It is a digest of Cyril’s works done by a later copyist. One cannot find an accurate date found from word usage or style, and since this is a printed text, dating cannot be ascertained through calligraphy. It can be broadly assumed a medieval work. Although it is not the work of St. Cyril, it still has some importance in respect to a medieval view of the mystery of tongues. The author(s) do provide some clues as to how the medieval Christian world viewed and interpreted the doctrine of tongues.

What evidences are used to conclude this?

First of all the source of the manuscript. This Acts fragment comes from Cramer’s Catena, which from previous experience working with Origen, brings up serious suspicions. This is not surprising. Migne Patrologia Graeca does not always use the best manuscripts available. It was often hastily produced, so one always has to be weary of the texts provided.

Then another clue is the fact that Cyril is cited in italics after a major Biblical text. The header and the Greek body that follows is in plain Greek. This clearly suggests a third party work.

Also the literary flow demonstrates this. The Pentecost narrative has nothing to do with Paul’s writing on the gifts, but yet this is included in the Act’s narrative. It is an awkward insertion that interrupts any logical flow.

The Acts’ version is a copy of Cyril’s text as found in his I Corinthians commentary. (MPG Vol. 74. col. 888).

In addition to this, the Greek text in I Corinthians is better quality.

This is the commentary in I Corinthians version: Ἀλλ’ οἱ μὲν ταῖς γλώσσαις ἐλάλουν, καίτοι πρὶν οὐκ εἰδότες αὐτὰς, καὶ συνῆσαν διερμηνεύοντες, καίτοι πάλαι οὐκ ἐν ἔθει τῶν τοιούτων ὄντες φωνῶν. Δεδόσθαι γε μὴν ὁ θεσπέσιος Παῦλος τοῖς τὸ τηνικάδε διισχυρίζεται τὀ γλώσσαις λαλεῖν, οὐχ ὡς ἐν μοίρᾳ χαρίσματος, αλλ’ ὡς ἐν τάξει σημείου τοῖς πιστοῖς. Καίτοι καὶ προφητικὸν παρετίθει λόγιον οὕτως ἔχον, ὅτι « Ἐν ἑτερογλώσσοις καὶ ἐν χείλεσιν ἑτέροις λαλήσω τῷ λαῷ τούτῳ, καὶ οὐδ’ ὤς πιστεύσουσιν. » Ἐνεργεῖ δὲ διαφόρως ἐν ἐκάστῳ τὸ Πνεῦμα τὴν τῶν χαρισμάτων διανομήν ··

The Cramer version: Οἱ μὲν ταἶς γλώσσαις ἐλάλουν, καίτοι πρὶν οὐκ εἰδότες αὐτάς · οἱ δὲ συνῆσαν διερμηνεύοντες, καίτοι πάλαι τὸ οὖς οὐκ ἐν τριβῇ τε καὶ ἐν ἔθει τῶν τοιούτων ἐχόντων τινῶν. Δεδόσθαι γε μὴν ὁ θεσπέσιος Παῦλος τοῖς τότε τὴν χάριν διῖσχυριζενται τὸ γλὼσσαις λαλεῖν, οὐκ ὡς μοῖρα χαρίσματος, ἀλλ’ ὡς ἐν τάξει σημείου τοῖς πιστοῖς, καὶ δὴ καὶ προτρεπτικόν παρετίθει λόγιον οὕτως ἔχον · « Ὄτι έν ἑτερογλώσσαις καὶ ἑτεροχείλεσι λαλήσω τῷ λαῷ τούτῳ, καὶ οὐδ’ οὕτως πιστεύσουσιν. » Ἔνειμε διαφόρως τὸ Πνεῦμα τὴν τῶν χαρισμάτων διανομήν.

If one knows Greek well enough and can read this, there are an obvious number of reasons why the commentary on I Corinthians text is so much superior. The most glaring is the typo:

The Cramer copy has προτρεπτικόν, protreptikon, instead of προφητικὸν, prophetikon. A similar example in the English language would be typing profit instead of what was supposed to be prophet in a sentence.

Due to the nature of this text, a translation of both the Greek and Latin texts are provided in the translation work, Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues: Part 2. MPG does not give the name or date of the Latin translator. The Latin was completed somewhere in the 18th or 19th century. It departs often from being literal to the text and represents the potential influence of the tongues doctrine during a later era. It can be seen here and elsewhere that the modern tongues doctrine owes much of its ancestry to the anglicization of key Latin terms. Therefore it has historical significance to the evolution of the tongues doctrine.

“To speak in tongues” according to the Cyrillian text is too ambiguous. The preference by the author(s) would be “To speak in languages”. The text was clear and succinct on this. Therefore this translation prefers the Greek term historically known as tongues, γλῶσσα to be language. A previous article, The Difference between Language and Tongues clarifies this subject in greater detail.

The Greek translation attempts to work with every word found in the Greek dictionaries. However, there are limitations with this approach. Alexandrian Greek is not well represented. Not all the words can easily be found. The Latin has been consulted on a few occasions where other means have been exhausted.

For the English translation of this Acts text, go to Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues: Part 2.

A full synopsis of Cyril of Alexandria on tongues including commentaries, translations, and notes can be found at the Gift of Tongues Project menu. Scroll down to the Cyril of Alexandrian sub-category.

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