Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues: Conclusion

Final thoughts on the texts attributed to Cyril of Alexandria about the doctrine of tongues.

A significant amount of time and labour has been spent on works attributed to Cyril of Alexandria on the christian doctrine of tongues and for good reason. The Cyrillian coverage offers some insights into the ancient practice of the gift of tongues within the earlier church.

Unfortunately, there are only bits and pieces and it is hard to build a complete portrait. The following is the best synopsis given the paucity of information.


These works originate under the influence of the ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt, which gives these works particular significance. The language of the New Testament is Alexandrian Greek with a Semitic influence which means the influence of Alexandria on early Christianity is centrally important. Without Alexandria, there may no Gospel, or at least many of the principal theological traditions passed down through the generations.

It has been learned from this study that the writings credited to Cyril of Alexandria are not exactly correct. Portions are from Didymus of Alexandria. Which parts are Cyril’s and others Didymus’, we do not know, though for the most part it is Cyril. There also may be medieval editorial emendations too. Even though there remain unanswered questions of authorship, it accurately portrays a fifth-century account on the doctrine of tongues as understood and practised in Alexandria, Egypt.

The discovery of the actual texts themselves was a challenge. They were found only in the original Greek, and the publications they were found in posed difficulties. Comparative work between different texts was required. The Alexandrian Greek requires a slow translation process as this vernacular has some peculiarities and unique vocabulary. Then there was the challenge to make cohesive sense out of all of them.

The results gleaned from these Alexandrian texts do not align with the contemporary christian practice or liberal interpretations on the christian doctrine of tongues. They offer different outcomes. All the translations provided below were done by the author, Charles A. Sullivan, unless otherwise noted. Here are the findings.

The Commentary on Zephaniah

This description indicates that the Alexandrian author(s) believed it be speaking a foreign language for only a temporary period. There was an emphasis in this commentary about the “changing of tongues” that defined the speech as a miraculous endowment. Furthermore, those that received this blessing at Pentecost continued to have this power throughout their lives, but the gift did not perpetuate after they died.

Indeed, relating to that state of time, it says, I will change the language upon the peoples “For all were hearing them speaking in their own language, Parthian and also Median, and Elamite,” and the other ones of the nations. Except carefully weigh the observation. For it says to change the tongue in this generation, that is to say, therefore this language-thing remains in these ones, who were have to spoken at that one occasion until the end of their life, truly of a generation. For it was made a sign as far as those people, and the sacred Scripture was making tongues out to be inactive after that. Therefore he says this, “I will change the tongue in it’s generation.” For the use did not yet continue with those after these ones.1

It is uncertain whether the text refers to the Apostles, the 120 gathered at Pentecost, or all who were attendant to the occasion, having this gift until they died.

The Latin translator added an important portion not in the Greek that alludes to a passed-down tradition in the Latin speaking church. In iis enim duntaxat, non etiam in posteris eorum factum est signum ; quibus et insedisse linguas sacra Scriptura testatur. “In those then, to the extent that it was not made a sign in their descendants, to which also the sacred Scripture testifies the tongues to be inactive.”2

The Fragment on Acts

This work supplies a few clues. It conveys that those who spoke at Pentecost did not know the languages beforehand. It was a spontaneous event. Experienced interpreters, according to the text, were not accustomed to such a display. The purpose of Pentecost was to speak in every language to every nation. The Gospel was not to be a local religion for Jews only, but a universal one. The work goes on to describe a negative aspect of this event. Some people used it to promote their own extravagance and self-promotion.

Some, on the one hand, were speaking in languages, and furthermore, these ones did not know them beforehand. Meanwhile those proficient in the art of interpreting were taking note, indeed the ears were not now in the manner and custom of such things like this happening. On another note, the divine Paul confidently asserts with those that were then given the gift to speak in languages, was not an emphasis in a gifting part but as in the form of a sign for believers. And indeed so he provided a persuasive word, having as follows: “That in strange tongues and foreign lips I will speak to this people and they will not believe such a thing.”. . .

Therefore when the earthly priests wish to announce the Salvation-Gospel in every language and to all the peoples, they received the gift of languages. Men originating from Galilee, native in Idumea, Hebrews by parents of Hebrews, with Medes and Parthians, Elamites and to those who dwelled in Mesopotamia, Cappadocians and further off to the Egyptians, they were speaking in their own language. In fact, the grace of the holy Spirit was working in them. For it has been written; “And there appeared among them a distribution of tongues, even as fire,” etc. Certainly at the beginning not everyone was making sense of these things. Afterwards they actually began to speak in other languages, these ones changing the divine gift of the Spirit into haughtiness and showing off, by now unworthily producing to teach about the sacred prophets and also to instruct about the evangelical doctrines, obviously which had long before and divinely been proclaimed. Thus, these ones having too much pride about the gift of tongues are repeating everything to that which already happened, they were immediately pursuing no other matter.3

The parallel Latin translation is a better flowing one than the Greek and clarifies the early problem with speaking in tongues.

Certainly at the beginning not everyone was making sense of these things. In fact, afterwards, they began to speak in other languages, these ones changing the divine gift of the Spirit into haughtiness and showing off, by now unworthily producing to teach about the sacred prophets and also to instruct about the evangelical doctrines, obviously which had long before and divinely been proclaimed. Thus, these ones having too much pride about the gift of tongues are repeating everything to that which already happened, they were immediately pursuing no other matter.4

Another important factor to note here is that Cyril referenced Cappadocian which many readers will immediately assume as one of the families of the Greek language. If that is true, then Greek was one of the miraculous languages of Pentecost. This assertion would be unique among early church writers. Greek is typically omitted as one of the languages of Pentecost. This theory may not be plausible. Cappadocians did not embrace Greek as their mother-tongue until at least 400 AD. There is no remnant text demonstrating what language they spoke around 30 AD. It is understood that whatever language it was, it was not Greek.5

The Catena on I Corinthians

Of course, any early documentation on I Corinthians piques reader interest on the subject. Cyril’s Catena on I Corinthians adds some new clues. They are not earth-shattering but adds nuanced pieces to the narrative. I Corinthian’s 14 is wrapped in the Alexandrian concept of their liturgical and religious rites.

The research throughout this series was curious about the role of the speakers and interpreters. Was it like the Talmudic academies in the fourth century, where the speaker spoke softly in Hebrew so that the interpreter could hear and then speak loudly to the congregation in their vernacular? Were the priests speaking in Greek and an interpreter offering a simultaneous translation into Coptic or whatever local language there was? Did the priest chant special hymns in Greek, or speak in a high priestly language that only the advanced devotees could understand? Were the prayers restricted to a sacred language, and what was the role of the Psalms in the liturgy?

Alexandria was understood at the time of Cyril in the mid 300s as caught between two languages. Greek was the language of religious affairs. Coptic was the mother tongue. The Coptic language would later emerge and overtake Greek as the language of faith around 451 AD.6 7

Unfortunately, the catena did not provide the answers about the delivery and language that the priests and the Alexandrian church institution employed. Nor are these answers found known from other texts. The catena adds other aspects to the Corinthian text relative to the Alexandrian church that modern churchgoers make little association. One of the more obvious examples is that it demonstrates psalm-singing, prayers, and the amen were central to the Alexandrian liturgy.8

Itinerant Preachers and Multilingualism

The Cyrillian text associated I Corinthians 14:10 with their itinerant preachers whose duty was to visit Churches routinely throughout the Alexandrian Church empire. This area was a vast region that had many ethnic and language groups. The ability to speak in various languages was a requirement for these preachers to teach and pray.9

Any persons of the status of itinerant teachers in the Churches who are endowed in the work of the Spirit should have the ability to speak in languages. Therefore it is necessary that prayers are to be made in these same languages, and certainly, for the entreaties of those things, that is to say, of a Psalm, these ones who have the ability to proclaim in the language of those who are present. Certainly, they were not doing this, indeed the persons who congratulate themselves in a self-satisfied way with the gift of languages, they were neither doing Psalms or prayers. Paul teaches this, that if there does not exist persons who are hearing with the knowledge of the language, which those who have the gift are speaking forth, then there is no advantage out of the matter. For numberless are the nations and all the languages of mankind.10

Cyril did not view the itinerant preacher’s multilingual capability as a supernaturally acquired one but an ordinary learned requisite in fulfilling the demands of the expansive church community. It was part of the primary commission of the church to fulfill.

Liturgy and Administration

The Catena on I Corinthians, point towards the Alexandrian rites of liturgy and church administration.

It is necessary on my behalf, it says, if I indeed should choose to be praying in a language, that is to say, to be fond about speaking in a language; to eagerly try would not occupy an unfruitful mind, and not only would it produce speaking in a language, but to awaken the mind within me. And if I should perhaps sing a Psalm in a language, for the act of singing a Psalm is nothing inferior and for the mind is the power in the understanding of the psalmody, and of the prophets, and one is not bound to stop incomprehensible words such as these. For if I wish to be speaking useless sounds, “I have become a noisy gong.” (NASB). . .

Seeing that an overseer could show the unprofitability for him by means of the most greatest and moral senses about the act of speaking in a language, because a follower may not have the ability to clearly understand the meaning concerning the things of the prophets in alternative ways, and he brings up other [languages] through which some would have wished to understand a person who speaks clearly.11

As previously noted, Cyril demonstrates here the use of Psalms in the liturgical rite. Cyril understood Paul’s emphasis, not as a mystical but a practical, utilitarian one. The goal is to speak so that the person understands and is encouraged from whatever is spoken with as few intellectual or language barriers as possible.

The idea of the overseer is intriguing. It brings up the subject of church administration. The Greek for overseer is σκοπὸς. The important requirement of any Church leader speaking to an audience or any layperson was that the Skopos (σκοπὸς) had to understand what they were saying. The indications from the dictionaries were that this office had authority in maintaining the moral and religious purity of the institution and its people.12 An important note for later reference is that the role of the Skopos did not include translator or interpreter until later.13

This office brings up some complexities and possibly overlapping with other entities. How does the Skopos fit in with assisting the laity with the liturgies, rituals and speeches going on within the church? And if does not, what office performed such a matter?

There is an explanation of I Corinthians 14:5 that describes a person who was supposed to be available that “sits near and interprets (διερμηνεύοντα) for the beginners.”14 The idea of the person who interprets is very general and does not suggest an office. It reads as a mature lay person helping a new entrant.

Then there is the κείμενος, keimenos, listed in two places within the catena: 14:2, and 14:16–17. The first use does not reference any connection to an office and is used as a general term. The second, 14:16-17 has, ὁ γεμὴν ἐν τάξει τῇ τοῦ λαϊκοῦ κείμενος, “surely, how will the one who makes the room of the laypeople. . .” The whole phrase is very close the actual Pauline text in I Corinthians 14:16. It is similar in meaning but not exact in wording. The key point is that Cyril replaces the obscure Greek term Paul used in I Corinthians 14:16 ἀναπληρῶν anapleron, with κείμενος, keimenos. All the significant Greek dictionaries remain neutral on the term except for Lampe’s Patristic Lexicon. The dictionary makes a slight connection to an office or divine influence.15 Another article is dedicated to investigating this possible correlation titled, The mysterious anaplêrôn of I Corinthians 14:16 but the role of κείμενος, keimenos, is inconclusive. It could be a child synonym relating to Skopos.

Whether it was the Skopos, the interpreter, or the keimonos, there was a system in the church where a person was responsible for the laity or new entrants to understand the rites, words, and actions of the church. There was no mention in any of these definitions of a person interpreting divine speech of non-human origin.

All messages that this intermediary explained to the people were to be concluded with an Amen.

If the intermediary did not understand the language, or message being spoken, he would not be able to translate or explain on behalf of the laypeople, and therefore would not be able to say Amen. This idea is confirmed in the Cyril catena but may not be the case in most instances. Other liturgical references promote that the audience was to sound the Amen instead.16

The prayers in the Church were led by a goumeno (ἡγουμένος). A few of the important dictionaries describe ἡγουμένος as a ruler over monks, clergy, and bishops.17 While others omit this word. I think Cyril is using the term loosely to describe anyone such as a priest, deacon, or bishop conducting the liturgical rites. It is not known whether the person(s) leading the liturgy spoke in Greek, Coptic, or a mixture of the two depending on circumstance.18

All of the references to Alexandrian Church structure; the itinerant preacher, the high priestly language and need for a mediary for the laypeople to understand, the use of multiple languages, and the amen construct, have a connection with Paul’s coverage of I Corinthians 14. These concepts are traceable to its Jewish roots. Speaking in tongues, hymns, psalms, and the amen construct are all found in pre-Christian Judaism.19 Granted Cyril’s time is 400 years later, and there was likely much evolution in this structure, but the shadows do exist.

Foreign Languages and Common-Sense

Cyril removed the supernatural element from Paul’s exhortation in I Corinthians and was more practical. In one instance he wanted to highlight the problem in a hypothetical situation that referenced the problem of speaking in a foreign language in an assembly of people that did not understand the language. It lacked common sense to to do such a thing. He avoided reference to the church and its liturgy. He instead used a general assembly of Greeks and a gathering of Jews as examples.

For if, perhaps, the ability was given to a certain one of the disciples to be able to speak in the language of the Medes, and a different one in Elamite, then who will be the ones hearing, is it the things about their message perhaps being spoken about to the synagogues of the Jews or rather to the assemblies of the Greeks? Rather, what kind of profit will be of these words? For it will amount to nothing, except only of God who has known everything.20

The Latin parallel translation alludes to the idea that the disciples were supernaturally imbued with Mede or Elamite, but the example still holds. If someone comes speaking in a language not understood, whether miraculous or not, it is useless.

Tongues and Prophecy

The catena follows a similar trajectory of Thomas Aquinas and accidentally offers some alignment with Calvinist theologians on the function of prophecy. Prophecy lines-up with Aquinas in the sense that is a greater good than language. The gift of prophecy incorporates meaning and context to any situation for the building of character and proper formative spiritual identity—demonstrations that speaking in a foreign language cannot do.

In fact one observes that to prophesy is to interpret the matters of the prophets in such things through which the word of encouragement is being established, and the mind of those who have been initiated is to be led into the truth about Christ. He also elsewhere shows beyond comparison that the activity of interpreting the prophets is in superiority than the act of speaking in a language.“For he builds himself up,” it says, “the one who is speaking in a tongue.” Of course he understands himself, but someone else, absolutely nothing. This one, who makes use with the voices of those holy prophets and with predictions in regards to the testimony, builds up the Church. Greater then also in the highest ranks, and in the most splendid hopes is the application of prophecy. Indeed, it is better to mutually build up the Church than himself alone speaking out in a language.21

The influential French Reformation leader, Jean Calvin, picks up the theme on prophet as an interpreter of the will of God with a heavy reliance on Scriptural knowledge and teaching. He arrived at this conclusion without any knowledge of this catena.

By the term prophecy, however, I do not understand the gift of foretelling the future, but as in 1 Corinthians 14:3, the science of interpreting Scripture, so that a prophet is an interpreter of the will of God. For Paul, in the passage which I have quoted, assigns to prophets teaching for edification, exhortation, and consolation, and enumerates, as it were, these departments. Let, therefore, prophecy in this passage be understood as meaning — interpretation made suitable to present use. Paul prohibits us from despising it, if we would not choose of our own accord to wander in darkness. 22

The Connection between Corinth and Pentecost

The catena loosely connects the tongues of Pentecost with Corinth. One must keep in mind about his idea that tongues was withdrawn in the Zephania account above. Cyril believed that the gift had no present manifestation. He was writing in historical, not present truths. The Cyril text is merely using tongues as a pretext to move into the topic of prophecy.

Seeing that it was unexpected, and truly a gift of the gods, that men being of Hebrew background were being empowered to speak in languages of others, not that some suppose the Apostle rashly determined the nature of the practice to be purposeless, saying it had been given through the work of the Spirit. For it was given as a sign for believers, he favorably approves the practice and says, “Now I wish all of you to speak in tongues,” for he clearly cuts-off at once the eagerness in this certain thing, and moves to a better one, “even more that you prophesy.” Greater and more palpable the orator is who prophesies than the one who speaks in a language.23

The catena recognizes Pentecost as the miraculous ability of the apostles to speak in one or more foreign languages. It also suggests that Paul was also manifesting this same ability in Corinth.

Cyril on Montanism and Prophetic Frenzy

The Cyrillian texts are oblivious to any Montanist influence on the tongues doctrine. Nor were there any attempt to write about the need for a subsequent spirit baptism or counter any movements teaching such a proposition. Nor were the Alexandrians aware of a private prayer language or glossolalia.

The Catena on I Corinthians borrows many Greek keywords from the ancient Greek prophetic realm. Some of them new to the tongues debate. However, they are not used in a classical way. They have become Christianized by this period and do not relate to glossolalia. For more information, see Notes on the Cyrillian catena on I Corinthians 14:10.


Whether the reader agrees with the catena’s idea that the gift of tongues was no longer necessary, the historical view revolved aroung this as a miraculous endowment of a foreign language. There is no ambiguity in this conclusion. There is no reference to an alternative point of view or any tension to resolve.

For the curious who would like to take a closer look, a digitized version of the Greek and Latin are published at Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues: The Original Texts. One can read the English translations with technical footnotes and find additional thoughts by going to the Gift of Tongues Project and scrolling down to the Cyril of Alexandria Category.

  1. For more information and the actual copy of the Commentary on Zephaniah see Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues: Zephaniah.
  2. My translation. Migne Patrologia Graeca. Vol. 71. Col. 1007.
  3. My translation. The actual text can be found at Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues: Acts.
  4. My translation from the Latin found at: Migne Patrologia Graeca. Vol. 74. Col. 757ff. (Ex Catena Crameri, Oxonii 1838).
  5. See Mark Janse – Cappadocian Greek: the resurrection of a language believed dead for more information
  6. See John Pomper. A Popular Handbook on the Origin, History, and Structure of Liturgies, Part 1 and 2. Edinburgh: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. 1898. Pg. 98ff; The Rev. William Palmer in Origines Liturgicae or Antiquities of the English Ritual and a Dissertation on Primitive Liturgies, (1839) notes that a firm date of conversion between Greek and Coptic cannot be ascertained.
  7. There are numerous discussions about the evolution of the Alexandrian liturgy, starting with St. Mark’s liturgy, then being modified by St. Cyril, and then the church later embracing St. Basil’s liturgy. None of these liturgical movements help to explain better the doctrine of tongues in the Alexandrian church and so I have neglected to include these in the discussion.
  8. A previous version of this document stated at this point, “The Corinthian problem of languages was viewed as a consequence of Pentecost. The Corinthian situation is not considered a separate entity. In making the Corinthian situation connected to Pentecost, it creates ethnic rivalries. If a disciple comes speaking in tongues for the purpose of rejuvenating the Jewish faith, then it leaves out the Gentile participants. This would be an untenable position.” And then goes on to state, “When the disciples spoke at Pentecost, each one spoke a different language.” These additions were placed in error or a mistaken interpretation. They were removed from the document.
  9. This is discussed in more detail at Notes on the Cyrillian Catena on I Corinthians 14:10
  10. See Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues: I Corinthians. (14:10) for more information
  12. Perseus: One that watches, one that looks about or after things, watchful, jealous master, mostly, lookout-man, watcher, stationed in some high place, mark or object on which one fixes the eye, metaph., aim, end, object. || Lampe, Pg. 1241: one that looks about or after things, look-out man, of bishops episkopous || Sophocles. Pg. 996: object, intention. || Leopold, Pg. 1130: watcher, scout, spy, overseer. || Stephanus, Vol. 7, Col 431: Speculator, Exploratur. Circumcirca sedebant omni ex parte speculatores et exploratores. Nom diligebantur exploratores, qui pernices, essent: ut si forte ab hostibus visi essent, evadere tame possent In prose quoque frequenter usurpatur Insidios, etc.,
  13. See Stephanus, Vol. 7, Col 431 for more information
  14. I Corinthians 14:5 catena
  15. Lampe. Pg. 739
  16. “The concluding Amen of the people is mentioned by Athanasius, and Dionysius of Alexandria, as the breaking of the bread is by Theophilus Alexandrinus and others.” The Rev. William Palmer in Origines Liturgicae or Antiquities of the English Ritual and a Dissertation on Primitive Liturgies, (1839)
  17. ὁ ἡγουμένος as found in Lampe’s Patristic Lexicon, Pg. 601, and Stephanus Lexicon Vol. 4. Col. 94
  18. A previous iteration of this article wrote that the priest spoke in a high priestly voice. I have been unable to substantiate this statement and therefore it has been removed.
  19. See Praying in Tongues, Hymns and More: intro
  20. Εἰ γὰρ δέδοται τυχὸν τῷ δεὶνι τῶν μαθητῶν τὸ γλώσσῃ τῇ Μήδων δύνασθαι λαλεῖν, ἑτέρῳ δὲ αὐτῇ Ἐλαμιτῶν, εἶτα ταῖς Ἰουδαίων προσδιαλέγοιντο συναγωγᾶις οἱ περὶ ὧν ὁ λόγος, ἤγουν ταῖς ᾽Ελλήνων ἀγέλαις, τίς ὁ ἀκουσόμενος, ἥ ποία τῶν λόγων ἡ ὄνησις ἔσται ; Συνήσει γὰρ οὐδεις, πλὴν μόνου τοῦ πάντα εἰδοτος Θεοῦ · MPG. Vol. 74. Col. 889-891
  21. See Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues: I Corinthians (14:2) which displays an English translation with some notes. Or go to the actual Greek and Latin. MPG. Vol. 74. Col. 889
  22. Commentaries
    on The Epistle of Paul To The Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians by John Calvin.
    Translated by the Rev. John Pringle. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Based on the 1851 edition. I Thessalonians 5:20
  23. Catena on I Corinthians 14:5. See Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues: I Corinthians which displays an English translation with some notes. Or go to the actual Greek and Latin. MPG. Vol. 74. Col. 891

Leave a Comment