An English translation of the Venerable Bede’s Book of Reflection on the Acts of the Apostles chapters 2:1-18.
This particular passage has important information on how the medieval church in the seventh to eighth centuries understood the tongues of Pentecost.
The Venerable Bede (672–735 AD) was an English Benedictine Monk and a multi disciplined man. He not only wrote about theology but was astute in the arts and sciences. The written legacy he has left behind is immeasurable. He stands out as one of the premier writers in the entire history of the Christian church.
Translated by Charles A. Sullivan from MPL. Vol. 92. Bedæ Venerabilis: Liber Retractationis In Actus Apostolorum. Col. 998-1000
A Book of Reflection on the Acts of the Apostles
“And when the days of Pentecost were completed, they were all together in the same place,” Some of the other Codices1 wrongly have Pentecost in the accusative case. For Pentecost in the nominative case is called the fiftieth — in the genitive, is called of the fiftieth, in the accusative [it is simply] the fiftieth day2 Moreover not one account permits this to be spoken this way, so that when we say Pentecost in the accusative case, when really it ought to be said, “when the day of Pentecost was completed.” certainly it is said without doubt to be with the singular number in the Greek.
“And when the days of Pentecost were completed.” Of course in the very same day of prayer it should be mentioned as well, “These ones celebrate the most sacred Pentecost day,”3 that is, the fiftieth. The solemnity of this day is being reckoned by the tradition of such a word, by which some who do not know the Greek language, even now ought to call Pentecost in the nominative case.
“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming: and it filled the whole house where they were sitting,” etc.4 And the actual distinction is most apparent in the giving of the law and in grace with the Old and New testaments. Where it says the group5 was resting far away, fear, not love was present. They continually dreaded thus far, as they were saying to Moses, “Speak to us, and let not the Lord speak to us, lest we die.” [Exodus 20:19] Then God descended, as it was written, on Sinai as fire, but the frightened group stands still far away, the law by a finger in the stone, nor was it written by the spirit itself in the heart. However, when the holy Spirit came here, the faithful were joined together as one — not even scared on the mountain but entered into the house. Indeed, a sound suddenly came from heaven, so that [the group] was affected also as if a violent wind made a noise, but was not terrified. You have heard the sound. Consider the fire, because each was also on the mountain. And the fire and sound, and yet also smoke, this fire, as if the fire of divided languages. Can it be that it continues to frighten those far away? Let it be far from the hearts of the faithful. For it rested on each one of them and they began to speak in languages, even as the Spirit gave them utterance. Hear the language being spoken, and understand the Spirit writing not in stone, but in the heart.
“And there appeared to them parted tongues, as it were of fire: and it sat upon every one of them.”6 It is of this fire, [which is in the genitive case], not this fire [which is in the nominative case]. For in the Greek it has πυρὸς7 not πῦρ.8 So that this kind of distinction was easy to figure out. As if it was to be said with an added word “And there appeared parted tongues, as it were of a glowing fire,”9 or as it were of a brilliant fire, so that it may be understood regarding the definition of fire to be distributed languages.
“And they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak. Now there were dwelling at Jerusalem, Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.”10 It does not have in the Greek in this place, divers tongues but other tongues. For Isaiah expressed that “In other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people: and neither so will they hear me, saith the Lord.”11 So that the blessed Luke no doubt was inferring this prophecy which was to be fulfilled by gift of the Spirit, likewise the same word was what he saw in the prophecy, he took care to set down in this sacred history.
“Because that every man heard them speak in his own tongue. And they were all amazed, and wondered, saying: Behold, are not all these that speak Galilean? etc.”12 I know to hold myself back from this matter because I have said this thought can be understood in two ways; or rather that I was obligated to find-out how it ought to be understood. I am going to respond briefly to this matter that everything whatsoever of the same sentiment I have written in my previous book. I did not mention this by reason of personal experience, but from the words of the holy and faultless teacher in every respect, that is, I take up Gregory Nazianzus. It is certainly agreed that the apostles filled with the holy Spirit were speaking in all languages,13 neither is it permitted to be questioned by anyone14 about this. But in the manner how they were speaking it is to be asked without reservation. It could be the speech of the Apostles had so much power, that they became familiar with the diverse languages by all those, the hearer then is equally able to understand. Or can it be whichever one was being spoken, one was necessary in regards to being appropriate of so great a multitude, with the others left silent, at the moment producing a word of instruction,15 the person who was speaking at first to the Hebrews, that it produced the speech in Hebrew, while the others do not know what was being said. Then to the Greeks, while those who are ignorant in the Greek language and with the others left waiting. Next to the Parthians, after this the Medes, and so Elamite, and whichever ones are being listed through an order by the nations, its own particular language was to have been spoken, each one at a time awaiting, and being silent, until its order arrives, something was being spoken, they were understood, and so they were to render the approval of the faithful by the words of these teaching,16 Moreover Luke reports Peter speaking to the crowds and he did not report that he [Peter] spoke repeating the same things the second or third [time], but that these [crowds] in whom have received the plan of salvation are hardly consecrated in the mysteries of the Christian faith.17
On the other hand I do not think this to be an error. If either of the two can be trusted to have taken place, and that the apostles in the holy Spirit clearly understood the languages of the nations and had the ability to speak, and the words too were in whatever language expressed by a great miracle, to all who were hearing, that they equally had the ability to learn.18
“And those who inhabit Mesopotamia, Cappodocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia.”19 These provinces which are named [in the text] after Judea, are uttered in the Greek language, but if nothing diverse were sounding out in the native usage, so by no means were they to record the fine distinction of languages. From whence the Spirit was to actively be seen in the wonderful grace among the apostles, which not only taught them the diversity of all the languages, and certainly also the distinction of qualities in every language equal the total of provinces which they make use of in this way, he did to be knowledgeable in their utterances.20
“And strangers of Rome.” The more proper way was contained in the Greek, “Roman foreigners,” that is Jews who were leading the foreign life of Rome, just like others elsewhere, of which had been written above. For this reason the strangers were in this place, who in the Greek were called proselytes, that is, those who from the gentiles to Judaism, leaving the religion of the gentiles21 had come together. It is made clear from the following verse when it says, “Jews also, and proselytes.”.2223■
Need information on Bede and the subject matter? The following link may help: The Venerable Bede on the Doctrine of Tongues.
- Bede had an extensive Library of Old Latin and the Septuagint texts to choose from and was well aware of textual errors see Calvin B. Kendall’s coverage on this topic.
- Bede is making an important distinction in the Latin use of cases, which do not exist in English. He is arguing that Pentecost, a word directly derived from the Greek, and the Latin equivalent, Quinquagesima, which both mean fifty, are synonyms. It can be called by either name. In the old Latin Pentecost was called Quinquagesima. It was the official name of the holy day, not just a number or adjective. If it is used in the accusative, it is just a number or adjective.
- diem sacratissimum Pentecosten celebrantes — this quotation by Bede is a sacred part of the Catholic tradition of celebrating Pentecost. An alternative English translation could be “celebrating the most sacred Pentecost day.
- Greek for the word “fire” in the genitive case
- Greek for the word “fire” in the nominative case
- Apparuerunt dispartitæ linguæ tanquam ignis ardentis
- Douay-Rheims. Bede is lifting this quote directly from I Corinthians 14:21, not from Isaiah 28:11
- linguis omnibus loquebantur — it is purposely left vague by Bede on purpose.
- ulli: from ullus — any, anyone. strange that this is the only occurrence used by Bede in any document I have translated. A later interpolation?
- interim sermonem proferre doctrinæ
- et sic verbis docentium fidei assensum præberent
- sed tantum eas accepto salutis consilio Christianæ fidei consecratas esse mysteriis — a nice way of saying the crowd didn’t know very much about what was happening. They were spectators, not theologians, and they only thing they could have explained was that they saw and experienced this event.
- qui audiebant æque potuissent cognosci — this is the first time cognosco is used by Bede in relation to the tongues doctrine. Why such a sudden change? The last few sentences have changed in structure from the rest of the chapter, and is not typical of Bede in a number of other translations I have done. I wonder if this is a later emendation.
- Bede is quoting from a different text than the one used for the initial commentary on Acts. The initial has “Et qui habitabant Mesopotamiam, et Judæam, et Cappadociam” and Reflections has “Et qui habitant Mesopotamiam, et Cappodociam, Pontum et Asiam, Phrygiam et Pamphyliam.”
- in eorum fecit loquelis agnosci. Lidell and Scott make a distinction between the use of agnosco and cognosco. “As if to know a person or thing well, as having known it before, to recognize: agnoscere always denotes a subjective knowledge or recognition; while cognoscere designates an objective perception; another distinction v. in II.)”
- relicto gentilitatis ritu — the same construct as found in Judith 14:6
- Bede makes the same assertion in his initial commentary on Acts that the Jews mentioned in Acts 2:10 were converts from other nations. Why he emphasized this interpretation is not clear to me.