How Rufinus’ Latin mistranslation of Nazianzus’ two theories about the original Pentecost created a debate that lasted for almost a millennium.
Gregory of Nazianus is one of the greatest Christian theologians throughout history. He chose to approach the question of the tongues of Pentecost in a Greek rhetorical style called an enthymeme. Through this mechanism, he proposed two theories. One being a miracle of hearing, and the second a miracle of speaking. The enthymeme favored the miracle of speaking, and just in case the reader missed this point, Gregory supplied a clear preference at the end.1
After Nazianzus penned his seminal thought, the Western world began shifting away from Greek and towards Latin as the language of commerce and civilization. Rufinus, the first Latin translator of the text, forgot to add Gregory’s preference and left the two choices as equals. This situation caused a complex puzzle that needed resolution, engaging some of the greatest minds throughout the centuries.
The Latin world created a pentecostal paradox of tongues—the longest debate on speaking in tongues the church has ever experienced.
Table of Contents
- A Short Biography of Rufinus
- Rufinus and Nazianzus Translations Side-By-Side
- An Analysis of the Rufinus Text
- The Problem of Insufficient Manuscript Data
- The Question of Rufinus’ Translation Skills
- His Oversight of Nazianzus’ Preference
- His Greek Grammar Acuity
- Highlights of the Debate up to Almost 1300 AD
Tyrannius Rufinus, or alternately, Rufinus Aquileiensis, is the key figure in this transition and debate. He translated the work from Greek into Latin during the fifth century, and the work remains one of the oldest texts on the subject. However, his translation does not exactly parallel the available Greek editions.
Who was Rufinus? “(Rufinus Aquileiensis; 340/345 – 410) was a monk, historian, and theologian. He is best known as a translator of Greek patristic material into Latin.”2 He was heavily influenced by the Alexandrian Church community, especially that of Didymus the Blind.
His Latin translation set the basis for the Western World’s understanding of Nazianzus’ Orations. It is a key point in the history of the tongues doctrine.
Readers of this blog are skeptical of such claims unless substantiated. Here are the two texts. First an English translation from the source Greek and secondly the English equivalent of Rufinus’ Latin translation.
“For, they were speaking in foreign languages, and not in the accustomed ones, and this was the great miracle; the word being spoken by those who are unlearned. And the sign is for those who are unbelievers, not to those who believe, in order that [the sign] should accuse those who are unbelievers, not to those who believe, as it was written, “That in other tongues and in strange lips, I will speak to this people and so neither will they listen to me, says the Lord.”
“They were hearing.” Consider then a little, and question how you are to interpret the text. For the text has some ambiguity being caused by the punctuation. Was it each one was hearing in their own particular languages? As an example: in the first manner it was one voice being sounded forth, and on the other, many being heard, to such an extent the air emitting a loud sound, so that I should say more precisely; from the one sound many sounds were made.
Or, more importantly, “They were hearing.” A [punctuation] stop ought to be applied, and moreover, adding the other phrase following after it, “when they were speaking in their own voices.” That it may well be while these ones are speaking sounds of those who are hearing, the very thing is produced in foreign languages. I also much prefer regarding this. In the first sense, the miracle would have been preferred about those hearing than those speaking. In the second explanation, the miracle is about those who are speaking. These ones are also accused of drunkenness, visible proof as these are displaying works of wonder with the voices by the Spirit.
Moreover, indeed it is to be praised also the ancient division of voices (at the time, these evil and ungodly persons who speak in the same voice were building the tower even as now some dare to do) the like minded bond was broken with the separation of the one voice, it destroyed the undertaking.3
15. Therefore the Apostles were speaking in various and diverse languages, and until the present [moment], an unfamiliar voice was being let out by these very ones who were speaking. This was a sign that had previously been foretold to the unbelieving peoples, when it says as, “In other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people, and neither so will they hear me, says the Lord.” It needs to be asked in this place as to how each one was hearing these very ones speaking in their own languages the mighty things of God. Either those that were speaking such in the various words of every language, generated what was being said. That is for example, each one of them speaking in one language which having been paused here again, was again to change himself to another, and again to to another, and was to run through in such a way through the many or all languages.
Or rather, was it more astonishing to this, than their speech which they were speaking, whatever language was to have been spoken, it was being understood by each one hearing according to their own language. That is for example, by whichever one apostle in the Church says, (In fact it was necessary to speak one [language] and one speech while leaving the rest silent in order to reach everyone who heard), the speech itself was to possess this in its own power, so that while the hearers were of the diverse nations, each one according to the their own language coming from this one speech itself, which had been uttered by the apostle, that it entered upon the hearer and seized the intellect. Except perhaps according to this, that it may appear those who are hearing to be a greater miracle than those who speaking. On the other hand, those who were thus speaking were likewise thought to be drunk by the unbelieving who are ignorant about hearing the voices of the Holy Spirit.
16. The ancient division of languages is also certainly to be marvelled at, in the situation that the unity had become an alliance of iniquity was wrongly coming together for the most arrogant and impious construction of a building. But the exertions were being restrained with the wicked who had been averted of the conspiracy by the separation of the voice and also in the unfamiliar sound. Truly much more wonderful is such a division. Because in fact there was at the time a division from one into many who had become ignorant and different between each other, that now through the many being restored to the one like-mindedness and harmony. And they were indeed diverse gifts but was also given the gift of discretion, which can be distinguished and understood from the good [usage of language] which is better. But this certainly does not appear to me unprofitable since David says, “Submerge, O Lord, and divide their tongues.” Why? Because they valued all the words of destruction, the deceitful tongue. Can it [the oneness of language] be clearly shown through these such tongues that we now presently see destroying the nature of the divine and the unity of the sacred substance? Yes, it is to be capable of such things.4
An Analysis of the Rufinus Text
Rufinus dynamically translated the Nazianzus text, expanding in some areas, and minimizing others. Most importantly, he overlooked the many dynamics of the Greek text that successively pointed to the miracle of speaking as the final intended outcome. Instead of giving weightier preference to the miracle of speaking that Nazianzus intended, Rufinus leaves both options equally valid. His translation was the cause of many discussions and debates in the Christian world. The longest-running debate on the nature and mechanics of the christian rite of tongues. Tongues as glossolalia is a little over 100 years old and do not come close to the duration of debates it has stimulated compared to the Nazianzus one.
His coverage of the mechanics behind miraculously speaking in a foreign language needs careful attention. The outcome of such a miracle would require a group of speakers to cycle through hundreds, if not a thousand languages. How would they have done it? Nazianzus left out this important question. It was a dangling thread that was a case for Rufinus and his generation to resolve. He believed that the people spoke short snippets of one language and rotated to different ones until most or all languages were spoken.
The unpacking of the above statements now begin.
A problem at the outset for the modern researcher unwinding this tension is at the manuscript level. The earliest Greek manuscript available is a 10th century one.5 It is impossible to go back to the original Greek and see if Rufinus was dealing with a different text. For the sake of moving forward in this analysis, we will assume that the Greek text we have today was the same that Rufinus had available. This conclusion may not be true, but we will let the argument run its course.
This question brings many different answers within the scholarly world. Some recent thoughts admit that his works are valid and have an important contribution to the historical record. Others believe the quality of his works is questionable or sub-par. The assumption in this article is that either he did not know advanced elements of Greek very well, or that he purposely injected his personal views in his translation. His dynamic and sometimes amplified translations reflect particular oral traditions or perceptions of the communities he served. The historical contribution he made is not in the veracity of his Latin translations but they are reflecting the opinions of his time.6
A casual reading of the text without getting into the nuances of Greek grammar implies a miracle of speaking. He started his whole discussion with, Ἐλάλουν μὲν οὖν ξέναις γλώσσαις, καὶ οὐ πατρίοις, “For,they were speakingin foreign languages, and not in the accustomed ones.”7
Towards the end, a brief sentence follows the two preferences to show which one was his choice. Gregory believed that it was a miracle of speaking when he wrote: Καθὰ καὶ μᾶλλον τίθεμαι, “I also much prefer regarding this.”8 However, Rufinus did not include this statement in his translation. He was unaware of this part of the text, or it was a later addition, or he felt it was not necessary for his translation. It is doubtful that it was missing during his time.9
This section focuses on aspects of the Greek language. A potential problem is where Rufinus, a native Latin speaker, failed to identify Greek particles properly.
Firstly, he misunderstood the particle αρα, ara as ἅρα instead of ἆρα. The first being then, so, naturally, as it appears, and the second a particle introducing a question. The small markings above the first letter, which are hardly bigger than the tip of a pen, help to pronounce the word. In this case, it makes a difference in understanding the sentence. The translation depends on this.
One must not be too hard on Rufinus if this was a mistake. He lived in an era where those markings hardly existed. In his time, one had to know instinctively that the pronunciation was different by the context. These markings, called diacritics, were hardly used or widespread during his time. For contemporary translators of ancient Greek, they are a godsend – it saves hours of study and avoids errors.
A second influence was potentially his ignoring the grammatical particles μὲν and δέ,. These two particles have a similar function to the header and subordinate paragraphs in the English language. Other times it can also relate to different thoughts on the same subject. Nazianzus set out his preference by the use of these particles, which he did not observe.10
Highlights of the Debate up to Almost 1300 AD
Saint Maximus the Confessor, a seventh-century Byzantine theologian who had a major impact on theology and mysticism during this period, also delved into the Nazianzus text but did not add any new interpretations, or resolution.11
The Venerable Bede, the Northeast England seventh-century monk who had talents in history, theology, astronomy, and so much more delved into this subject. Bede’s coverage on tongues as a miracle of hearing is in the following article; A History of Pentecost as One Sound and Many Languages Heard. On this occasion, the study will traverse the doctrine through the miracle of speaking rather than hearing.
This great Anglo-Saxon scholar had both elements of Pentecost: one being a miracle of hearing and the other speaking in his initial commentary on the Book of Acts. He vacillated between both, but the edge was towards hearing.
He questions and even withdraws the idea of hearing being the miracle in the later edition of his commentary on Acts entitled, The Book of Reflections on the Acts of the Apostles. He switched to the miracle of speaking.
“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.” 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, neither is it permitted to be questioned by anyone 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, 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.13
However, this was a tacit admission because directly after this correction, he wrote:
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.”14
There must have been some internal discussion or unmentioned manuscript that he sourced to cause this change. The cause of this change was a number of factors. Firstly, he overly depended on the writings of Pope Gregory I and Rufinus and was less aware of the original Nazianzus’ text. Secondly, he may have misunderstood the Nazianzus text and he did not know Greek sufficiently to assess the argument. Regardless, he later discovered Oration 41 by Gregory of Nazianzus as a miracle of speaking.
Although he finalized that it was a miracle of speaking by the text of Nazianzus, he did not want to be completely wrong. This situation forced him to minify the argument. He believed that if the miracle occurred, it did not matter whether it was one of speaking or hearing.
Bede described the person under the Spirit’s influence sequentially going through the languages of the universe. His explanation demonstrates that he is paraphrasing the Rufinus Latin edition for his thoughts. He does delve into mentioning one Greek word on the topic15 but fails to reference any Greek after this.
Michael Psellos is an important contributor to the tongues issue. He is one of the most interesting and mysterious persons encountered in the Gift of Tongues Project. His biographical footprint is minimal, which adds to his mystique. The Catholic New Advent website described him as a “Byzantine statesman, scholar, and author, born apparently at Constantinople, 1018; died probably 1078. . . his many-sided literary work and the elegance of his style give him a chief place among contemporary scholars,” which does not explain too much. Stratis Papaioannou has a much better description from his book, Michael Psellos: Rhetoric and Authorship in Byzantium, described him both as a “pompous rhetorician”, “ingenious thinker”, and notoriously self-centered.16 He was quite wealthy and had a wide network of friends and associates.
The New Advent article proceeds to explain that he lived both in and around Constantinople (today is known as Istanbul) and was politically involved with various leaders working his way up to being the Secretary of State. He had a love-hate relationship with the Church where one of the lower moments in that relationship was his stance on choosing Plato over Aristotle. The Church tolerated the non-Christian writings of Aristotle but frowned on Plato. He studied theology but loved philosophy, and this was a continued source of contention.
He liked to write in the old classical Greek style, using Greek rhetoric, and copious references and assumptions derived from Neo-Platonist, Christian, and classical Greek writers. He gave a comprehensive view of Pentecost from a variety of sources that remains unmatched. The one caveat is the English reader comprehending his use of Greek rhetoric.
He agreed that the miracle of speech was Nazianzus’ position on Pentecost. However, it is unsure which position he supported. Perhaps he did not care about the proper solution and found the paradox a form to express his rhetorical skills and his comprehensive knowledge at great length – possibly the most on the subject than any other author. His argument demonstrates that he combines the Biblical Pentecost with portions of Rufinus’ translation and reviews of Neo-Platonists such as Porphurios, Iamblichus, and Proclus.17
Nicetas of Serrone (1030–@1090 AD)18
This point takes us to Nicetas of Serrone, who lived and worked in Heracalea.19 He copied Nazianzus’ work and added some modern commentary to it. Unfortunately, he did not resolve the tension. He was restating the original text with contemporary words.20 It does prove that the debate still raged on.
Thomas Aquinas was an immensely influential theologian, teacher, writer, speaker, and philosopher during the thirteenth-century. The ripple of his thoughts is still felt today in academic circles. His ability to combine greek philosophy, the intellect, the Bible, christian principles, the supernatural, and the use of a diverse library of writers, creates one of the most comprehensive christian thinkers ever.
He was aware of the speaking versus hearing controversy, though he neither cited Gregory of Nazianzus or Rufinus by name. This tension caused him to consider both options in Summa Theologica. He concluded the miracle of speaking was the better one.
It was more fitting that they should speak in all tongues, because they pertained to the perfection of their knowledge, whereby they were able not only to speak, but also to understand what was said by others. . . Hence a gloss says on Acts 2:6 that it was a “greater miracle that they should speak all kinds of tongues.21
The Latin translation by Rufinus in the fifth-century reverberated at least until Thomas Aquinas in the middle of the thirteenth-century. As documented in A History of Pentecost as One Sound and Many Languages Heard, there were small echoes of this tension–even in the eighteenth-century. If anything, Rufinus compelled the question of Pentecost for a standard definition throughout Christendom. The church wrestled for a long time and the miracle of speaking became the common interpretation for Pentecost throughout most of the historical christian writings.
- June 24/2020. This article is significantly updated. It has been broken into three articles. The first one is Gregory of Nazianzus’ Analysis of Acts 2:6, and then, A history of Pentecost as One Sound and Many Languages Heard. This present article solely focuses on the impact of Rufinus’ translation.
- my translation from Gregory of Nazianzus’ Oration 41:15–16 in the Greek.
- My translation from: Gregory Nazianzus’ Oration 41:15-16 in the Latin.
- MS 14771 found at the British Library. Maybe there are earlier versions, but these remain unknown. There are Syriac versions between the fifth to seventh centuries available. They support the standard Greek copy available today.
- For more detailed information see, Was Tyrannius Rufinus a Reliable Translator?.
- My translation. For the source see: Gregory of Nazianzus’ Oration 41:15–16 in the Greek.
- My own paraphrase. Alex Poulos has it translated as, “I much prefer this approach”.
- The question of Καθὰ καὶ μᾶλλον τίθεμαι is also covered in Nazianzus’ Analysis of Acts 2:6.
- For more information see, Nazianzus’ Analysis of Acts 2:6.
- See Alex Poulos’ article Maximus the Confessor on Spiritual Gifts.
- Vol. 92 Bedæ Venerabilis: Super Acta Apostolorum Expositio. Col. 945 || See my article,
A History of Pentecost as One Sound and Many Languages Heard. for Pope Gregory the First’s quote in English.
- My translation. For the complete English translation see Bede’s Book of Reflection on Acts 2:1–18 or the actual Latin at Bede on the Doctrine of Tongues: The Latin Texts.
- My translation.
- In his Book of Reflections on the Book of Acts he inserted the Greek word for fire in his explanation of the fiery tongues:Et apparuerunt illis dispartitæ linguæ tanquam ignis, seditque super singulos eorum,etc.Hujus ignis, non hic ignis.In Græco enim πυρὸς habetur, non πῦρ.
- Stratis Papaioannou. Michael Psellos: Rhetoric and Authorship in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2013. Pg. 3.
- For more information on Michael Psellos and Pentecost, see Psellos on the Christian Doctrine of Tongues Intro.
- His year of death is unknown. This is a guess.
- Heraclea is located northeast of Constantinople on the shoreline of the Black sea. He is also known as Nicetas of Heraclea.
- For the Greek see Alex Poulos’ transcription from the Greek miniscule: For the Latin see MPG Vol. 127. Col. 1477ff. There is no English translation that I am aware of.
- Summa Theologica. IIa IIae q. 176 a. 1 The “Summa Theologica” of St. Thomas Aquinas. Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Second and Revised Edition. 1920.