Nazianzus’ Tongues of Pentecost Paradox

The paradox of Nazianzus’ two choices on understanding the tongues of Pentecost and how this debate continued for almost a millennium.

Gregory posited two theories about Pentecost in his typical Greek philosophical style. Were the apostles speaking in a sound or single voice, and the hearers supernaturally hearing their own? Or was it simply a miracle of spontaneously conversing in foreign languages unknown beforehand by those speaking?

He brought up both points of view, and in the end sided with it being a miracle of speech. However, a Latin translation error later obscured his intent and gave equal credence to both points of view with no resolution as to which case was the right one. This stirred up many debates over the centuries. This essay journeys into Gregory’s work in the original Greek to decipher what he meant and then traces the development of this thought through the eyes of the Latin Church.

These questions are complex ones to answer that require some research into the original source texts.

For further background, Gregory Nazianzus’ Oration 41 in English and if you know Greek, Oration 41 in Greek.

Gregory Nazianzus’ original Oration On Pentecost was penned in Greek during the fourth century. However, we have few, if any Greek manuscripts that date earlier than the ninth century attributed to Gregory’s Orations.

This is where a copy translated by a man named Tyrannius Rufinus, or alternately, Rufinus Aquileiensis, becomes important. He translated the work from Greek into Latin during the fifth century and remains one of the oldest texts on the subject. However, his translation does not exactly parallel the available Greek editions. Some argue that Rufinus took too much liberty when rephrasing important elements and, therefore, the results are an amplified version. The amplification may be true, and consequently, it must be read with some caution as an original source text.

One must keep in mind that the Latin work was by far more popular than the Greek text. Largely because the Western Church world was Latin-based. The Latin translation set the basis for their understanding of Nazianzus’ Orations. It is a key point in the history of the tongues doctrine.

See Rufinus on Gregory of Nazianzus Work on Pentecost, which contains the actual Latin text.

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.”1 He was heavily influenced by the Alexandrian Church community, especially that of Didymus the Blind.

It can all be traced back to where Rufinus failed to identify an important distinction which would have changed the nature of his translation, 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 world of difference how it ought to be pronounced. The definition depends on this.

One must not be too hard on Rufinus in making this 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.

Rufinus understood the first option in translating the text, which gives more credence to the miracle of hearing than Nazianzus intended.

A second problem flows from the first. In the Greek text, a brief sentence follows the two preferences that were given to show which one was his choice. Gregory believed that it was a miracle of speaking, when he wrote: Καθὰ καὶ μᾶλλον τίθεμαι, “Regarding this one, I much prefer”.2 However, Rufinus did not include this statement in his translation. That would be a natural process if he understood it as being ἅρα instead of ἆρα. This caused even more controversy.

It may be argued that the Greek text, Καθὰ καὶ μᾶλλον τίθεμαι was a later emendation. The text was theoretically added after Rufinus’ time that posited Gregory had preferred the miracle of speaking. The Rufinus Latin translation of the original is older than the present Greek manuscripts that we have available today. So it is an argument requiring further investigation. A look into a Syriac version of Gregory’s work, which draws from manuscripts older than most Greek Oration texts, provides an answer that it did exist.

It does contain the miracle of speaking clause — though a modern editor of this text has a note that the sense here is not clear.3 Claude Detienne, a specialist in these works, believes the existent Syriac works of Nazianzus’ Orations show obvious signs of revision and cannot be relied upon as close to the original.4 However, Detienne fails to demonstrate how this is revised, or how it relates to this instance.

The structure of Oration 41 itself demonstrates it did exist. If one reads the Gregory text further where he goes on to correlate the tongues of Pentecost with that of Babel, it infers that he did support the miracle of speaking.

Another item for evidence which supports Nazianzus’ miracle of speaking is that of Thomas Aquinas. He stated; “Whereby a gloss of Gregory says that the Holy Spirit appeared upon the disciples as fiery languages and gave knowledge to all languages,”5 which clearly shows that he understood Nazianzus believing it to be a miracle of speaking.

Also if Gregory’s preference is found in his argument structure. It is styled in a Greek rhetorical argument called an enthymeme. That is two arguments laid out with no conclusion stated because the right one is too obvious. The apparent one being that the miracle consisted of people miraculously speaking in foreign languages.

In order for this enthymeme to work, Gregory purposely changed the biblical passage of Acts 2:6 from τῇ ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ to ταῖς ἰδὶαις φωναῖς. This is because the argument of one sound emanating and the miracle of hearing could not use the actual wording from the Book of Acts which has τῇ ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ. The Biblical text relates specifically to language, not sounds. If it was one sound being brought forth, the people would have heard it as a sound, not as a language. The miracle consisted internally within the mind after what the ears heard. Without this change from language to sound, Acts 2:6 naturally supports a miracle of speaking, and Gregory would lack any argument. Nowhere else in any manuscript or writer is there found the switching of τῇ ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ to ταῖς ἰδὶαις φωναῖς. If this weren’t done, the enthymeme wouldn’t work. As an enthymeme, φωναῖς can work either way. So he set this word as the basis for his argument.

Gregory’s particular word usage in his Orations, chapter 41, is reminiscent of the Neoplatonic leader and writer, Plotinus in his work entitled the Ennead 6.4.12.

Plotinus: “Think of a sound passing through the air and carrying a word; an ear within range catches and comprehends; and the sound and word will strike upon any other ear you may imagine. . .”6

Gregory wrote:

“As supposed: 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 clearly; from the one sound many sounds were made.”

This is too close to be accidental. Neoplatonic theory, and especially Plotinus, would likely have assigned the miracle of Pentecost of a sound emanating from the lips and the receiver converting the sound into whatever they want. This one sound theory have been an easy association for fourth-century Greeks to make. Gregory acknowledged this theory in his coverage of the Pentecostal tongues miracle.

Further to this, Gregory provided some more information in a different part of the text about it being a miracle of speech. However, it is not an easy one to notice on the first read and requires some explanation. Here is the text:

“That it may well be while these ones are speaking in the sounds of those who are hearing, the very thing is produced in foreign languages.”7 This is a difficult passage to understand. Ἀλλοτρίαις, which is used for foreign languages, is ambiguous here. Does it mean simply internal sounds created in the mind, such as described by Philo of Alexandria as explained further down, or foreign words? The Jacob Bullius Latin published text in the sixteenth century chose to italicize this word, suggesting an important keyword that has religious significance. However, no further explanation is given as to why it is italicized.

A few Latin writings relating to Oration 41 may provide some much-needed clues. Answers specifically can be found from Bede’s understanding of this word, and the Latin translation of Nicetas of Serrone’s copy of Oration 41. They carefully touch on this word using externus. It clearly was conceived by them as the outward manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s arrival with languages; not an internal miracle worked out within the mind of the hearer.

The Syriac produces a more literal approach to ἀλλοτρίαις. Its translation is ܒܢܘܟܪ̈ܝܬܐ, bnokrita, which the Payne-Smith dictionary described as “foreign, strange, unusual, alien.”8 The whole Syriac text on Oration 41 along with this keyword infers that they spoke in foreign languages that had no linguistic parent-child relationship with their domestic language. It wasn’t simply a Hebrew speaker speaking in Aramaic, or Persian, where they share some basic commonalities, or an Attic speaker relating in Doric, which comes from the Greek lineage. What the people spoke at Pentecost was beyond their known language families; it went into far-off, strange, and exotic languages that could not be easily adapted or trained by the human intellect on such short notice. It was a miracle.

A Greek source was found in the fourth-century that used this word in a similar context. This was John Chrysostom’s 35th Homily on I First Corinthians, where he clearly wrote it in the dative, ἀλλοτρίᾳ to mean a foreign language.9

Oration 41 forces one to ask: did Gregory write the text in such a way to demonstrate the miracle of hearing was the dominant dogma during his time, the second as his personal opinion and the better alternative? The lack of historical texts available to us today on such a subject make it difficult to determine.

There are vestiges of the one voice, many sounds theory in Jewish literature, Plotinus, Philo of Alexandria, and in at least one of the Church Fathers that gives it some credence.

The Midrash Rabbah tried to explain how God communicated to Moses on Mt. Sinai and encountered the same theological problem. It wrote that God spoke in all the languages of the world, which consisted symbolically of 70 languages. “R. Johanan said: it was one voice that divided itself into seven voices and these into seventy languages. R. Simeon Lakish said: [it was the voice] from which all subsequent prophets received their prophecy… The meaning, however, of ‘the voice of the Lord is with power’ is that it was with the power of all voices,”10

Added to this is a quote from Shab. 88b. “Every phrase which issued from the mouth of the All-powerful divided itself into seventy languages”.11

However, this is not a universal position. There have been thoughts found in both Jewish and Christian writings that believe the personal language of God is Hebrew.

See Hebrew and the First Language of Mankind for more information.

The Talmud indicates that the subject of one voice many sounds pre-dates Gregory theologically, but one must be careful. The Talmud was penned between the third and sixth centuries, and the contributors were not immune to Neoplatonic influences that may have an effect on their coverage of the divine language.

An important author to consult on this subject is the first century Hellenistic Jewish Biblical Philosopher,12 Philo of Alexandria. He concluded that God could not be confined to a human voice. The voice was something different when He spoke to Moses and the people:

But the power of God, breathing forth vigorously, aroused and excited a new kind of miraculous voice, and diffusing its sound in every direction, made the end more conspicuous at a distance than the beginning, implanting in the soul of each individual another hearing much superior to that which exists through the medium of the ears.13

It was a form of sound that was non-human in origin and bypassed the ears. It was processed directly in the mind.

In the fifth century Theodoret of Cyrus connected the one voice emanating with a twist — he connected it with the Trinity:

“and seeing that also at the forming of man it says, “Let us make man according to our image and likeness.” Naturally then also dividing the one voice into many, it brings companions the Son and the holy Spirit.”14

The Venerable Bede, the Northeast England seventh century monk who had talents in history, theology, astronomy, and so much more delved into this subject as well. On the topic of the mechanics behind the tongues of Pentecost, he quoted the sixth century Pope Gregory the First, whose wordplay makes it appear as if it is one sound being expressed in languages. God is the sound, who enters the soul silently, and when the person speaks, the fire of the invisible sound produces external languages. He was playing with an old thought, but giving current values.

““And suddenly a sound was made from heaven as if of a mighty wind coming” etc. The Lord indeed appeared by means of fire as the blessed Pope Gregory explains, but made through inner speech itself. And neither the God of fire, nor the sound made a noise but by that which was externally produced, this was expressed in respect to what was conducted on the inside. That it rendered within the disciples as ones who had come on fire, with zeal and skill in the word, the outside showed the fiery tongues. Therefore the elements had been brought up in accordance with an outward sign, that the persons were experiencing the fire and the sound by the true invisible fire and the hearts were being taught by the voice without sound.”15

This was playing with the sound and the miracle of hearing dogma, but yielding speaking in foreign languages.

Bede has both elements of Pentecost being a miracle of hearing or speaking in his initial commentary on the Book of Acts. He vacillates between both, but the edge is slightly towards hearing.

“…that while the hearers were of the diverse nations, each one according to their 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, it seemed those who are hearing to be a greater miracle than those who were speaking.”16

Bede questions and even withdraws the idea of hearing being the miracle in his later edition of his commentary on Acts entitled, The Book of Reflections on the Acts of the Apostles, stating that Gregory believed it to be a miracle of speaking. 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.”17

There must have been some internal discussion, or unmentioned manuscript that he sourced to cause this change. Even though he made a correction, it appears it was a grudging one. He didn’t want to be completely wrong, and thus minified the whole argument. If the miracle was of hearing or speaking, it was a miracle, and why bother to be so opinionated on either side? He felt the only difference was a semantical one.

Bede described the person under the influence of the Spirit sequentially going through the languages of the universes demonstrates that he is paraphrasing the Rufinus Latin edition for his thoughts. He does delve into mentioning one Greek word on the topic but fails to reference any Greek after this.

Saint Maximus the Confessor, a seventh century Byzantine theologian who had a major impact on theology and mysticism during this time period, also delved into the Nazianzus text, but did not add any new interpretations, or resolution.18

The debate between these two ideas started to die down by the time of Thomas Aquinas, who stated definitively in the quote earlier on, that Nazianzus believed the tongues of Pentecost to be a miracle of speech. However, it may still have been in dispute during his time, as at least two authors, the tenth century Michael Psellos, and the twelfth century Church leader, Nicetas of Serrone,19 have supplied effort to resolve the problem.

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 very small 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 really doesn’t 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.20 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 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 completely agreed that the miracle of speech was Nazianzus’ personal position on Pentecost. He consideredthis an absolute. However, it is unsure which position he believed was best by the way he wrote. Perhaps he didn’t 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, along with reviews of Neo-Platonists such as Porphurios, Iamblichus, and Proclus, and analyzed the madness of those prophetesses of Apollo who “burned with madness” and spoke Assyrian, Persian, and Phoenician with metre and rhythm that was was not learned beforehand. Psellos does not make a connection between the Greek prophetesses and the Christian rite of tongues, rather he made a clear distinction. The prophetesses were in a drug induced inspired state and were out of their senses when they spoke, whereas the Apostles, although supernaturally inspired, were in complete control of their faculties and understood the languages they spoke and heard.21

This then takes us to Nicetas of Serrone, who lived and worked around the Constantinople area (now Istanbul, Turkey), and specifically Heracalea. 22 He copied Nazianzus’ work and added some modern commentary to it. He, unfortunately, did not resolve the tension; it simply was a restatement of the original text with contemporary words.23 It does prove that the debate still raged on.

It appears that there were many fourth century Christian, Neoplatonic, and Jewish communities who favoured that God spoke in one voice, and the hearers understood the words in their own language. Not all of these camps wrote on Pentecost but had their own various reasons for arriving at the same conclusion. In the case of Pentecost, they would have understood it was a miracle of hearing. Nazianzus had carefully weaved an argument that recognized such a position but posited that it was a miracle of speaking. However, because of cultural influences, and the key omissions by Rufinus in his Latin translation of Nazianzus’ key text on the subject, the miracle of hearing persisted as a minor church doctrine at least to the eighth century, and likely more. ■


  1. Wikipedia
  2. My own paraphrase. Alex Poulos has it translated as “I much prefer this approach”
  3. “den Satz verstanden hat, ist nicht klar” Sancti Gregorii Nazianzeni opera. Versio Syriaca, II. Orationes XIII et XLI . Belgium: Brepols Publishing. 2002 Pg. 90
  4. Corpus Christianorum Series Graeca. Vol. 41. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers. 2000 Pg. 178
  5. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: On the Grace of Tongues in English, IIa IIae q. 176. Translation is mine. “ubi dicit Glossa Gregorii quod spiritus sanctus super discipulos in igneis linguis apparuit, et eis omnium linguarum scientiam dedit.”
  6. Thanks to Alex Poulos for pointing this out.
  7. ᾖ, λαλούντων φωναῖς ταῖς ἰδίαις τῶν ἀκουόντων, ὅπερ γίνεται, ἀλλοτρίαις
  8. J. Payne Smith – p. 332 as found at
  9. MPG Vol. 61. In Epist. I Ad Corinth. Hom. XXXV. Col. 300
  10. Midrash Rabbah. Trans. by S. Lehrman. London: Soncino Press. 1961. 3rd ed. Vol.? Pg. 336
  11. A. Cohen. Everyman’s Talmud. New York: Schocken Books. 1975. Reprint of the 1949 edition. Pg. 62
  14. My translation. MPG: Vol 83. Graecarum affect Curatio -II De Principio. Col. 845
  15. Translated by me from MPL. Vol. 92 Bedæ Venerabilis: Super Acta Apostolorum Expositio. Col. 945
  16. My translation. from MPL. Vol. 92 Bedæ Venerabilis: Super Acta Apostolorum Expositio. Col. 945-948. See for more info
  17. Translated by me. MPL. Vol. 92. Bedæ Venerabilis: Liber Retractationis In Actus Apostolorum. Col. 998-1000
  18. See Alex Poulos’ translation and commentary,
  19. Could be the eleventh-century, I arbitrarily guess here from the order of MPG due to lack of information
  20. Stratis Papaioannou. Michael Psellos: Rhetoric and Authorship in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2013. Pg. 3
  21. See Psellos on the Tongues of Pentecost
  22. a name given to so many locations, I am not so sure what area of the north east Meditteranean it is
  23. 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.

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