Epiphanius on the Problem Tongues of Corinth

Epiphanius Bishop of Salamis

The Epiphanius text on the mystery tongues of Corinth. One of the most important works for unlocking the riddle.

This fourth-century or so text gives new light on an old question. Epiphanius’ answer is found in the ancient Jewish liturgy of speaking and interpreting.

The following is an analysis of the text.

The Epiphanius text on the Corinthian Conflict

Here is the central part of the text found in Epiphanius’ Panarion Book I, Section III, Heresy 42 starting at Scholion XIII and XXI:

. . . Therefore languages are from a grace of the Spirit. Of what kind does the Apostle speak? He knew how not only the different Hebrew sounds, and manifold expressions in every single word with skills adorned with eloquence, but also the proud language of the Greeks; some who boast the ability to speak Attic, Aeolic, and being able to utter the language of the Dorics, of whom had caused the disturbances, and factions within the Corinthians, to which the Epistle was dispatched. . . . And he confessed the gift which is having the ability to proclaim [the oracles] with the Hebrew words and also teaching the Law to be a spiritual endowment. And he agreed that it is a spiritual grace to proclaim and to teach the Law in the Hebrew words.1

The Meaning of the Text

The Epiphanius text states two things about the Corinthian conflict: it was a clash between different Greek ethnic groups and the Hebrew language had some role in the Corinthian assembly. There was no reference to an out-of-this-world mystical experience, or something supernatural.

Hebrew, Greek, teaching the Law — these indicators combined suggest it to be a liturgical or didactic problem within the Corinthian gathering. These factors necessitate the need to find more information on early Church liturgy.

The answer to the Corinthian tongues conflict may be found in understanding the contemporary Jewish structure during that time and how much the early Christian Church in Corinth adopted this custom. There are two ways to understand the background to this Epiphanius passage from the historical records:

  • It was the reading of the Law in Hebrew and an interpreter(s) translating it into the local vernacular that caused the problem. Jewish tradition had a specific liturgy concerning Jews worshiping together outside of Israel; the Law was to be read in Hebrew, and an interpreter was to stand beside the reader and translate it into the local tongue. It could be inferred, though not conclusively from this, that the Corinthian Church had adopted this form of Jewish liturgy but ran into problems concerning which Greek language the interpreter was to use.

    This may be stretching the text more than what the writer intended, and such a relationship cannot be concretely established.

  • Or, it could be that Hebrew was the language of instruction and religious devotion within the earliest Corinthian assembly. This tradition was continued from the Jewish synagogue. Those masters who were instructing/lecturing on the principles of the Christian faith did so in Hebrew. Meanwhile, an interpreter was required to translate it into the local vernacular. The conflict was the choosing of which Greek language best served the needs of the Corinthian congregation.

The second option may be a more acceptable interpretation.

The Significance of this Account

The Epiphanius account is a base element for a series of articles called The Tongues of Corinth to prove or disprove the above theories. The goal of this series is to trace the role of the reader, speaker, and interpreter starting from the rites found in the Jewish diaspora, specifically Corinth, to its transition into Church office, if there is such a relationship, and mapping this evolving rite until the thirteenth century.

The text itself is one of the clearest and logical found so far written by a Church Father. However, this work, along with Jewish writings on public reading, are four centuries removed from the actual Corinthian tongues saga. It could be a later interpretation.

The Absence of this Document in the Tongues Debate

It is a mystery why this passage has never come up in any critical discussions on the problems tongues of Corinth. Frank Williams’ work, The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Book 1 (Nag Hammadi Studies, 35)2 contains an already available English translation, though he, nor anyone else makes no correlation to I Corinthians in the translation of the text found at the header scholion 13 and 21.

The only critical look into the position of Epiphanius on the gift of tongues is the The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Unfortunately, the contributor, PKE Feine, totally ignores this passage and utilizes a completely different but much weaker citation made from the Panarion XLVIII:4 to make his case about tongues. The citation and commentary lead the person to believe that Epiphanius wrote it to be an ecstatic utterance relative to the Montanist movement.3 The Montanist connection is a necessary one for those scholars who hold speaking in tongues as glossolalia. This omission is a major oversight by Mr. Feine.

The motivation for Epiphanius to Write this Text

Epiphanius was attacking a person named Marcion for allegedly altering the text in I Corinthians 14:19 to suit his own needs. It is known that Marcion was the son of a Bishop, and perhaps was a Bishop himself, but at some point, there was a clear break between himself and the institutional Church.

A translation Problem with the Key Text

The Epiphanius author(s) defined Marcion a heretic because Marcion had revised the I Corinthians 14:19 text. There is some confusion as to how Marcion revised it. Two alternative Greek texts give slightly different nuances:

The source-text Greek edition translated into English reads:

Marcion mistakenly added: “according to the Law,” with, “But I wish to speak five words in the Church with my mind”.4

This would render I Corinthians 14:19 to read, “But I wish to speak five words in the Church with my mind according to the Law.”

This version fits nicely in with Epiphanius’ argument that Marcion is adding to the Bible and creating a heretical version. The Epiphanius text shortly afterward uses this as a springboard to call Marcion many harsh names.

Whereas an alternative Greek text has:

Marcion mistakes:“But I wish to speak five words in the Church with my mind”, on the other hand differently “according to the Law.”5

This alternative text would render I Corinthians 14:19 to alternatively be read as, “But I wish to speak five words in the Church according to the Law.”

The fourth century and later Ambrosiaster text would agree more with the second argument:

“But in the Church,” it is said, “I wish to speak five words according to the Law that I may also build up others than ten thousand words in a tongue.”6

The Ambrosiaster text demonstrates that there was a tradition connecting I Corinthians 14:19 with the Jewish Law. How widespread this tradition was throughout Christendom in the early centuries is not known.

There is a third potential contributor to this rendering. Perhaps it is remote at best, but requires an investigation. The similarity in the Greek between the word mind — νόος and Law — νόμος. They are very close in spelling, with only a one letter difference. It could potentially be easy for a manuscript writer to confuse these and cause a transmission error. This error may be a remote cause because the Greek grammar in this situation has them distinguished by case. Mind is in the dative case – νοΐ and Law is in the accusative — νὸμον. It would be hard to get them mixed up. However, it is not outside the realm of possibility.7

The writer(s) went on a tirade against Marcion and slandered him with homophobic references against having made such a change. However, the author(s) failed to realize that this change is not unique to Marcion and was present in some legitimate Christian communities as noted in the Ambrosiaster text above.

Questions About Authorship and Dating

There is a disclaimer about the authorship and date–two factors that do not change the outcome. The work is customarily credited to Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, in the fourth century. This text may have been heavily edited, redacted, and even added over the centuries since its original release. We are not sure whether it is a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-century opinion. Even with this problem of textual criticism and dating, the work still reflects an ancient one.

However, the nature of Epiphanius assertion that there was a direct Jewish correlation to the problem tongues of Corinth suggests that this was part of the original text. Later editors or writers would not have added such a connection.

For Further Reading

The complete English copy can be found at: The Epiphanius Text on the Tongues of Corinth in English, translated by me, or the official translation completed by Frank Williams.

For the complete set of articles:

  1. My translation from Epiphanius (Anchoratus und Panarion) von Dr. Karl Holl. Zweiter Band. Panarion Haer. 34-64 Leipzig: J.C. Hinrich’sche Buchhandlung. 1922. Pg. 168-171. A digital copy is found at The Greek Epiphanius Text on the Problem Tongues of Corinth
  2. Martin Krause ed. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Book 1 (Nag Hammadi Studies, 35). Translated by Frank Williams. New York: EJ Brill. 1987. Pg. 234ff or see it online, The Panarion of Epiphanius Scholion 13 and 21
  3. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Samuel Macauley Jackson ed. Volume 11. New York: Funk and Wagnalls. The Tongues entry was written by PKE Feine. Pg. 37.
  4. Πεπλανημένως ὁ Μαρκίων [μετὰ τὸ] «ἀλλὰ ἐν Ὲκκλησιᾳ θέλω πέντε λόγους τῷ νοΐ μου λαλῆσαι», προσέθετο «διὰ τὸν νὸμον». The English Bible translation is taken from I Corinthians 14:19 KJV. My translation from Epiphanius (Anchoratus und Panarion) von Dr. Karl Holl. Zweiter Band. Panarion Haer. 34-64 Leipzig: J.C. Hinrich’sche Buchhandlung. 1922. Pg. 168-171. A digital copy is found at The Greek Epiphanius Text on the Problem Tongues of Corinth
  5. Πεπλανημένως ὁ Μαρκίων· Ἀλλὰ ἐν Ὲκκλησιᾳ θέλω πέντε λόγους τῷ νοΐ μου λαλῆσαι· ἑτέρως δὲ διὰ τὸν νὸμον.. Migne Patrologia Graeca, Volume 41, Column 791
  6. My Translation. See A Translation of I Corinthians from the Ambrosiaster Text. || « Sed in Ecclesia, inquit, volo quinque verba loqui per legem, ut et alios ædificem, quam decem millia verborum in lingua. || A digitized text is found at: The Ambrosiaster Latin text on I Corinthians 12–14
  7. New Testament Greek readers may think that νόος is a spelling error for νοῦς. Νόος is correct. It is an earlier version that later changed to νοῦς by Paul’s time. However, this older variant may still have appeared in other Greek regions of the world and influenced Marcion. The old spelling makes this theory have any potential viability.

2 thoughts on “Epiphanius on the Problem Tongues of Corinth”

  1. I am guessing Epiphanius means that instead of τῷ νοΐ μου Marcion had τῷ νομου .
    You should post the Greek of the passage in question. No, I’ll find it (efforting….)
    That was easy. From an electronic copy of the Panarion in Greek:
    (). Πεπλανημένως ὁ Μαρκίων «ἀλλὰ ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ θέλω πέντε λόγους τῷ νοΐ μου λαλῆσαι» προσέθετο «διὰ τὸν νόμον».
    So he is saying in place of τῷ νοΐ μου Marcion had διὰ τὸν νόμον.
    In addition to τῷ νοΐ μου there is a known variant of διὰ τοῦ νοός noted in the SBLGNT which will explain how he got a διὰ in there.
    “According to the law” could easily be understood as meaning Christ’s law rather than the Mosaic law.
    But in any case I think it is more likely in 1 Cor 14 that Paul is being liberal and allowing a pagan syncretism (pagan mystery religions believed in being possesed by a god and speaking in tongues) to go on in the church and trying to use the OT passage “with people of other tongues will I preach to this people” to justify this permissiveness of a pagan practice (despite that merely meaning gentiles would preach to jews in languages other than Hebrew); this is more plausible than that the passage is about reading the Torah in Hebrew and translating on the fly to various Greek dialects.
    Since Marcion supposedly rejected the OT, why would Marcion change “according to intelligence” to “according to the law”? Unlese Marcion’s meaning was negative to the law, like “I’d rather speak 5 words of the law (which I oppose) than speak a gobbly-gook tongue!” Maybe thag is a plausible meaning, nog just for Marcion but for Paul! Paul opposes circumcision and sabbaths etc., so maybe the meaning IS “I’d rather preach circumcision than gibberish” with the obvious realization that this is an exaggeration to show how much he opposes the speaking of gibberish in the assembly!


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