A translation of the eighth century John of Damascus’ Commentary on I Corinthians as it relates to the doctrine of tongues.
In Epist. Ad Corinth I. by Joannis Damasceni. Migne Patrologia Graeca. Vol. 95. Col. 676ff as translated from the Greek by Charles A. Sullivan.
I Corinthians 13:1-3
[v1-3] “If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and I know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I distribute all my possessions, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.”
By saying this, he insinuates the holding of negligent responsibilities results in receiving much less, and those who remain steadfast,1 if they so wish, results in something much greater. So love is much greater than all the gifts. He thus establishes this and lays-out the combination, as all the gifts are nothing with the absence of love. For see how he builds this premise. Namely, he does not say, If I knew languages,2 but instead, if I should speak in the languages of angels. Nor does he simply say, If I am going to prophesy, but, I know all the mysteries and all knowledge, with careful detail3 And he does not say, If I could give possessions,4 but, if I could distribute,5 so that he combines service with the cost. In fact demonstrating all here with careful detail, he shows it is greatly inferior with that of love. On which account if you passionately are desirous of the greater gifts, he says, pursue love.
Love is rightly the greatest of the gifts. For these other things naturally had been the cause of division,6 while on the other hand love unites those who disagree.
See from where it begins, by the greatness appearing with them of these languages, and not only of men but also of angels. Furthermore, about the tongue of angels, a body is not assumed for angels. The matter being referred to is like this: although I should utter a sound in this way as the means that the angels dialogue between each other, for instance when he says, every knee should bow to him: of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth,7 he is not saying these things as one who assumes knees and bones with angels, but wishes to allude to the fervent-pitched act of worship by means of this imagery to us. That is why he cited language here, wishing to show to the rest of the audience a sermon8 in a familiar way with us.■
I Corinthians 14:1-33
[V.1]“Follow after charity.”
And consequently to us, the work of the race is supremely for this.
“And desire the spiritual things, rather that you may prophesy.”
In order that someone may not suppose that he introduced the word of love so that he could put an end to the gifts, regarding this he introduced a grace, saying: desire the spiritual things. He makes the case of aggregating together those things belonging to the family of gifts and lessens the gift of languages, neither is the gift useless by any means, nor does it show9 the benefit in respect to this.
[v2-4] “For one who speaks in a language, speaks not to men, but to God; for no one hears, moreover he speaks mysteries in the spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and consolation to men. The one who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but the one who prophesies edifies the Church.”
The one who has the ability to speak to God, points out greatness, but on the other hand smallness since this person does not have the ability to edify the Church. For he absolutely desires this; the edification of the many.
[v5a] “Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in languages,”
Not that they should form an opinion here that the person who is critical condemns10 the languages by these, that this one is in the act of being set right about the suspicion concerning them, he says this:
[5b]“Unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.”11
It is less, he says, the act of speaking in languages than that of prophesying. Unless of course someone also can interpret the languages.12 It was by no means to be a reference to equality made with the one who prophesies.
[v6] “But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking,13 what will I profit you?”
What if I speak other things? He says, if I myself come speaking in languages, it will not be greatly beneficial for those who are listening. Thus he speaks these things, the one who demonstrates enthusiasm for that which is beneficial for these people, he does not have hostility against those who possess the gift.
[v6b] “Unless I speak to you whether by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?”14
Unless I speak, he says, that can be easily apprehended by you but otherwise will have shown only that I have a gift of a specific language, consequently you all will have gone away having gained nothing in these things. Why should it be from a voice that you all do not understand?
[v7-9] “Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp? For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?15 Likewise you also in this manner, by the office of language.”
What I speak,16 he says, is it that the matter is unprofitable with regards to you all? Also wouldn’t anyone have instinctively known this about lifeless things and the harp and bugle?
[v9b] “Unless all of you are given an intelligible word, how will it be known what the person is speaking?”
The alternative,17 unless you all can interpret.
[v9c] “For you will be speaking into the air.”18
That is, a person is uttering for no one else, for this one is speaking to no one.
[v10-12a] “There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.19 So it is also with you.”
That is, so many languages, so many sounds, Scythian, Thracian, Roman, Persian, Mauretanian, Egyptian, other myriads of nations.
[v12b-13] “Since you are zealous of spiritual things, seek to abound for the edification of the church. Therefore let one who speaks in a language pray that he may interpret.”
If it is necessary to be zealous, be zealous for the gifts which builds up the Church. On which account he adds, saying: Pray, that he may interpret
[v14-15a] For if I pray in a language, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do?
That is, the gift which had been given to me, and summons the language.
[v15b-16] “I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. Otherwise, when you are praising in the Spirit, how can the one who leads the place of the laymen, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying?”
It has a meaning something like: who then is the one apt to teach and be beneficial? And what manner was it necessary to speak? And why is it necessary to request from God? And he responds saying that one ought to pray by the Spirit that is by the gift and with the intent,20 so that when the language is uttered, the mind equally is not ignorant about the things being spoken. For if this should not be [the case where] a strange bewilderment is produced. For the layperson did not know to respond21 Amen. He naturally did not know what you are saying.
[v17] “For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified.”22
So that he did not appear to utterly hold the gift as worthless, he provides this. On the contrary this was elevated when he was saying, This one who is speaking speaks mysteries as well speaks to God and builds himself up.23 You, therefore, he says, give thanks well. For you are speaking, being moved by the Spirit. But the person hears nothing, nor knows the things being spoken, and remains standing24 — the one who receives does not benefit much.
[v18-19a] “I give thanks to my God that I speak in a language more than you all. But in the Church.”
He says this so that it would not show that he is hostile as one depriving [them] of the gift.
[v19b] “I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also.”25
That is, understanding that which I speak and having the ability also to interpret for others.
[v19c] “Rather than ten thousand words in a language.”
[v20] “Brothers, do not be children in thoughts, but on the other hand be like a child with evil.”
Namely the little ones gape at astonishment28 to the littlest of things, while on the other hand does not contain so much an admiration of the great things. Seeing too then that those who have the gift of tongues, they were supposing to have the ability to master everything, albeit it was the least of them all. For that reason he says, do not be children in thoughts. That is, these things should not be senseless,29 whereby it is necessary that these things to be intelligible.30 But in that predicament they are children and simple minded, some at one side are vain-glorious, some at the other are puffed-up. On the latter note, what does it mean to be children in evil? Or does it mean not ever having the ability to know what is evil?
[v21] “In the [Law] it is written, that “in strange tongues, and other lips I will speak to this people and even so they will not hear me” says the Lord.”
The Divine Scripture is called [the] Law, and the Prophets.
[v22-30a] “So then tongues are for a sign, not for those who believe but for unbelievers. Prophecy on the other hand is for a sign, not to unbelievers but for those who believe. Therefore, if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and uneducated or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or uneducated person enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, and thus the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.
What is the outcome then, brothers? When you assemble, each one of you has a psalm, teaching, tongue, revelation, interpretation. Let all be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a language, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. On the other hand if a revelation was to be made to someone else sitting by…”31
[v30b] “Let the first one be silent.”
Namely it was not appropriate, while the one who is being moved in the matter of prophecy, this person can speak.
[v31] “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted.”34
[v32] “And the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.”37
So that there should not be someone who is contentious or slanderous, he shows the gift itself being placed under authority.38 For then he cites the work as of the spirit. So if the spirit is being placed under authority, you too can be with fullness.39
[v33] “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—and so I direct in all the holy Churches.”40
He shows this as also appeasing to God, so that the person who holds a contrary position may not spread strife.■
The actual Greek text is found here: John of Damascus on Tongues: the Greek Text.
- Ἐὰν ἴδω γλώσσας
- μετὰ ἐπιτάσεως
- Δῶ τὰ ὑπάρχοντα
- Philippians 2;10. Damascus has slightly modified his Greek text replacing “to Jesus” with “to him”.
- The text has δεικνὺς which would render it in context here as pres ind act 2nd sg OR pres act masc nom/voc part sg. Neither of which fits in verbally with the flow here. I think it a print error and should read δεικνὺσι
- The Greek has τὰ γλώσσας which I think is a copyist/print error. It should read τὰς γλώσσας The Latin has “Nisi forte aliquis etiam interpres adsit, qui linguas sciat interpretari.” the emphasis here is anyone having the ability to interpret the foreign language being spoken, not just the speaker.
- The Greek has ἐὰν ἔλθω πρὸς ὑμᾶς λαλῶν, which I think is a copyist/print error. It should read τὰς γλώσσας while all other editions contain ἐὰν ἔλθω πρὸς ὑμᾶς γλώσσαις λαλῶν it is likely a copyist or print error. The commentary below suggests that this was a mistake too.
- Τί λέγω
- Ἀντὶ τοῦ,
- A modified version of I Corinthians 14:2 by John.
- ἔστηκεν this is in the perfect 3rd sg but it doesn’t fit with the present participles or the flow of the sentence. I agree with the Latin that it should be understood as present tense.
- Τοῦτο μὲν γὰρ ἐπίδειξιν ἔχει μόνην The Latin is: Hoc enim ostentationem solam praefert.
- κέχηνεν This is a pluperfect 3rd pl verb but it doesn’t fit here. The Latin translates it as present 3rd pl. Neut
- μὴ ἀνόητοι The verb is omitted here but is intimated.
- ἔνθα συνετοὺς εἶναι χρή
- Verses 22-29 are a mixture of a direct quotation of the NASB and others adapted from the NASB to match the slight differences of the Damascus text.
- κατήχησιν usually refers to elementary instruction or teaching of initiates
- τὸν ἐπιστομηθέντα The Latin has “ut eum qui loqui prohibitus sit” — that of the person who has been prohibited to speak
- παραμυθούμενος The whole sentence reads: Τοῦτο φησι, τὸν ἐπιστομηθέντα παραμυθούμενος. — the sentence works using only participles, but this is not a typical construct used by most ancient Greek authors.
- αὐτὸ τὸ χάρισμα δείκνυσιν ὑποτασσόμενον
- πολλῷ δ’ ἄν σύ.
- a modification of the NASB along with Damascus adding an extra verb and adjective ταῖς Ἐκκλησίαις τῶν ἁγίων διατάσσομαι