A brief analysis of the fifth-century tongues of Pentecost text by Basil of Seleucia.
As found in Migne Patrologia Graeca Vol. 64. Col. 420 to 421. Supplementum Ad S.J. Chrysostom Opera. Homilia in S. Pentecosten.
It is a difficult but important text.
The complexity resides in the fact the writer assumes a basic knowledge and background to the first Pentecost that is not shared by the modern reader.
Basil of Seleucia was the bishop of a region titled, Seleucia in Isauria – today a south central Turkish coastal town known as Silifke. His writing style has thought to be greatly influenced by John Chrysostom,1 but a connection cannot be made when it comes to the doctrine of tongues. Chrysostom’s view was very limited, while Basil’s was extensive.
There is no doubt that Basil believed the tongues of Pentecost to revolve around the miracle of language and sound. He believed the purpose of this outward grace was for the proclamation of the Gospel throughout all the nations. The question of how Basil thought this miracle occurred is puzzling. He stitched three different opinions on the mechanics behind the miracle into one narrative without completely resolving the tensions between them.
It follows in a similar thought pattern found in Gregory Nazianzus’ work on the subject. Whereas Nazianzus posited two interpretations, one being a miracle of speech, and the other of hearing2 — though Basil’s second has little to do with a miracle of hearing, but on the producing of a divine sound.
The reader could understand it as the restoration of the primordial language that first was spoken before the fall of Babel, which the human mind has never lost the capacity to understand the sound heard. And when this first language was revived, those of every linguistic background understood it.
However, towards the end of the text, the emphasis shifts to the instantaneous ability to speak in a foreign language, but it is not entirely clear.
He nowhere intimates this was a non-human, divine, or prayer language. He was not aware of such theories during his time.
The grammar is impeccable in the Greek language. He consistently utilized synonyms throughout. It also has numerous words that can be traced to Ionic Greek — this is something I have never come across before within Greek Patristic writers.
His use of the noun tongue/language is intriguing. He used the multi-Greek noun (Doric, Aeolic, Ionic, Epic), γλῶσσα, on most occasions, but in others he switched to the Attic noun, γλῶττα. Why?
An analysis of the noun γλῶττα in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG) shows that it commonly interchanged with γλῶσσα. Particular attention was paid to Chrysostom whose texts have this same characterization. Attic Greek was the common language throughout Byzantium and γλῶττα would have been the preferred pronunciation. However, the Biblical text and christian doctrines are built around γλῶσσα. It is part of the christian religious vocabulary which the Attic speaking and writing Greeks had to honor. In the cases where the noun was not being used in the strictest religious sense, the authors would switch to γλῶττα.
Over time, my thoughts may change on this piece as more information from other authors come to light. There is a tension here that is not completely explained. ■
For more information see:
- Fifth-Century Basil of Seleucia on Pentecost — an English translation
- Basil of Seleucia on Pentecost: Greek and Latin text
- A Chrysostom Conundrum — the authorship of this text.