Basil of Seleucia on Pentecost: Notes

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 piece of 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 Pieria, now known as the city of Antakya (Turkey).1 History ascribes him greatly influenced by John Chrysostom,2 but is difficult to make a direct connection when it comes to the doctrine of tongues. Chrysostom’s view was minimal, 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 of Nazianzus’ work on the subject. Whereas Nazianzus posited two interpretations, one being a miracle of speech, and the other of hearing3 — 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 theory. There was one common language before the fall of Babel. The theory proceeds from this that the human mind has never lost the capacity to understand the sound heard. When the audience heard the sound of this language, 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 his text. It also has numerous words that trace 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. The Chrysostom 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 remains unexplained. ■

For more information see:

  1. I previously cited the city Seleucia in Isauria – today a south-central Turkish coastal town that is known as Silifke. This was in error.
  2. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. As found at CCEL
  3. See Nazianzus’ Tongues of Pentecost Paradox

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