The Unknown Tongues in the English Bible

How the adjective unknown became a crucial contributor to the modern christian doctrine of tongues. No, it was not started by Paul in the first century. The tradition of unknown tongues begins with the Reformation in the sixteenth and evolves from there.

This article is the story about how this unfolded.
Unknown tongues English Bible

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The unknown tongues, or often translated as other tongues, of the English Bible has a rich tradition that dates back to the earliest days of the Reformation. The creation of this idiom had powerful political and religious overtones. An idiom the early Protestants created and aimed exclusively at the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church asserted its authority through the exclusive use of Latin while the Protestants volleyed back that Latin was speaking in an unknown tongue that no one understood. Unknown to the word tongues was added in Paul’s famous Corinthian text to win the Reformation argument.

The majority of this essay is devoted to showing the addition of the adjective other to tongues by Protestant translators in the I Corinthians texts was to wrest Catholics of their divine authority.

This intent got lost over the centuries and became reinterpreted as a mystical or magical expression.

Pentecostal understanding of unknown tongues

The Pentecostals relied heavily on their interpretation of other tongues to justify their tongues-speaking experience. This perception was especially critical after the missionary tongues crisis that happened in early Pentecostalism. Pentecostals originally believed the supernatural outpouring of tongues was for missionary expansion: the Gospel was to go to the ends of the earth before the imminent coming of the Lord. However, the earliest Pentecostal missionaries soon discovered after journeying to foreign lands that they did not have the supernatural ability. The greatest example was that of American Pentecostal missionaries, Alfred and Lillian Garr, who came to India believing they had the miraculous ability to speak Bengali, but upon arrival did not. This problem was so universal throughout the Pentecostal missionary world that the movement was forced to either abandon or redefine the experience. They chose the latter. One of the key texts that allowed a reappraisal was the idiom other tongues as found in the English Bible. Other tongues allowed the idea that speaking in tongues was not supernaturally speaking a foreign language but something otherwise. This English idiom allows for a heavenly prayer language or the language of divine worship; an entity beyond the realm of human intellect that cannot be measured.

Most Charismatic and Pentecostal leaders are unaware of the history of other tongues and its Reformation roots. Rather, they believe the English reflects Paul’s intentions. The late Charismatic leader Kenneth Hagin made this a cornerstone for his tongues argument in his book, Seven Reasons Why Every Believer Should Speak in Tongues. He doesn’t qualify his assumption. He believed that other tongues was a legitimate source text and heavily leaned upon it.

The idiom had no strength when it was only attached to Acts 2:4. The later addition of other tongues to I Corinthians in 1534 allowed for new interpretations to perpetuate.

The Pentecostal usage of other tongues outside of Acts 2:4 disregards the historical background or proper usage of the texts. The following is an investigation into the origins and development of the other tongues doctrine that predated the Pentecostal movement. The motivations that caused the addition of other tongues to the I Corinthians English Bible text had political motivations more so than a theological impetus.

Unknown tongues in the English Bibles

This article is based on research that compared six early Bible translations. The actual results can be found by reading, The Unknown Tongues of the English Bible: Part II.

One of the most crucial observations from the research found that the Authorized King James Version of the Bible established unknown tongues in the Book of I Corinthians as a universal term in the English Christendom.

The Wyclif Bible, the earliest known English translation published in 1380, does not contain the adjective at all. It also predominately used the word langagis (languages) instead of tongues in the key-texts.

The Tyndale begins adding an adjective first in 1534 but not significantly. The Geneva Bible expands on this pattern in 1557 and the King James Bible entrenched this phrase in 1611.

This phrase did not exist in early Christian literature but began to surface in the 13th century with Thomas Aquinas. He used the term to describe speaking in a foreign language that hearers did not understand.1 It rose to prominence in English Bible translations during the Reformation.

Venerable Bede (8th century) on Unknown Tongues

Misunderstandings of the christian practice of tongues can be traced at least to the eighth century. The Venerable Bede commented on Acts 2:4 how the Greek should be understood as aliis linguis (other languages) rather than variis linguis (various languages). Bede believed that Pentecost was not about people understanding the languages being spoken, but a fulfillment of Isaiah 28:11, where the people heard languages they did not know. Aliis suited this position better.2

Thomas Aquinas on Unknown Tongues

The first known reference to unknown tongue or translated, unknown language, can be found by the great 13th-century Catholic teacher, Thomas Aquinas:

“I give thanks to God that I speak more than you all,” and it is being said, “they were speaking in various languages, etc.” (Acts 2:4) and many more had obtained this gift from God in the early Church, but in Corinth because they were curious, they were more cheerfully wanting this gift than the gift of prophecy. Because it is now being said here to speak in a tongue, the Apostle means in an unknown language, and not having these things explained, as if he was to speak in the German tongue to some Gallic [person] and the result that it is not explained, this is speaking in a tongue. From whence all speech having not been understood nor explained, no matter what it is, is specifically speaking in a tongue.3

Aquinas’ usage is the first documented time that the term unknown tongue is dogmatically used. His text in Latin reads, lingua ignota. This Latin phrase was also used by Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century regarding a self-made secret language,4 but it is an isolated case not related to Ecclesiastical usage.

The term Lingua ignota is not found in the Latin Bible, but quietly began to develop in the English translations. The English Geneva Bible popularized it. It was subsequently followed by the King James version, which made the concept universal in the English speaking world.

Aquinas undoubtedly influence later leaders, but this awaits substantiation.

Other tongues and the King James Bible

The preface to the 1611 Authorized version holds an important as to why unknown tongues was added to their Bible:

But how shall men meditate in that, which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknowen tongue? as it is written, Except I know the power of the voyce, I shall be to him that speaketh, a Barbarian, and he that speaketh, shalbe a Barbarian to me. The Apostle excepteth no tongue, not Hebrewe the ancientest, not Greeke the most copious, not Latine the finest. Nature taught a naturall man to confesse, that all of us in those tongues which wee doe not understand, are plainely deafe; wee may turne the deafe eare unto them. The Scythian counted the Athenian, whom he did not understand, barbarous: so the Romane did the Syrian, and the Jew, (even S. Jerome himselfe calleth the Hebrew tongue barbarous, belike because it was strange to so many) so the Emperour of Constantinople calleth the Latine tongue, barbarous, though Pope Nicolas do storme at it: so the Jewes long before Christ, called all other nations, Lognazim, which is little better then barbarous. Therefore as one complaineth, that alwayes in the Senate of Rome, there was one or other that called for an interpreter: so lest the Church be driven to the like exigent, it is necessary to have translations in a readinesse. Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtaine, that we may looke into the most Holy place; that remooveth the cover of the well, that wee may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which meanes the flockes of Laban were watered. Indeede without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacobs well (which was deepe) without a bucket or some thing to draw with: or as that person mentioned by Esau, to whom when a sealed booke was delivered, with this motion, Reade this, I pray thee, hee was faine to make this answere, I cannot, for it is sealed.5

This preface tried to remedy two difficult problems within the Catholic Church at the time. First of all, it was the reading out loud of Scripture in the Latin vernacular, which the majority of worshipers did not understand. Secondly, the King James preface promoted availability in any language for anyone to read or listen. This stance was a powerful argument at the time and had gone viral throughout Christendom. The leaders percieved promotion of local languages as a threat to the authority of the Church.

The sacredness and centrality of Latin in the Medieval Church

The Latin language was considered a universal sacred language; a language that could connect the thoughts and literature of the ancients with the present. The language was considered to have the ability to communicate heightened forms of knowledge and logic that other common languages did not possess and thus limited their societies intellectual and spiritual well-being.

Any such discussion naturally takes one to the popular thirteenth-century writer, Dante Alighieri, who is best known for his work, The Divine Comedy. He also attempted to write a four-part series of books on the history and role of language called De vulgari eloquentia and also another writing called the Convivio.. He only completed one and a half volumes with De vulgari eloquentia but gave an important picture on the role of Latin and other languages within Europe in his time. It is a work that is certainly abstract. He was trying to give credence to other languages as a language of regular discourse, but Latin as an unchanging artificially created human language better suited for universal affairs and technical details. The writers of the Dictionary of Untranslateables: A Philosophical Lexicon described him best:

In the Convivio, three reasons are adduced in support of Latin’s superiority. The first of these is its “nobility”: Latin is perpetual and incorruptible, and this is what allows ancient writings still to be read today. Then, its “virtue”: anything that achieves what it sets out to do the highest degree possible is considered virtuous, and Latin is the vehicle that best allows human thought to become manifest, while the vulgar is unable to convey certain things. And finally, its “beauty”: Latin is more harmonius than the vulgar, in that it is a product of art, and not of nature. Latin, or the grammatica, is in any case a human creation, thanks to its inventors (inventores grammatice facultatis) which is regarded (regulata) by a “common consensus” and is therefore impervious to any “individual arbitrary” intervention. . . .We see, then, how ordinary and everyday variations of different individual ways of speaking (sermo) are unable to affect Latin, which remains the same through the ages, this being a necessary condition for the transmission of ancient knowledge.6

Dante represents the Catholic mindset throughout the European world. This Latin sentiment would lead to leadership to refuse any encroachment on the Latin language which the Protestants and other groups and individuals pressed for change. It wasn’t only an assertion about the primacy of the Latin language but a fear that the rise of common languages would lead to ignorance. The elites viewed these languages as primitive; unable to historically attach themselves to the past with any intellectual acuity, nor move forward with any structure. The use of localized languages over Latin was a backward progression for humanity.

The Council of Trent reinforcing Latin as the language of the Church

This uprising eventually led to the Council of Trent which began in 1545 — presided by Pope Paul III. Pope Paul began his leadership of the Catholic Church in 1534, which was the same year the Tyndale version first produced other tonges shall cease” in I Corinthians 13:8. It demanded a response.

The Council of Trent, 4th Session came up with strong language that all publications had to be approved by the Church authorities before printing. Particular emphasis was on the Latin Bible as being the only authentic one; all the rest are inferior. It failed to address the fact that the majority of the church audience did not understand Latin or how to remedy this problem.

Moreover, the same sacred and holy Synod,–considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic,–ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.

Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, It decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall,–in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, –wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,–whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures,–hath held and doth hold; [Page 20] or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published. Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established.

And wishing, as is just, to impose a restraint, in this matter, also on printers, who now without restraint,–thinking, that is, that whatsoever they please is allowed them,–print, without the license of ecclesiastical superiors, the said books of sacred Scripture, and the notes and comments upon them of all persons indifferently, with the press ofttimes unnamed, often even fictitious, and what is more grievous still, without the author’s name; and also keep for indiscriminate sale books of this kind printed elsewhere; (this Synod) ordains and decrees, that, henceforth, the sacred Scripture, and especially the said old and vulgate edition, be printed in the most correct manner possible; and that it shall not be lawful for any one to print, or cause to be printed, any books whatever, on sacred matters, without the name of the author; nor to sell them in future, or even to keep them, unless they shall have been first examined, and approved of, by the Ordinary; under pain of the anathema and fine imposed in a canon of the last Council of Lateran: and, if they be Regulars, besides this examination and approval, they shall be bound to obtain a license also from their own superiors, who shall have examined the books according to the form of their own statutes. As to those who lend, or circulate them in manuscript, without their having been first examined, and approved of, they shall be subjected to the same penalties as printers: and they who shall have them in their possession or shall read them, shall, unless they discover the authors, be themselves regarded as the authors. And the said approbation of books of this kind shall be given in writing; and for this end it shall appear authentically at the beginning of the book, whether the book be written, or printed; and all this, that is, both the approbation and the examination, shall be done gratis, that so what ought to be approved, may be approved, and what ought to be condemned, may be condemned.”7

Martin Luther on Corinthian tongues

Curiosity leads one to Martin Luther and his German texts to see if there are any similarities of approach. He does not follow the same convention of the English translators about adding the equivalent adjective of unknown in the German language. However, he does meddle with the Corinthian texts on tongues. Heinrich August Meyer noted in his Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Corinthians, wrote that “Luther too, up to 1528, had “tongues” but from that date onward has “languages.” In chap. xiv., however, he has still “tongues” in 1545.”8 Why did Luther change from tongues to languages and vacillate between the two? It is not known.

The highly praised Pentecostal scholar, R.P. Spittler, gave some clarity, though it is not final, “For Luther and his foes, “speaking in tongues” had to do with Roman Mass offered in Latin. Luther said the vernacular.”9

Jean Calvin on Unknown Tongues

Jean Calvin was likely one of the originators behind the addition of the idiom to I Corinthians. He knew that he purposely added the adjective to I Corinthians; the Latin text he drew from and printed beside his text has no such parallel.10 His Institutes of the Christian Religion clearly draw his premise for the addition:

It is also plain that the public prayers are not to be couched in Greek among the Latins, nor in Latin among the French or English (as hitherto has been every where practised), but in the vulgar tongue, so that all present may understand them, since they ought to be used for the edification of the whole Church, which cannot be in the least degree benefited by a sound not understood. Those who are not moved by any reason of humanity or charity, ought at least to be somewhat moved by the authority of Paul, whose words are by no means ambiguous: “When thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say, Amen, at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest? For thou verily givest thanks, but the other is not edified,” (1 Cor. 14:16, 17). How then can one sufficiently admire the unbridled license of the Papists, who, while the Apostle publicly protests against it, hesitate not to bawl out the most verbose prayers in a foreign tongue, prayers of which they themselves sometimes do not understand one syllable, and which they have no wish that others should understand?11

His influence among the many Protestant leaders who came to Geneva, either through expulsion or for missionary purposes, further reinforced this mindset. The production of an English Bible in Geneva with a Protestant sense was called the Geneva Bible. It was a prodigy of the earlier Tyndale Bible and became a runaway bestseller in England. The Geneva Bible greatly reinforced the addition of other tongues in I Corinthians. It set a new tradition that the King James version adopted in its translation.


So now it is becoming clear that the idiom unknown tongues became a popular doctrine in 1534 as a dispute against the Catholic Church. It was a strong statement that anything said in Latin, and not the local vernacular was not profitable. The idiom initially had no suggestion of a mystical or supernatural sense that Renewalists (Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Third Wavers) attach to it today.

For more information:

  1. See Thomas Aquinas on the Miracle of Tongues for more information.
  2. MPL. Vol. 92. Bedæ Venerabilis: Liber Retractionis In Actus Apostolorum. Col. 999.
  3. My translation from S. Thomae Opera. Robert Busa, S.I. ed. Fromman-Holzboog. 1980. Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 387 lc1. For more information on Thomas Aquinas on the dogma of tongues see Thomas Aquinas on the Miracle of Tongues Intro.
  6. Dictionary of Untranslateables: A Philosophical Lexicon. (A translation of Vocabulaire Européen des Philosophy) Barbara Cassin ed. Translated by Steven Rendall, Christian Hubert, Jeffrey Mehlman, Nathanael Stein, and Michael Syrotinski. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 2004. Pg. 548
  7. The Council of Trent .The Fourth Session. Trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), 17-21.
  8. Heinrich August Meyer. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Corinthians. Edinburgh: T & T Clarke. 1887. Pg. 368
  9. R.P. Spittler. “Glossolalia” as found in The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. Stanley M. Burgess ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 2003. Pg. 674
  10. or see the French Version
  11. Jean Calvin. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. 1865