Monthly Archives: June 2014

John of Damascus on Tongues: Notes

Notes on John of Damascus’ work, Commentary of I Corinthians, chapters 13 and 14, as it relates to the christian doctrine of tongues.

John of Damascus

John of Damascus was an eighth-century church leader who lived in Syria under Muslim rule. The Greek texts originally written by him have been passed on through the ages and may have been heavily edited. Whatever historical information exists about him tends to be of mythical proportions. It is hard to separate the man from the myth.

A commentary on I Corinthians is credited to him. Whether the text accurately represents his original thought isn’t the most important point. For the purpose of the Gift of Tongues Project it represents the perception of tongues during the eighth- to tenth-centuries.

Discovering an old commentary on I Corinthians is always exciting because it offers potential to solve the Corinthian’s tongues riddle. However, his work doesn’t solve the problem but does offer a small clue. His text suggests Paul was addressing a problem of foreign languages. This will be explained in more detail below.

The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia claims that he was the “the last of the Greek Fathers.” How the article arrived at this conclusion is not known. The same article proceeds to add, “His genius was not for original theological development, but for compilation of an encyclopedic character.” This became clearer as the translation of his Commentary on I Corinthians proceeded. His style reminded me of the structure and style used by the Latin writer, Thomas Aquinas, four centuries later. Aquinas liked to stitch together thoughts from a variety of sources and offer those considerations with the fewest words possible, assuming the reader understood the background and meaning. Damascus did the same thing. It gave some sense that John of Damascus was thinking in Latin and writing in Greek. Perhaps this wasn’t the correct approach and so the following was contemplated: he was thinking in Arabic and writing in Greek. The Greek style had a heavy dependency on participles rather verbs which showed something different not seen before and there was nothing that could explain this. However, there was not enough information to substantiate either claim.

His coverage of tongues and angels in I Corinthians 13 follows the thought originally penned by Origen that it was hyperbolic language and then borrows from Chyrsostom that angels don’t have bodies,1 using the same verbs and nouns, but constructed slightly different than what Chrysostom used.

Damascus made one important omission in his commentary — he doesn’t refer to Gregory Nazianzus on the doctrine of tongues. One would expect a Greek author and Church writer such as John of Damascus to quote liberally from the fourth-century Nazianzus who covered the topic in great detail and caused a great deal of controversy for centuries. This is surprising. The only logical conclusion found so far is that the controversy that Nazianzus began was discussed in the Western Latin Church — a large portion of the argument in the Western circles had to do with the improper Latin translation and hinged on this. It wasn’t an issue on the Eastern Greek front, nor in Damascus’ mind.

For more information on Gregory Nazianzus theory on the miracle of speaking or hearing, and transmission problems into Latin see: Rufinus’ Grand Omission.

The actual Greek text is found in Migne Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 95. Epistola in Corinth. The text itself is divided into two: Biblical citation followed by a short commentary. The Biblical citations have only minor differences than the standard Greek Bible text. I did not spend much time on translating the Greek when Biblical citations were made, relying instead on what is found in the New American Standard Bible. However, I had to make some changes to reflect what Damascus understood the text to mean. For example, I changed the English noun tongues which now has a much wider semantic range than what was intended 500 years ago, to languages, which is more specific to the initial intention.2

Now that the details have been examined it is time to move on to the important global question. What did John of Damascus believe speaking in tongues to be? His commentary lacks any serious historical narrative and is a homily divided on love, and the subject of corporate good instead of individualism. He briefly touches on the gift of tongues as the human power to speak in a foreign language. He does not ascribe any emotional or supernatural attachment to this office.

His commentary on 14:10-12, does mildly clarify his understanding of the text:

[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.3 So it is also with you.”

That is, so many languages, so many sounds, Scythian, Thracian, Roman, Persian, Mauretanian, Egyptian, other myriads of nations.

He directly connects foreign languages with Paul’s I Corinthians text.

This commentary does not recognize any controversy or doctrine inherited from the Montanist movement relative to tongues. This is consistent with the overwhelming majority of ecclesiastical texts on the subject. ■

Want to know more about what John of Damascus wrote? The following is a link to his actual text: John of Damascus on Tongues: an English Translation.

Rufinus' Grand Omission

Rufinus’ Latin translation mistake on Nazianzus’ Greek text on Pentecost.

How a very small oversight caused major problems later on.

As discussed previously in Is Tyrannius Rufinus a Reliable Translator?, Tyrannius was a dynamic rather than a static translator. He was freely ready to translate according to the sense of the text and not the literalness of it. The general consensus was that he was a good dynamic translator with some detractors from this. In the case of Gregory’s On Pentecost, he made two errors.

Gregory had outlined two different explanations for the miracle at Pentecost: one was with it being the miracle of hearing, and the other, a miracle of speaking. The nature and structure of the Greek text clearly made it out to be that the miracle of speaking was the correct interpretation for that of Pentecost.

However, Rufinus’ translation obscures Nazianzus’ preference. This caused major problems.

The first one was with Greek particle ara, ἆρα. Tyrannius did not understand Nazianzus purpose of this particle in this context. It is an interrogative particle that often is translated into English as: if. It also expresses some doubt at the validity of the question. Nazianzus was introducing an enthymeme styled delivery here. He was positing two ideas with one being clearly obvious and needing little substantiation. He thought the answer was clear.

Rufinus chose instead to make both statements have equal weight, which was not Nazianzus’ intention. This subtle change caused much controversy in the Latin reading world. The Latin text conveyed it was up to the reader to determine what the answer was. This mistaken discussion raged on in the eighth century when the Venerable Bede delved into the issue, and later forced Thomas Aquinas to take a clear position on this.{{1}}[[1]]See Thomas Aquinas on the Miracle of Tongues for more info.[[1]]

A second problem flows from the first. In the Greek text, a brief sentence follows the two preferences which was given to show which one was his preference. Gregory wanted to make it even clearer, just in case the reader didn’t understand the enthymeme, that he preferred that it was a miracle of speaking, Καθὰ καὶ μᾶλλον τίθεμαι. Rufinus did not include this statement in his translation.

It forces one to ask the question, why was it missing? Either Rufinus was unaware that the passage existed or he ignored it. Both the Greek and Syriac texts have this text included. One must keep in mind that the Greek texts are from the ninth century onwards. There is no early Greek record to work with. The Syriac, which goes back to the eighth century, and maybe earlier has it, but the publisher of the manuscript has the text highlighted, noting that it is not clear in meaning.{{2}}[[2]]Sancti Gregorii Nazianzeni opera. Versio Syriaca, II. Orationes XIII et XLI (Corpus Christianorum. Series Graeca, 47. Corpus Nazianzenum, 15), 151. A. SCHMIDT ed.,  Turnhout – Leuven, 2002 Pg. 90[[2]]

The evidence so far suggest, though not conclusively, was that he ignored it.■

John of Damascus on Tongues: an English Translation

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.”

He says In fact this is holding a performance26 without a companion,27. On the other hand the greater benefit is to be for the other people.

[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

That is a shocked feeling,32 not so much for the purpose of instruction.33

[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

He says this for the one has been put to silence35 so that this is made more bearable.36

[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.