Tag Archives: I Corinthians 14

The Public Reader, the Synagogue, and Corinth

A detailed look into the Jewish rite of reading, speaking, interpreting. Practices that set the liturgical framework for the Corinthian and later churches.

This article specifically dwells on the role of the reader in the Jewish synagogue. Another article The Public Reader in the Church, explains how the early church transformed the rite into a Greek Christian one.

The Gift of Tongues Project devoted significant time and resources connecting the Hebrew public reader simultaneously being translated into the local vernacular as the correct interpretation of the tongues of Corinth.

The Jewish rite of reading parallels closely with the office of instruction. The two offices seem to overlap. This study reveals a rich history of the public reader from 500 BC; the transition from Jewish to a Greek custom.

The first public reader, Ezra the Scribe

The oldest Jewish text that attests to such a rite allegedly can be traced to Ezra the Scribe around 450 BC. It is found in the Biblical Book of Nehemiah chapter 8:

1 all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

2So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand.1 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand.2 And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.

5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed3 the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear4 and giving the meaning5 so that the people understood6 what was being read.7

A detailed look at the Hebrew text of Nehemiah

The text described Ezra the Scribe reading from a podium along with what appears to be a third party explaining what he read in terms the audience could understand. A number of key Hebrew words develop this inquiry even further;

  • בין, bin, understanding, or teaching
  • פרש peresh, give meaning, explain, or translate and
  • שֶׂכֶל shekel, a synonym to בין comprehend, apply common sense.

The use of בין, bin, is troublesome. It is used in the Nehemiah text in two distinct ways — to understand, and to instruct. Modern Hebrew restricts its usage only to mean to understand, which makes it difficult for those knowing modern Hebrew to discern the nuances here. The contemporary language does not give any sense of instructing, translating, or explaining. This is not the case in this much earlier writing.

The text itself is not entirely clear. Does it mean that Ezra spoke in Hebrew and a translator translated in Aramaic? Or were the people uneducated about Jewish law and life and needed an intermediary to amplify the text so that they could understand it? As discussed in The role of Hebrew in the Jewish-Aramaic World the emphasis was on education, not language. However, many later sources of Jewish literature understood this text as emphasizing language.

We will follow the traditional perception of Ezra’s message establishing Hebrew as the language of law and life with the immediate translation into the common vernacular.

The word instructing found later on in the Book of Nehemiah states the lay audience Ezra spoke to did not know Hebrew; the majority knew Aramaic and the rest other foreign languages.8 Therefore the people who heard the reading of the Law were incapable of understanding Hebrew. The great eleventh-century Rabbi, Rashi, commented upon the idea of the Levites instructing מְבִינִים, mivinim, as a case of interpreting the Hebrew words into the common vernacular.9 Therefore בין, bin, must be understood as teaching or instructing within this context.

The complicated word פרש.

The Nehemiah text then shortly after uses פרש parash as a synonym to בין, bin. Parash usually means to make clear, explain or translate. It is important to look at the era that Nehemiah was written in to support the idea of translation.10 Internal evidence from the Book of Ezra 4:18 uses a similar verbal form which correlates with the word translation or interpret. Modern Hebrew understands the word as interpret as well.

פרש does not denote a word-for-word translation but can be amplified, a springboard for an extended lecture in the target language, and a platform for personal gain. This caused many later problems in the synagogue rite that needed to be rectified.

The eminent Hebraist and author of the Hebrew New Testament, Franz Delitzsch probably understood פרש in this manner too. He consistently translated the word interpret and variants in I Corinthians 14 as פרש peresh11 and I agree with this choice. Unless more detailed information arrives, the noun פרש peresh, and its variants, was more likely the one Paul had in mind.

This word also serves as the base for פרשה parashah or its plural, parashot or parashyiot notes a formal section (mainly a paragraph) of the Biblical Hebrew text.

Fortunately, we do not encounter this word as a grammatical construct in this context.

The ongoing tradition of the Reader/Translator


The following precepts were established from the time of Ezra:

  • A reader to read from the original Hebrew text from a specially built podium for this rite

  • the speaking of Hebrew and a third party, which is here defined as the Levites, translating or explaining the reading in the common vernacular of the audience

  • the people hearing the reading and translation are to respond with an amen.

The Hebrew Reader and Interpreter in the Talmud

The next substantial mention of the liturgy of Hebrew being read and a third party standing beside the reader and simultaneously translating it into the common vernacular can be found in the fourth-century and later Babylonian Talmud.

Talmud Megillah 9a to 24b have scattered references to this and allude to the history of the reading of the Bible in the Jewish liturgy. They demonstrate the tensions between the use of Hebrew and its adaptation to Jewish communities of different linguistic natures. The resolutions are uneven in application but do show some general evolution.

Talmud Babli Megillah 9a

This passage declares that the Books of Scripture may be written in any language, but then later stipulates that it can only be translated into Greek and no other language. The text further states that King Ptolemy, a non-Jewish Greek ruler, legislated a Greek translation in the third century BC, which means the Jewish sages had no choice but to sanctify it and therefore the writing goes on to mythologize this. It also legislated that whatever language the liturgical prayers were originally written in, must stay in their original language.12

Talmud Babli Megillah 17a

The quotation from below is from the Mishnah, which is an older text inside the Talmud Babli and can be traced often to the second-century. The author(s) here cover the subject of reading in Hebrew — its primary usage in the liturgy and should be practiced even if a person doesn’t understand it. The problem appears a difficult one for the Jewish sages as they contradict themselves here. They conclude that hearing or reading in Hebrew, even if it is not understood, is a religious obligation that morally must be observed.

MISHNAH. If one reads the Megillah backwards, he has not performed his obligations. If he reads it by heart, if he reads it in a translation [Targum] in any language, he has not performed his obligation. It may, however, be read to those who do not understand Hebrew in a language other than Hebrew. If one who does not understand Hebrew hears it read in Hebrew, he has performed his obligation. If one reads it with breaks or while half-asleep, he has performed his obligation.13

The Rabbinic discussion proceeds further on this passage, which is not quoted here, struggling with the idea of Hebrew having such a high standing and how the Jewish faith could extend into the non-Jewish vernacular. They concluded that Hebrew was to be used in reading or recitation but the holy language extended no further. The common vernacular could be used in the common prayers, and thus other liturgical rites.

Megillah 21b

This section covers the rules of translating the Scriptures into the common vernacular. It concluded that the Torah must only have one reader and one translator for ensuring that the importance of the text is understood. The prophets are considered less important and are given one reader, and two simultaneous translators. The reading of the Talmud had little or no restrictions on the amount of readers or simultaneous translators. The amount of readers and translators, depending on the importance of the text, increased for entertainment purposes. The art of reading or translating together in harmony was like hearing a choir.

A Tanna stated: This is not the case with [the public reading of] the Torah. Our Rabbis taught: As regards the Torah, on reads and one translates, and in no case must one read and two translate [together]. As regards the Prophets, one reads and two translate, but in no case may two read and two translate. As regards Hallel and the Megillah, even ten may read [and ten may translate]. What is the reason? Since the people like it, they pay attention and hear.14

This may have been a later addition to the religious liturgy. Paul established that each one must speak or translate in turn (I Cor. 14:27). He did not want a cacophony of voices at the same time.

Megillah 23b

It explains that the reader is not to read less than three verses on any occasion, but while reading, should stop at each verse so that the translator can keep in rhythm.15

The reader is not to skip verses in the Torah, but can skip in the prophets.

There is more to the Megillah about reading and translating, such as age and physical requirements but it does not relate to the Corinthian context, so it is not listed here.

Nedarim 37b

Nedarim 37b is difficult to understand, even with explanations from ancient commentators. This reference is included because it is quoted by Bernard Spolsky, Professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He cited Nedarim 37b as evidencein his article, Jewish Multilingualism in the First Century to support the roles of Hebrew as a religious language and Aramaic as the mother tongue. His assertion about Nedarim 37b is in context to the Ezra passage found in Nehemiah 8:

In its explanation of this passage (T.B. Nedarim 37b), the Talmud interprets this last verse to refer to the institution of the practice of the Targum, the reciting of an Aramaic translation after the public reading of each Biblical Hebrew verse. (T.B. Nedarim 37b). It is possible that it refers to a translation into any language; it might also refer to an interpretation given in more colloquial language. Even if the practice did not in fact start this early, it is certain that within a few centuries the Aramaic translation and interpretation that accompanied the public reading of the Written Law was firmly established, making clear that in the course of time most of the inhabitants of Palestine, including presumably many who spoke Hebrew, used Aramaic as a lingua franca.16


The concept takes us to the twelfth century Rabbi, scholar, and physician, Maimonides (also known as Rambam). He is considered one of the most influential and revered Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages. If one reads his works, it is easy to see why he has been given such a high status. He synthesized the idea of the reader/interpreter into a cohesive form. His coverage of this topic can be found in Mishneh Torah: Book of Love: Order or Prayers (Hilkot Tefilah chapter 12). He copiously wrote in detail on the subject, though most if it does not directly connect with the Church of Corinth. There are two themes that do have a connection:

The Amen construct

Each one of the readers opens the Torah scroll and looks at the place from which he is to read. Afterwards, he declares, Barchu et Ado-nai hamevorach, and all the people answer: Baruch Ado-nai hamevorach le’olam va’ed. He then recites the blessing:

Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah. Blessed are You, God, the Giver of the Torah.

All the people respond: “Amen.” Afterwards, he reads until he completes the reading, rolls the scroll [closed] and recites the blessing:17

Both Paul and Maimonides agree that the amen is part of the Jewish liturgy but disagree on how it is to be used. Paul emphasized that an intermediary between the speaker and the congregation, the ἀναπληρῶνanaplêrôn, was to say the amen on behalf of the congregation. The term anaplêrôn is unique to Paul’s writing.

See The mysterious Anaplêrôn of I Corinthians 14:16 for more information.

The fifth-century Alexandrian Church called the person who occupied the position of anaplêrôn18 as keimenos19 — one who takes homiletic exegesis or highly articulate language and explains it in such a way that the average person could understand. The anaplêrôn would say amen as a way of ending whatever explanation was required. If the anaplêrôn did not understand what was being said, he could not then convert it into common vernacular and therefore would be unable to say the amen. Maimonides, on the other hand, believed the amen was to be done by the congregation itself at the ending of a reading. This may be a later evolution of this rite since Paul’s time.

On speaking and interpreting

Maimonides believed that the synagogue liturgy of reading from Hebrew with a third-party translator interpreting the reading into the local vernacular was an established fact since the time of Ezra.

From the time of Ezra, it was customary that a translator would translate to the people the [passages] read by the reader from the Torah, so that they would understand the subject matter.20

The office of the interpreter in Jewish liturgy

The Aramaic word for interpreter in the Talmud Megillah and commentaries associated with it is is מתרגם meturgem in the singular and מתרגמין meturgemin in the plural. The plural is used more often. English language has resolved this office to be called the meturgamen. The early history of this word is not known except that it was extensively used from the third century onwards in Aramaic circles. The torah.org website covers the twofold usage of the interpreter in a clear way:

There were two types of Merturgemans (translators/interpreters). The first is the kind who stood by the Torah reader in the synagogue and translated into Aramaic as the reader read, verse by verse. It is mentioned dozens of times in the Talmud; once the Jews were exiled to Babylon, their vernacular was Aramaic – only the scholars and elders spoke or understood Hebrew. Thus to make Torah reading understandable, it was translated. In the same way, the Meturgeman would also sit by the Rabbi in the synagogue or the study hall. When the Rabbi would share words of Torah with the congregation or with his students, he would speak quietly in Hebrew and the trans. would repeat his words in Aramaic.21

The Jewish Encylopedia further adds:

The weekly lesson from the Pentateuch and the Prophets was read by a member of the congregation, and the meturgeman had to translate into the vernacular the Pentateuchal lesson verse by verse; from the Prophets he translated three verses at a time. While the reader of the Hebrew text was forbidden to recite by heart, the meturgeman was not permitted to read his translation from a book, or to look at the Hebrew text when translating, in order that the people should not think that the translation was contained in the text. The meturgeman was also forbidden to raise his voice higher than that of the reader of the text. He did not limit himself to a mere literal translation, but dilated upon the Biblical contents, bringing in haggadic elements, illustrations from history, and references to topics of the day. This naturally required much time, to gain which the weekly lesson had to be short, so that the Pentateuch was finished only in a cycle of three or three and one-half years; while the portion from the Prophets was frequently abbreviated.

The free handling of the text, which frequently changed the translation into a sermon or homily, gave the meturgeman ample opportunity to introduce his subjective views into the lesson; and with the multiplication of sects this became distasteful to the Rabbis. The increase in the opposition to the meturgeman led to the fixation of the Targumim and to the demand that the meturgeman keep strictly to mere translation. But a mere translation satisfied neither the public, who had known the text from early school-days, nor the meturgeman, who was deprived of an opportunity to parade his knowledge and to display his oratorical gifts. As a consequence the “darshan,” or preacher, was introduced; and the literal translation fell gradually into disuse.22

The problem of the meturgamen taking too much liberty in their expositions may have reflected a problem that Paul was earlier dealing with.

The Jewish Encyclopedia does not demonstrate what sources were used to show the disuse of the meturgeman and switch to the darshan.

The same article in the Jewish Encyclopedia believed the original term for interpreter was מבין, maven. This word declined and gave way to the use of meturgeman. This may be true but it lacks sufficient documentation as well.

Another word used for translator/interpreter was אמורא Amora—well, not exactly. Amora refers to the Jewish scholars from 200 to 500 AD. They are expounders of the laws, edicts, and ethics created by the earlier Jewish authorities. They also represented the academies of Jewish learning throughout the Aramaic speaking world. One of the traditions of the Amora was to speak in Hebrew while another Amora would spontaneously translate it into Aramaic.

The Amora would not have been used during Paul’s time because the office did not exist yet.

Was Paul’s reference to speaking in tongues the public reading of Scripture in Hebrew?

The reader/interpreter part of the liturgy may have existed in the earliest Corinthian Church which Paul attended, but this does not appear to be the central thrust of his concern.

Rather, the Corinthian references to tongues matches the Jewish rite of instruction. Aramaic Judaism, along with evidence from a commentary by Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, and further examinations of the interplay between Greek and Hebrew languages in the Jewish world, best supports this theory.

If Paul was emphasizing this to be a problem of liturgical reading, his word choice selection would have been different. The noun reader or the verb read can’t be found anywhere in the key-text. Paul wouldn’t have used the verb to speak such as found in I Corinthians 14:1 ὁ γὰρ λαλῶν γλώσσῃ, the one who speaks in a language in reference to a reader. He would have used something similar to ἀναγιγνώσκων anaginôskôn instead. Therefore the Corinthian problem being that of liturgical reading of the text in Hebrew was not the problem — at least according to the Epiphanius’ text.

What does this all mean?

The use of Hebrew in certain Jewish customs was required, even if the audience didn’t understand it. It was also to be used in the diaspora. The examples given above are in the Aramaic diaspora, but the principles would have applied to Greek Judaism as well.

The case is made that there is a correlation between Paul’s reference to speaking in tongues and Jewish liturgy. The idea of speakers and interpreters and the Amen construct while publicly reading in Hebrew are very close to Paul’s narrative. The Jewish sources show a smoking gun, but do not supply definitive evidence. The research so far proves we are heading in the right direction. The narrative of the public speaker is an interesting one and at least one highly influential church father believed this was the gift of tongues spoken by Paul.

One of the most important points to remember is that the ancient Jewish texts clearly outline the establishment of Hebrew as the primary language of public reading in any assembly outside of Israel major. This would have been an important factor with the initial assembly of Corinth. The lack of Hebrew would have been a serious source of conflict between Paul and the Hellenistic Jews who strongly argued that he had compromised Judaism too much in his theological views.

The details about how the public reader transformed and evolved in the church, along with detailed information about why Thomas Aquinas believed it was the gift of tongues is found in the next article: The Public Reader in the Church

Thomas Aquinas on the Doctrine of Tongues: Conclusion

Answers to the christian doctrine of tongues from the writings of Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Aquinas’ aspects of the miracle of tongues in Church history and practice
    • The tongues of Pentecost and Corinth
    • The miracle of speaking over that of hearing
    • The merging of prophecy with speaking in tongues
    • Tongues in the thirteenth-century church liturgy
    • What he meant by unknown tongues
  • Conclusion


Aquinas was an immensely influential theologian, teacher, writer, speaker, philosopher and more during the thirteenth-century. His ability to combine Greek philosophy, the intellect, the Bible, Christian principles, especially from a mystical viewpoint, and the use of a diverse library of ecclesiastical writers, creates a rich array of works written by him. His coverage of the gift of tongues combines many of these wide-ranging abilities.

Aquinas lived in an age of heightened christian mysticism and his intellectual inquiry is mixed with mystic elements. If he lived today, he would appeal to an intellectual pentecostal or charismatic audience. He sets the standard high for mystic christianity and in many areas, exceeds the current pentecostal and charismatic theologies. These are still in the development stage whereas Aquinas and his world had built a stable framework.

He wrote considerably on the tongues issue. One of his works on the subject, Summa Theologica, is popularly available in English, but not well understood. Other works, such as his Lectures on Corinthians, has not been available in English, nor critically examined until now. Both an English translation on the topic, along with the Latin original are available by going to this link: Thomas Aquinas and the Doctrine of Tongues Intro.

The tongues of Pentecost and Corinth

It was clear from Aquinas’ texts that the apostles speaking in tongues was a miraculous endowment of every human foreign language, both in speaking and understanding. He made this clear in Summa Theologica:

“It was more fitting that they should speak in all tongues, because they pertained to the perfection of their knowledge, whereby they were able not only to speak, but also to understand what was said by others. . . .Hence a gloss says on Acts 2:6 that “it was a “greater miracle that they should speak all kinds of tongues.”1

On the other hand, he viewed the Corinthian Church problem as a linguistic one of regular human proportions. He theoretically taught the tongues of Corinth was initially directed at unbelieving Jews to bring them to belief, “his was a sign specifically given for the conversion of the Jewish people”.2 He devoted much more text in practical terms which reference to the Church of his time. He explained unknown tongues was about speaking in a language that other people didn’t understand. There are a number of examples but this one is the most succinct:

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

The miracle of speaking over that of hearing

Aquinas was well aware of the different interpretations on the doctrine of tongues, including the one voice being emitted and being understood in the native tongue of the listener. This was an interpretation that had been lingering and debated since at least the fourth-century.4 He did not agree with this position and clearly supported the traditional interpretation of those divinely inspired to speak in foreign languages. He pointed this out in his Lectures on I Corinthians:

Paul says, “I give thanks, etc.,” and not that they were to understand that all were speaking in one language. He says, “I speak with all your tongues,” “The Apostles were speaking in a variety of languages,”5

And in Summa Theologica:

“Reply to Objection 2. “It was more fitting that they should speak in all tongues, because they pertained to the perfection of their knowledge, whereby they were able not only to speak, but also to understand what was said by others. …Hence a gloss says on Acts 2:6 that “it was a “greater miracle that they should speak all kinds of tongues.””6

He even goes so far as to quote a gloss on Gregory Nazianzus that the Apostles had the ability understand all tongues.

Aquinas was well aware of the different theories on the tongues of Pentecost and its aftermath. This is especially prominent in his writings found in Summa Theologica where he outlined a number of different positions.

  1. The apostles were given the ability speak but did not have knowledge of all the languages.
  2. The Apostles spoke in Hebrew and everyone heard in their own language.
  3. Christ did not and the present faithful do not speak in more than one language. Therefore, the disciples didn’t speak in all languages either.

He countered these three with:

  • The apostles were equipped with the gift of tongues to bring all people back into unity. It was only a temporary activity that later generations would not need. The later leaders would have access to interpreters which the first generation did not.
  • The gift of tongues was restricted for teaching the faith. It did not extend to speaking about acquired sciences like math or geometry.
  • They spoke and understood all languages. If it was a miracle of hearing, it would be much harder to substantiate as a miracle.
  • The gift of tongues had shifted from the individual to the corporate church. He quotes Augustine on this.

The merging of prophecy with speaking in tongues

The emphasis of Aquinas clearly rests on combining prophecy with speaking in tongues. The Aquinas text stated over 21 times in his Lecture on I Corinthians 14 about the “the excellency of the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues.” He ended the discussion on tongues in Summa Theologica in like manner. In almost every instance the wording is slightly different but has the same intention.

On would first conclude the overuse of prophecy indicates that he did not fully comprehend the Corinthians tongues passages as to exactly what was happening in this first-century Church. However, this is not the case after a closer look at his definition of prophecy.

It is important to understand Aquinas’ definition because the prophecy- tongues relationship becomes a very important part of nineteenth-century studies on the christian doctrine of tongues. Aquinas’ is the first modern writer to make this association, though there are earlier parallels that weren’t so distinct like the fourth-century writings attributed to Cyril of Alexandria.

This relationship can be found outlined in Summa Theologica, where he taught that:

  • Tongues is about words and physically retelling what one sees or hears. It doesn’t necessarily mean the person interpreting is required to understand the meaning.

  • Prophecy is not just words and retelling, though this is a part of it. Prophecy enlightens the mind so as to understand the meaning. This is why Aquinas uses to interpret as an act of prophecy. He has interpretation broken into two categories. The first one being the literal translation with no regards to the meaning. This is reserved for the office of tongues. The second one is translating and understanding the meaning. This is the office of prophecy.

Further information can be found in reading his Lectures on I Corinthians 14:5-12.

For the gift of tongues with an interpretation is better than prophecy because as it has been written, the interpretation of whatsoever difficulty relates to prophecy. Therefore, the one who speaks and interprets is a prophet and the one who has the gift of tongues and interprets [does so] in order for the Church to be built up.7

And a short while later:

The interpretation of speeches is reducible to the gift of prophecy, inasmuch as the mind is enlightened so as to understand and explain any obscurities of speech arising either from a difficulty in the things signified, or from the words uttered being unknown, or from the figures of speech employed.”8

He believed that Paul would have joined tongues with the gift of prophecy when he paraphrased I Corinthians 14:14:

“I said that the gift of tongues without the gift of prophecy has no value.”9

Aquinas understood intellectual and divine comprehension as separate faculties. The ability to understand through supernatural means was to be infused in two ways: revelation and prophecy. A sudden divine infusion was called a revelation. A progressive infusion that came bit by bit or pieces over an extended period is called prophecy. Learning through natural means was called knowledge and a concept, idea or thought being related by another person was called teaching.10

Tongues in the thirteenth-century church liturgy

The Lectures on I Corinthians 14 identified the role of tongues in the Church liturgy. He attested to both the history behind the liturgy and what the Church of his day practiced. With the first, all Churches, regardless of their linguistic background practised the Church liturgy in Latin:

But why do they [the priests] not give the blessing in the common [tongue], that they may be understood by the people and adhere themselves more to them? It has been said that this had been done in the early church, but afterwards, the faithful ones were taught and knew what they heard in the common office, the benedictions take place in Latin”11

The text also recognizes and points out that benedictions was an old one adopted from the early Church. Aquinas goes on to state that public reading too was important. The emphasis was on reading or chanting the Latin. He associates this with speaking in tongues. The reader was obligated do it with proper pronunciation as is documented below:

It is the same to speak in tongues and to speak clearly enunciating [the Latin words] to such a degree for the uneducated. Since then everyone is to speak clearly enunciating in the Church, that all is being said in Latin. It appears that it is madness in the same way. One ought to say to this: Madness existed in the early Church on that account because they were unacquainted in the custom of the Church, consequently they were ignorant of what they should do here unless it was to be explained to them. But certainly in the present all have been educated. Although from this point everything is being spoken in Latin, they still know what is taking place in the Church.12

R. Anthony Lodge described that Latin during this period was rigorously enforced on the grounds of pronunciation and usage:“Although written Latin had remained homogenous, the pronunciation of spoken Latin had come to vary considerably from one part of Europe to another. How was spoken Latin to be unified as part of the movement to promote the cohesion of the Carolingian state? It was decided that Latin pronunciation should be firmly anchored to spelling and that when Latin was read out it should be pronounced litteraliter, ‘sounding every letter’, without accommodating the speaker’s pronunciation of local phonology as had traditionally happened in Romance-speaking regions.”13

The connection is then made by Aquinas that the public readings originally came from the office of tongues in the early Church, which originally was lifted from the Mosaic Law and it has evolved since then to a formal Church rite.

“In the mouth of two or three, etc..” (Deuteronomy 17:6) but it must be noted that this habit for the most part is being served in the Church for we have the [public] readings and the epistles and also the gospels in the place of tongues, and for that reason it follows in Mass two are being delivered, because only two are being said whose antecedent is to the gift of tongues, specifically the epistle and the gospel. Accordingly, in Matins many are done, in fact you say three readings in one. For in the former times they used to read a nocturn the next three night watches separately. Now however they are being spoken at the same time but on the other hand the procedure is not only to be preserved in regard to the number of those who are speaking but as well in regards to the way [it is done].14

He identifies in his time that the office of tongues had changed into public readings of the Epistles and Gospels alternating by two in one instance to three in the other. It was read in Latin on a regular basis. Whether this is daily or weekly rite, Aquinas does not make clear. At present, the Catholic Church practices it this way, “On Sundays and solemnities, three Scripture readings are given. On other days there are only two.”15 There have been many arguments over the centuries on how the office of tongues died since the early Church but many writers had failed to see it had evolved. Whether they disagreed with this evolution is another question but they failed to realize this existence in their conclusions.

What he meant by unknown tongues

Another important theme that Aquinas addressed was the use of unknown tongues. This is the earliest Latin usage found so far in Ecclesiastical literature as it relates to tongues. It predates the tongues controversy that erupted during the Reformation 300 years later. This term unknown tongues was a cornerstone of the Protestant revolt against the Catholic Church and was a political instrument infused in Protestant English Bibles. 16 The important part here is to find out what he meant by it. As previously quoted:

. . .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.”17

and also:

“Preachers have become accustomed to preserve that way when they are to preach to men of an unknown tongue by means of an interpretation.”18

Unknown tongues, which is the English equivalent of lingua ignota, simply means to Aquinas a foreign language which the hearer is not experienced or familiar with. There was nothing mystical to it.


Thomas Aquinas believed that the gift of tongues had merged with the public reader and no longer had an office. This was reinforced when he stated that those who originally spoke in tongues needed a supernatural aid because they did not have access to interpreters or other tools to go out into the world and preach to the nations. Christianity after this initial thrust acquired those natural tools to sustain the message and therefore the miracle of tongues was no longer necessary. He also agreed with Augustine that the gift had transferred from the individual to the corporate church. If he was asked if tongues-speaking in the church had died, he would answer no. He would proceed to explain that this is the duty of the church now. Pentecost is still alive and active seeing that the church is speaking in all the languages of the world the message of salvation.

Aquinas holding of Augustine’s position of the gift switching from the individual to the corporate has a basis in the historic church – though it was never a universal one. Later medieval catholicism works do not adhere to such a policy. In fact, Pope Benedict XIV in the eighteenth-century did a major work on defining speaking in tongues. The Pope’s work was done to clarify the process for those individuals promoted for sainthood. An investigation for sainthood requires a proven miracle, and speaking in tongues was on the list. A few individuals and controversially, Francis Xavier, were considered for sainthood for producing this. Pope Benedict did refer to Aquinas, but ignores his argument on the transition of the gift of tongues from an individual to a corporate entity.

From reviewing all of Aquinas’ texts, he was not aware of any argument that represented a heavenly, ecstatic or prophetic language. This doctrine was a later development.

This is the end on the series of Thomas Aquinas on the miracle of Tongues. Aquinas was clearly not silent on the issue. He had much to write on the topic and is in the middle time line of the ever evolving tongues doctrine. He is a reference for the past, a source for the most major change in the tongues movement and an icon for the future development. All these features are represented in his writings.

For more information on the complete articles and translation of this series, please click on the following link: Thomas Aquinas on the Doctrine of Tongues Intro.

Aquinas on Tongues: ICor 14:13-17

A translation of Thomas Aquinas on I Corinthians 14:13-17 from the Latin into contemporary English.

Translated from the Latin text: Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 388 lc3

I Corinthians 14: 13 – 17

1C3. The Apostle above demonstrated the excellency of the gift of prophecy over the the gift of tongues by having taken up the rationale by reason of exhortation’s function. In fact he showed the same thing by reason of the function of prayer. For we perform these two things by means of a language, namely prayer and exhortation. 1 In regards to this, he does two things: For the first, he proves by reasonable grounds the excellency of prophecy over the gift of tongues. Secondly, by examples. In which place it says, “I give thanks to my God, etc.,” [v18] he does two things in respect to this. First he points out the necessity of prayer. Secondly, in regards to prayer, he demonstrates how more valuable the gift of prophecy is over the the gift of tongues. “For if I am about to pray in a tongue, etc.,” [v14] He therefore spoke regarding the first:2 I said that the gift of tongues without the gift of prophecy has no value. “and therefore [he who speaks in a tongue]” [v13] since the process of interpreting is an act of prophecy which is more excellent than that [of the gift of tongues]. The one who speaks in a tongue, whether unknown or foreign, or some hidden mystery, “let him pray,” namely to God, “that he may interpret,” [v13] 3 that is, let thanks be given to the one who is about to interpret himself “praying that God would open the door,” (Col. 4:3).

A gloss differently explains, “Let him pray. For it said to pray in two ways, namely either to plea or to persuade God,”4 as if he is saying, “the one who speaks in a tongue, let him pray” [v13] that is, so that he may persuade, “that he may interpret,” [v13] and so this gloss takes [to mean] prayer through this whole chapter. But this is not the apostle’s intention, but in fact [it is] for a plea to God. “For if I am about to pray, etc.,” [v14] this shows prophecy has more value than the gift of tongues with the one who is about to pray, and this is shown in two ways. First, the reason is taken up from the perspective of the one who is praying. Secondly from the perspective of the one hearing. In which place it says, “else, if you were to bless, etc.,” [v16] in respect to the first, he does two things: with the first he is setting the rationale for putting forward [a position]. Secondly he removes an objection, in which place it says, “what is it then, etc.,” [v15] In reference to the first, one ought to understand that prayer is twofold. One is private, when anyone in fact prays within himself or for himself. The other [is] public when anyone prays before the people and for others and whichever way it happens to be used, both the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy. He therefore wishes to show that in whichever method [there is] more value in the gift of prophecy than in the gift of tongues. In the first case with regard to private prayer, the speaker, if someone should be uneducated, who does his own prayer, says a Psalm, or Our Father and does not understand that which is saying, such a thing is praying in a tongue. It does not make any difference whether he should pray in words having been granted him by the holy Spirit or someone else’s words. And if there should be another who prays and understands what he is saying, this one prays and prophecies.

It is evident that it is more profitable for the one who prays and understands than one who only prays in a tongue, who in fact does not understand what he is saying. For the one who does understand, he is being reinvigorated also in regards to both the intellect and to affection. On the other hand, the mind of him who does not understand is without the fruit of reinvigoration. Since from this instance it is better one should be refreshed in regards to [both] the affections and intellect than in regards to affection alone. It is evident that in prayer the gift of prophecy [has] more value than the gift of tongues alone. And this is what he said: I say that “Let him pray, that he would interpret, for I am to pray in a tongue,” [v13-14] that is if I use the gift of tongues which results in the act of prayer so that I mention in some way something I do not understand, then, “my spirit,” [v14] that is, the holy Spirit having been given to me, “prays,” [v14] who inclines and moves my for the purpose of prayer. And whatsoever I gain in the prayer itself, because this specific thing, which I am being moved by the holy Spirit, is the reward for me. “For what we should pray, as necessity dictates, we do not know, but the holy Spirit himself makes us to ask.” (Romans 8:26)5 Or, “my spirit,” [v14] that is my reasoning, “prays,” [v14], that is it composes for me what I am to say those things which are for the purpose of good, whether special words or of other holy ones. Or “my spirit,” [v14] that is the power of seeing with the mind’s eye. “prays,” [v14] inasmuch they are the voices or likeness of bodies wholly constructed in the mind without being conceptualized by the intellect. He therefore supplies: “my mind,” [v14] that is my intellect, “is fruitless,” [v14] because it does not comprehend. Therefore [again] prophecy or interpretation is better in prayer than the gift of tongues. But is it possible at some time, or that whoever prays, and does not understand what he is praying, is to be without the fruitfulness of prayers? It is to be concluded that the fruitfulness of prayer is twofold. One fruit is the reward that aids the person, the other fruit is spiritual encouragement and devotion having been conceived by prayer. And one is being deprived in regards to the fruit of spiritual devotion who does not listen for that which he prays or does not understand. But on the other hand in reference to the rewarding fruit, it is bound to be said that one is deprived, because there exists many prayers without a reward, since a person has the ability to speak with difficulty one Our Father, without the mind potentially being brought to another subject. And therefore it ought to be said that when one who is praying diverts by these [words] which he says, or when someone in one rewarding deed does not continuously think in whatever pleasing act, because he does this on account of God, it does not discount the reckoning of a reward. The reason of which is [this]: because in all the meritorious deeds, which are ordained for the right end, it is not required that the intention of the one who is performing be connected with the end according to whatever deed.

But on the other hand the first thrust, which motivates the intention, continues to work in completion. Furthermore, if someone is distracted in some particular [thing] and this first thrust does the whole work of merit, unless it is being interrupted by a contrary affection which is diverting from the initial end to a contrary end. But it ought to be known that attentiveness is threefold. One is by the words which a man says and this is sometimes harmful inasmuch it impedes devotion. Another is to the sense of the words, and this is harmful, but not as much harm. Third is to the end and this is better and pretty much necessary. This is nevertheless what the Apostle means:“the mind is without fruit,” [v14], it is understood regarding the fruit of refreshment.

[Verse 15] “What is it then? etc.,”6 because someone could say: on account of whoever that prays in a tongue is without the fruit of the mind, but nevertheless the spirit prays, surely is not one then obligated to pray in the spirit? For this reason the apostle removes this [thought] saying that one ought to pray in both ways as with the spirit and the mind because a person ought to serve God concerning everything which he has from God. But he has the spirit and the mind from God and therefore he ought to pray according to both.“With his whole heart he praised the Lord, etc.,”7 (Ecclesiasticus 47:10) and for that reason he says, “I will pray with the spirit, I will pray also with the mind, I will sing with the spirit, etc.,” and so he says I will pray and sing because prayer whether it is for the purpose of averting8 God [from doing something], like he says, “I will pray,” or for the purpose of praise, like he says, “I will sing”. Concerning these two “Is any of you sad? Let him pray: Is he cheerful in mind? Let him sing,”9 (James 5:13), “Let us praise the Lord, etc.,” (Psalm 9:12)10 “I will pray with the spirit,” that is seeing with the mind’s eye, “and with the mind” that is with meaning.

[Verse 16] “Else, if you will bless, etc.,” here he shows the following that the gift of prophecy is more valuable than the gift of tongues. Furthermore, in public prayer which is when the priest publicly prays, where sometimes he says things that he does not understand, sometimes to some extent which he does understand. And in reference to this he does three things. He first posits a rationale. Secondly, he explains it. In which it says, “How is he to say, etc.,”11 and thirdly he proves what he presupposed. In which place it says, “because what [you are saying he does not know] etc.,” he therefore says, I said that the gift of prophecy in private prayer has more value. “else,” but on behalf of, and in public because “if you shall bless,” that is you were to give a benediction, “with the spirit,” that is in a language which is not to be understood, or with the power of mindful observation and having been moved by the holy Spirit.
“Who is to complete the matter for the uneducated?”12 Particularly with the uneducated, it is being asserted that this person only knows the language in which he was born. As if it were to say: “who is to speak that what he ought to speak in the place for the uneducated? so that he [the uneducated] is to say, “amen,” and therefore it says, “how should he say amen to your blessing?”13 Whereby a gloss explains, it is: “how can he share in the blessing having been made by you in the name of the Church?”“In which he that is blessed upon the earth, shall be blessed in God, amen:”14 (Isaiah 65:16). Amen is the same as let it be done, or it is so15 as if it should be said, “If he does not understand what you are saying, how will he adhere himself to the things which have been said by you? Certainly he has the personal ability to adhere, yet if he does not understand, but only in a general and not in a special [way], because he cannot understand anything of the value that you are speaking except that you are probably merely giving a blessing. But why do they [the priests] not give the blessing in the common [tongue], that they may be understood by the people and adhere themselves more to them? It has been said that this had been done16 in the early church, but afterwards, the faithful ones were taught and knew what they heard in the common office, the benedictions take place in Latin.

[verse 17] Consequently he demonstrates why [the uneducated] cannot say “amen,” when it says, “for you certainly,” that is “could well enough give thanks,”17. Inasmuch he does not understand [it] in a specific way, although he probably understands in general and is built up, like this: “Let no evil speech proceed from your mouth: but that which is good, to the edification of faith,” (Ephesians 4:29), and for that reason it is better that he [the priest] should not only bless in a tongue, that he must interpret and explain, granted that you who give thanks, are to do it well.■

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