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Even though the Pentecostal Movement, with the resurgence of spiritual manifestations and abilities, has been in existence for just over a century, the use of these manifestations, including the phenomenon of glossolalia (speaking in tongues) remains a confusing and contentious issue for many Christians.

In this article, I provide a very brief overview of the scriptures that mention speaking in tongues, and then I look at the setting and events recorded in Acts 2:1-12. This is where the Galilean believers were filled with the Holy Spirit for the first time and began speaking in tongues, and where those nearby heard their own languages being spoken. I will also give a very brief account of the beginning of the Pentecostal Movement which began in 1900. And I share a few personal experiences.[1] My hope is that this article will take some of the contentions out of the issue of “tongues” and perhaps some of the confusion too.

New Testament Teaching on Speaking in Tongues

The biblical theology of glossolalia is primarily based on a few experiences of the early church rather than on clear or comprehensive teaching. Luke, in the book of Acts, and Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, are the only two New Testament authors to mention tongues.[2]

Luke, in Acts 2:4ff; 10:46 and 19:6, simply relates certain episodes of glossolalia in his historical narrative, with no commentary or explanation.[3] Luke offers no description on the nature of tongues, nor does he provide insight on its purposes or on how tongues is to be used in the life of the individual Christian or in the church.

Similarly, Paul is silent about the nature of tongues. He does not explicitly say why God has given this gift. However, he does, in passing, indicate several ways in which it functions. (Turner 2009:224) While Paul gives some instruction about the use of glossolalia in church meetings, much of Paul’s teaching about tongues in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 was written to curb the Corinthian’s over-enthusiasm and misuse of this particular spiritual ability. So any insight on the use of tongues here must be seen in the light of Paul’s real intent in writing to the Corinthian church. That is, his corrective, rather than didactic, intent.

Most of what can be learnt about glossolalia from both Luke and Paul is gained from deductions and inference only. We must be very wary not to exegete more from Luke and Paul’s writings than is warranted, nor draw firm conclusions.

Speaking in Tongues and Xenoglossia

The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost

In chapter 1 of Acts we see that immediately before his return to heaven, Jesus had instructed his followers to stay in Jerusalem and wait there until the promised Holy Spirit came. His followers obeyed this instruction, and ten days later, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all the Christian believers for the first time.

We do not really know how many believers were meeting together at Pentecost. Paul estimated that at the time of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension there were about 500 Christian believers in all (1 Cor 15:6). In Acts 1:15, Luke specifically mentions that 120 believers were meeting in an upper room when they were choosing a new Apostle to replace Judas Iscariot. Perhaps there were a few hundred Christian believers meeting together on the Day of Pentecost.

Many people assume that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Christian believers occurred in the same upper room that is mentioned in Acts 1:13. However, we cannot be certain that this is the case. In Acts 2:2, the Greek word which is often translated as “house” in the New Testament is also used for the Jerusalem Temple.[4] Perhaps Jesus’ followers were meeting in the Temple courts on the Day of Pentecost. This seems especially likely considering that Pentecost was a Jewish holiday with special Temple services. We know that the very early church regularly met together in the Temple courts after Pentecost; perhaps this activity had already begun before Pentecost.[5]

If the disciples were meeting in the Temple courts when the Holy Spirit came, it would more easily explain why so many people overheard the believers speaking in tongues. It would also help to explain how Peter could (seemingly) immediately stand up and address several thousand Jewish pilgrims, pilgrims who had come from all over the Roman Empire to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:5). It is improbable that the events of Acts 2 occurred within the confines of an upper room, even a spacious one (Acts 1:13,15).

What we do know for certain is that ten days after Jesus returned to heaven, his followers were meeting together in one place on the Day of Pentecost.[6] At about 9 o’clock in the morning, the Holy Spirit was poured out on every person present, both men and women (Acts 1:14, 2:17-18). There was a sound like a mighty, rushing wind; there was a vision of tongues of fire that distributed and remained on the head of each person; and we know that every person spoke in tongues: every believer, not just the twelve apostles.

Xenoglossia: Speaking in Tongues or Hearing Languages?

The immediate consequence of being filled with the Holy Spirit was that the Christian believers began speaking in other tongues, that is, they were speaking a language they had not spoken previously. Many people assume that the Christian believers were speaking in real languages, and have termed this phenomenon as xenoglossia. The word Xenoglossia is derived from the Greek words xenos which means “foreign” and glossa which means “tongue” or “language”. I would like to suggest that the Christians were not speaking actual foreign languages, but that they were vocalising freely as the Spirit led them. And yet, the onlookers from the crowd were hearing actual foreign languages. The reason I am suggesting this is because of something I experienced in early 1984.

In the 1980s I was a member of Petersham Assemblies of God. Speaking in tongues was a regular practice in our meetings. Many individuals would speak in tongues as we simultaneously offered prayer and praise to God during periods of corporate worship. Two or three people would also speak in tongues prophetically, with someone interpreting the tongue’s message.

One Sunday morning a Chinese lady started speaking in tongues during a meeting and then suddenly, halfway through her “message”, she started speaking in perfect English—my own language.[7] I had never heard someone speak in tongues and in English in the one “message”. The practice in our church was that one person would speak in tongues but that another person would provide the interpretation. After the church meeting, I had lunch with my husband (who was my fiancé at the time) and my mother. During lunch, I happened to mention that I thought it was unusual that the Chinese lady had been speaking in tongues and then in English. My statement caused some confusion for a little while, but finally I understood that even though I had heard perfect English, my husband and mother had only heard glossolalia for the entire time the Chinese lady was speaking. The English message that I heard was a supernatural occurrence, a “supernatural hearing”.

Let me relate another story of “supernatural hearing”. A few years ago my mother, who is a Christian, was travelling through Europe. On a two and a half hour train journey, my mother struck up a conversation with another passenger. They had been conversing for a while when all of a sudden my mother realised that the other woman had been speaking in German the whole time, a language my mother could barely understand, while my mother had been speaking in English the whole time. The surprise caused by this realisation ended the conversation.

While it was undoubtedly a supernatural endowment that enabled the Christian believers to speak in tongues on the Day of Pentecost, an ability given by the Holy Spirit, I suggest that the ability to hear real languages was another supernatural ability given by the Holy Spirit on that occasion. I believe that xenoglossia may be more a miracle of hearing than of speaking. The crowd of devout Jews who were staying in Jerusalem, and had gathered around the Christians, certainly heard their own native languages.[8] Luke states three times (in Acts 2:6, 8 & 11), that the Jews and Jewish proselytes, who had come from all parts of the Roman Empire heard their own foreign languages being spoken by the Galilean disciples.[9] This caused a great deal of astonishment among many in the crowd (Acts 2:12).[10]

Real Languages?

In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, Paul uses the expression “the tongues of men and angels”. Some people take this to mean that when someone speaks in tongues they are speaking a real language, a human or angelic language. However, Paul’s real intent in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 was not to provide information on the phenomenon of tongues but to teach that the use of any spiritual gift or manifestation is worthless, and achieves nothing, unless the gift is ministered in love. Paul used the rhetorical device of hyperbole (exaggeration) and made four statements with hypothetical “ifs” to make his point about love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.[11] Because of these factors, it is doubtful that the expression “tongues of men and angels” might mean that speaking in tongues involves speaking real languages.[12]

A few neuroscientists have studied what happens in the brain when a Christian speaks in tongues, and they have found that the language centre of the brain is not used when someone speaks in tongues as it is when someone speaks a real language. (Newburg 2006) Some respected linguists, such as William J. Samarin (1972) and Felicitas Goodman (1972:121-2) have studied glossolalia and they recognise that the utterances of someone speaking in tongues may resemble the usual language patterns of the speaker in some regards; however, they have not seen any evidence that glossolalia involves real languages. Over the years there have been claims from time to time that certain Christian tongues-speakers were speaking real languages. Yet no cases have been substantiated, and many cases have been discredited. There is no evidence[13] that Christian glossolalia involves speaking real languages.[14]

Xenoglossia and Overseas Missions

Judging by Jesus’ statement recorded in Acts 1:8, one of the main purposes of being filled with the Spirit and exercising spiritual abilities was, and is, to enable and empower missionary endeavours. Jesus told his followers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In the early church, the excitement and power that the Holy Spirit brought was a huge motivator and enabler for spreading the gospel message. Since the resurgence of spiritual abilities, which began in 1900, missions have also been understood as being one of the main purposes of spiritual gifts.

In 1900 a young woman named Agnes Ozman asked her minister Charles Parham, to pray for her that she might be filled with the Holy Spirit. Parham a “holiness” minister who ran a small Bible College, of which Agnes was a student, obliged; and Agnes began speaking in tongues. Agnes Ozman is the first person (recorded) in modern times to speak in tongues.[15] This event marks the beginning of the modern Pentecostal Movement. Others in Parham’s Bible College were also filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. Parham began teaching on tongues, and his message and influence spread. Following a visit by Parham to a church in Azusa Street, Los Angeles, the well-known Azusa Street Revival broke out.

As a result of the Azusa Street Revival (1906-1911), thousands of tongues-speaking Christians went overseas in order to bring the Gospel message to non-English speaking communities. These Christians had next-to-no missionary training and were dismayed to discover that their tongues-speaking was unintelligible to the people they were hoping to share the Gospel with. Virtually all Pentecostals at that time thought that tongues-speaking was “a gift of foreign languages granted for evangelistic purposes, and Charles Parham continued to believe this view till his death in 1929, despite mounting counter-evidence.” (Turner 1996:298) There is no doubt that the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues provided a great impetus for missions. However, tongues did not seem to have a practical application.

I suggest that God can, and occasionally does, make the free vocalisation of someone speaking in tongues intelligible to certain hearers.[16] I believe he may have done this with the tongues-speaking of the first Christians. He did this with the Chinese woman and me in 1984. He made German intelligible to my mother.[17] My experiences have led me to believe that xenoglossia does happen, but rather than it being a supernatural speaking of real, unlearned, foreign languages, it is a supernatural hearing of real languages.


[1] Speaking of the gift of the Holy Spirit as an event which can be unmistakably recognised, Leslie Newbigin (1961:91) observes:

“Theologians today are afraid of the word ‘experience’. There are some good reasons for this, and also some bad ones. But I do not think it is possible to survey this New Testament evidence, even in the most cursory way . . . without recognising that the New Testament authors are free from this fear. They recount happenings which we would subsume under the head of religious experience and do not hesitate to ascribe them to the mighty power of God and to give them right of way in theological argument over long cherished convictions.”

[2] Other Bible verses which may allude to speaking in tongues include:

  • Isaiah 28:11, which Paul quotes in 1 Cor 14:21 in the context of “tongues”.
  • John 3:8, which refers to the voice, or sound, of the Spirit.
  • Romans 8:26, which refers to the Holy Spirit helping us to pray in ways beyond intelligible speech.
  • Jude 20, which refers to praying in the Holy Spirit as a means of edification (cf. Eph. 6:18a)

[3] “No developed ‘theology of the Holy Spirit’ is identifiable in the book of Acts. Instead we find a ledger-accounting of the Spirit’s activities as they unfold in the life of the early faith-community.” Devenish (2010:66)

Some doctrines concerning speaking in tongues are based on assumptions rather than explicit Scriptural teaching.  For instance, the Reformed Churches (and some other Christian denominations) claim that glossolalia and other supernatural charismata were applicable for the apostolic age only, when the church was being founded, and are thus no longer applicable. This view is called the Cessationist view, or Cessationism. Well-known 18th-century preacher, Jonathan Edwards, explains the reason behind the Cessationist view: “Since the canon of the Scripture has been completed, and the Christian Church fully founded and established, these extraordinary gifts have ceased.” From Charity & Its Fruits. Jonathan Edwards held this view despite witnessing spiritual manifestations that accompanied the “Great Awakening” revival.
Cessationists quote 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 to back their claims. They believe that the canon of scripture is the “perfect” or “completeness” that is being alluded to in 13:10. However the “perfect” and “completeness”, when we will “fully know” and be “fully known” and see “face to face” (13:12), is more likely to refer to the redemption and transformation of our bodies which will occur when we see Jesus on the Day of Christ. Paul speaks about the transformation of our bodies at length in 1 Corinthians chapter 15.
The New Testament never states that speaking in tongues was a temporary phenomenon. Yet Cessationists view Christians who speak in tongues now as being deluded or even demon-possessed. Jonathan Edward’s claim that the Christian Church had been fully founded and established during the apostolic age is also debatable. The Christian Church today is a vastly different organisation to what it was in the first couple of centuries of its existence, and it continues to change.

[4] The Greek word oikos used in Acts 2:2 is generally translated as “house” or “household” in the New Testament; however it is sometimes used to refer to the Jerusalem Temple.  In Matthew 12:4; Mark 2:26; Luke 6:4 the Temple is referred to as the “house-oikos of God.” Jesus referred to the Temple as a “house-oikos of prayer” (Matt 21:13; cf. Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46).  In John 2:16 and 14:2-3 Jesus referred to the Temple as the “house-oikos of my Father”.  John 2:17 and Acts 7:47 also clearly refer to the Temple, using the word “house-oikos.” However, Luke does occasionally distinguish between the Temple-hieron and an ordinary house-oikos (e.g. Acts 5:42).

[5] Cf. Acts 2:46: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. . .” (NIV)
“Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple . . .” (NASB)

[6] The Day of Pentecost occurred on the fiftieth day after Jesus’ resurrection. The word Pentecost comes from the Greek word for “fifty”.

[7] This lady was definitely not speaking a Chinese language and her English was generally poor.

[8] The Jews and Jewish Proselytes were from fifteen different nations: Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the parts of Libya near Cyrene, Rome, Crete and Arabia (Acts 2:9-11).

[9] “Own language” (idios dialektos) is used in Acts 2:6 & 8 to make the distinction between “other tongues” (hetera glossa) in Acts 1:4. Glossa is also used in Acts 2:11  when the Jews and Jewish proselytes exclaimed, “We hear them speaking in our languages the great things of God.”

[10] While many in the crowd were “amazed and perplexed” (Acts 2:12, NIV), others, observing the behaviour of the first Christians being filled with the Spirit, made fun of their seemingly silly behaviour. They thought that Jesus’ disciples were drunk (Acts 2:13). Many non-Christians and non-Pentecostal Christians view the practice of speaking in tongues today as being ridiculous. There is nothing new about this perspective. I admit that people speaking in tongues can look silly at times and that the practice looks very out-of-place in “respectable” conservative churches. I have been disturbed by some more bizarre expressions of tongues-speaking that have seen televised.

[11] The four statements that begin with “if” (ean x3, kan x1) in 1 Corinthians 3:1 are third-class conditional sentences with a protasis that presents hypothetical situations.

[12] Some people, such as John MacArthur, a Reformed minister and cessationist, do not believe that the expression “the tongues of men and angels” should be taken literally. Gordon D. Fee (1987:630) however is sure that the Corinthians at least believed that they were speaking real human and angelic languages; especially considering that the Corinthians seem to have had a preoccupation with angels.

[13] Not that any miracle actually requires evidence for it to be a genuine miracle.

[14] “The best attested example of xenolalia [xenoglossia, where people spoke real languages] are . . . outside the Christian movement (for example spiritist circles) . . .”  (Turner 1996:299, footnote 25)

[15] It is important to note that while the occurrences of glossolalia, and other spiritual manifestations, greatly diminished after about 200 AD, there has been, throughout the Church’s history, isolated cases where Christian individuals and groups spoke in tongues. Since 1900, the practice of glossolalia has become increasingly more widespread among Christians.

[16] Perhaps this experience of “xenoglossia” happens frequently. I would not have even been aware that I was hearing anything remarkable (when I heard the Chinese lady speaking perfect English) if I had not discussed it with my fiancé and mother. How many similar cases have there been where the hearers were unaware that anything remarkable was happening? How many cases of xenoglossia have never been told?

[17] Perhaps it was a miracle of “xenoglossia” that enabled Balaam to hear his donkey speak real words (Num 22:28ff).

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Devenish, Stuart, The Spirit in the Church and World: Study Book, Brisbane: Australian College of Ministries, 2010.

Fee, Gordon D., The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1987.

Goodman, Felicitas, Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study of Glossalalia, London: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Hunter, Harold D., A Portrait of How the Azusa Doctrine of Spirit Baptism Shaped American Pentecostalism, accessed November, 2010.

MacArthur, John, “Perfect Love: Languages without Love” from the John MacArthur “Study Guide” Collection accessed November 2010.

Newberg, A., Wintering, N., Morgan, D., and Waldman, M., “The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during glossalalia: A preliminary SPECT study”, Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Volume 148, Issue 1, 2006.

Newbigen, Leslie, “The Community of the Spirit” in The Household of God, London: SCM Press, 1964.

Sungenis, Robert, Speaking in Tongues: A Historical, Psychological and Historical Analysis, (Catholic Apologetic International) accessed December 2010.

Turner, Max, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts in the New Testament Church and Now, Revised Edition, Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009.

Samarin, William J., Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

© 3rd of December 2010, Margaret Mowczko

This article has been adapted from an assignment submitted to the Australian College of Ministries on the 3rd of December, 2010.

Image Credit

The painting of Pentecost is by Canadian artist Gisele Bauche. The website of the Bauche family is here, and their Facebook page is here.

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