Article - Language Miracle?

A powerful argument against the ‘language miracle’ view of ‘tongues’

By Renton Maclachlan

Tongues Revisited: A Third Way was written primarily to refute the claim of Pentecostals/Charismatics (PC’s) that what they experience and call ‘tongues’ today is what the Bible refers to. Numerous lines of argument are used to show this claim to be false. What the author believes the Bible does refer to is spelt out as the thesis of the book:

‘That Biblical tongues are normal human languages, normally learnt and normally spoken.’

The PC view of course is not the only one challenged by the thesis of Tongues Revisited. The traditional non-Charismatic ‘language miracle’ (LM) view is equally challenged, and the response from those holding it has been of a similar nature to that from the PC’s: the thesis of Tongues Revisited, so far as it has been understood (poorly in most cases) has been rejected.

A powerful, interesting argument against the ‘LM’ view has just been put. The seeds of this argument have been around for a while, but as far as I am aware, it has only recently been formulated this way.

Central and essential to the ‘LM’ view is the idea that the languages spoken by the disciples on the Day of Pentecost (‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.’ Acts 2:4) – were languages they had not learnt and thus were miraculously spoken. The Holy Spirit, it is claimed, miraculously gave the disciples on the Day of Pentecost the ability to speak languages which until then they had not learnt and so had never spoken.

The response of part of the crowd is recorded in Acts 2:8 ‘…how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language (dialect)? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs, we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”’

It is clear from this that the languages spoken by the disciples were the native dialects of the hearers, and the ‘LM’ view proponents have maintained that the people from all the geographical regions and nationalities listed were spoken to by means of miraculously spoken ‘unlearned’ human languages.

Now…is it known what the native languages referred to were? As a matter of fact it is, by and large. They were predominantly Aramaic, Greek and Latin – the first two being the languages of the Eastern and Western Diaspora of the Jews respectively (the Diasporas conformed to the regions given in the list) and the latter presumably being the language of ‘…visitors from Rome’ – though it seems Jews from Rome were actually Greek speakers. Some may dispute that the languages were limited to so few and argue that far more languages were spoken than just three. Traditionally the LM view has said there were different native languages for each of the areas and peoples listed, in fact often the list is spoken of as referring to languages! Personally, I think that while Greek and Aramaic speakers were by far the majority there that day, perhaps more languages were spoken, though some of them just dialects of Aramaic and Greek. But one thing should be noted and underlined. The list given in Acts 2:9-11 is a list of geographical regions (10), and national groups (5), not languages – not even one language is mentioned. It is surprising how many people have missed this.

Whatever languages were spoken however, they were the native languages of   ‘…God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven’ , in other words Diaspora Jews – and that is even those given a national identity in the list. (As an aside, the term ‘every nation under heaven’ of course does not need to be understood in an absolute sense – i.e. South America, Australia, Alaska, etc. The term is constrained by the context – the list given.)

Very interestingly, included in the list is ‘Judea’. What was the native language of Judea? Even if there was dispute about the native languages of the other areas, the native language of Judea is known. It was Aramaic. I don’t think there is any dispute about this – it is well established. So one language that the disciples supposedly spoke without having learnt was therefore Aramaic.

But…this raises a serious problem. Many of the disciples – I take it all the Apostles – not only knew Aramaic, it was their native language, learnt on their parents knee! So here we have the disciples supposedly miraculously speaking under the power of the Holy Spirit in languages it is claimed emphatically they had not learnt, yet speaking Aramaic, which emphatically they had learnt!

This is a major contradiction.

In response LM proponents may say that not necessarily all the languages were miraculously spoken. If some of the disciples did speak in their mother tongue then obviously no language miracle would be required in that case. Of course. However, if this route it taken, it is actually a major change in the LM view as it has been presented up until now. Personally I have not come across anyone making an exception for ‘Judea’ in the list. The only non-miraculous speaking has been attributed to Peter in his recorded address.

LM proponents may modify their view to exempt the people from Judea from hearing miraculously spoken Aramaic, but leave the people from all the other areas to be spoken to miraculously. But several things should be noted. 

  1. The only occasion so far that I have ever heard of such a modified view was when it was put in response to the argument I’m presenting – which I think in itself is an indication of the strength of the argument, in that as soon as it was heard, it brought about a modification of the view it challenges.
  2. Secondly, LM proponents have to acknowledge that the list does not read as though there are any exceptions in it.
  3. Thirdly, if there are exceptions, how do they know that Judea is the only one? Can LM proponents tell us with any confidence what languages were spoken, and if so, which ones would not have been miraculously known? Has any LM expert ever given a real list to us, one drawn from real linguistic studies of the areas and peoples, as opposed to speculative lists of the sort Chrysostom gave when he said: ‘The whole passage is exceedingly obscure; what creates obscurity is both ignorance of these matters and the cessation of things which happened then but do not now occur…And so each began to speak, one in the tongue of the Persians, another in that of the Romans, another in that of the Indians, or some other language…” Chrysostom says he is ignorant of what really occurred yet purports to then tell us that some spoke the language of the Persians etc, without telling us what languages Persians, Romans, Indians, etc, spoke! So…has a LM proponent ever given us a real list?

LM proponents assert a LM occurred without giving any objective proof, thus the assertion amounts to speculation only. But if the LM view rests on speculation, then others are equally free to speculate, and so the Third Way proponents speculate that no LM occurred and that the languages spoken were known to the speakers of them prior to the Pentecost events.

“Well,” may answer the LM proponent, “I speculate, and you speculate, and therefore its even-stevens.”

Not so fast. Third Way proponents have done and are doing work on what the native languages of the various areas and peoples were, and has documented evidence of what they were. Devout Jews of the western Diaspora spoke Greek, thus those from Egypt spoken Greek, not ‘Egyptian’ – that is why the Septuagint was translated in Egypt, from Hebrew into Greek, and those of the Eastern Diaspora and Israel – even Jesus himself – spoke Aramaic. So it’s not just ‘even-stevens’ as far as speculations go. The Third Way has linguistic studies in support, and I think that weights the game in favour of the Third Way.

It certainly appears to me that the ‘language miracle’ view begins to seriously unglue at this point.

As I have noted in Tongue Revisited, it does not say anywhere in the text of Scripture that the languages spoken were unlearned. That is a presupposition brought to the text, but is not an idea explicitly found in the text. LM proponents say it is deduced from the text and I understand completely the arguments they make in this regard. However I suggest the presupposition, and the deduction it is based on, is wrong.

With the PC view unable to account for what is described in Acts 2, and with this serious contradiction in the LM view now in the open, this leaves the Third Way. Of course, both PC and LM views then challenge particular points of the Third Way to knock it off the table, but I’m satisfied all such challenges to date have been adequately met.

While I freely acknowledge that not all the cultural/linguistic aspects and implications have yet been teased out, the Third Way alone consistently binds all the Biblical material together into one harmonious whole.