Article - Robert Zerhusen 3

Detective Columbo As Theologian

A hypothetical description of the kinds of questions and overlooked details that Columbo might contribute if he investigated the “other tongues” of Acts 2.

Robert Zerhusen

Robert Zerhusen, M.Div., Th.M., has training in systematic theology. His interests include the application of cultural anthropology and linguistics to New Testament studies.  Robert is the Pastor at Oceanview Baptist Church in San Pedro, California (5/03). 


One of the most popular fictional characters is Television Detective Columbo. Columbo uses the “scientific method” (i.e., asking questions. gathering data, testing theories) to arrive at solutions. Columbo episodes usually follow a set pattern. First, there is a murder, leading to a police investigation. The initial explanations of the crime make sense but are invariably wrong.

Columbo begins by making observations and asking questions. His questions are innocuous at first. The questions then become irritating as he brings out problems with the initial explanations. For the person who has committed the crime, Columbo becomes a nuisance. Towards the end of the episode our beloved detective always brings out some “forgotten factor”, an overlooked detail which clearly points to the correct explanation of the crime.

Our story begins in the office of Dr. Trevor Hancock, world renowned Biblical scholar. Dr. Hancock is an aloof, temperamental man. The faculty secretary Mrs. Perkins, pages him: “Professor Hancock, a Detective Columbo is here to see you.”

“Detective who?” Hancock replies. The professor has forgotten about the special program. The University has arranged for people in the police department to meet people in the University. The goal is to build better relations between the Department and the University. In this case, Columbo has been paired with Professor Hancock and the research topic is the meaning of the “other tongues” of Acts 2.

Columbo is shown into the office by Mrs.Perkins. “Hello Dr. Hancock, my pleasure to meet you! Have you really read all of these books?”

“Yes I have.”

“I have to tell you Sir, I’ve never done serious research on the Bible before.”

The professor hands Columbo a Bible and opens it to Acts chapter 2 for him. He then opens his own Greek New Testament. Columbo notices the difference: “Sir, the Bible I have here is in English, but yours looks different.”

“Oh yes, this is in Greek.”

Surprised, Columbo asks: “So why are you looking at a Greek Bible Sir?”

“Well Detective, the first versions of the New Testament were written in Koine Greek.”

“What’s that Sir, Coney Greek?”

“No, Koine (coy-nay-a) means common, it was the Greek used throughout the Roman Empire at that time. Dr. Hancock reads Acts 2:1-36 in English, making observations and comments about the text to help Columbo understand the proper meaning of “other tongues.” “So we see that the ‘other tongues’ obviously were human languages supernaturally spoken by people who had never learned these languages. This language miracle caused intense amazement and ridicule in the hearers who heard the languages.”

Columbo hears this explanation and asks: “Is this the most popular interpretation among scholars today?”

“Actually it’s not the view most scholars hold today, but it has been the dominant interpretation throughout church history.”

“So what’s the view of most of the scholars today Sir?”

“The other interpretation is often called the ‘ecstatic utterance’ interpretation. Those who hold this interpretation do not think that the ‘other tongues’ were human languages. Instead, they claim that the speakers uttered non-language utterances while in a state of religious excitement.”

“Sir, I’m no Bible scholar but the ‘other tongues’ seem to be human languages according to the text that we just read. So how do these other scholars come up with their view?”

Dr. Hancock smiles: “You are correct Detective, the text clearly presents ‘the other tongues’ as human languages; but they have their reasons.

Columbo scratches his head and says: “I have some questions about your view Sir.”

Taken back by the question Dr. Hancock responds: “Isn’t it obvious to you Detective? The disciples of Jesus were speaking languages they had never learned before.”

“Well that may be, Dr. Hancock, but I’m wondering about some things Sir.”

“Go ahead Detective ask your questions.” Dr. Hancock begins to laugh.

“Sir, where in these verses does it explicitly say that the speakers were speaking languages they had never learned before?”

‘That’s easy Detective, it says in Acts 2:4 that the speakers were speaking ‘other tongues’.”

“I saw that Sir, but it seems that you are interpreting the words ‘other tongues’ to mean languages that the speakers had never learned before.”

With a look of consternation the professor continues: “Detective, besides the phrase ‘other tongues’ in Acts 2:4, we also have the amazement of the hearers. These people were amazed that the uneducated disciples of Jesus were speaking in their native languages. Obviously the speakers could not have spoken all of the languages of the people listed in Acts 2:9-11.”

Pointing at the text Columbo asks: “This list in verses 9-11, what is this a list of Sir?”

“The list is a list of people-groups and areas where the hearers had come from.”

“So it’s not a list of languages Sir?”

“No Detective, no languages are listed in Acts 2:9-11.”

“No specific languages are mentioned in Acts 2 then?”

“Yes Detective, no specific languages are mentioned.” Columbo scribbles in his notebook.

“Well Dr. Hancock, if no languages are mentioned anywhere in these verses and if no verse explicitly says the speakers were speaking in languages they had never learned before, then how can we be sure that the speakers were speaking languages they had never learned before?”

“What kind of foolish question is that Detective? How else would you interpret the words ‘other tongues’? Other than what, Detective? It must mean other than what they ordinarily were able to speak.”

“Sir I could not go into court with only assumptions, I’d need facts.” Amazed, the professor responds: “Facts, Detective, what other facts do you need?”

“Well Sir, what languages were the speakers capable of speaking without God’s help?”

“That’s easy Detective, the four primary languages of Palestine were Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. And the primary native languages of the disciples would have been Aramaic and Greek.”

“So what you’re saying then Sir, is that the ‘other tongues’ must have been languages other than Aramaic and Greek. Is that right?”

“Yes, the ‘other tongues’ were languages the speakers had never learned. The speakers had learned Aramaic and Greek so the ‘other tongues’ had to be languages other than Aramaic and Greek. These ‘other tongues’ were the native languages of the amazed hearers.”

“About these hearers Sir, who were they?”

“Well they were predominately Jews who had come to Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Pentecost.”

“So they were all Jews from outside of Palestine?”

“No, Detective, at Jewish festivals most of the Jews present would have been Palestinian Jews from areas surrounding Jerusalem and some would have come from the Diaspora.”

“Those who came from areas surrounding Jerusalem, what were their native tongues?”

“As residents of Palestine, their native languages would have been Aramaic and Greek. Any more questions Detective?”

“That’s enough for now Dr. Hancock, thank-you for your time.” Columbo stands and begins to walk out of the office. “Just one more question Sir. Did the crowd understand Peter when he began to speak to them?”

“Of course!”

“Peter was using one language that everyone understood?”

“Apparently so Detective.”

“Sir could we gather Jews from around the world bring them to Jerusalem today, speak in one language and have them all understand?”

“Probably not Detective, what are you getting at?”

“It seems odd to me Sir that the speakers would need a miracle to speak the languages of the crowd and yet Peter could speak to them all and be understood in one language.”

“Good-day Detective” said the professor with a frustrated look.

“As Columbo leaves he stops at the desk of Mrs. Perkins: “He’s a very smart man.” She replies: “Oh Yes, that’s why he was selected to do the book.”

“What book?” Colombo asks.

“Oh he was given a large contract and some grants to do a book on Acts 2. I believe the title will be The Miraculous Languages of Acts 2.”

“So Dr. Hancock will receive a large sum of money for doing this book?”

“He will receive the money we need to buy a new and better computer system.”

Columbo next visited Professor Hans Becker. Dr. Becker, a kind and gentle man, is well respected by the faculty and popular with the students. Professor Becker is an authority on first century Judaism. “Dr. Becker I found out from Dr. Hancock that the primary languages of Jews in Palestine in the first century were Aramaic and Greek.”

“That’s correct Detective Columbo.”

“My question Dr. Becker is about the Jews outside of Israel. What native languages did they speak?”

“Well Detective that depends upon where they resided. If they resided east of Palestine the dominant native language for most of the Jews would have been Aramaic. If they resided in areas west of Palestine the dominant native language for most of them would have been Greek.”

“You mean their native language wasn’t Hebrew?”

“Oh no Detective. Hebrew as a native tongue had been replaced by Aramaic in the east and Greek in the west. Many factors caused this change.” Columbo fascinated with this description of the language situation of first century Judaism asked Dr. Becker many questions about the extent of the use of Aramaic and Greek among the Jews.

Near the end of their conversation, Columbo asked: “You’re familiar with the Acts 2 narrative about the ‘other tongues’?”

“Yes Detective, why do you ask?”

“Well Dr. Becker, I have heard that Acts 2 describes a language miracle and that this is the majority opinion throughout church history.”

“Yes, it is the most popular view.”

“So then why do many scholars today not hold the language miracle view Dr. Becker?”

“Using myself as an example Detective. I am thoroughly familiar with the language situation of first century Judaism. We know that the speakers were able to speak the Aramaic and Greek languages without divine help. We also know that for the vast majority of Jew’s living outside of Palestine, their native languages were Aramaic or Greek. Therefore, if the speakers were speaking the native languages of the audience in Acts 2. The ‘other tongues’ would have included Aramaic and Greek. Languages the speakers already knew.”

“Something bothers me Dr. Becker.” The professor smiles: “What bothers you Detective.

“If the native languages were Aramaic and Greek as you say. And if the ‘other tongues’ would have included Aramaic and Greek, why would the speaking of the Aramaic and Greek languages by people who already knew these languages, have caused reactions of amazement and ridicule?”

“I don’t know Detective, but I don’t think the ‘other tongues’ were languages.” “Thank-you Sir” Columbo smiles as he shakes hands with Dr. Becker. With that answer Columbo left to go speak with a graduate student. The student’s name was Bob Hultberg. An excellent student, his idea for a thesis project had been rejected by Dr. Hancock. The professor had also used his authority to make sure no other professor helped Bob with the thesis project. “Bob what was your thesis project?”

“My thesis project would have been an alternative explanation for the ‘other tongues’ of Acts 2.”

“An alternative, were you attempting to establish the ‘ecstatic utterance’ interpretation?”

“No, the problem with the ‘ecstatic utterance’ interpretation is that the text presents the ‘other tongues’ as human languages.”

“And you don’t hold the language miracle interpretation either?”

“No, the problem with that interpretation is that it is never actually stated by the text. It is an assumption based on a particular interpretation of the phrase ‘other tongues. Furthermore, if we examine the language situation of first century Judaism we find that the vast majority of Jews, both Palestinian and Diaspora, spoke Aramaic and Greek as their native languages.”

“So how is that a problem for the language miracle interpretation Bob?”

“Well the logic of the language miracle view goes like this. First, if a miracle of languages occurred in Acts 2. The speakers had to be speaking languages they had never learned. We know that the speakers, as Palestinian Jews, had learned Aramaic and Greek. Therefore, by the logic of the language miracle view the ‘other tongues’ of Acts 2 could not have included Aramaic and Greek. Here’s the rub Detective Columbo. The historical facts tell us that the ‘other tongues’ had to include Aramaic and Greek. The language miracle interpretation tells us the ‘other tongues’ could not have included Aramaic and Greek. If we choose to accept the historical facts we must reject the language miracle view and vice-versa.”

Columbo was curious now: “So what’s your alternative interpretation Bob?”

“I don’t know yet, I never fully researched the subject. But the text forces us to reject the ecstatic utterance interpretation. And the language situation forces us to reject the language miracle interpretation. I presented these things to Dr. Hancock and he refused to be my thesis advisor. I asked other professors and they all turned me down.”

“That’s too bad Bob, I think that you should get the chance.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence Detective Columbo.”

“Sure Bob. I’m still bothered by the fact the ‘other tongues’ must have included Aramaic and Greek. I keep asking myself: why would Luke describe Aramaic and Greek as ‘other tongues’? And why would the speaking of Aramaic and Greek by people who knew these languages cause amazement and ridicule? Somehow I think I’m missing something here!”

“There must be a rational alternative Detective, I just wish I could help you.”

Columbo continued to work the problem by investigating two overlooked sources. First, he wondered: Is it possible that the Jewish people make a differentiation of languages of some sort? Second, he began questioning Linguists seeking to explain why Aramaic and Greek could be described as “other tongues” and how the speaking of these languages could cause amazement and ridicule. Armed with this new information he was ready to meet with Dr. Hancock again. Columbo laid it all out for the professor.

“Do you remember our first talk Dr. Hancock? You admitted that no specific languages were mentioned in Acts 2. You also made a statement that the ecstatic utterances proponents ‘have their reasons.’ Well, I checked out those ‘reasons’ Sir. For example, Dr. Becker showed me that the vast majority of the Jews outside of Palestine spoke Aramaic or Greek as their native languages. Do you remember that you also told me that most of the crowd in Acts 2 would have been Palestinian Jews?”

“Yes, so!” Dr. Hancock’s eyebrows lowered.

“You said that the Jews of Palestine spoke Aramaic and Greek as their native tongues.”

“Everybody knows that Columbo!”

“Maybe so Sir. But do you realize what that means? If that’s true Sir, then for most of the Jew’s present in Acts 2, whether they were Palestinian Jews or Diaspora Jews, their native languages would have been Aramaic and Greek. You told me that the people in the Acts 2 crowd were hearing their own native languages. That means the ‘other tongues’ of Acts 2 had to include the Aramaic and Greek languages. Your view Sir does not allow for the ‘other tongues’ to have included Aramaic and Greek. Yet well established historical facts show that the ‘other tongues’ must have included Aramaic and Greek. Languages the speakers already knew.”

“No, Columbo the speakers were speaking in languages they didn’t know!”

“Your interpretation is an assumption contradicted by the historical facts Sir. Bob Hultberg told you that didn’t he? But you couldn’t allow him to research it further because your interpretation would have been discredited. And if your interpretation were discredited you wouldn’t receive the money for the new computer system. Getting money for the computer system was more important to you than the right interpretation.”

The professor was angry now: “So what is the correct interpretation Detective?”

“At first I wasn’t sure Dr. Hancock. My investigating led me to believe that Aramaic and Greek had to be included in the ‘other tongues of Acts 2. That was enough to refute your view but I still couldn’t understand why Luke would call Aramaic and Greek ‘other tongues’ And why would the speaking of Aramaic and Greek by people who knew those languages cause amazement and ridicule? Those questions bothered me Dr. Hancock.”

Sarcastically the professor replied: “They should bother you Detective.”

“So I talked with some Jewish rabbis and scholars. You know what I found out?”

“No, but I’m sure your going to tell me, aren’t you Detective?”

“Throughout their history the Jews have made a differentiation between the Hebrew language and other languages. Even when Hebrew was no longer the native language, the Jews often retained it as their religious language. They sometimes called it the ‘Holy Tongue’ as opposed to the other languages that they used for everyday purposes. What if ‘other tongues’ in Acts 2 means languages other than Hebrew? This would explain why Luke describes Aramaic and Greek as ‘other tongues.’ They were languages other than Hebrew. After talking with some Linguists I found out that they have developed a concept they call “Diglossia ” to describe what happens in some situations. A Diglossia exists when a community uses different languages for different purposes. Where a Diglossia exists, there is one language which is reserved for formal occasions, important occasions, religious occasions.

Linguists call this language the upper or ‘H language’ of the Diglossia. The language used for common, everyday purposes is called the lower or ‘L language’ of the Diglossia Here’s a chart to show how it’s diagrammed Dr. Hancock.” Columbo holds up a diagram which looks like this:

Upper Language: “H language” – Hebrew – “Holy Tongue”

Lower Language: “L language” – Aramaic/Greek – “other tongues”

The Linguists also told me that in a Diglossia situation intelligibility is less important than using the right language in the right situation. I think I know what they mean. Sometimes I go with my wife to Mass and the Mass is in Latin and I can’t understand it. But that’s the way they do it there. Maybe that’s a ‘Catholic Diglossia’, Dr. Hancock; I’m no expert. Anyway, it occurred to me after talking with the Linguists, maybe Acts 2 is describing the violation of a Jewish Diglossia.

Amazed, Dr. Hancock asks: “How could someone like you ever come up with this Detective?”

“The setting of Acts 2 also seems to be thoroughly Jewish. The Jews have sometimes considered themselves to be the chosen, holy people of God. They had gathered in their holy land Palestine. They were in Jerusalem, their Holy city, for a festival. Near the temple, the place they considered to be the holiest place on earth. Dr. Hancock, what language do you think they were expecting to hear in this situation?”

“Well, er, um, probably Hebrew. This doesn’t make sense!” The professor felt trapped.

“Instead of hearing their ‘Holy Tongue,’ Hebrew, the speakers in Acts 2 began to speak out in the lower languages of the Jewish Diglossia, Aramaic and Greek. Jews from the Diaspora, who for the most part didn’t know Hebrew, were amazed to be hearing their native languages being spoken in this situation. They had expected the H language of the Jewish Diglossia, Hebrew. Instead, they were hearing the L languages, Aramaic and Greek, their native languages.”

“What about the ridicule Detective?”

“Others were angered by the speaking of profane languages when the sacred language was proper for the situation. For these Jews the speaking of ‘other languages’ than Hebrew was a violation of the sacred. From their perspective, only a drunk could ignore cultural expectations in this way. So you see Dr. Hancock, there is an alternative explanation for the ‘other tongues’ of Acts 2. I’m no theologian so I think you should have Bob Hultberg research this further.”