Answer - Robert Zerhusen

From N.


‘…There are biblical reasons to take seriously the understanding of the Lord’s people down through the ages. For that reason a question that comes to my mind is, What kind of historic representation does this view have? Can it be determined what views those writers held who were the closest to those times chronologically?…’


To: N

Answer by : Bob Zerhusen

I want to attempt to deal with a common objection to the alternative interpretation of “other tongues” which I [and the author of ‘Tongues Revisited’ – Renton Maclachlan] propose to be the correct interpretation. The objection basically goes like this:

“But if you’re right, are you saying everyone else is wrong. How could you be right and everyone else is wrong or missed it?”

In my mind this objection is similar to the one which maintains that unless an interpretation is the earliest one found in church history/tradition, it must necessarily false.

First of all, let me say that if I am correct about how it happened, this situation is unique in church history, this did not happen with the development of other doctrine.

Second, we need to remember that in the entire scope of doctrine, the interpretation of the phrase “other tongues” is a nonessential in comparison to things like the trinity, deity of Christ, etc. You could be wrong on “tongues” and right about a lot of other things, including the most important things.

So what happened? How could almost the entire church have missed the proper interpretation of the phrase “other tongues”? Allow me to introduce two terms here: 
(1) the Jewish understanding of the phrase “other tongues” (which is that Hebrew is the sacred tongue versus all “other tongues” than Hebrew; thus “other tongues” means simply “other than Hebrew”); 
(2) the Gentile understanding of the phrase “other tongues” (which is that the phrase “other tongues’ means “other than their normal languages; which means that a language miracle occurs in which people speak languages they did not know or had never learned).

The available evidence suggests that the cultural setting (i.e., context) for the “other tongues” of Acts 2, was the Jewish festival of Pentecost [Shavaoth in Hebrew], which was occurring in Israel [the Holy land of the Jews], in Jerusalem [the Holy City of the Jews] at or near the temple [the holiest place for the Jews], and the crowd gathered there [according to Acts 2 they were “devout men”] was expecting to be hearing the sacred tongue of Judaism, Hebrew, [the Holy tongue] spoken during the temple liturgy rather than their native languages, their vernacular languages, their local languages [which available evidence suggests were primarily the Aramaic and Greek languages]. 

They expected, in this thoroughly Jewish cultural setting and context, to be hearing the Holy Tongue, Hebrew. Instead, the disciples of Jesus, began to speak in “other tongues [than Hebrew]”. Some in the crowd were amazed and some ridiculed this speaking of languages other than Hebrew. This scenario perfectly fits Jewish culture and the Jewish understanding of the phrase “other tongues”. Luke competent historian that he was, properly records the description of the speaking of languages other than Hebrew in Acts 2. So I believe that the narrative of Acts 2 involves the Jewish understanding of the phrase “other tongues” not the Gentile understanding.

The use of the proper language in the worship service would have been an important issue in the early first century church because the early church was primarily Jewish. But we know that the proper language in worship was an issue because the first recorded division in the early church involved the “Hellenists” (who spoke Greek as their native language and used Greek in their worship service) and the “Hebrews” (who spoke Aramaic as their native language and probably used Hebrew in their worship service), see Acts 6:1ff.

There were also some historical factors that led to the development of a primarily Gentile church including: 
(1) the persecution of the early church forcing them to spread out of Jerusalem;  
(2) the effectiveness of the church of Antioch and missionary efforts of the apostle Paul [again spreading out the church to areas outside Jerusalem and Israel]; 
(3) the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.; and 
(4) the present hardening of Israel and openness of the Gentiles (see especially Paul’s discussion of this in Rom. 9-11).  
The church when it first began was almost exclusively Jewish, with the combination of these factors (and others) the church became almost exclusively Gentile. Question: Do Gentiles have any problem worshipping the Lord in languages other than Hebrew? No, in fact most Gentiles wouldn’t even know Hebrew and would be more familiar and comfortable with languages other than Hebrew.

Acts 2 involved the Jewish understanding of “other tongues.” But with the change in composition of the early church from predominately Jewish to predominately Gentile, the issue, or ‘controversy’, involving the use of languages other than Hebrew would cease and the “other tongues” than Hebrew of Acts 2 would become a non-issue, something no longer having the importance which it had had in Acts 2 and Acts 6.

When we examine early church tradition and interpretation, we find something very surprising, a gap between the events of Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians and the first reference to “tongues”. A gap of about 100 years in which no one refers to, or discusses the controversy of “other tongues” whatsoever. 

The first reference is by Irenaeus, which is also contemporary with the heretical movement called Montanism. Scholars are divided about whether Irenaeus is referring to the Montanist, or influenced by the Montanists, or writing independently of Montanism. We do know that the Montanists claimed that the rest of the church was lukewarm spirituality, lacking in the power of the early church, and that the church had to “get back” to having the power like the apostles did. Based on this reasoning the Montanists claimed that they had the power of the Holy Spirit, and the gifts of the Spirit. Can you guess which NT passages they would point to to validate their “experiences”? Did you know that some modern charismatics view the Montanists as their earliest forerunners. Guess how Irenaeus and the Montanists interpreted the phrase “other tongues”? With the Gentile understanding of “other tongues” as “other than their normal languages.” Did Irenaeus or the Montanists discuss Jewish culture in their interpretation of the phrase “other tongues”? No. Did they show that while the Jews have made the differentiation between Hebrew versus “other tongues” for thousands of years, this differentiation did not ‘apply’ in the interpretation of Acts 2? No. The Montanists were only concerned about validating their alleged experiences by the use of “proof texts”. Usually, when people are “prooftexting” they ignore or minimize the context of the passage.

With the rise of the Montanists in the second century, the Gentile understanding of the phrase “other tongues” also developed. After this time, almost every interpreter adopted the Gentile understanding of the phrase “other tongues.” Virtually everyone holds to this Gentile understanding, the disagreement now is between those who believe that the language miracle of the first century ceased in the first century (ie., cessationists) and those who argue that it can happen again today, and is happening in their experience (i.e., charismatics and Pentecostals). But note carefully, almost everyone is operating from the Gentile understanding.

Now comes the “bombshell”, what if the Gentile understanding is wrong? What if the original events of Acts 2 did involve the Jewish understanding of the phrase “other tongues” as meaning “other than Hebrew”?

That would mean that the earliest interpretation of the phrase “other tongues” was that the phrase meant other than Hebrew. That would also mean that the Gentile understanding of the phrase “other tongues” is a departure from the original meaning of the phrase in Acts 2 and that the Gentile understanding is wrong! It would also mean that ‘anyone’ regardless of their education, intelligence, or prominence in church history, who adopted the Gentile understanding would be wrong.  

All of these things would explain how almost all of the church could be wrong in its interpretation of the phrase “other tongues” in Acts 2. They have been operating from the wrong understanding (ie. the Gentile understanding).

This should lead us to some important questions including:  How would you know which understanding (the Jewish or the Gentile) of the phrase “other tongues” is the correct one in interpreting Acts 2? Have Christian scholars taken into account the Jewish differentiation between Hebrew versus “other tongues” in their investigation of Acts 2? Was the cultural setting of Acts 2 Jewish? Would the Jewish understanding have any application to the interpretation of Acts 2? What was the Jewish context in regard to languages, for Acts 2 (including what were the native languages of the Acts 2 crowd? What was the place of Hebrew in Jewish culture at that time? What languages did the disciples of Jesus know how to speak/not speak?)? Note, these are the kinds of questions most Christians (including scholars) never have asked, but needed to be asked and answered!