Speaking in Tongues in the Bible

What happened at Pentecost?

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2015.—Ed.

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
—Acts 2:4


SPEAKING IN TONGUES IN THE BIBLE. This Armenian manuscript was illustrated by Zakaria Gnunetsi in 1575. It depicts Acts 2 when Jesus’ disciples receive the gift of speaking in tongues at Pentecost. Some believe this is the first instance of glossolalia in the Bible, but others maintain that the disciples are speaking human languages.

What happened at Pentecost in the New Testament?

Acts 2 describes a miracle: During the festival of Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples are given the Holy Spirit, and they begin speaking in tongues (other languages). Are the disciples speaking in human languages, or is this an instance of glossolalia in the Bible?

Glossolalia—speaking in angelic tongues—is described as a spiritual gift in 1 Corinthians 12–14. Webster’s dictionary defines glossolalia as “prayer characterized chiefly by incomprehensible speech, originating in primitive Christianity and now practiced by Pentecostal groups in ecstatic forms of worship.”

Ben Witherington III addresses what happened at Pentecost in his Biblical Views column “Speaking in the Tongues of Men or Angels?” in the July/August 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. While some believe that Acts 2 is the first instance of glossolalia in the Bible, he maintains that it is not.

When the disciples begin speaking in tongues, Acts 2:6 says that the crowd of Diaspora Jews who were in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost “gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”

Those who believe this is an instance of glossolalia in the Bible say that two miracles took place: The disciples were speaking in angelic tongues, and each person heard the message in his native language. However, Ben Witherington III contends that just one miracle occurred. The disciples miraculously began speaking other human languages, which is supported by the Greek grammar of Acts 2:6. Witherington explains:

The phrase “in their native language” modifies the verb “speaking” in verse 6, not the verb “hearing.” So there is exactly one miracle of speech at Pentecost—a miracle my Greek students regularly pray for, namely, the ability to suddenly speak a foreign language without further study! In short, the Pentecost story is not about glossolalia, despite the name of the modern Protestant denomination. If you want to find a story about glossolalia in a story about conversion in Acts, then you should turn to the story of Cornelius in Acts 10.

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TOWER OF BABEL. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Tower of Babel is on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Ben Witherington III explains that what happened at Pentecost—speaking in tongues—overcame the effect of the Tower of Babel—the confusion of language.

Witherington further explains that what happened at Pentecost is the opposite of what occurred at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9). As a result of the Tower of Babel, human language is confused, and a language barrier is created, but at Pentecost, the language barrier is surmounted:

At Pentecost the multiple languages problem and language barrier is not resolved, but the Good News overcomes the problem by being shared in all the various languages of the persons present there. While Pentecost doesn’t reverse the effect of God’s confusing the languages at Babel, it overcomes the problem for the sake of the salvation of the nations.

To see Ben Witherington III’s full analysis of what happened at Pentecost, read his Biblical Views column “Speaking in the Tongues of Men or Angels?” in the July/August 2015 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read the full Biblical Views column “Speaking in the Tongues of Men or Angels?” by Ben Witherington III in the July/August 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on July 13, 2015.


Learn more about Pentecost and read more articles by Ben Witherington III in the BAS Library:

Bargil Pixner, “Church of the Apostles Found on Mt. Zion,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1990.

Ben Witherington III, “Biblical Views: Text Archaeology: The Finding of Lightfoot’s Lost Manuscripts,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2014.

Ben Witherington III, “Biblical Views: Images of Crucifixion: Fresh Evidence,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2013.

Ben Witherington III, “In the Beginning: Religion at the Dawn of Civilization,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2013.

Ben Witherington III, “Biblical Views: Spirited Discourse About God Language in the New Testament,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2012.

Ben Witherington III, “Biblical Views: Making Sense of the Unlikely Easter Story,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2011.

Ben Witherington III, “Biblical Views: Jesus Has the Last Word,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2010.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


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  • George says

    Consider, Angelic Translator Angels, needed, for example you have difficulties and you use a Spirit Answer, but how to tell you, example: a mute Spirit and you or disciple must cast out that mute spirit, you have perhaps a need for a translator Sign Language Interpreter., to use authority to do so.

    Maybe all Angels speak only one languages, the majority or perhaps they specialize in different languages, who knows but that would be why it is extremely rare that one person learns anything spiritual with authority without first spending much time with the Lord God in Prayer and Fellowship as well as in Study of His Holy Words.

  • Gabriel says

    Dear Kate,
    I just chose lalelu to express that it is no language. I also could have chosen babble as you say.

  • Kevin says

    Speaking in tongues..as pertains to Pentecost. The Apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit spoke through them; everyone…everyone , understood them. It wasn’t the chaotic gibberish that no one understands as exhibited today by these phony, baloney preachers on t.v. or in so called Pentecostal churches. If their(ability) to speak in tongues was real, everyone no matter what race, ethnicity, or dialect, would understand it with clarity! That is what happened at Pentecost. People are being hoodwinked and bamboozled by phony preachers, teaching false doctrine. These are the people who will present themselves before Jesus saying ” Lord I witnessed for you, I spoke in tongues to the people” and Jesus will look at them and say “get away from me I never knew you”. Scripture when taught is meant for “profit”; what spiritual profit is there in some preacher, preaching gibberish to his flock, and them walking away confused. God is not the author of confusion! The two witnesses of Revelation, and God’s elect will speak in tongues when they are offered up before anti Christ, and the whole world will understand them. Just as it was at Pentecost. Remember…The ONLY unpardonable sin, is refusing to let the Holy Spirit to speak through you at this time, not your words, but the Word of God professed by intervention of THE Holy Spirit. Not the perverse exaggerations of some false preacher trying to give validity to his/her closeness to the Father.

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