What happened at Pentecost?
“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
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.
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.
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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on July 13, 2015.
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