by Doug Ward

An excellent way to grow in biblical understanding is to ask new questions about the text, ones that have never occurred to you before. The search for answers to your questions can lead to fresh insights and deeper understanding.


I say this while not claiming to be a particularly accomplished investigator myself. In my own Bible study I tend, more often than not, to overlook obvious questions until they are pointed out to me. But I enjoy learning from the probing research that others have conducted on well-chosen questions.


A Question about Acts 2

As an example, consider the momentous events that launched the New Testament church, as described in the second chapter of the book of Acts. On the day of Pentecost, seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples of Jesus were enabled by the Spirit of God to speak powerfully to the thousands of worshippers assembled near the Temple in Jerusalem:


"When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:1-4, ESV).


The Jews from many countries who had traveled to Jerusalem for the festival were amazed by what they heard:


"Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, `Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians-we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.' And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, `What does this mean?' But others mocking said, `They are filled with new wine' " (vv. 5-13).


In trying to picture this scene, I have always imagined that many languages were spoken that day, but until recently I have neglected to ask the following question: Specifically, what were the native languages of the Jewish communities represented at the Temple that day?


One researcher who has asked this question is Bob Zerhusen, who investigated it while working on his master's thesis at Biola University's Talbot School of Theology. Zerhusen has concluded (see [3]) that for at least the vast majority of those who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost, the first language would have been Greek or Aramaic. Roughly speaking, Jews from the land of Israel and the eastern diaspora spoke Aramaic as their first language, while the native language of Jews from the western diaspora was Greek. Zerhusen cites a number of scholars in support of his conclusion.


One Question Leads to Another

Zerhusen's answer to our question immediately raises some additional questions. Traditionally it has been assumed that the "other tongues" mentioned in Acts 2:4 were languages that the disciples of Jesus did not already know. Based on this assumption, the perplexity of the onlookers is understood to have been caused by the linguistic prowess demonstrated by the disciples. The crowd marveled because these followers of Jesus were speaking in so many languages. However, if the disciples were mainly speaking in Aramaic and Greek-languages commonly spoken in the land of Israel-then what was the source of the crowd's amazement, and why did some accuse the speakers of being drunk?


Zerhusen believes that the key to answering these questions lies in understanding the unique position of the Hebrew language in first century Jewish culture. Hebrew was highly esteemed as the leshon ha-kodesh ("holy tongue"). It was the language of God, the language of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms, and thus the appropriate language for worship. Consequently, those who had come to Jerusalem for Pentecost expected to participate in a liturgy conducted entirely in Hebrew, even if they didn't understand very much Hebrew.


Anthropologists and linguists have a technical name for the type of language situation that I am describing. It is called a diglossia. In a diglossia, two languages play highly specialized roles. One language, designated "L" for "lower language," is a vernacular language used for everyday purposes. The other, called "H" for "higher language," is reserved for special purposes. For example, Latin once played the role of H in Europe, while in Islamic cultures, classical Arabic is H.


In a diglossia situation, crossing boundaries by using L in a situation reserved for H is often frowned upon. William Tyndale, for instance, violated this sort of taboo by daring to translate the Bible into English.


For the people who had made the trek to Jerusalem for Pentecost, H was Hebrew and L was usually Aramaic or Greek. In the worship at the Temple they expected to hear H, not L, and so they were surprised to hear the disciples of Jesus praising God in L. "Why are people carrying on in L on a solemn occasion that calls for H?", they may have wondered. "These people must be drunk."


An additional reason for the crowd's surprise was the prejudice with which Judeans typically viewed Galileans in those days (John 1:46; 7:15). Without real justification (see for example chapter 1 of [1]), Judeans saw Galileans as uneducated and provincial. Since Jesus was from Galilee (Matt. 21:11), as were many of his disciples, one way to insult the group would have been to dismissively lump them together as "Galileans." This was a way of implying that they were a group of yokels. Because of the anti-Galilean prejudice, some were surprised to hear Jesus' disciples proclaiming the mighty works of God with such authority.


Even More Questions

Zerhusen makes a strong case that the "other tongues" in Acts 2 were languages other than Hebrew, not necessarily languages that the disciples did not already know. In thinking about this explanation of Acts 2:1-13, I have some additional questions.  I list them below, giving some thoughts on each one:

· Does Zerhusen's reading remove the miraculous from Acts 2? No. The fact that the disciples of Jesus presented the gospel so powerfully and effectively that day, adding three thousand people to their ranks (v. 41), is the the major miracle that occurred, regardless of how many languages were spoken.  The “sound like a mighty rushing wind'' and the appearance of the “divided tongues as of fire'' were the initial stages of this miracle.

· What if more languages were required? Aramaic and Greek may not have been the only native languages represented among the worshippers in Jerusalem. Perhaps the two most likely additional candidates are Latin and Parthian. Renton Maclachlan ([2], chapter 7) argues that since Jesus intended his disciples to carry the gospel to all nations (Matt 28:19-20), he may well have assembled a group with enough collective language expertise to communicate with the cultures they would encounter. So even if more languages were involved at Pentecost, there may have been disciples of Jesus who knew them already.

· What about the "Sinai connection"? As I have written elsewhere1, I believe that God designed the events that day to evoke connections with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, a major milestone from Israel's history that was widely associated with Pentecost even then. According to one Jewish tradition, God spoke the words of the Decalogue in all the languages of the world at Mt. Sinai. The traditional number of languages is seventy, corresponding to the peoples listed in the "table of nations" in Gen 10.


It seems to me that this symbolism is preserved in Acts 2, regardless of the number of languages spoken. Even if only a few languages sufficed to communicate with all the worshippers in their native languages, the idea that the gospel would be communicated to all nations was conveyed clearly.


·         What about the two later times when the book of Acts mentions that people spoke in ``other languages''?  Were these languages known to the people who spoke them?  They may have been.  One of these times was the visit of Peter to Cornelius the centurion, when Cornelius and his friends and family received the Holy Spirit.  On this occasion Peter and the other Jewish believers who accompanied him to Caesarea reported to Luke, the author of Acts, that they heard the new Gentile believers “speaking in tongues and extolling God'' (Acts 10:46).  In this case, the “tongues'' could have been a language or languages known to Cornelius and his friends but unknown to Peter and those who accompanied him.  Machlachlan ([2], pp. 154-156) discusses this possibility.


The second such incident occurred in Ephesus, where some disciples of John the Baptist “began speaking in tongues and prophesying'' after being baptized in the name of Jesus (Acts 19:1-7).  Again, it is possible that the ``tongues''---i.e., ``other languages''---were known to the speakers but not to Luke, who was with Paul and witnessed these events. 


I find Zerhusen's reading of Acts 2:1-13 to be a fascinating alternative to the traditional interpretation.  In the end, though, I am not ready to rule out either reading.  I do not think there is any way to determine conclusively how many languages were spoken on that day of Pentecost, or whether the disciples of Jesus knew all of those languages.  Certainly God, if he so desires, can enable people to speak in languages that they do not know.  In any case there is value, I think, in asking questions like the one posed in the title of this article.  Such questions help us to reconsider familiar scriptures, dig deeper, and grow in understanding.



1.  David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, En-Gedi Resource Center, Holland, Michigan, 2005.

2.  Renton Maclachlan, Tongues Revisited:  A Third Way, ClearSight, Porirua, New Zealand, 2000.

3.  Bob Zerhusen, “An Overlooked Judean Diglossia in Acts 2?”, Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol. 25 (1995), pp. 118-130.


1See the article "Tongues of Fire: The Miracle of Pentecost" in Issue 8 of Grace & Knowledge.

Issue 24


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