What are “tongues” in Acts 2? (Part 1)

We’ve been having quite a discussion on tongues recently, so I thought it would be good to take a little break, and examine tongues in Acts 2.

Tongues are usually seen as referring to one of five main possibilities:1 (1) A miraculous gift of hearing that allows listeners to hear in their native language what a speaker is speaking in a different language. (2) The non-miraculous (learned) speaking of a human language. (3) Unintelligible, ecstatic speech. (4) Ecstatic speech in a “heavenly language” which cannot be widely understood, but is comprehensible by someone exercising the gift of interpretation. (5) The miraculous speaking of a human language.

Are tongues in Acts 2 a gift of hearing, rather than speaking?

Despite support from the Anchor Bible Dictionary,2 and elsewhere3 this option can be dismissed fairly quickly. Not only is the phenomenon called tongues not ears, but only 2:6 and 2:8 gives any suggestion that the gift might be one of hearing. Yet as both verses are given from the perspective of the hearers, hearing inevitably becomes the point of reference. In itself, that proves nothing. 2:4 (reinforced by 2:11) makes it clear that the 120 were speaking other languages. Johnson argues that “the divided response of the crowd is decisive”, but the speaking of many human languages (to be covered in a future post), would also explain that phenomenon. Carson also rightly adds that “Luke’s purpose is to associate the descent of the Spirit with the Spirit’s activity among the believers, not to postulate a miracle of the Spirit among those who were still unbelievers.”4 Turner makes the same point even more strongly, “[Luke] would hardly be inclined to suggest that the apostolic band merely (say) babbled ecstatically and incomprehensibly, whilst the Spirit worked, in the as-yet unbelieving diaspora pilgrims…”.5


[1] Though Cartledge lists thirteen, and he does not include the theory put down by Zerhusen (to be covered later in this series). Mark J. Cartledge, “The Nature and Function of New Testament Glossolalia”, Evangelical Quarterly, 72:2 (2000), pp 136-139. Of the thirteen he lists, many can be simplified into one category (as done here), and some have only been argued from Corinthians, not from Acts.

[2] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Tongues, Gift Of,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pg 6:597, and therefore also Luke Timothy Johnson, “Glossolalia and the Embarrassments of Experience”, Princeton Seminary Bulletin, 18 (1997), pg 117. For a different perspective within the Anchor Bible Dictionary see Horn, “Holy Spirit,” pg 3:267.

[3] eg Janet Meyer Everts, “Tongues or Languages? Contextual Consistency in the Translation of Acts 2”, Journal of Pentecostal Theology, 4 (1994); Anthony C. Thistelton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), pg 1100. See also the works cited by Everts, footnote 9, page 74.

[4] Don A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1987), pg 138.

[5] Max Turner, “Early Christian Experience and Theology of ‘Tongues’: A New Testament Perspective,” in Speaking in Tongues: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives, ed. Mark J. Cartledge, Studies in Pentecostal and Charismatic Issues (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2006), pg 5.


  1. I just want to clarify. Are you only talking about Acts 2 here are are you saying that there are five main theories concerning the gift of tongues overall?

    If you are just talking about the gift of tongues in Acts 2 then I agree. But if you are talking about the gift of tongues throughout Scripture then I would like to point out that you completely missed the charismatic/pentecostal understanding of the gift of tongues.

  2. Robert: This mini-series of posts will deal exclusively with Acts 2, but I would have thought that option 4, “Ecstatic speech in a “heavenly language” which cannot be widely understood, but is comprehensible by someone exercising the gift of interpretation” would cover the Pentecost/charismatic position. (I acknowledge that the words “ecstatic” and “heavenly language” aren’t necessarily helpful, but it’s hard to choose words that everyone likes!)

    I’m aware there are a myriad of understandings of tongues. I have 14 on my list! I’m trying to keep this list short and simple. How would you want to define charismatic tongue-speaking?

  3. I wasn’t there at Pentecost. I am puzzled why some of the group apparently did not hear anything but noise. They thought the disciples were just a bunch of drunk. So, I have tried out a psychological explanation on my blog.