What are “tongues” in Acts 2? (Part 3)

We’ve been examining the question of “tongues” in Acts 2. In part 1 we addressed the question: Are tongues in Acts 2 a gift of hearing, rather than speaking? Then, in the second part, we addressed two questions: Are tongues in Acts 2 unintelligible, ecstatic speech? and Are tongues in Acts 2 a “heavenly language” understood only by interpretation?

Today I want to deal with a much bigger question: Are tongues in Acts 2 the non-miraculous speaking of a human language?

I’m going to do so at some length, and in much more detail than most of my posts, partly because most people dismiss this suggestion very quickly without thinking through the arguments (which are actually quite persuasive). If you’ve not read Bob Zerhusen’s A New Look at Tongues, you might find that interesting reading before you proceed.

Are tongues in Acts 2 the non-miraculous speaking of a human language?

The option that tongues in Acts 2 is the non-miraculous (learned) speaking of a human language immediately runs into the difficulty of understanding how uneducated men (cf 4:13) could speak in the native languages of all those listed in 2:9-11.12 Bob Zerhusen is probably the only modern scholar to mount a credible case for the position, and it will be necessary to interact with him at length, as there has been little response to his position thus far. He cites various linguistic scholars who explain the phenomenon of diglossia, that is when ancient languages are reserved for a special function, often a religious one.3 One modern example he gives of diglossia is that of ecclesiastical Latin. Zerhusen believes that diglossia existed in first-century Palestine, and that the expectation was that religious speech would occur exclusively in the ancient Hebrew language rather than the more contemporary Aramaic or Greek. The expectation that the crowd would have of the 120 therefore was for them to speak in Hebrew rather than the native tongue of the speakers. Instead, they spoke in “other tongues”, that is in Greek and/or Aramaic. As it is extremely likely that the 120 would be able to speak both Aramaic and Greek without need of a language-miracle, this opens up the possibility of tongues being non-miraculous speaking of human languages.

To argue his case, Zerhusen has to prove: (1) That this “ecclesiastical” language existed. (2) That the 120 would be able to naturally speak both Hebrew and Greek and/or Aramaic. (3) That the “native language” (2:8) of those present was Greek and/or Aramaic. (4) That to speak in the “common tongue” would bring about the bewilderment, amazement and astonishment described in 2:6‑7. (5) That the event as described is sufficiently significant for Luke to record it as the coming of the eschatological age. Each point will therefore be examined in turn.

1) Does the “Judean diglossia” exist?

On point (1), Zerhusen cites a considerable amount of evidence, and further support can be found in other works. For example Mayer Gruber commences his article on language in The Encyclopedia of Judaism with the words, “Language, especially Hebrew, has a theological significance in Judaism not commonly associated with language in any other religion.”4 On this point, therefore, there is sufficient evidence to support Zerhusen.

2) Would the 120 be able to speak Greek and/or Aramaic?

On the second point there is certainly a wealth of evidence to suggest that most if not all of the residents described in 2:9-11 would be able to understand Greek and/or Aramaic, not least that they were all able to understand Peter when he finally addressed them as a group. On this point too, the evidence supports Zerhusen.

3) Was the “native language” of those present Greek and/or Aramaic?

The 120 do not speak in a language that others merely understand, they speak in the native language of the crowd (2:8), literally “our own language in which we were born” (τῇ ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ ἡμῶν ἐν ᾗ ἐγεννήθημεν).

This polyglot preaching was heard in an amazing array of dialects and languages (2:8-11). It seems that Luke is arranging people by their language rather than borrowing from ancient astrological lists.5 Yet however you understand the origin of the list, it is clear the Luke wants to convey the great diversity in geography and language of the Jewish diaspora who were present. Bruce is right that “the event was nothing less than a reversal of the curse of Babel”.6

What would be the birth-language of Jews who were Parthians and Medes and Elamites, etc.? This is an extremely difficult question to answer, principally because…

…the sources for Jewish life in the Diaspora in the first century are very limited indeed… The overwhelming majority of inscriptions, which are our main and the most important source, belong to the period from the end of the second century AD and later. The first century is extremely poorly represented by epigraphic evidence…7

The problem is not just limited to the lack of evidence of the Diaspora. The specific lack of evidence for spoken language is highlighted by Michael Wise:

Unfortunately, the nature of the linguistic evidence from ancient Palestine makes a complete linguistic analysis impossible. The best one can hope for is an approximation of the facts. Many factors contribute to this difficulty. For example, in understanding a linguistic community it is essential to distinguish between spoken and written forms of language, but by definition the spoken language was rarely written down; even more rarely have any such materials survived into the present… One must therefore draw appropriately tentative conclusions.8

However, Wise does go on to say:

Given modern analogies, it is likely that Palestine in Jesus’ day was a welter of dialects and languages, many of which have left no written record at all. Certain other languages which have left some record—for example, Latin and Nabatean—were certainly in use among small numbers of Jews (and larger numbers of Gentiles) in first-century Palestine.9

Zerhusen is certainly right to argue that those listed in 2:9-11 shared a common language (Greek), but he has not been able to prove that this was their birth-language. What little evidence there is hints at the survival of many languages alongside Koine Greek, as the continued presence of Aramaic itself demonstrates.10 It is an over-simplification to suggest that the Greek language completely ousted the various other languages, and therefore Zerhusen fails to provide this crucial third piece of evidence.

4) Would the “Judean diglossia” explain the bewilderment, amazement and astonishment described in 2:6-7?

Zerhusen addresses the problem only very briefly, suggesting that the violation of the diglossia is sufficient cause.11 Here too, the evidence is against him. Whilst he is right to suggest that Hebrew was highly regarded as a religious language, it is not the only language thus regarded – particularly amongst those in the diaspora:

The Letter of Aristeas attests to the belief that the Greek version of the Pentateuch, the Septuagint, no less than the Hebrew Pentateuch, was given by God in the presence of representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel… Thus, when the Mishnah appeared in its final form, c. 220 C.E., referring to Hebrew as “the holy language,” it reckoned with a belief going back at least 400 years, that Greek no less than Hebrew is a sacred language in which both Scripture and liturgy may be sung in the synagogue.12

Stanley Porter concurs, arguing both that, “The broad conceptual problems with discussing diglossic or bilingualism in first-century Palestine are notoriously difficult”,13 and more importantly:

The Greek evidence, including the composition of religious texts in Greek in Palestine (1 Esdras, 2 Maccabees, as well as the importance of the LXX), points away from Hebrew’s preservation as a prestige religious language — except in perhaps certain restricted religious linguistic contexts. Greek was, I believe the evidence shows, the prestige language of Palestine in the first century.14

In other words, whilst the Hebrew language may have had a religious function, its use was not so fixed or sacrosanct that the use of Greek could explain the reaction of the crowd as Luke portrays it.

This evidence from Levinskaya, Wise, Gruber, and Porter is all pointing in the same direction. The evidence Zerhusen needs to prove his case will be very difficult to come by. And whilst it is certainly true that “one of the side effects of working with little or no data is that it becomes very difficult to refute scholars whom one disagrees with”,15 what little evidence is available points to the opposite conclusions to the ones that Zerhusen draws.16

5) What is the significance of the event as reconstructed by Zerhusen?

This final question addresses not so much evidence, but rather asks why Luke would have recorded the story if Zerhusen’s reconstruction is accurate. In other words, how is the inclusion of 2:3-14 in Luke’s narrative explained if no language-miracle took place?17 Given the eschatological significance of Pentecost,18 what role does Zerhusen’s reconstruction have in telling Luke’s fulfilment story? It seems extremely unlikely that Luke is merely recording that some Jews were upset because Peter was not following the correct protocol.19 It is far more likely that the significance of the Pentecost event is demonstrated (at least in part) by the miraculous nature of the gospel preaching – to those from every language and every nation.


Are tongues in Acts 2 non-miraculous and intelligible? It has been shown that five pieces of evidence are needed to prove Zerhusen’s proposal. Two of those pieces are there, two are not (the evidence for birth-languages, and the explanation for the amazement of the crowd), and the fifth (the apparent lack of eschatological significance) also suggests Zerhusen is wrong. It is therefore hard to find Zerhusen’s proposal convincing, particularly when there are significantly more attractive proposals available.


[1] In a popular-level work, Hudson Mackenzie argues that the 120 were not all Galilean, this was just a misconception of the crowd. Rather, the 120 included Jews of the dispersion who had been converted on previous visits to Jerusalem, and could therefore speak in all the languages required. However, this view is inadequate because (1) Mackenzie does not present any external evidence to support his case. (2) There is no suggestion within the gospels that diaspora Jews were converted, or that the 120 included such men/women. (3) Mackenzie does not explain how this speaking in tongues could be a fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy. (4) Mackenzie assumes, rather than demonstrates, that all occurrences of the Spirit being poured out, or of speaking in tongues must be identical. (5) Mackenzie overstates his case by not interacting sufficiently with opposing views. Hudson F. Mackenzie, Natural Tongues: Exploring Acts and Corinthians (Hamilton: Walker Printers, n.d.)

[2] Robert Zerhusen, “An Overlooked Judean Diglossia in Acts 2?” Biblical Theology Bulletin, 25:3 (1995).

[3] Although the concept is valid, Zerhusen has been accused of applying the term diglossia in a rather idiosyncratic way. Jonathan M. Watt, “The Current Landscape of Diglossia Studies: The Diglossic Continuum in First-Century Palestine,” in Diglossia and Other Topics in New Testament Linguistics, ed. Stanley E. Porter, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 193 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pg 28.

[4] Mayer Gruber, “Language(s) in Judaism,” in The Encyclopaedia of Judaism, ed. Jacob Neusner, Alan J Avery-Peck and William Scott Green (Leiden: Brill, 2000-2004), pg 783.

[5] For a refutation of the latter point see Bruce M. Metzger, “Ancient Astrological Geography and Acts 2:9-11,” in Apostolic History and the Gospel, ed. W. Ward Gasque and Ralph P. Martin (Exeter: Paternoster, 1970).

[6] F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19982). It was a reversal of the curse of Babel, not an undoing of Babel itself, in that (1) It was only temporary, and (2) The curse of Babel was to confound the languages so that people could no longer understand one another. At Pentecost understanding was restored (due to the 120 being able to speak so many languages), but the multiplicity of languages remained.

[7] Irina Levinskaya, Diaspora Setting (The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp viii-ix.

[8] Michael O. Wise, “Languages of Palestine,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1992), pg 434.

[9] ibid.

[10] Marshall makes this assumption: “although the audience was Jewish, the various groups from the Diaspora would still have had their own languages”, I. Howard Marshall, “The Significance of Pentecost”, Scottish Journal of Theology, 30:4 (1977), pg 361.

[11] Zerhusen, “An Overlooked Judean Diglossia in Acts 2?” pg 127.

[12] Gruber, “Language(s) in Judaism,” pg 2:784, emphasis added. He continues: “This legacy is reflected in 1) the abundant Greek inscriptions in synagogues and Jewish tombs in both Palestine and the diaspora; 2) the presence of both Greek and Hebrew versions of biblical books at Qumran alongside books of law (i.e., serek, a functional equivalent of Rabbinic mishnah, halakhah) in Hebrew and of biblical eisegesis in Hebrew and Aramaic but not in Greek (!); 3) the discussion in M. Meg. 1:8 of the permissibility of writing biblical books in Greek.”

[13] Stanley E. Porter, “The Functional Distribution of Koine Greek in First-Century Palestine,” in Diglossia and Other Topics in New Testament Linguistics, ed. Stanley E. Porter, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 193 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pg 55.

[14] ibid., pg 58.

[15] Christina Bratt Paulston, “Language Repertoire and Diglossia in First-Century Palestine: Some Comments,” in Diglossia and Other Topics in New Testament Linguistics, ed. Stanley E. Porter, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 193 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pg 84.

[16] Maclachlan tries to prop up Zerhusen’s theory by suggesting that: “Being at the temple, the very centre of the religion of Judaism, the conventions governing the use of the diglossia language would be very strong and thus there would be powerful cultural restraints preventing the violations of these conventions… To violate these ones would be reprehensible and outrageous.” Renton Maclachlan, Tongues Revisited: A Third Way (Porirua: Clearsight, 2000), pg 144. However, he too fails to provide additional evidence to support the claim.

[17] Barrett correctly notes “Luke devotes a considerable amount of space (vv. 9–11) to a list of the nations and territories represented, and evidently ascribes great importance to the miracle”. C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (International Critical Commentary; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994), pg 1:108.

[18] For an overview of the crucial place of Pentecost in Luke’s eschatology, see James D. G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), pp 43-47.

[19] Much more serious violations of protocol will later take centre stage as Luke records more of the apostle’s speeches. In every case, what concerns both Luke and the authorities is the content of the speeches, not the method of communication.


  1. Larry Essick says

    I get the feeling that the people commenting have very little real life experience with languages — that they do not speak multiple languages and that they have not had significant contact with people who do speak in other languages.

    Furthermore, while this article mentions Acts 2:8 and quotes the Greek text it fails to note that the word used for “language” is actually the root word for “dialect”. That is, not a different language altogether but a variant language.

    This is easily observed in countries like Germany where, even though there is a standard, high, German language there are considerable varieties of non-standard, low, German languages.

    It is equally plausible and more likely accurate given the precise Greek word chosen for “language” in 2:8 that the crowd heard not just their own “language” but their own “dialect”. This might be entirely consistent with Zerhusen’s contention that the languages heard were Greek and Aramaic — and the number of disciples speaking would suffice in all probability to address most (if not all) of the regional dialects for those languages.