What are “tongues” in Acts 2? (Part 4)

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

Are tongues in Acts 2 the miraculous speaking of human languages?

Many writers refer to tongues in this sense as xenoglossia or xenolalia, to distinguish the phenomena from tongues that are unknown languages.1 This is the position held by most scholars, despite many arguing that this is not true of tongues-speaking elsewhere in the New Testament, despite many thinking that such an interpretation brings division between Luke and Paul, and despite many believing such a position removes any opportunity for establishing the historicity of the passage.2 That the position should prevail despite these three formidable obstacles demonstrates the inherent attractiveness of the position.

That attractiveness is due primarily to three reasons: (1) It is the plain reading of Luke’s text. (2) It explains the mixed reaction from the crowd. (3) The miracle heightens the eschatological significance of the event which helps explain why Luke should emphasise the tongues-speaking in his narrative.

The first of these reasons (that it is the plain reading of the text) is somewhat subjective, yet seems clear to most readers and most commentators. Max Turner, for example, writes, “this sense is virtually demanded…”.3

The second reason is that it explains the mixed reaction of the crowd. Ecstatic tongues best explains the accusations of drunkenness. A gift of hearing or the speaking in Aramaic/Greek best explains the positive reaction of the crowd. But only the speaking of many languages explains both reactions. If Luke was describing the miraculous speaking of many human languages, then it would be quite a chaotic situation before Peter stands up at 2:14. It is not difficult to imagine (for example) an Egyptian who hears Peter speak to him in his own language. But even as he is listening to Peter, he also hears John talking to Parthians in what to the Egyptian sounds unintelligible, and a great many other disciples speaking languages equally unknown to him. It is quite possible that whilst the Egyptian would be amazed that Peter could speak Egyptian, he could not accept that all the languages these untutored Galileans were speaking could be genuine – after all, how, even between them, could they possess such linguistic ability? The excitement of the speaker and the incomprehensibility (to him) of much that was being said would lead to exactly the result of 2:11‑13. He concludes that the disciples are drunk.4 Other more charitable observers hear their own language being spoken, and also hear from others that the unintelligibility around them is in fact other genuine languages being spoken,5 and are simply amazed and bewildered. Verse 11 shows that all understood at least part of what was being said. They did not understand completely, precisely because it was not a miracle of hearing, but of speaking – no-one could understand all of the languages, so no-one understood everything.6 Therefore opinion was split between the enquirers and the mockers (vv 12‑13). Both groups heard a mixture of the intelligible and (to them) the unintelligible, but reacted differently to the same phenomenon.

The third reason is that the miracle heightens the eschatological significance of the event which in turn helps explain why Luke should emphasise the tongues-speaking in his narrative. The eschatological significance of tongue-speaking is a big subject, but a little can be said here. Peter’s speech certainly seems to assume that there is enormous eschatological significance in the tongues-speaking. In his magnum opus, Carl Henry says that:

The tongues of Pentecost signified… proclamation of the gospel to all the world and projection of Old Testament salvation history into the beginning of a new age. The Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost preludes the apostle Peter’s orderly presentation of the universal claims of the gospel and signals the church’s energetic commitment to the missionary task… The sweeping reference to “men from every nation under heaven” who heard the Pentecost tongues (Acts 2:5) anticipates intelligible worldwide proclamation of the gospel to every race and people.7

If the language-miracle made a significant eschatological statement, then it negates the criticisms of some that a language-miracle wasn’t necessary,8 because all could understand Greek and/or Aramaic anyway.

Conclusion: The nature of tongues in Acts 2

There seems ample evidence to confirm that Luke portrays tongues in Acts 2 as xenoglossia – a miraculous speaking in other languages. This suits Luke’s purpose admirably, or perhaps the miracle itself actually defines Luke’s purpose. Luke’s portrayal accentuates the eschatological significance of the event, in a way that draws attention to the start of fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. Yet by doing so, Luke also hints that more is to come, thus paving the way for the unfolding drama of the advancement of the gospel and its reception.


[1] For the former term see Williams, “Glossolalia as a Religious Phenomenon: “Tongues” at Corinth and Pentecost”, pg 16; Carson, Showing the Spirit, pg 79; Johnson, “Glossolalia and the Embarrassments of Experience”, pg 116. For the latter see Cecil M. Robeck, “Ecclesiastical Authority and the Power of the Spirit”, Paraclete, 12:3 (1978), pg 21; Harold Hunter, “Tongues-Speech: A Patristic Analysis”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 23:2 (1980), pg 125; William G. MacDonald, “Biblical Glossolalia: Thesis Four”, Paraclete, 27:2 (1993), pg 38; Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, pg 217; Cartledge, “The Nature and Function of New Testament Glossolalia”, pg 139

[2] See, on all three points Johannes Behm, “γλῶσσα,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-1973), pg 1:724.

[3] Turner, “Early Christian Experience,” pg 4.

[4] Marshall apparently assumes this reconstruction, as does Carson and Turner. Marshall, “The Significance of Pentecost”, pg 361; Carson, Showing the Spirit, pg 139; Turner, “Early Christian Experience,” pp 5-6. Along similar lines, Gundry argues that the Palestinian Jews were those who accused the apostles of drunkenness as they did not recognise the foreign languages being spoken, whilst the non-Palestinians understood the miracle. Robert H. Gundry, “Ecstatic Utterance (NEB)?” Journal of Theological Studies, 17:2 (1966), pg 304.

[5] Luke is at pains to point out that the crowd were discussing this amongst themselves, presumably in their common language of Greek.

[6] Barrett is one of many who fails to understand this, Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles, pg 1:125.

[7] Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 6 vols. (Waco: Word, 1976-1983), pg 6:378.

[8] Zerhusen, “An Overlooked Judean Diglossia in Acts 2?” pg 119.


  1. David Morgan says

    This is a question, i wonder if you have considered it? When peter speaks to the crowd he says this is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel, and yet joel doesn’t mention tongues but prophesy? Any thoughts?

  2. Thanks for your question, David.

    I think Carson, Forbes and Gaffin are all correct on this point. Carson says it demonstrates that “prophecy is an expression that embraces tongues”. Forbes says that “Luke conceives of glossolalia as a subspecies within the broader category of ‘prophecy’”, whilst Gaffin argues that “We may even speak of the essentially prophetic nature of tongues… tongues are a mode of prophecy”.

    If tongues (in Acts 2 at least) is “embraced by” prophecy, or is a “subspecies” of prophecy, then the gift of tongues is really a certain type of prophecy.

    The real question, of course, is ‘what type?’.

  3. Thanks for those thoughts! I’m curious what you think about the possibility of an interpretation of the tongues being ecstatic based upon the miracle being the hearing of those present. It seems like this might be a possible conclusion and something I’ve been thinking about for the past few days. However I noticed that in the passages that mention the “hearing” of the tongues (vs. 6, 8, 11) verses 6 & 8 use glossa, while verse 11 uses dialektos. I believe the terms are certainly interchangeable and this confirms my belief that it is the case with the hearers too. Curious what you think about that conclusion.

  4. Another question, I noticed you referred to the 120 as the tongue speakers, but doesn’t 2:14 seem to indicate that the 12 apostles were the speakers? I don’t know what the time lapse between the selection of Matthias and Pentecost was and maybe that’s part of my problem, but I was just curious. Thanks!