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Is the phenomenon of speaking in tongues purely ecstatic or purely linguistic? Join Pete and Jared in this episode of The Bible for Normal People as guest Ekaputra Tupamahu analyzes the history and interpretation of speaking in tongues in the Bible, exploring how this understanding has influenced modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements. Join them as they ask the following questions:

  • Where do we find speaking in tongues happening in the Bible?
  • What’s going on in the background sociohistorically when we read about speaking in tongues in the Bible?
  • How does Ekaputra’s background as an immigrant influence his personal interest in the phenomenon of speaking in tongues?
  • What does Germany have to do with the understanding of tongues?
  • Who is Johann Herder and how did he influence the theology of tongues?
  • Where did the issue of speaking in tongues come from societally that made Paul need to address it?
  • What is it exactly that Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians?


Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.

  • The phenomenon of speaking in tongues appeared in at least three books in the Bible. — @ekaputrat @theb4np
  • Language struggle, especially among immigrants, is very real. So I see what happened in 1 Corinthians as the first instance, the first appearance of speaking in tongues. — @ekaputrat @theb4np
  • Early Pentecostals actually thought of tongues not as an ecstatic speech, [but] believed that tongues is the actual language that they speak. — @ekaputrat @theb4np
  • My argument is that Luke is trying to respond back to Paul. But if Paul silences tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, Luke actually opens spaces for tongues to be expressed. — @ekaputrat @theb4np
  • Linguistic differences can somehow be crossed without erasing their differences, basically. — @ekaputrat @theb4np
  • Early Christians actually wrestled with the multilinguality of the world around them. — @ekaputrat @theb4np
  • I argue that we need to go back to [before] the German understanding of tongues as an ecstatic speech. This is actually a linguistic phenomenon. This is actually a multilingual phenomenon. — @ekaputrat @theb4np
  • Is there any place in the New Testament that the early Christians actually wrestled with the multilinguality of the world around them? The only place I can find is precisely this phenomenon of speaking in tongues. — @ekaputrat @theb4np
  • I think we should read 1 Corinthians 14 as Paul dealing with the issue of many languages in Corinth. — @ekaputrat @theb4np
  • There is a deep awareness of linguistic differences at the time, in the first century particularly. Then the question is, how do we deal with this? — @ekaputrat @theb4np

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript [Intro music plays]

Pete Enns: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared Byas: And I’m Jared Byas. 

It’s time that I alert you about our December class, “Is God All Knowing,” which is going to be taught by Aaron Higashi. And let me tell you, I just got off the phone with Aaron, I was talking to him yesterday about this class and some other things. And it’s been a long time since I met someone as earnest and passionate about teaching the best in biblical scholarship to folks as Aaron. 

So, I’m really excited to have him on board for this class. It’s happening December 14th from 8 to 9:30 pm Eastern Time. So, put it in your calendars. In this class, Aaron’s going to explore omniscience, which is a fancy way of saying that God knows everything. It’s an attribute many Jewish people, Christians, Muslims believe in, and it seems like a given, but is it? Aaron shows us in this class how God’s omniscience is contested in the Bible, specifically in Genesis 1 to 11, which is where he’s going to focus.

So the topics we’ll cover include: how God’s knowledge is portrayed in Genesis 1 to 11, what omniscience really means, and why believe God is omniscient, even if the Bible doesn’t. When you sign up for the class, you get access to the one night live class, a live Q and A session, the link to the class recording so you can watch it back anytime, and downloadable class slides.

The class is pay-what-you-can until the class ends. And then as always, it costs $25 to download. You can get all of our classes, of course, for just $12 a month by becoming a member of our online community, The Society of Normal People. For more information and to sign up, go to

Pete Enns: Hello everybody, on today’s episode, we’re talking about speaking in tongues with Ekaputra Tupamahu, who goes by Eka. 

Jared Byas: And Eka is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Director of the Seminary Master’s Program at Portland Seminary and George Fox University and also the author of a book that’s relevant to our conversation today, Contesting Languages: Heteroglossia and the Politics of Language in the Early Church.

Pete Enns: That just rolls off the tongue. Do you see what I did there? Do you see what I did there? It rolls off the tongue. Everybody’s saying, “Boy, Pete, you’re so smart. That’s so funny.” Anyway, listen, we had a great conversation and we’re really excited for you to hear this episode as well and hope you enjoy it.

[Clip of Eka speaking plays over intro music]

Ekaputra Tupamahu: “Early Pentecostals actually think of tongues not as an ecstatic speech. They actually believed that tongues is the actual language that they speak. So you know, ‘I received the Holy Spirit last night and I spoke Russian or Chinese’ or something like that. So they believe it’s a linguistic phenomenon. So the biggest question to me, when I was doing this research, where did this idea of tongues as an ecstatic speech, where did it come from?”

[Ad break]

Pete Enns: Eka, it’s so good to have you on the podcast. 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Thanks so much for having me!

Pete Enns: Let’s start here with some context for our discussion for people who did not grow up in a speaking in tongues tradition, namely me. I didn’t, this is a very foreign tradition to me. And maybe we can do just a brief survey of where speaking in tongues shows up in the Bible. And, you know, there are some texts that we could talk to, like in the book of Acts or first Corinthians, but let’s just start that discussion. 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Yeah. Thank you so much, Pete, for, um, asking that question. The phenomenon of speaking in tongues appeared in at least three books in the Bible. One book is a little bit problematic, I’ll mention it later, but the main one is in the book of Acts chapter 2, Acts chapter 10, and Acts chapter 19.

And the second one is in 1 Corinthians 14 mainly. You have a little bit of a hint of it in chapter 12 of the book of 1 Corinthians. But the main discussion is in 1 Corinthians 14, and there is also one appearance of speaking in tongues. It’s speaking new languages or speaking new tongues appears in the longer ending of Mark.

So people who study the Bible know that there are two versions of Mark, the shorter ending and the longer ending. So the longer ending has Jesus basically saying the disciples are going to speak in new languages. So those are places in which this phenomenon appears in the New Testament. 

Jared Byas: So, can you say a little bit more of the context? And maybe you can speak of it for each of these, maybe Acts and Corinthians, and maybe the longer ending, uh, in Mark, but I feel like there’s a question of the sociohistorical context. What’s going on in the background of these? 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Yeah, my main argument, particularly in my book on Contesting Languages, is that I see what happened in 1 Corinthians as the first instance, the first appearance of speaking in tongues because it appears in the Church of Corinth and 1 Corinthians, if you study the Bible, you know that 1 Corinthians is one of the earlier compared to like the Book of Acts.

So the phenomenon in 1 Corinthians is a very interesting one because Paul basically argues in a nutshell that if you speak in tongues and nobody understands, then you have to be silent. So just basically the argument of Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 14. And then in Acts chapter 2, the same phenomenon appears again.

I want to put a little bit of a caveat here. The phrase “speak in tongues” never appeared in other Greek literature,, only in 1 Corinthians and in Acts and in Mark, meaning to say it’s a very New Testament term. But because Paul’s letter comes first, scholars have argued that Paul actually coined this term. Right?

So, speaking in tongues is a uniquely Pauline term because it got picked up by Luke or the book of Acts in Acts chapter 2, Acts chapter 10, and Acts chapter 19.

Pete Enns: Eka, just to interrupt, can you give us a sense of the time we’re dealing with here? Like, roughly when maybe 1 Corinthians might have been written versus the book of Acts?

Ekaputra Tupamahu: It depends on, like, most scholars would say that 1 Corinthians would be in the 50s, probably. The latest would be 60s, but 50s, 60s. And then the book of Acts would be 90s. Some people argue maybe the 2nd century, even, of the book of Acts. So, the book of Acts is later. Right, but some people, instead of based on the literary dating, they based on the sequence of events, because the Pentecost came first, and then the Corinthian Church.

Some people think that maybe Pentecost is the first event, and then the craziness happens in the Church of Corinth. I argue actually the other way around. What happened is, the first appearance of tongues is actually in 1 Corinthians. Paul tries to handle that situation in 1 Corinthians, and then Luke picked it up, created a narrative around it.

My argument is that Luke is trying to respond back to Paul. But if Paul silences tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, Luke actually opens spaces for tongues to be expressed. And Luke even argued it as the work of the Holy Spirit, basically. So, some people in the past have argued that the tongues in Acts is a mild one and the crazy one would be in Corinth. So it’s actually the other way around, if you argue on the basis of the dating of the literature.

Pete Enns: Yeah. And again, just to state the obvious, but it may help with everyone listening that the canonical order of the books don’t tell us anything about when the books were written.

Ekaputra Tupamahu: That’s totally true. Yeah.

Jared Byas: Well, within that then, so let me summarize what I hear you saying, and then I think it’d be good to take a step back before we get too deep into these passages in particular. So, what I hear you saying is that we don’t get this phrase, “speaking in tongues” in other Greek literature. So, this isn’t a thing that happens culturally at the time, not that we’re aware of that Paul likely coined this term, like this is the first time we see it and he’s, he’s talking about it the first time it really shows up before he’s kind of in historical order. It shows up at the Church of Corinth and Paul’s trying to deal with something and that’s what he is responding to in, in his letter in, in 1 Corinthians 14.

And then Luke picks up on this concept from the letter to the Corinthians, and puts it in his, his narrative around Acts 2 and further. And so really ground zero for this is 1 Corinthians 14, when Paul is addressing it to the Corinthians. Is that a good summary of what you said so far? 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Yeah. Yeah. That’s precisely that. I think that’s a better reading of it instead of the other reading that, you know, the first one is uh, in Pentecost and then the mild one and the crazy one is in the Corinthian church. Yeah. That’s the other way of reading it. But I think the better reading is that it’s actually the ground zero and the narrative in order to respond to Paul.

Jared Byas: So before we get into how you understand tongues and how you understand what’s happening in 1 Corinthians 14, could you tell us a little bit about what a kind of “Pentecostal” or “charismatic” interpretation of this is? And I ask because I grew up. Unlike Pete, as he said at the beginning, he didn’t grow up in a tradition with tongues. I did grow up in a tradition with tongues. 

Um, and so, speaking in tongues has a very specific meaning or connotation. So, can you just help paint that picture as a contrast to maybe what a more academic or scholarly understanding of what’s happening in Corinthians and Acts is?

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Yeah. Thank you for that question. Uh, Jared, I actually come from a Pentecostal background too, although I’m attending a PCUSA church right now. [Chuckles]

Pete Enns: Yeah. They do not speak in tongues, by the way. [Jared laughs] I don’t know if, I don’t know if you realize that. 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: That is for sure, that is for sure. [Laughs]

Jared Byas: You really went the other way with that one. 

Pete Enns: They do not speak in tongues.

Ekaputra Tupamahu: That is for sure. Uh, yeah, I grew up in Pentecostal, so the reason why I was really interested in this particular phenomenon is because, number one, I grew up in Pentecostal, but at the same time, I’m actually an immigrant to the United States, in which language becomes a serious issue. I was a pastor of an immigrant church in Southern California, and I’ve seen the struggle of many immigrants to just climb up the economic and social ladder in the United States, many of them have like an amazing career back home, but when they came here, just because of the limitation of language, they couldn’t go up the economic ladder because of that. 

They just do a simple job here in the United States. So the language struggle, especially among immigrants, is very real. So this is just like a combination of that. And I was like, is there any place in the New Testament that the early Christians actually wrestled with the multilinguality of the world around them?

And the only place I can find is precisely this phenomenon of speaking in tongues. So let me describe a little bit the understanding of speaking in tongues, particularly in Pentecostal movement. Now, Pentecostal movement came out, you know, it depends on how you understand the origin of the Pentecostal movement. There’s a debate around it, but the common narrative is it came out from the revival in particularly early 20th century, right? In 19 something, you know, and early, at Azusa Street and other revival. But if you read early Pentecostal literature, particularly from Azusa Street, Apostolic Faith—actually, they have the magazine, it’s called Apostolic Faith. 

So if you read the literature, you can actually see that early Pentecostals actually think of tongues not as an ecstatic speech. They actually thought that—they believed the tongues is the actual language that they speak, the actual human language. So, you know, some people like, “I received the Holy Spirit last night and I spoke Russian” or Chinese or something like that.

So they believe it’s a linguistic phenomenon. So the biggest question to me when I was doing this research is where did this idea of like tongues as an ecstatic speech, where did it come from? So I did, you know, a trace of reception of this particular text, particularly 1 Corinthians 14 and Acts chapter 2.

And I found out that from the earlier reading of Paul, it’s almost like universal way of reading, this is a linguistic phenomenon. This is not an ecstatic phenomenon. This is a linguistic phenomenon. And that reading consistently appears all the way to about 18th century. Like, you know, if you read people like Carl Finn or Luther or, you know, trace back more, maybe a little bit back to people like, you know, Aquinas, everybody actually read it as a linguistic phenomenon.

The change began to take place in the late 18th century and the 19th century German scholarship. And then I found out that, to make the story very simple, is that the switch from understanding this phenomenon as a linguistic phenomenon to ecstatic phenomenon was influenced by German nationalism and German Romanticism, particularly in the 19th century.

Pete Enns: Okay. That sounds interesting. 

Jared Byas: Yeah. Yeah. Say more about that. 

Pete Enns: Say more about that.

Ekaputra Tupamahu: So if you study German nationalism, the father of German nationalist thinking was a German philosopher and he’s a biblical scholar. So, you know, if you know many, many philosophers, particularly in Germany at the time, are also Bible commentators.

His name is Johann Herder. So Herder was a student of Immanuel Kant. And he’s, if you study like, for instance German Romanticism, he’s also the father of German Romantic philosophy, German Romanticism. So he has an essay in which he looks into the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. And that essay was very influential in the 19th century, particularly early 19th century.

[Ad break]

So let me explain a little bit about Johann Herder. So, Herder has an essay called, “Origin of Language”, so it’s an interesting question in the 19th century, where this phenomenon called language, where does it come from? You know, how does it appear in human experience and human capacity to do reason and to reason and things like that?

So some people argue that language comes from God, so somehow because God creates human beings in the image of God, so one of the capacities of being in the image of God is the ability to speak. Right? The ability to construct language. Now, Herder’s argument is that, no, no, language is not of defined origin. Language actually comes from human feeling. Now, this is where Romanticism comes in. For him, it’s the feeling—the need for humans, just like animals, just like other animals, to express their feelings. Because of that need, you have the language. 

Now, animals, because they have very simple capacity of reason, their expression of feeling is not as complex as human expression of feeling. So human expression of feeling can be more complex because we have the capacity for reasoning. So this is where you can see the origin of the idea that a nation has to be grounded in the unification of language or in the shared language, because shared language is basically shared collective feeling.

Jared Byas: Mm. I see. 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: So, so what you have in the 19th century, people pick it up. So for Herder, language grew from this personal feeling into this collective feeling. That’s his argument for German nationalism. We are talking about the late 18th century. So in the 19th century, the collapse of, you know, uh, Holy Roman Empire, and then these Germans are basically many different kingdoms, like Prussian kingdom, and you have Hanover kingdom, you have Austrian kingdom. And people begin to ask the question, like, you know, “how do we unify these kingdoms to become a one unified nation?” The unification of Germany happened in 1870. It was later, but the early thinking of how do we see ourselves as a nation had already been discussed since late 18th century by people like Johann Herder.

So for Herder, it’s the mark of a nation. Right? So you, you wanna ask this question, you know, what makes a nation a nation? Because this is like Benedict Anderson argued, this is an imagined community, right? So how do you unify this imagined community? For herder it’s the language. So Herder’s, Herder’s argument for nationalism is really a, we call it cultural nationalism.

So his argue for the unification of a nation on the basis of shared culture, and for him, kulture in German is actually related directly to language. Now, on the basis of this, Herder looked at the phenomenon in the book of Acts and Corinthians, and he was like, how in the world do these people, the Jews, speak different languages?

As a, in German, as a, ein volk, as a people. And if you know German a little bit, you know that volk can mean people or a nation. So for him, as a nation, as a volk, they shouldn’t speak different languages. Right?

Jared Byas: Hmm. Okay.

Pete Enns: Hmm.

Ekaputra Tupamahu: So he challenges his, he challenges the long held tradition all the way to the 18th century that this is a multilingual phenomenon, tongues. And he was like, no, no, tongues is not a multilingual phenomenon. So for him, what is it if it is not a multilingual phenomenon? So he argues that this is actually just the early followers of Jesus’s expression of their feeling of excitement. So now you can, you can see the Romanticism kicks in, you see the logic of nationalism kicks in as well, right?

And then, for him, what happened in Acts and Corinthians is just a highly poetic language. Because these people have like, high excitement because, you know, the promise of God has been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. 

Jared Byas: What you’re saying is for the first 17 centuries of the church, this understanding of tongues that’s talked about by Paul in Corinthians or by the author of Luke/Acts in Acts 2 is a linguistic phenomenon, meaning they are speaking other languages that could be understood by the people who spoke those languages and understood those languages.

And then it’s not until we get to Herder, who, essentially, what I’m hearing you say, is introduces to the world this idea that it’s not actually a linguistic phenomenon, but this expression of feeling and excitement—an ecstatic expression. But it’s motivated by, basically, propaganda that my idea of unification of Germany needs to reside on this idea that we, uh, if we speak a language, the same language, it’s because we have the same commonality of emotion and feeling and that gets wrapped up in our culture and our identity.

Then we look back at Corinthians and Acts and say, well, this doesn’t make any, we’re reading back. So Herder’s kind of reading back into it this understanding of how language functions and says, well, that can’t be that anymore, because that’s not how language works. And so we have to come up with another way.

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Exactly. So he dig into this idea of language as the expression of your feeling, right? It’s not a surprise this way in the 19th century, the tongue speakers are often called enthusiasts. You can still have that expression in the 20th century. Like if you read some 1 Corinthians commentaries or, you know, Acts commentaries when they call the tongue speakers enthusiasts…that is the legacy of 19th century German scholarship. 

So what happened is there is an explosion of scholarship on tongues in the 19th century. And the discussion has mainly revolved around human feeling, but toward the end of the 19th century, you find like scholars no longer see it as a language anymore. So it’s just feeling and excitement and ecstatic to a point in which the speaker has lost this, like, you know, consciousness and mind. And it’s just like, yeah, strange, yeah. So, and then, and then scholars begin to look into the psychology of the speakers, you know, what is the state of the psychology when they speak in tongues?

And there’s a lot of explosion of scholarship on like, how do you understand this strange phenomenon in the New Testament? And use this as a site of analysis that this is one of the example or a site of strange and ecstatic experience in the New Testament. That idea came really late. It’s mainly 19th century, early 20th century. And, you know, and when you read the commentaries these days, it has been deeply influenced by German scholarship in the 19th century. So, you know, people who study the Bible, I think they have to be aware that many, many discussions, particularly in the New Testament studies, have been deeply influenced by the discussion in the 19th century.

Just another example is that, like, for instance, the idea of Mark and priority, for instance, Mark was written first. It was the product of 19th century. It appears only in mid-19th century. In the past, before that, everybody saw this Matthew as the priority. This is the invention of 19th century. Now it becomes a dogma in the study of the New Testament.

Pete Enns: Right. Let me back up a little bit here, Eka, if I may, because we mentioned Herder and him giving an account of the nature of speaking in tongues, and my brain is going back to Paul here, right? So 1 Corinthians is the first documented engagement in the Christian church with speaking in tongues, correct? 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Mhmm.

Pete Enns: And he’s already addressing a problem. So I’m just wondering where it came from. The whole issue of speaking in tongues. I don’t think it’s Second Temple Jewish. At least, I may be wrong on that, but I don’t see it in early Judaism. Is it a Greco Roman context that helps with this? Or, like, where does it come from? It’s just, it’s sort of there, and we didn’t see this in the Hebrew Bible anywhere.

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Yeah, exactly. So what happened is Corinth is a very unique Roman colony, right? Because in year 146 it was completely destroyed by the Romans and then it was rebuilt again in around 44 BCE. So this is rebuilt as a Roman colony. But then, you know, what happened is Corinth has two ports that connect the eastern and western part of the Mediterranean world, meaning to say that’s a lot of intercultural activity, economic in Corinth.

So I argue that Corinth is a very multilingual space because of that exchange of tradings and cultural exchanges at Isis, the temple, all kinds of things in Corinth. So, I think we should read 1 Corinthians 14 as Paul dealing with the issue of many languages in Corinth. So tongues here have to be, I argue that we need to go back to pre German understanding of tongues as an ecstatic speech.

This is actually a linguistic phenomenon. This is actually a multilingual phenomenon. Paul is dealing with many languages in Corinth. So it seems that, you know, when Paul came to Corinth, and then the church in Corinth began to form, people who became the believers of Jesus or followers of Jesus are not just from one linguistic background.

Pete Enns: And that’s somewhat consistent with Acts 2, right? I mean, there are differences, obviously, but they’re intelligible languages. 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Yeah, so what happened is this is a real language. This is a real multilingual dynamic that Paul is dealing with. So when, you know, I can relate to this particular experience, because as an immigrant to the United States, if I come to a space and I see an Indonesian for, because I come from Indonesia, by the way, if I see an Indonesian, I will switch the language immediately to the Indonesian language. And up to this point, you know, I still have a hard time speaking or praying in the English language because I still feel the distance, uh, with this language. This is my second language. English is my second language. So I can understand that many Corinthians probably would get together and they begin to speak in their own languages. And Paul was like, what is going on in this church? [Laughs]

Pete Enns: So if there’s no one to translate, they should shut up. Right? If there’s no one who can actually make it intelligible. 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Yeah! So the word translation is as easy as that. It’s not like, you know, some people are like, what is this interpretation? Do we have to interpret tongues?

And if tongues is completely gibberish and if you translate, there is no translation. Because translation is always from one intelligible language to another intelligible language. So when Paul says, “if you’re not translated, or you have to pray so that, you know, you can translate, but if there’s no translation, you have to be silent,” that is a really problematic move.

Pete Enns: So tongues originally was intelligible languages. That’s the theory, right? And it seems to be borne out by these early texts. And that seems to have, I mean, I’m trying to repeat what you said to make sure I understand it. That seems to have been the rule of the day. And then with Herder, at least, maybe before, who knows, but with Herder, he shifted that—from it being a linguistic phenomenon to an ecstatic speech, and that is the model that dominates the charismatic and Pentecostal movements today.

Ekaputra Tupamahu: No, charismatic, that’s what I’m saying—I said before that the early Pentecostal movement still saw this phenomenon as a linguistic phenomenon. 

Pete Enns: Okay. 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: So the idea that even Pentecostals see tongues as an ecstatic speech came later, actually. Now I’m still not sure what is, what caused the change. I have some suspicion. Because my study is not necessarily into Pentecostal understanding of tongues. My study is mainly on biblical study side of that, the biblical study side of that. But my suspicion is that maybe people like Gordon Fee, for instance, was deeply influenced by 19th century or German scholarship. 

Pete Enns: What did he say, Gordon Fee?

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Oh, he actually spent page after page in his 1 Corinthians commentary to argue that this is not language. 

Pete Enns: Oh. Okay.

Jared Byas: Oh, okay. Okay. So he, he would be trying to reinforce the Herder type interpretation. 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Oh yeah. Um, and I was like, this is not new. That particular idea has already been established by the late 19th century, was already established. It’s already been received as a way of reading. 

Pete Enns: And he was Pentecostal, right? Eka?

Ekaputra Tupamahu: And he was Pentecostal. Yeah, he was Pentecostal. So maybe biblical scholars begin to be in touch with the larger biblical scholarship, then the shift of understanding within Pentecostal movement begins to take place. Some people argue that many missionaries who came out of Azusa street went to like Egypt forever.

And then when they went there, somehow the tongues didn’t work. So they had to somehow, you know, revise the understanding of things that could be one of the possible explanation of this. My explanation tends to be more at the scholarly level. It seems to me that what people like Fee try to argue is something that already been established in the 19th century. He was just following the tradition. 

Pete Enns: The recent tradition.

Ekaputra Tupamahu: It is a pretty recent tradition. You’re right.

[Ad break]

Jared Byas: Can you, I just want to make sure, because I think for a lot of listeners, this might be a new way of thinking about the idea of speaking in tongues. Walk us through the narrative of what you think Paul is, is witnessing and dealing with, like paint a picture of when we’re gathering together, something’s happening that Paul’s not liking and he’s addressing in first Corinthians 14. Can you just kind of simply walk us through what that is? 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Paul is basically looking to this church of Corinth or the gathering in Corinth and see this phenomenon of many languages and according to a very interesting letter—I’m actually writing a book now on Corinth—and Paul is always in tension with the Corinthians somehow.

Jared Byas: Right [chuckling]

Pete Enns: I’ve noticed. Yes, I’ve noticed. 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: [Laughing heartily] And, uh, so part of the tension, so it’s not necessarily tension among the Corinthians themselves. If you read Corinth more closely, it’s not actually necessarily the tensions around Corinthians themselves, it’s actually the tension between Paul and Corinthians. So the division like, you know, I’m of Paul, I’m of Peter, you can actually read it as the tension actually not between Paul, Peter, and Apollos. It’s not about that. It’s actually about Paul and them because right after Paul described it, Paul actually talked about himself right after that. So it’s not just the issue of, there’s a lot of issues on gender, issue on like meals and things like that. But I think the dynamic in First Corinthians or the Corinthian gathering is the linguistic dynamics.

So Paul finds like, when you speak different languages, this is so chaotic. And Paul argues, if somebody comes, they think you’re mad. Somebody, you know, if somebody comes, they think you’re crazy. Because, you know, they don’t understand a word that you say. So he argues it’s better to speak five words that are understandable instead of thousands of words that nobody understands.

Jared Byas: In some ways, is this a relatively new cultural phenomenon that you’re having people who speak different languages gather in the same space? I would guess that that wouldn’t have been that prevalent historically before that. And so, this is a new phenomenon where people don’t really know what to do.

We’re here to gather, I only know how to speak in my language and so, we’re all kind of talking over each other or trying to figure out how to communicate together and Paul’s stepping into this kind of cultural reality and saying, hold up, this is chaos. This isn’t going to work. 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Yeah, you can argue for that, but people who study Greek literature and Greek culture will know that the way the Greeks differentiate themselves from the others is actually through language.

So the idea of barbarians, and you know, some scholars have argued that barbarians actually was constructed after the Persian War. So the war with the Persians, so it’s the construction of Barbaros. But the idea of Greekness is always tied to language. So barbarian means “blah, blah, blah.” You know, I don’t understand your language. So you’re just like gibberish. You’re just speaking gibberish, blah, blah, blah. It’s just very denigrating kind of terminology. So Paul actually used that word in 1 Corinthians 14. So Paul argues that if you speak in tongues to me, I’ll be barbarian to you and you’ll be barbarian to me. So some translation may translate it as like, you’ll be a foreigner to me or something like that. It translated, they try to soften, but that is a slur actually, basically, it’s a, it’s a word that “other,” those who don’t speak the dominant language, particularly the Greek language, Paul uses that term. 

So, linguistic dynamic it was fully, people, it seems to me, people were fully aware of that in the ancient, particularly in the first century, of that dynamic. So one of the things that if you read, uh, Second Maccabees, for instance, you will see how the force of Hellenization, you know, it was brutal. And then one of the things that is chapter seven, if I’m not mistaken, of Second Maccabees, there is a story of a mother with seven kids, of seven sons, who basically were slaughtered one by one, but then the mother actually spoke in their ancestral language as a way of resisting this force of Hellenization.

So language is, you know, you can see also in Nehemiah, how, you know, when they came back and then Nehemiah was very upset because they speak half, you know, how do you understand that half, you know, half language? So I think there is an awareness, deep awareness of linguistic differences at the time, in the first century particularly.

And then the question is, how do we deal with this? Okay, if the early Christian movement grew, and it grew across linguistic differences, then how would we deal with this? One way of dealing with this, Pauline way, is the argument, he was like, my goodness, this is terrible. So he said that you have to pray so that they themselves can translate. So Paul seems to be arguing that, you know, a speaker of a foreign language should be able to speak also the dominant language to translate whatever they talk about or pray about. And then if there’s no translation, then you have to be silent. 

And the other way of dealing with that is what I see in Acts chapter 2, so when they begin to, when the Holy Spirit came upon them, it’s just somehow Luke ties that to the work of the Holy Spirit. And they begin to speak in their own languages, right? You know, a few verses after that, you can see that people who hear this say, Wow, are they not Galileans? I think that’s a very interesting expression, instead of, instead of Ioudaioi, or, you know, Jews, or the Judeans, are they not Galileans?

Showing that, you know, these people are like, not necessarily those from, like, the city center. So the surprise is interesting. They can speak our own languages. So Acts chapter 2 seems to show that, and I feel it acts as a way of constructing early Christian collective identity. And this is, this is what I see because the term, the phrase is used exactly the term that Paul used.

So I think there is that intertextual connection between Acts and 1 Corinthians, and I think it is a competing narrative against Pauline way of dealing with multilingualism. So Acts seems to say that no, Acts is even doesn’t require translation. They hear and they can understand even the speakers, you know, can speak different languages. So there’s no demand for translation in Acts. Linguistic differences can somehow be crossed without erasing their differences, basically. 

Jared Byas: Yeah, yeah, that’s coming together for me more clearly now that you’re saying that Luke is arguing against Paul—the book of Acts is arguing against this Pauline way of handling diversity of a language where translation is, “is the right way to do this. We have to sort of kind of unify this because it’s too chaotic.” And Luke is saying that no diversity of a language is of the spirit. There’s no demand for translation. 

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Yeah, that’s an interesting move, particularly in Acts. Is Acts an independent source, like, like, separate from 1 Corinthians? I don’t think so. There’s a lot of discussion in the scholarship on why even Acts didn’t mention a word on Pauline letters, right? So some scholars argue that maybe the author of Acts is not aware of Pauline letters at all. But people like Michael Golder, for instance, from England, has argued that, you know, a lot of places in the book of Acts, we can argue that are coming from Pauline letters.

So we can argue just on the basis of textual analysis. Acts doesn’t have to mention Pauline letters, but just the, the textual analysis, we can argue that there is some sort of dependency of Luke-Acts on Pauline letters. I think so. When I look into the phenomenon of speaking in tongues, it’s too Pauline to say that this is just coincidence. It’s too Pauline. You know, it’s very uniquely Pauline. Except if this phrase is all over Greek literature, it’s like, ah, Luke probably takes it from Plutarch or from, you know, Aristotle in the 4th century, 5th century. But, you know, because this is just unique, it’s very uniquely Pauline terminology. And it got used by Luke.

There must be some connection right there.

Jared Byas: Mm hmm. Well, Eka, thank you so much for coming on and laying out, I think, so well, both the historical contexts, but also the intertextual connections, and for me, it’s very enlightening around this whole idea of speaking in tongues. So, thank you so much for coming on and sharing with us.

Ekaputra Tupamahu: Yeah. Thank you, Jared. Thank you for having me here.

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Outro: You’ve just made it through another episode of the Bible for Normal People! Don’t forget, you can also catch our other show, Faith for Normal People, in the same feed wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Prescott, Stephen Henning, Wesley Duckworth, Savannah Locke, Tessa Stultz, Danny Wong, Natalie Weyand, Jessica Shao, and Lauren O’Connell.

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Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.