What is the Gift of Tongues According to the Bible?



Is the “gift of tongues” operative today?

Some say this spiritual gift passed away with the other miraculous gifts after the time of the apostles. Others argue that they continued on in the Church, and will continue until Christ returns. Some even say tongues are the gift of every true believer, while others point out that even in the first century not every believer spoke in tongues.

The approach to this question I would like to focus on, however, is not so much the timing of the gift – but rather the definition of “tongues” itself. Before we ask “when” questions about the gift of tongues, we need to ask “what?” Whether or not the gift has ceased have ceased may very well depend on this issue (rather than, say, 1 Cor. 13:10).

Are tongues a kind of “ecstatic speech” (i.e., gibberish) as they are popularly understood by modern Pentecostal and other charismatic groups, or are they simply miraculous instances of people speaking in unlearned human languages? In other words, what if the practice we see described today as “tongue-speaking” isn’t the gift of tongues as described in the NT in the first place?

What Does “Tongue” Mean?

One of the biggest difficulties in thinking about this question is that the term “tongues” has taken on a theological meaning in modern times that was not present when the English Bible used the word to translate the Greek. “Tongues” is a translation of one of two Greek words: dialektos or glossa. Both terms are found in writings outside – and even prior to  -the New Testament and are not, therefore, special Christian theological terms.

Dialektos means the local language or dialect of a given people group (Acts 1:19; 2:8). The term under examination, though, is glossa, which can mean:

  • “tongue” as in the physical organ (e.g., Lk 1:64, 16:24; Mk 7:33, 35; ; Ro 3:13 {cf. Ps 5:10; 13:3}; Js 1:26; 3:5f, 8; 1 Jn. 3:18)
  • “speaking” (e.g., 1 Cor 14:9. 1 Pt 3:10),
  • “language” (e.g., Acts 2:6, 11;  Rom. 14:11; Phil 2:11 {cf. Is 45:23}).

One time in the New Testament, glossa is given the hetero– prefix (1 Cor 14:21). In Greek, doing so does not change the meaning of the root word, it simply adds the idea of “other” to the term (e.g., heterodidaskaleo – “other teachings” e.g., 1 Ti 1:3; 6:3; or heterodoxia – “other doctrine” from which we get “heterodox”). This use also precedes the New Testament in secular literature where it refers to foreign languages (see 1 Cor. 14 below).

In both Greek and English, then, the word “tongue” can refer to a physical organ or to a language (e.g., “She uses her tongue to speak in a foreign tongue.”). The problem is that this latter usage is rare today, and it is therefore very easy to read the charismatic “ecstatic gibberish” view into the word “tongues” when one sees it in the Bible. It would be helpful if modern Bibles updated their vocabulary and consistently translated glossa as “tongue” when it refers to the organ, and “language” when it refers to speech- but for now, one can gain some objectivity in the issue by remembering that “speaking in tongues” in the Bible simply means “speaking in languages”.

“Tongues” According to the Bible

The issue, then, is whether “tongues” ever means something other than human language. Some commentators believe that “tongues” refer to “ecstatic utterances” such as those found in pagan religions, but this use is not grounded in the terms involved. This means that if “tongues” are considered to be anything other than human languages, this is interpretive and theological – not linguistic. Therefore, the biblical text itself must indicate that “tongues” is being used in a different manner than its standard usage.

So, what does the Bible actually say about “tongues”? Below are the texts that use the word “tongues” (I am using the KJV which uses the word “tongues” to translate glossa).

Mark 16:15-20 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.

Here we see that many gifts are promised the believer. Notice that each one is promised, not just some of them. Further, they seem to be described as signs (i.e., miracles). Now, I do not know many Christians today who can drink poison and live, handle snakes safely, and heal others. But those who believed and received the gospel directly from the apostles had miraculous signs like these that confirmed their entrance into the Church (as the book of Acts records – see below). At this point, though, we are not told anything about these “tongues” except that they are “new”. Whether this indicates a “new language” (as in, a language never before heard) or a language that would only be “new to the speaker”, we simply are not told.

Acts 2:3-16 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. . . . every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marveled, . . . how hear we every man in our own tongue, . . . we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.

Here we have the first definition of what “tongues” are, and they are human languages. While someone might argue that the tongue-speaking was ecstatic gibberish that was only heard as a human language, there is no reason to suspect so from this passage. Thus, any evidence that tongues are more (or other than) human languages will have to be found elsewhere. If the following verses do not show tongues defined in a new way, or if they do not have tongues in a context where human language is excluded, we will have no evidence that they are anything but human language.

Acts 10:44-46 While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God.

There is nothing here to indicate that non-human languages are being spoken. In fact, it would make little sense if it did. We see that Peter spoke “these words” (i.e., the speech he just made in verses 34-43) – not ecstatic gibberish (and what would be so amazing about someone speaking in gibberish?).  What astonished them was the message.

Acts 19:1-7 . . . When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied. 

There is also nothing here to indicate that non-human languages are being spoken. Paul laid hands on those that received the gift. As with the other tongue-speaking events in Acts, here we have the confirmation of a new group of people entering the Church (see list below). This seems to be the point of tongues in Acts – confirming to others that a new group was indeed part of the church since they received the Holy Spirit with the same miraculous confirmation that the Apostles did (Acts 10:47).:

  • 2:1-16   JEWS  in JERUSALEM
  • 8:14-25  SAMARITANS  in SAMARIA (Implied by language)
  • 10:44-48   GENTILES living in ISRAEL
  • 19:1-6  GENTILES living in THE WORLD

The miracle of tongues, then, is a fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in the Great Commission that miraculous signs would follow those who believed, as well as His command to “be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” in Acts 1:8.

But is the miracle of “tongues” that of people suddenly being able to speak in unlearned human languages, or is it the ability to speak in ecstatic gibberish? At this point, there is still no reason to think it is the latter. How, indeed, would ecstatic gibberish confirm anything?

1 Cor. 12:4-13:13 . . . the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit,. . .  to another different kinds of tongues,to another the interpretation of tongues. . . . And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. . . . Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. . . . whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.

Note first the obvious fact that not all speak in tongues. This is not helpful in resolving the specific issue of what tongues are, but it does show that tongues is not a gift given to all the saved even at a time when it was definitely being given.

As to the question of tongues as a language, here we have the only reference specific to languages besides that of man’s. Several issues arise from trying to make this support ecstatic gibberish tongue-speaking, however.

First, in every instance in Scripture where angels are heard speaking they are all speaking in human languages understandable by the hearer without mention of any miraculous gifting (i.e., of interpretation).

Second, it is not clear that Paul speaks in an angelic language anyway. The passage can be taken as rhetorical hyperbole (as if Paul had said, “Though I have the strength of ten men,” or, “Though I can leap tall buildings in a single bound.”). In fact, if we take this as a positive statement of Paul’s actual gifting, then we would have to conclude that he speaks with angelic tongues and does not have love. Obviously this was not his intent.

Now, neither of these issues mean that angels do not have their own language that sounds like ecstatic gibberish to humans – but once again, the text does not warrant such a conclusion.

1 Cor. 14 . . .  anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. . . . He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified. Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. . . . For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. . . . I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. Brothers, stop thinking like children.

Some will argue that if “tongues” is not speaking “to men” but instead “to God,” then perhaps they were not human languages. However, this view is not indicated by the text, and we have hundreds of human language prayers in the Bible that all utilize human speech.

Some also argue that non-human language is indicated by the fact that the miraculous gift  of interpretation was necessary to understand them. Why would one need a miraculous gift to understand a human language? The answer: for the same reason that one would need a miraculous gift in order to speak one! Of course it is possible that someone could simply learn a foreign language – but that’s not a miraculous gift.  When speaking in an unlearned language, the speakers themselves would not know what they were saying unless they also had the miraculous gift of interpretation – but someone in the Church that naturally knew the language could do so (just as they did in Acts 2).

Further, in the greater context, the ecstatic gibberish view goes rather directly against what the Bible says. In this passage, Paul goes on to quote Isaiah’s prophecy that God’s message would come to Israel via a foreign nation – namely, Assyria (who spoke Assyrian).

In the Law [Isaiah 28:11,12] it is written: “Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord. Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; . . .  So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?  . . . If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.  . . . Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

Note that even here there is no indication of non-human languages being spoken. The issue, rather, is order: accusations of madness would be expected if a group of people were all speaking different languages at the same time (whether one of them was ecstatic gibberish or not). Note also that Paul does not say anything about miraculous interpretation here.


The only verses in Scripture that actually identify “tongues” are found in Acts 2 where they were heard as human languages. No text requires any other understanding of “tongues” than human languages, and certainly none support the idea of ecstatic gibberish (which linguistic science has shown to be non-miraculous, and numerous non-Christian religions practice, and which can even be seen in demonic possession). Charismatic counter-arguments must, therefore, be exceedingly strong if they are to be seriously considered.