“Unknown Tongue”?

In Paul’s discussion of miraculous capabilities bestowed upon first century Christians in the church at Corinth, he repeatedly refers to the gift of tongue-speaking. The insertion of the word “unknown” before the word “tongue” (glossa) in 1 Corinthians 14 occurs six times in the KJV (vss. 2,4,13,14,19,27), with some other translations generally reflecting the same practice.1 The Greek word for “tongue” was used in antiquity to refer both to the physical organ of speech, as well as to spoken languages. Unfortunately, the word “unknown” lends itself to the misconception that the Corinthians spoke in ecstatic utterances or “heavenly” languages that no humans naturally spoke. Such thinking has provided impetus for the charismatic movement’s practice of unintelligible gibberish to which the speaker or interpreter may then assign subjective, alleged meanings.

However, both the context, as well as the occurrence of tongue-speaking elsewhere in the New Testament, demonstrates that the practice consisted solely of known human languages that were unknown to the one speaking the language, i.e., the speaker had no prior training by which to learn or know the language. He spoke the language strictly by God’s miraculous empowerment. Undoubtedly, the insertion of “unknown” by the KJV translators was not intended to convey the idea that the tongues were unknown to all humans and, as such, were non-earthly, non-human languages.

Acts 2 illustrates how tongue-speaking functioned in the early church. The miraculous endowment by the Holy Spirit enabled the apostles to speak foreign human languages (which they had not studied) to people from a variety of geographical locales (e.g., Parthians, Medes, Arabians—Acts 2:9-11). That is precisely why Paul made the point that “tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers” (1 Corinthians 14:22). Unbelievers would hardly be impressed if a Christian merely babbled in mindless gibberish. But he would be very impressed—and would sit up and take notice—if a Christian began speaking his language, well knowing that the speaker did not know that language on his own.2



2 I am reminded of the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street in which a Dutch girl, newly arrived from an orphanage in Rotterdam, is brought by her adopted mother to Macy’s to see Santa. The forlorn child is clearly in the throes of loneliness as she is separated from her country and culture, and unable to converse with others in her birth language. When Kris Kringle suddenly addresses the girl in her native tongue, she instantly lights up with excitement and wonder that Santa can speak Dutch. Therein lies the power of 1st-century tongue speaking. For a lengthy discussion of this subject and miracles in general, see Dave Miller (2020), Modern-Day Miracles? Do Miracles, Tongue Speaking, & Holy Spirit Baptism Occur Today? (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).


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