The Acts of the Apostles presents a reverse Babel at Pentecost, when the confusion of tongues described in Gn 11:1–9 is transformed into understanding among the earliest disciples of Jesus, who find themselves speaking “other languages.” The confusion of tongues at Babel gives to us an ancient etiology for the separation of peoples into linguistic groups, but Acts twice says that bewildered onlookers heard Jesus’ disciples “speaking in the native language of each” ethnic group. The “native languages” represented a long list of ancient regions around the Mediterranean basin and beyond, including Parthia, Mede, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Asia Minor, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete and Arabia, and these peoples report that “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
Scholars distinguish two ways of reading this scene in Acts: the coming of the Holy Spirit allowed the disciples of Jesus to speak actual, existing languages (xenolalia); or the disciples were speaking in an ecstatic spiritual language (glossolalia). In some quarters this has led to questions about the historicity of the scene, since it seems to present two sorts of speech events and to be at odds with the spiritual tongues that Paul reports at Corinth. Sometimes 1 Corinthians 14 is contrasted with Acts 2, with the claim that the disciples at Pentecost were engaged in xenolalia, whereas the churches in Corinth were practicing glossolalia. A more recent interpretation sees no confusion of spiritual tongues in Acts: It is possible to read in this scene onlookers hearing their own languages in the spiritual language spoken by the disciples. This allows us to see greater continuity between the practices described by Paul and those at Pentecost.
A connection between these two forms of ecstatic spiritual speech might seem insignificant, except that one spiritual language would point to the unity at the heart of the church. This would indeed be the reversal of Babel. There the one human language became confused into many languages; now, through the Holy Spirit, many languages are heard as one language. No matter where these onlookers come from, they can hear their language spoken in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The church is not for one group, or one language, but for all the peoples of the world, for it speaks only the language of God.
In 1 Cor 14:2, Paul writes that “those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit.” Paul goes on to say that interpretation in the Spirit is therefore necessary to understand. On Pentecost, it appears, this spiritual understanding was poured out for a short time on all who heard the disciples speak. Paul’s concern with speaking in tongues in Corinth was that it was not building up unity, which is the key element of the activity of the Holy Spirit.
Unity among the local churches must be foremost, in antiquity or today, whether that is created by speaking in tongues or through other gifts of the Spirit. Paul encourages his churches not to seek a particular gift but the Holy Spirit itself, who gives all gifts. All of the gifts, says Paul, bear witness to the Spirit and the spiritual language of unity and love. He writes, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”
The Greek words for “activities” and “activates” are important here: energeia and energeô, from which we derive energy and energize. Whatever gifts we have, they are energies given through the Holy Spirit. All of the gifts given to the faithful “are energized by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” But Paul’s most significant takeaway is that all of the baptized are part of the body of Christ, “one body.” The purpose of the gift of spiritual speech must be, as with every gift of the Spirit, to create unity in the church. No one will have every gift, but the church has every gift, and each of them is necessary for the whole church to listen and to understand.