What Is the Unknown Tongue of 1 Corinthians 14?

Even though it was produced over 400 years ago, it’s not uncommon to find people who insist on using the King James Version of the Bible today. While some do so because of its proven reliability or its widespread availability, there are others who do so because of an italicized word found in 1 Corinthians 14. That word is “unknown,” and it is found in conjunction with the word “tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:2, 4, 13-14, 19, 27 KJV). They prefer this reading because it opens the door for an understanding of the miraculous gift Paul is discussing that sees it as 1) divine communication not in regular use by mankind and/or 2) confirming evidence of a believer’s salvation and empowerment by the Holy Spirit. Does this understanding agree with the rest of what’s revealed in 1 Corinthians 14?

Before reflecting on the text, let’s pause for a moment to talk about the significance of an italicized word in an English translation of the Bible. While some translations don’t make use of italicized words, those that do tend to employ them in one of two ways (and sometimes both). Sometimes italicized words are used to indicate intertextual quotation, i.e., where one Bible book quotes another. Oftentimes, these quotes will be further identified either through quotation marks or offset text. At other times, a word is italicized when a translator wants to point out that he or she has supplied it in translation, but it is not found in the original text. The aim of the translator is not to add something to the Bible; it’s either to make the text more readable in English or to convey a meaning that he or she feels is implied by the original text but might be missed when reading a more direct translation.

To be fair to the King James translators, their aim in adding “unknown” to “tongue” in 1 Corinthians was likely not to convey that these were languages that no one on earth spoke. It’s more likely they were trying to let the reader know that Paul is talking about the gift of tongues, i.e., the miraculous ability to speak in a language that was not previously studied or was “unknown” to the speaker. Regardless of their intention, what does the text itself reveal? Was the gift of tongues about speaking a language used only in heaven or about some kind of confirming evidence for believers of their salvation? Let’s consider four keys the text provides to understanding this gift.

First, it’s important to note that the stated aim of the gift of tongues is “edification” (1 Corinthians 14:5). In this verse, Paul says that the gift of prophecy is greater than speaking in tongues but only when there isn’t an interpretation; we’ll have more to say about that in a moment. For now though, consider that both prophesy and the gift of tongues contain a message that provides edification. Consider further that Paul claimed elsewhere that the “word of His grace,” God’s word, “is able to build you up” or edify (Acts 20:32). Like the gift of prophesy, the gift of tongues conveyed God’s word to first century audiences.

Second, the text reveals the that the desire of the hearer of the gift of tongues was understanding, and without it, the gift was wasted. Paul said that when he prayed in a tongue without interpretation “my understanding is unfruitful,” so he committed to praying “with the understanding,” or in other words, never exercising his gift without interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:14-15). It wasn’t just his understanding that was important. Paul envisioned a visitor coming into the worship service at Corinth and told the Corinthians to pray in such a way so that a visitor “in the position of an outsider” would “know what you are saying” (1 Corinthians 14:16 ESV).

Third, Paul said that the exercise of the gift of tongues involved languages that had significance in the world. Some people get hung up in 1 Corinthians 14 on verse 2, when Paul says that the person exercising this gift “does not speak to men but to God.” However, he adds later that “there are… so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance” adding, “if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me” (1 Corinthians 14:10-11). If the gift of tongues involved heavenly language, this whole line of reasoning wouldn’t make any sense. Going back to verse 2, the reason a tongue speaker “speaks… to God” and “speaks mysteries” is given: “no one understands him.” If you go to another country and hear a worship service conducted in a language that you don’t know, you’ll likely be able to tell that they are speaking to God, but they won’t be speaking to you unless someone interprets their words, just as 1 Corinthians 14:5 states.

The fourth point I want to bring out of the text is crucial: Paul actually says that the exercise of the gift of tongues was intended by God to be a sign for non-believers, not a benefit for believers: “Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers” (1 Corinthians 14:22). The best way to illustrate this aim of the gift is to see the gift at work. In Acts 2, the apostles “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). Those in the audience “were all amazed and marveled,” not because the apostles were speaking in heavenly tongues that no one could understand, but because “everyone heard them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6-7). This miraculous sign – Galileans speaking in the birth language of others (Acts 2:7-8) – paved the way for the audience to hear and embrace the message that was contained in the words spoken in those tongues, namely, “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11).

1 Corinthians 14 simply doesn’t teach that the gift of tongues involved a language unknown to humankind or provided believers with a sign of their salvation; in fact, it teaches the opposite. The gift of tongues was provided by God to assist in the spread of the Gospel during a period when God was still moving men to write the words of the New Testament (2 Peter 1:20-21). As Paul looked forward to the coming of that perfect revelation, he said that the gift of tongues “will cease” (1 Corinthians 13:8). What the gift of tongues achieved – conveying the word of God or worship of God to those who speak other languages – is now achieved through translators and translations of the Bible.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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