Bible Q&A: On Pentecost, Were Two Miracles Taking Place, or Just One?

On Pentecost, the apostles were miraculously speaking in tongues, but it says about the multitude that “each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” Were two miracles taking place, or just one?

Before studying this question more fully, I used to hold to the notion that two different miraculous spiritual gifts were being used on this occasion: the “various kinds of tongues” spoken by the apostles, and “the interpretation of tongues” on the part of the listeners (cf. 1 Cor. 12:4-10).  I theorized two things: that the apostles were miraculously speaking in the various “tongues” (glossa, languages or dialects used by a particular people distinct from that of other nations) and “languages” (dialektos, the tongue or language peculiar to any people) of the fourteen to fifteen nations listed as present (Acts 2:4-11), and that those who heard them were given the miraculous spiritual gift to automatically interpret what they were saying, i.e., automatically hear it in their own ears as their own native language.

Yet upon further reflection about the passage and this question, I realized that my former position held flaws.  The Bible specifically says that the apostles “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (v. 4).  If God miraculously gave each person in the multitude the ability to automatically mentally interpret in their own language what the apostles were saying, why did the apostles need to have the miraculous ability to speak in other languages in the first place?  Why not have them just speak their native Galilean and then have each of the listeners miraculously hear their words in their own native language?  Furthermore, the text says that the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, not the multitude (Acts 2:1-4a).  Indeed, the multitude did not even form until after the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles.  I realized I was ascribing the miraculous spiritual gift of interpreting tongues upon people whom the New Testament gives no indication had received the Holy Spirit.

For these reasons I studied the passage further and have come to a different answer to the question.  Each of the twelve apostles were miraculously given the ability to speak to everyone there in an understandable way by speaking in the tongues and dialects common to the various geographical areas from which each member of the multitude was born and lived.  Of the twelve, God gave each of them the ability to speak in at least one of the languages represented among their listeners.  While fourteen or fifteen nationalities are listed (vs. 8-10), that doesn’t mean there were fourteen or fifteen different languages represented that day.  Phyrgians and Pamphylians spoke Greek.  Persian was spoken by the Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, albeit with different dialects.  In all likelihood there were seven or eight different languages known by this gathering, along with different dialects of the same language.

So what likely happened once the multitude assembled was the quick realization by the entire group that these Galileans had the ability to speak to them with fluency in their own language and were given that ability miraculously.  It is noteworthy that while Peter’s speech is prominent in Luke’s record of the event, Scripture specifies that he spoke only to “the men of Judea” (v. 14).  Luke also specifies that “all” of the apostles were speaking in other tongues, which means that each of them spoke in various tongues and dialects to the rest of the crowd while Peter spoke to his fellow Judeans.  This probably led the listeners to gravitate toward the particular apostle whom they understood.  Rather than what we commonly picture of Peter singularly addressing thousands who were all gathered together while the rest of the apostles stood behind him, it is more probable that the multitude broke up into smaller groups who each were centered around the apostle whom they understood.  This would result in each member of the crowd paying attention to the specific apostle who spoke their exact language or dialect, thus being exactly what Luke described: “…each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (vs. 6-7, 11).

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