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Tongues, a Sign for Unbelievers?: A Structural and Exegetical Study of I Corinthians XIV. 20–251

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2009

B. C. Johanson
Uppsala, Sweden


I Corinthians xiv. 20–25 has long posed several cruces interpretationis for commentators. The basic problems concern the relationship of the assertions made about tongues and prophecy in υ. 22 to the quotation of Isa. xxviii. 11–12 in υ. 21 and to the illustrations concerning tongues and prophecy in υυ. 23–5. As to the quotation, J. Ruef remarks that most commentators admit to the difficulty of seeing how it substantiates Paul's conclusion that tongues are meant as a sign for the unbeliever. Concerning the illustrations, both J. Héring and J. P. M. Sweet note that in the light of the assertions we would expect them to be the reverse of what they are. While tongues are asserted to be meant as a sign for unbelievers and prophecy for believers, the illustrations depict the negative effect of tongues upon unbelievers and the positive effect of prophecy not on believers but upon unbelievers. The second assertion (υ. 22b) in particular contradicts the second illustration (υυ. 24–5) in that it clearly states that ‘prophecy is meant as a sign not for unbelievers but for believers’. This is so if σημεĩον is taken in a positive sense. If, on the other hand, it is taken in a negative sense, the logical relation of this second illustration to the second assertion becomes ambiguous.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1979

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page 180 note 2 Ruef, J., Paul's First Letter to Corinth (Pelican N.T. Commentaries; Harmondsworth, 1971), p. 151.Google Scholar

page 180 note 3 Héring, J., La première épître de Saint Paul aux Corinthiens (Neuchâtel, 1949), p. 128.Google Scholar

page 180 note 4 Sweet, J. P. M., ‘A Sign for Unbelievers: Paul's Attitude to Glossolalia’, N.T.S. 13 (19661967), 241.Google Scholar

page 180 note 5 Allo, E.-B., Première épître aux Corinthiens (Paris, 1934), p. 366.Google Scholar

page 181 note 1 Barclay, W., The Letters to the Corinthians (2nd ed.Edinburgh, 1956), pp. 146–7Google Scholar. Even if this commentary is intended for the layman, this unsignalled omission seems inexcusable.

page 181 note 2 Phillips, J. B., The New Testament in Modern English (pocket edition, London, 1960), pp. 367 and 550.Google Scholar

page 181 note 3 Apart from the treatment of the passage in the various commentaries, there is no serious treatment given in periodical literature to the problems here pointed out prior to 1957 according to Metzger's, B. M.Index to Periodical Literature on the Apostle Paul (Grand Rapids, 1960), p. 71Google Scholar. Between 1957 and the present the only articles that treat the passage in depth are that of J. P. M. Sweet, which we have already had occasion to refer to (cf. p. 180 n. 4), and that of Robertson, O. P., ‘Tongues: Sign of covenantal curse and blessing’, Westminster Theological Journal 38 (1975), 4353.Google Scholar

page 181 note 4 Philocalia, ix. 2.

page 181 note 5 The English text of the R.S.V. is used for Paul's version as well as that of the MT since it follows the MT here. For the English text of the LXX I have given my own translation.

page 183 note 1 A case in point is the quotation of Exod. xvi. 18 in II Cor. viii. 15 which Paul uses in support of Christian sharing, although the OT context has to do with the gathering of manna. Grant, R. M., in his book A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (New York, 1948), pp. 2842Google Scholar, gives ample evidences for this sort of non-contextual use of OT Scripture by Paul. Also see Fitzmyer, J. A., ‘The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in Qumran Literature and in the New Testament’, N.T.S. 7 (19601961), 297333, especially pp. 316–25Google Scholar, where ‘Accommodated Texts’ are dealt with.

page 183 note 2 Robertson, A. and Plummer, A., The First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians (2nd ed.Edinburgh, 1914). pp. 315–19.Google Scholar

page 183 note 3 Thus Lietzmann, H., An Die Koriniher I, II (4th ed.Tübingen, 1949), p. 73Google Scholar, and Moffatt, J., The First Epistle to the Corinthians (London, 1938), p. 223Google Scholar, to give two examples.

page 183 note 4 Robertson and Plummer, op. cit. p. 319.

page 184 note 1 Sweet, op. cit. p. 244.

page 184 note 2 Ibid. p. 243, where Sweet refers to Ellis's book, Paul's Use of the Old Testament (Edinburgh, 1957). PP. 107–13.Google Scholar

page 184 note 3 Ruef, op. cit. p. 151. Also see Dodd, C. H., According to the Scriptures (London, 1952), p. 83.Google Scholar

page 184 note 4 Ruef, op. cit.

page 185 note 1 Ibid. p. 152.

page 185 note 2 Tongues: Sign of covenantal curse and blessing’, Westminster Theological Journal 38 (1975). 4553.Google Scholar

page 185 note 3 Op. cit. 52.

page 185 note 4 Ibid.

page 186 note 1 The second clause seems to be parenthetical since it is only synthetically parallel to the first clause (παιδíα γíνεσθε—νηπιάετε) and antithetic to the third clause (νηπιάετε–τ⋯λειοι γíνεσθε), since the elements τ κακ and τας ϕρεσίν are neither parallel nor antithetic in relation to each other.

page 186 note 2 Jeremias, J., ‘Chiasmus in den Paulusbriefen’, Z.N.T. 49 (1958), 147.Google Scholar

page 187 note 1 The antithesis between the two assertions lies between the reversed order of τος πιστεουσιν and τος άπίστοις in each assertion. The parallelism would necessarily be provided by the ellipsis of είςσημεīόν έστιν after ή δέ προϕητεία in the second assertion.

page 187 note 2 Duncan, T. S. in his article, ‘The style and language of Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians’, Bibliolheca Sacra 83 (1926), 141–2Google Scholar, gives only two examples of paromoiosis in I Cor. i. 27 and xii. 3 and states that ‘not much of this extremely artificial figure is found’.

page 187 note 3 Sweet, op. cit. p. 244. We can certainly see why he comes to that conclusion, as the stress in both the assertions seems to lie on that which is positively affirmed. This point will be further remarked on later.

page 188 note 1 Allo, op. cit. p. 366.

page 188 note 2 Ford, J. M., ‘“Hast Thou Tithed Thy Meal?” and “Is Thy Child Kosher?”’, J.T.S. 16 (1966), 75Google Scholar. On the other hand ίδιώτης, which occurs in both the illustrations in conjunction with ガπιστος, can have somewhat the same connotation as ‘am ha aretz’. It is doubtful, though, if this is the connotation it has here. It must be pointed out that in υ. 23 the ίδιώτης is distinguished from the ‘whole church’ and in υυ. 24–5 he undergoes the same experience of conversion as the άφιστος. Cf. Morris, L., I Corinthians (Tyndale N.T. Commentaries; London, 1958), pp. 195–6Google Scholar. As for άπιστος, it is used elsewhere in I Cor. vi. 6, vii. 15 and x. 27 to denote non-Christians in general without any blame for unbelief attached.

page 189 note 1 Sweet's appeal to Paul's play on the term νόμος in Rom. vii. 21 – viii. 3 in defence of the view that it is legitimate to see a play on the term άπιστος in I Cor. xiv. 22–5 does not take into account the parallelism and the compact structure of this latter passage (op. cit. p. 242).

page 189 note 2 The positive sense of σημείον in the LXX can be seen in Isa. vii. 11, xix.20, xxxvii. 30, xxxviii. 7 and lv. 13, while the negative sense is evident in Isa. vii. 14–17, viii. 18 and xx. 3. While Paul's use of σημείον apart from here in I Cor. xiv. 22 is sparing, Sweet's observation (op. cit. p. 241) that his references to it are ‘mostly critical’ is untenable. Not including the present example, Paul uses σημείον only seven times. In Rom. iv. 11 and II Thess. iii. 17 he uses it in the non-miraculous sense of ‘distinguishing mark’. In Rom. xv. 19 and II Cor. xii. 12 it is used in conjunction with τέρας and δύναμις clearly with a positive sense. In II Thess. ii. 9 it is also used in conjunction with τέρας and δύναμις, but here the signs are used to deceive the world at the coming of the ‘lawless one’ and are accordingly designated as ψεύδους. On first sight his disparaging remark about the Jews who ask for ‘signs’ does seem to indicate a critical view of signs. On closer examination, though, that which he is really critical of here is not the signs requested but the lack of faith demonstrated by the Jews' request. From these examples it seems clear that Paul is only critical of signs as they are misused (II Thess. ii. 9) or both misconceived and misused (I Cor. i. 22).

page 190 note 1 It must be pointed out here that I Corinthians is Paul's most rhetorical letter. After giving an impressive array of evidence, T. S. Duncan makes this plain, stating that ‘the excess of rhetorical ornamentation there is to be explained by the fact that he is waging a hard battle with the Corinthian church, a battle in which he is taking the aggressive and is now persuading, now castigating, always confident of his position’ (op. cit. p. 143).

page 190 note 2 This example may be subject to question. See p. 186 n. 1.

page 190 note 3 The passage thus analysed presents a particularly apropos illustration of Lagrange's, M. J. description of diatribe in his article ‘Langue, style, argumentation dans l'épître aux Romains’, R.B. 22 (1915), 230Google Scholar. His description is of the style of the diatribist in general: ‘Son style ne doit pas être périodique, mais coupé, procédant par petites phrases qui facilitent l'opposition entre ce qu'il faut faire et ne pas faire; tout lui est antithèse’ (my italics).

page 190 note 4 While we may accept Sweet's view (op. cit. p. 241) that the sign value of tongues is not likely to be an original contribution of Paul's, we have already discounted his supporting argument to the effect that in Paul's other references to σημεον he is ‘mostly critical’ (cf. p. 189 n. 2).

page 190 note 5 In taking εІς σημεον in the sense of ‘meant as a sign’, we are following the N.E.B. and the Jerusalem Bible. This final sense of εІς here also has the support of Moule, C. F. D., An Idiom-Book of N.T. Greek (Cambridge, 1963), p. 70Google Scholar; Blass, F. and Debrunner, A., A Greek Grammar of the N.T. and other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, 1961), p. 80Google Scholar; and Robertson, A. T., A Grammar of the Greek N.T. in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville, 1934), p. 458Google Scholar. On the other hand, it is possible to follow the R.S.V. and the T.E.V. in taking εІς σημείον as replacing the predicate nominative under Semitic influence. This would result in the translation, ‘tongues are a sign’. In Paul's epistles there are four clear examples of this Semitic usage (I Cor. vi. 16, xv. 45; II Cor. vi. 18 and, if one accepts the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, Eph. v. 31). In each case, however, it occurs in a quotation from the LXX. The only other examples of εναι followed by εІς and the accusative are in Col. ii. 22, where the sense is clearly final, and in I Cor. iv. 3, where according to A. T. Robertson (ibid.) ‘the point is not very different’. The context of I Cor. xiv seems to show that Paul's contention with the glossolalists over tongues centred more on the question of the purpose of this particular gift. In υυ. 24–5 Paul seems to be countering their understanding of tongues as a sign of their pneumatic status. At least this is the trend of the argument in υυ. 1–19. If this is so, then we cannot be far wrong in taking εІς in a final sense.

page 192 note 1 The view of Héring (La première èpître de Saint Paul aux Corinthiens, pp. 128–9) that the πιστεύοντες in υ. 22 must be taken in the sense of ‘ceux qui sont en train de devenir chrètiens’ seems to be forced by the desire to avoid the contradiction between the second assertion and second illustration. Taking the position that άπιστοι does not have the same sense in the assertions as in the illustrations, he draws the meaning for the άπιστοι in the assertions from the quotation with the result that he sees them as ‘ceux qui s'endurcissent et qui restent incrédules en s'achoppant’. Thus while the references to the ἅπιστοι in the assertions and illustrations are disparate, it is the references to the πισεύοντες that are to be taken as equivalent to the ἄπιστοι in the illustrations! Sweet rightly questions this proleptic sense for πισεύοντες as being without parallel and unlikely (op. cit. pp. 242–3).

page 193 note 1 That we may legitimately change the punctuation here is clear enough since there was hardly any punctuation to speak of in the earliest manuscripts. The question mark in particular did not come into use until around the ninth century. Metzger, Cf. B. M., The Text of the New Testament (New York, 1964), p. 27.Google Scholar

page 193 note 2 In I Cor. vi. 13 a we find the same sort of chiastic parallelism:

τ⋯ βρώματα τ κοιλІ (a, b)

καά ή κοιλІα τος βρώμασιν (b, a)

Concerning this Jeremias (op. cit.) makes the remark that, ‘hierher gehört auch die Devise der korinthischen Schwärmer’. Just preceding this in υ. 12 there is the phrase π⋯ντα μοι εξεστιν which Robertson and Plummer (op. cit. p. 121) among other commentators take as probably having been ‘a trite maxim’ current among the Corinthians.

It is possible that Paul could have come by this slogan in the Corinthians' previous letter. J. C. Hurd has pointed out the importance of the formulae περì δέ occurring six times in chs. vii-xvi in The Origin of I Corinthians (London, 1965), pp. 6374Google Scholar. He holds that each occurrence of this formula heralds the answer to a question from the Corinthians. This formula is used in xii. I to introduce the topic of spiritual gifts.

page 194 note 1 For this particular insight I am indebted to Professor M. Black, who was so kind as to suggest it to me in a letter. At first I had come to the conclusion that υ. 22 constituted a slogan quoted by Paul.

page 194 note 2 It is typical of diatribe for an objection or opinion to be put forward and then refuted inferentially by a question (i.e. υ. 23, ‘will they not say you are mad?’) or an example immediately following it (cf. Lagrange, op. cit. p. 230).

page 194 note 3 Allo, op. cit. p. 366.

page 195 note 1 Arndt, W. F. and Gingrich, F. W., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, 1957), p. 371.Google Scholar

page 195 note 2 Cf. Morris, op. cit. pp. 195–6.

page 196 note 1 Sweet, op. cit. p. 245.

page 196 note 2 This would of course conflict with Smith's, D. M. view in ‘Glossolalia and other spiritual gifts in New Testament perspective’, Interpretation 28 (1974), 312Google Scholar, that ‘one need not suppose that the central problem of the Corinthian church was a controversy over speaking in tongues’.

page 196 note 3 This lack of tangible leadership seems to be indicated by inference in I Cor. xvi. 15–16 where Paul refers to the ‘house of Stephanas’, the first converts in Achaia. They had devoted themselves to the ‘service of the saints’ and it was to ‘such men and to every fellow worker and labourer’ that Paul exhorts the Corinthians to be subject. Note the emphatic character of the admonition: ίνα καί ύμείς ύποτάσσσηθε τοīς τοιούτοις.

page 196 note 4 While this verse does not indicate an established hierarchical order (Schweizer, cf. E., Church Order in the New Testament (London, 1961), p. 100Google Scholar), the πρ⋯τον, δεύτεσον, γπίγον enumeration must indicate some sense of rank in importance or honour. Greeven, H. has argued that prophets may have been the first leaders of many Christian communities in ‘Propheten, Lehrer, Vorsteher bei Paulus’, Z.N.W. 44 (19521953), 38–9Google Scholar, while E. Käsemann has given evidence that the prophet0s may have been the source of the justalionis of early Christianity in ‘Sentences of holy law in the New Testament’, New Testament Questions of Today (London, 1969), pp. 66–9, 78–9.Google Scholar

page 197 note 1 Käsemann, , ‘Ministry and community in the New Testament’, Essay on New Testament Themes (London, 1946), p. 67.Google Scholar

page 197 note 2 Johansson, N. in ‘I Cor. xiii and I Cor. xiv’, N.T.S. 10 (1963–4), 383–92Google Scholar, notes that R. Reitzenstein was the first to point out the polemicizing character of I Cor. xiii (cf. p. 383). He goes on to argue that the polemic of chap, xiii must be related to chap, xiv as a criticism of Corinthian tongues, prophecy, and gnosis (cf. pp. 390–1). While I would agree with this as far as tongues and prophecy are concerned, I find his correlation between the disparagement of gnosis in xiii and a gnosis background for Paul's censure of women speaking in the assembly in xiv. 34–6 rather unconvincing. Was it someone's gnosis that was being ‘pleaded in defence of this practice’, or would it not be more likely due to the unrestrained glossolalia and prophesying which carried the Corinthian women beyond the restraint they would have normally manifested in public? I feel that the context favours the latter hypothesis.

page 197 note 3 Beare, F. W., in ‘Speaking with tongues: A critical survey of the New Testament evidence’, J.B.L. 83 (1964), 242Google Scholar, feels that in this passage ‘there is a suggestion that speaking with tongues, and indeed other spiritual gifts as well, belong to a stage of spiritual immaturity, which will not be wholly overcome in this life’. With τέλειον thus taken in the traditional eschatological way the resulting interpretation of the passage is hard-pressed to make sense out of the fact that while Paul says in υ. 8 that prophecy and gnosis will pass away (καταργηθήσεται) and that tongues will cease (παύσονται), in υ. 12 it is not the spiritual gift itself that ceases but rather that which is έκ μέσους. In fact, υυ. 9–10 seem to indicate that it is the έκ μέρους aspect of the gifts that passes away and not necessarily the gifts themselves. In this way υυ. 9–10 serve to qualify υ. 8. By contrast, love, not being έκ μέρους, never fails or ‘falls’ (πίπτει). In other words, while charismata can come to grief, ⋯λ⋯πη will never do so. It seems that Paul is continuing to say here what he has said in υυ. 1–3: charismata apart from ⋯λ⋯πη will come to naught. Vυ. 8–12 go on to show that they will come to full fruition when ⋯λ⋯πη matures the charismatic, for ‘love never falls’. With this interpretation πíπτω is allowed its more natural meaning. Used figuratively it signifies not the eternity but rather the infallibility of ύλύπη. The only other place in the NT where πίπτω may have a temporal sense is in Luke xiv. 17, but even this example is questionable.

page 198 note 1 The only other occurrences of ηλ⋯ω in xii. 31 and xiv. I do not seem to have this negative sense. The noun occurs nowhere else.

page 199 note 1 Käsemann, , Essays on New Testament Themes, pp. 67–8.Google Scholar

page 199 note 2 Scroggs, R., ‘Paul: σόϕος and πνεματικός’, N.T.S. 14 (19671968), 33–5.Google Scholar

page 199 note 3 Ibid. pp. 33–5: Scroggs takes both Wilckens (Weisheit und Torheit (Tübingen, 1959)) and Schmithals (Die Gnosis in Korinth (Göttingen 1965)) to task, particularly Wilckens.

page 200 note 1 For the connection between what seems to be the evangelistic frame of reference here in iii. 10 ff. and the worship context in ch. xiv the remark of Schweizer, E. in ‘The service of worship’, Interpretation 13 (1959), 405Google Scholar, is apropos: ‘There is no strict distinction between missionary preaching and a sermon in a worship service of believers. Church and mission belong together like apple tree and apple. For always the outsider, the “idiotes,” is the most important person in the whole assembly (14:16, 23f.).’

page 200 note 2 That the two phenomena, wisdom and tongues, could be held together in the experience of homo religiosus is not so strange as it may seem at first sight, especially when given the syncretistic climate of those times. Wilson, R. McL. in ‘How gnostic were the Corinthians?’, N.T.S. 19 (1972), 6574Google Scholar, feels that ‘the first tentative beginnings of what was later to develop into full-scale Gnosticism’ were already present in the Corinthian church. Such a situation would further add to the plausibility of a wisdom–tongues connection.

page 201 note 1 Ellis, , ‘“Spiritual” gifts in the Pauline Community’, N.T.S. 20 (1974), 130.Google Scholar

page 201 note 2 Ellis (ibid.) finds four such phrases: ‘rulers of this age’ in υ. 6, ‘before the ages’ in υ. 7, and ‘the spirit of the world’ and ‘the spirit that is from God' in υ. 12. Robertson and Plummer (op. cit. p. iii) note only the first three of these phrases.

page 201 note 3 Käsemann, , New Testament Questions of Today, pp. 78–9 (cf. p. 196 n. 4)Google Scholar. For strong criticism of Käsemann's thesis on the creative role of NT prophets see Hill's, D. article ‘On the evidence for the creative role of Christian prophets’, N.T.S. 20 (1974), 262–74Google Scholar. While I must agree with much of his argument against the creative role of NT prophets, I feel that he makes too strong a distinction between prophets and apostles with regard to honour and authority. He seems to hold that these were given exclusively to the latter in the primitive church (cf. p. 274). Ellis, in ‘The role of the Christian prophet in Acts’, Apostolic History and the Gospel (The Paternoster Press, 1970), pp. 64–5Google Scholar, while showing that there was an overlapping of the roles of apostles and prophets, also holds that, unlike the prophets, the apostles exercise authority in the community. I would venture that Acts xiii. 1–3 gives evidence on the contrary that prophets indeed exercised authority to a certain extent.

page 201 note 4 As to other views on what gave rise to the problem of tongues my reconstruction goes against that of Manson, T. W. in ‘The Corinthian correspondence’, Studies in the Gospels and Epistles (Manchester, 1962), pp. 197207Google Scholar, in which he argues that tongues, being of Palestinian origin, were being demanded by the Cephas party in order to ‘instil Palestinian piety and Palestinian orthodoxy into the Corinthian Church’, and by this and other ways to weaken Paul's authority. This, of course, does not follow if one does not accept the four-party divisions of Manson (cf. p. 202 n. 2). As for the Palestinian origin of glossolalia, support for this view can be inferred from Harrisville's, R. A. recent study ‘Speaking in tongues: A lexicographical study’, C.B.Q. 38 (1976), 3548 (cf. pp. 46–7 in particular)Google Scholar. In rejecting Manson's view, however, Kummel, W. G. points out that ‘there is nothing in I Corinthians of a polemic against “Judaising” (radical Jewish-Christian) views’ (Introduction to the New Testament (14th rev. ed.Nashville, 1965), p. 202)Google Scholar. It is an open question as to whether we can speak of opponents of Paul at all in I Cor. One must be careful not to read the problems of II Cor. into I Cor. as they probably reflect later developments.

My reconstruction also tells against Hurd's, J. C. novel thesis (The Origin of I Corinthians (London, 1965))Google Scholar that the surfeit of tongues was directly the result of Paul's initial teaching and example, but which he later in I Cor. xiv tried to tone down in order to buy favour with Jerusalem. This would explain the fact that he cannot repudiate tongues in ch. xiv although there are indications that he would like to. Hurd's thesis is too complex for us to give a fair criticism in this short space. For a fair and balanced criticism see Sweet, op. cit. pp. 249–56.

page 202 note 1 That Peter was in Corinth at some time has been strongly argued by Barrett, C. K. in ‘Cephas and Corinth’, Abraham Unser Vater, Festschrift für Otto Michel, ed. Betz, O., Hengel, M., Schmidt, P. (Leiden, 1963), pp. 112.Google Scholar

page 202 note 2 This reconstruction of the factions in I Cor. is intended to be suggestive, as any such reconstruction must be in view of the elusive nature of the evidence. The scope of this study would, of course, not allow a detailed appraisal of the major views on the topic. A few remarks, however, are in order. It is hazardous, to say the least, to try to identify the names mentioned in I Cor. i. 12 with distinct parties as T. W. Manson, op. cit. pp. 193 ff., does and as Barrett, C. K. further elaborates in ‘Christianity at Corinth’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 46 (1964), 272 ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar. Just as the Corinthians were misusing their charismata, they would also have been likely to have misused whatever significant relationship they might have had with those leading personalities mentioned in order to further their own ends. What we have here is probably no more than a case of name-passing which is as old and as common as human nature in search of status. Several persons in one and the same party could have been each referring to a different name. This view would also serve to give a viable explanation to the much puzzled-over reference Eγώ δέ Xριστοũ: not only were both parties claiming the same human connections but also the authority of Christ as evidenced by the reception of His Spirit in the manifestation of their various spiritual gifts.

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