The story of the Tower of Babel is arguably one of the most iconic of all the biblical narratives. Yet today many people are unaware of the connections between the Tower of Babel story and the gift of tongues bestowed on Pentecost. This is in part due to the large number of scholars who consider Genesis 1-11 as a myth.
The church fathers did not consider any of the Old Testament narratives as myths, including the story of the Tower of Babel. In fact, many of them saw a clear connection between the tower of Babel and the gift of tongues. They interpreted tongues as the undoing of the curse that was utilized to halt the construction of the Tower of Babel.
The Curse of the Tower of Babel
The confusion of languages came about because of Nimrod’s rebellion against God. Nimrod means “We will rebel.” The first city Nimrod built, Babel (later known as Babylon), became synonymous with rebellion against God.
The offense the builders of the city and the Tower of Babel committed seems to have been self-elevation and disobedience (Genesis 11:4). First, they wanted to build a name and a reputation for themselves, elevating themselves to heavenly heights so to speak. Secondly, God instructed humanity to multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28; 9:1). The intent of building the city and the tower was not to “be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” and thus opposed God’s instruction.
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Their plan was thwarted when God came down to inspect their work and decided to confuse their language (Genesis 11:7-9). This confusion of language broke the unity of humanity but was necessary because they unified to oppose God. So, though the result may be interpreted as a blessing under the circumstances, the disunity that humanity would suffer because of not being able to speak to one another, was a curse.
The Languages of the Angels
The Septuagint rendering of Deuteronomy 32:8, which Severian of Gabala used, reads, “God has set the boundaries of the nations according to the number of angels.” Based on this translation, several church fathers believed that the nations were divided into 70 (some claim 72 and 75) nations. Each nation was assigned to an angel that oversaw them and ensured that the nations did not re-integrate.
Several church fathers believed that angels could speak all languages known to man. Philastrius wrote, “Certainly, it is an angelic virtue to know the languages of all men” (CSEL 38:62-63) and Severian of Gabala agreed when he said, “The tongues of angels refer to the different languages spoken on earth since the destruction of the tower of Babel” (NTA 15:268). This is likely what Paul had in mind when he referred to the languages of angels in 1 Corinthians 13.
The implication is that the “tongues of men” refers to languages that can be learned by a natural process like we would learn a foreign language, by studying grammar and vocabulary. Possessing the “tongues of angels” would be the ability to speak all languages, which would be an unattainable goal for any individual by any natural process.
It is important to note that 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 makes use of hypothesis and hyperbole to highlight the importance of love. Verse 1, therefore, does not attempt to establish the concept of a unique language spoken by angels since languages (plural) are inferred. 1 Corinthians 13:8 says that “tongues, they will cease.” If the Second Coming hails a return to the linguistic state that existed before the Tower of Babel, all nations will again speak “one language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1 ESV). Tongues (plural) may well cease and become a single, common language again as per Genesis 11:1.
The Gift of Tongues
In light of the gospel that had to be preached to all nations from Pentecost onward (Acts 1:8), language barriers were likely the greatest obstacle. The gift of tongues, however, solved this problem. According to the church fathers, the gift of tongues refers to the supernatural ability to speak foreign languages, also called xenolalia (Busenitz 2006:62; Gumerlock 2004:123-138). Its purpose was to make the gospel known to all nations.
It was only in 2023, however, that the view of many church fathers on the gift of tongues as the ability to speak all languages, has been highlighted again. Xenolalia refers to the ability to speak one or some other language(s) without having learned it. A new phrase had to be coined that could encapsulate the idea of xenolalia that potentially covers all foreign languages. Pan-xenolalia, then, refers to the supernatural ability to speak to and understand the languages of any person encountered.
Here is how Rufinus of Aquileia described it in his work Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed:
“Our forefathers have handed down to us the tradition, that, after the Lord’s ascension, when, through the coming of the Holy Ghost, tongues of flame had settled upon each of the Apostles, that they might speak diverse languages, so that no race however foreign, no tongue however barbarous, might be inaccessible to them and beyond their reach, they were commanded by the Lord to go severally to the several nations to preach the word of God.”
Similarly, Eusebius of Emesa stated:
“But when he [God] gave literary ability to ignorant men so that they could write gospels, giving the ability to write he also gave the Roman tongue to Galileans, and the languages of the world to his apostles, for the teaching and admonition and exhortation of the nations of the world.”
(Buytaert 1953:I, 216)
How Did They Know the Gift was the Ability to Speak All Languages?
At the time the church fathers wrote, several continents and hundreds of nations had not yet been discovered by the “civilized world” of that time. So, how could they have known that the gift of tongues was the ability to speak all languages?
Remember how Rufinus of Aquileia said, “Our forefathers have handed down to us the tradition…”? Clearly, there was a tradition passed on through the Patristic Era concerning those gifted with tongues never encountered anyone they could not converse with. That likely led to the expectation that they would be able to speak any language they would encounter and by extension, all languages.
In a sense, the church fathers’ references to the Tower of Babel in the context of the gift of tongues, also imply all languages. The Tower of Babel was after all the origin of the variety of languages according to them.
Does Pan-Xenolalia Manifest Today?
Origen (ANF 4:615), an early church father, claimed that the supernatural signs of the Holy Spirit which were given after the ascension of Christ, diminished in his time. He was likely referring to the signs mentioned in Mark 16:17-18. According to Chrysostom (NPNF1 12:168), the obscurity of the gift of tongues was because they “used to occur but now no longer take place.”
Augustine (PL 38:1234-1235) argued that because the gospel spread throughout the then-known world so rapidly in the first century after the Apostolic Era, the gift of tongues was no longer necessary. Cyril of Alexandria (PG 71:1005) shared similar sentiments, claiming only the first generation of apostles received the gift.
No claim of the ability to speak all languages has been made for many centuries. Today, Pentecostals and Charismatics interpret the gift of tongues as a devotional or prayer language, and some believe the tongues of Acts and that of 1 Corinthians are two different manifestations. The church fathers made no such distinction. They refer to both Acts and 1 Corinthians while holding to a pan-xenolalic view.
The Tower of Babel: Putting It All Together
No other reference speaks so eloquently to most of the elements that we have encountered in this article thus far, as that of Philastrius in his Book of Diverse Heresies. He has the Tower of Babel in mind when he refers to what occurred 2700 years before Pentecost:
“Yet, all the knowledge of languages which offending people have lost twenty-seven hundred years earlier, the Lord conferred again through the Holy Spirit at the time of the blessed apostles after his ascension without any effort upon those who believed, as it is written in the Acts of the Apostles.
Certainly, it is an angelic virtue to know the languages of all men; nevertheless, through faith in Christ, without any effort, the knowledge of all languages was given to believers. As we read that the Holy Spirit taught the apostles, similarly also the gentiles that believed in the Lord as Christ the Saviour received the knowledge of all languages, so that when the time came for Peter and Paul and the others to teach the people they spoke many languages by the Spirit of God, and these people listened and were amazed and believed in Christ for they saw the knowledge of languages were given without learning.”
In a sense, the gift of tongues reversed the curse of the Tower of Babel. It allowed the gifted believers to speak any language they encountered to spread the gospel. It would unify believers of all nations into one faith. The gift of tongues, though connected to the Tower of Babel event, had the opposite effect. Rufinus explained it like this:
“The Apostles therefore, as we have said, being about to separate in order to preach the Gospel, settled upon this sign or token of their agreement in the faith; and, unlike the sons of Noah, who, when they were about to separate from one another, builded [sic] a tower of baked bricks and pitch, whose top might reach to heaven, they raised a monument of faith, which might withstand the enemy, composed of living stones and pearls of the Lord, such that neither winds might overthrow it, nor floods undermine it, nor the force of storms and tempests shake it.
Right justly, then, were the former, when, on the eve of separation, they builded [sic] a tower of pride, condemned to the confusion of tongues, so that no one might understand his neighbour’s speech; while the latter, who were building a tower of faith, were endowed with the knowledge and understanding of all languages; so that the one might prove a sign and token of sin, the other of faith.”
Rufinus rightly points to the Tower of Babel and the accompanying confusion of language as a “sign and token of sin.” The connection to the gift of tongues is found in the restoration of unity enabled by pan-xenolalia, which is a sign and token of faith.