Christy Cobb


This essay explores the meaning of the word glōssa, the tongue, in Acts. The focus of my study will be Acts 2:1-13, the Pentecost narrative, where the reader first interacts with tongues of fire and with the experience of glossolalia, speaking in tongues. I read this passage exegetically (but playfully) while I consider the meaning and usage of the tongue through the theoretical lenses of poststructuralism and postcolonialism. This reading enables me to highlight the sensory elements of the tongue within Acts. How does it shift our view of Acts if we consider the meaning of glōssa to include the physical tongue, the home of our sense of taste? In doing so, I turn to the work of Jacques Derrida in order to suggest that glōssa functions within Acts as a new concept, one of Derrida’s “undecidable” terms. Finally, I will utilise postcolonial theory in order to suggest that glōssa spreads throughout the narrative and counters the major voices within the text. In this way, glōssa functions as an undecidable concept, a tongue that glides throughout the text of Acts, refusing to allow only the main voices to speak and thwarting the domination of the empire.


Glossolalia, Acts of the Apostles, Derrida, Tongues, Empire

One should never pass over in silence the question of the tongue…

—Jacques Derrida

The tongue. A tongue is a particular, specific part of the body that can be physically touched and held. A tongue is able to lick, taste, move, and make noises. Tongues curl around other tongues and bodies erotically in pursuit of pleasure. A person’s tongue feels within one’s own mouth to remove bits of food or find gaps in teeth. Tongues click. A tongue can lick a popsicle on a hot summer day. Tongues test the heat of a hot cup of coffee in the depth of winter. A tongue gives and receives pleasure. If someone accidentally bites their own tongue, the pain lingers in a visceral way. Tongues are haptic; they absorb and internalise what they touch and taste. The tongue is a physical organ that embodies and explores the senses through its very being. A body needs a tongue in order to taste and a tongue is used to feel objects inside one’s mouth. Tongues are playful, serious, erotic, delicious, and useful.

Yet, the word tongue has an alternate and more abstract definition and usage: language. A person’s “native tongue” refers to the language(s) they learned to speak as a child. The implications of this meaning can be seen in the Greek word for tongue, glōssa, whichis used within the New Testament to mean language and also refers to the spiritual practice of speaking in tongues, glossolalia. When describing glossolalia, the word tongues morphs from a specific human language to a godly, incomprehensible one. In these moments of spiritual experience, tongue is an abstract, intangible concept that is complex and without boundaries. The word tongue functions as a tangible concept, a physical embodiment of multiple senses, and also an abstract concept referring to language. This marked binary of specific/abstract, tangible/intangible, and body-part/language can be seen and heard both within the word glōssa and within the text at hand, as will be explored subsequently.

This essay considers, from a theoretical standpoint, the meaning of the word glōssa, the tongue, in Acts.[1] The focus of this article is Acts 2:1-13, the Pentecost narrative, where the reader first interacts with tongues of fire and with the experience of glossolalia, speaking in tongues. I read this passage exegetically, yet playfully, while I consider the meaning and usage of the tongue through the theoretical lenses of poststructuralism and postcolonialism. This theoretical reading enables me to highlight the sensory elements of the tongue within Acts.[2] How does it shift our view of Acts if we consider the meaning of glōssa to include the physical tongue, the home of our sense of taste but also an organ that participates in the sense of touch? In order to contemplate this question, I turn to the work of Jacques Derrida and suggest that glōssa functions within Acts as a new concept, one of Derrida’s “undecidable” terms.[3] Finally, I consider the implications that this reading of Acts has upon postcolonial theory. In doing so, I suggest that the tongue, as a new concept, spreads throughout the narrative of Acts and overpowers major voices within the text. Thus, glōssa functions as an undecidable concept, a tongue that keeps moving throughout the text of Acts, refusing to allow only the loudest voices to speak and resisting the domination of the empire.

In the book of Acts, the Spirit guides the plot, the travels of the protagonists (Peter and Paul, along with their companions), and the reception of the message. The reader can trace the progress of the Spirit through a variety of actions, but one of the most obvious is through glossolalia, or speaking in tongues.[4] The celebration of the festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2) provides the first occurrence of speaking in tonguesin the narrative.[5] The gathering of Jews to celebrate Pentecost occurs directly after the ascension of Jesus where Jesus’s disciples are present in Jerusalem. While “they were all together at the same place,”[6] in a house, the sound of rushing wind filled the place (2:1-2).[7] Then, “tongues being divided as fire appeared” and a tongue “sat” on each person present (2:3). They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and “they began to speak in other tongues [glōssais]” (2:3). After the description of this chaotic event, the narrator describes Jews who were living in Jerusalem, Jews from “all the nations under heaven” (2:5), gathered outside and confused because “each one was hearing them speaking in his/her own language.” Noticeably, the author uses a different Greek word here for language. Instead of glōssa used for language, dialektō is used, a change to which I will return later in this paper.

The second time that tongue appears in Acts is during the narrative describing the conversion of Cornelius the Centurion in Acts 10 which leads to a substantial experience of glossolalia by a group of Gentiles (ethnē, 10:45) in Caesarea. In this long narrative, Peter gives a speech recounting the death and resurrection of Jesus. While Peter is speaking, the Holy Spirit “fell” upon those who heard Peter’s words. As these Gentiles speak in tongues and exalt God (lalountōn glōssais kai megalynontōn ton theon, 10:46), the others listening are astonished. After the experience of glossolalia subsides, the people are baptised. It is notable that in Acts 10, the Holy Spirit is received through the act of listening which results in glossolalia.

The final occurrence of speaking in tongues is found in Acts 19, when Paul goes to Ephesus and twelve men receive the Holy Spirit there. These twelve are first baptised, then Paul lays hands on them, the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they speak in tongues and even prophesy (elaloun te glōssais kai eprophēteuon, 19:6). In this passage, a number of spiritual elements are present (baptism, laying on of hands, receiving the Spirit, and glossolalia). However, after this event of glossolalia in Ephesus, there are no more noted experiences of speaking in tongues in Acts. As we can see through this sweeping narrative within Acts, portrayals of the receiving of the Holy Spirit through glossolalia are not systematic. Yet, instances of speaking in tongues are tied to the reception of the Spirit, which is vital to the spread of the gospel in Acts.[8]

The Pentecost narrative provides the invitation for the tongue(s) to slip into Acts. Yet, elements within Luke’s narration have much in common with stories from the Torah, such as the story of the Tower of Babel found in Genesis 11.[9] As David Jobling notes: “One powerful reason for reading Babel and Pentecost together is that they both have to do with the diversity of languages…”[10] A look at the word Babel provides the allusion to the city of Babylon.[11] Jobling muses: “Within this general story of universal human pride lies, thinly disguised, a local and specific story out of Israel’s experience.”[12] Additionally, as Jobling observes, there is a tendency to read Babel as a grand narrative, but a postmodern reading strives instead for the instances of human difference.

Jobling connects his reading of Babel to the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 not as a clear reversal of Babel but as related because of two elements: “geographical separation and linguistic confusion.”[13] In his deconstruction of the narrative of Acts 2, Jobling notes that the universalist nature of this text ultimately becomes divided as there is a group that is “in” (those who speak in tongues) and a group who are “out” (of those who do not). He writes, “The story seems to desire unification but be forced at the end to admit division.”[14] Moreover, in Peter’s speech, which attempts to explain the events occurring at Pentecost to the crowd, the focus of his speech is not language or tongues. Instead, Peter’s speech functions to calm the chaos of Pentecost. Peter is the builder of a new tower, the instigator of unification.

In contrast, reading with awareness of multiple tongues that are speaking and moving within Acts allows Peter’s image to slip into the background and an alternative interpretation to surface. Instead of the multiple tongues of Pentecost coalescing into coherence in the one tongue of Peter, Acts 2:44-47 alludes to the early community of Christ-followers engaging in a shared vision without a clear authority. In this portrait of community, multiple tongues retain their agency, their voices. Jobling’s postmodern reading of Acts 2 in light of the Tower of Babel enables this multiplicitous reading of Pentecost. Similarly, Jacques Derrida turned to the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis in order to explore the concept of language and translation. Because of the obvious connection between Babel and Pentecost (one that Jobling’s work illustrates), I will engage in an exegetical analysis of Acts 2:1-13 through a reading of Derrida’s essay “Des Tours de Babel.” Through this reading and the poststructuralist analysis that follows it, the text of Acts 2 will begin to unravel and the binary structures within it will be challenged. Following this theoretical reading, I suggest that understanding tongues as a Derridean undecidable concept allows for further unravelling, especially in terms of the use of empire within Acts.

“‘Babel’: first a proper name, granted. But when we say “Babel” today, do we know what we are naming? Do we know whom?”[15] The opening words of Derrida’s essay describe the conundrum encountered when one comes into contact with language and translation. Bringing attention to the triple meaning in the word Babel (Babylon, God, and confusion) as well as the double meaning of “confusion” within Genesis 11 (confusion of tongues and also the confusion of the situation), Derrida expounds upon the impossibility of translation, as well as language and the disruption of one universal tongue by Yahweh. He writes, “And yet “Babel,” an event in a single tongue, the one in which it appears so as to form a ‘text,’ also has a common meaning, a conceptual generality.”[16]

In Acts 2:3, divided tongues (diamerizomenai glōssai hōsei pyros) appear to those present at the Pentecost celebration and then “sit” on each one present. It is unclear through the literary description whether the tongue(s) is made of fire or looks like fire. Additionally, the number of tongues is unclear. The first reference, divided tongues, is plural. But the verb used here, ekathisen, is singular. This makes the reader imagine that one tongue (it) sat upon those present. Thinking along with Derrida here, tongue(s) deconstruct(s) the distinction between singularity and plurality. Further, when one imagines these sitting tongue(s) as physical body parts, this scene becomes even messier and more chaotic (wet flaming tongues sitting on those present, covering them in saliva, setting them on fire, tasting their skin). The moment is intense, intimate. Willie Jennings emphasises this intimacy as he writes of this scene: “Here we must not draw back from what is being displayed in Luke’s account. This is God touching, taking hold of tongue and voice, mind, heart, and body. This is a joining, unprecedented, unanticipated, unwanted, yet complete joining.”[17]

Other Commentators seem to be a bit befuddled about what these “tongues of fire” (2:3) might have looked like or represented. For example, C. K. Barrett muses that the reader should imagine that this is actually a flame but is “something shaped like the tongue.”[18] In essence, a tongue-like flame of fire rested on each person. James G. D. Dunn, however, argues that these tongues are not fire, but instead the reference to fire means the experience is actually a vision.[19] Yet, Dunn then suggests that because ekathisen is singular, the fire is a “single entity (a single flame?) divided among each of those present.”[20] While it is not clear what exactly readers are to picture while reading this passage, Shelly Matthews astutely observes the possibility of this description shocking readers when she writes “…readers who pause at this point in the narrative to contemplate the image evoked with these words—roaring wind, flames, a myriad of ragged tongues, more than one hundred people speaking different languages simultaneously—might be more startled than reassured.”[21]

In the next verse, 2:4, those upon whom the tongue(s) were resting are filled with the Holy Spirit and they speak (lalein) in other tongues (heterais glōssais). Because of the verb “speak” as it is used here, we can be certain that this glōssa indicates another meaning of the word–language. Yet, the use of tongue as language here can be complicated further. As Derrida writes, “One should never pass over in silence the question of the tongue in which the question of the tongue is raised and into which a discourse on translation is translated.”[22] Glōssa as it is used here insinuates the original or native language of the speaker. In fact, in 2:6, another word is used for this same concept, dialektos, which means a language of a particular nation or region.[23] Yet, glōssa also implies the practice of glossolalia, which refers to ecstatic possession that was a widely attested religious phenomenon in the ancient world, as well as in Jewish circles.[24] The use of glōssa here is thus best translated as tongue, but simultaneously incorporates a spectrum of meaning from corporeality, such as the physical organ of the tongue, to abstraction, including the meaning of a person’s “native language”, as well as an ecstatic religious experience.

The event of Pentecost as described in Acts is not only ecstatic but also chaotic. The numerous tongues and voices collide with the sound of rushing wind and tongues of fire. The inclusion of both wind and fire in the narrative suggests another binary present in the text: wind/fire. Wind and fire are seemingly in opposition to one another as natural elements. Yet also, when wind comes into contact with fire, it has the potential to intensify it, just as it has the potential to terminate it. The unpredictable chaos caused by the intrusion of these natural elements enhances the already dramatic scene. Because of the chaos, a crowd outside hears the commotion and is confused (sygcheō). This verb is also used in the Septuagint text of the Babel story (Genesis 11:7, 9). Derrida connects the dots: “This story recounts, among other things, the origin of the confusion of tongues, the irreducible multiplicity of idioms, the necessary and impossible task of translation, its necessity as impossibility.”[25] Back in Acts, the crowd gathers, puzzled, each person hearing words spoken in their own language (dialektos). By the end of verse eight, confusion reigns. “And the proper name of God (given by God) is divided enough in the tongue, already, to signify also, confusedly, ‘confusion.’”[26] 

Yet, the text does not allow confusion to dominate for long. The narrator interrupts the scene in order to provide an exhaustive list of all the nations and people groups (a total of seventeen identifications) who were present at Pentecost, and in doing so narrates the possible languages that the gathered crowd would have heard spoken. Many scholars have focused on this list and the possible interpretations of a list such as this inserted into the narrative. One intriguing aspect of the list is that all those present are listed clearly as Jews (Ioudaioi) and also as men (andres).[27] It is not clear in the narrative if those present were visiting Jerusalem because of the festival of Pentecost or if they were living in Jerusalem, as suggested by verse 5. As Beverly Gaventa observes, “By the first century, far more Jews lived outside Palestine than within it.”[28] Either way, this list of ethnic identities increases the noise and the chaos at the scene. Multiple tongues were speaking in multiple tongues.[29]

At the end of 2:11, tongues return to the narrative: “in our own languages (glōssais) we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” The actual content of the message heard is not provided in this verse and is instead left up to Peter to provide for the reader. Verse twelve portrays “all” (pantes) as amazed and perplexed, while verse thirteen indicates that “others” (heteroi) mocked those speaking in tongues, believing them to be drunk on wine. These two verses provide a third noted binary in this pericope, that of all/others.[30] While “all” usually functions as a universal, inclusive term, in Acts 2 it actually appears to function restrictively. Who is “all?” First, “all” in Acts 2 seems to include only Jews. In fact, “all” incorporates those who speak in tongues and those who understand the speaking in tongues. In this way, “all” does not actually signify “all.” In fact, the “others” present are not included in the group, even if these “others” might end up being included in the “all” later in the narrative, if Peter’s sermon persuades them.

As Jobling’s reading shows, Peter’s speech interrupts the dissonance within the text in an attempt to explain away the glossolalia, and in essence, the confusion. He does so by turning it into a “sign.” In this way, Peter’s role seems to be the opposite of Yahweh’s role in the Babel narrative. While Peter attempts to clear up the confusion, Yahweh inspires confusion. Yet in Peter’s resistance to chaos, he references the prophet Joel, which allows the reader to connect speaking in tongues directly with prophecy. The literary contrast is stark. In Acts 2:1-13 numerous voices are spoken and heard. Multiple languages are vocalised. Many tongues move. In verse fourteen these numerous voices cease to be heard as one voice, as one tongue (and one language) takes over the text. Peter is the sole speaker, the one tongue who interprets and speaks for multiple tongues. Peter becomes the universal tongue. Derrida’s reading of Genesis suggests that those present desired their own language. He writes, “In seeking to ‘make a name for themselves,’ to found at the same time a universal tongue and a unique genealogy, the Semites want to bring the world to reason, and this reason can signify simultaneously a colonial violence (since they would thus universalise their idiom) and a peaceful transparency of the human community.”[31] Similarly, in Acts 2 the early Jesus followers seem to be attempting to “make a name for themselves” and in doing so, Peter’s tongue becomes a would-be universal tongue, an instrument of “colonial violence,” to use Derrida’s language. As we see in Acts: “Peter lifted up his voice [phōnēn autou] and declared to them…” (2:14).

Peter’s tongue takes over the narrative of Acts. Jobling rightly notes, “Peter sets out to explain Pentecost.”[32] While not clearly addressing the words of those speaking in tongues, Peter allows his phōnē to dominate the multiple glōssai at Pentecost. As Jobling suggests: “the multiplicity of languages creates in the story an element of disorder, of the uncontrollable, which goes against the tenor of Peter’s speech.”[33] Peter never mentions glōssai in his sermon. In fact, tongues, the word that plays such a large role in the beginning of Acts, does not re-enter the text again until chapter ten. It appears that someone cut the tongue out of the narrative.

Can the multiple glōssai remain in the text of Acts as a type of heteroglossia, a dialogue consisting of the many voices that make up this Jewish-Christian community?[34] Derrida answers through his look to Babel: “No, what they are aiming at intentionally, individually and jointly, in translation is the language itself as a Babelian event, a language that is not the universal language in the Leibnizian sense, a language which is not the natural language that each remains on its own either.”[35] Is it, then, that Peter is attempting to institute his own tongue as the tongue of the Christian community? Perhaps. But Acts 2:44-46, as noted by Jobling as well, disrupts Peter’s presentation and allows the marginal tongues to speak again in the voice of pantes: “And all the believers were at the same place and they were having all things in common. And they were selling properties and possessions and they were distributing these to everyone as someone had need.” While glōssai are not explicitly named in Acts 2:44-46, the use of the word pantes reflects the reader back to Acts 2:1-4, a narrative which is framed through the use of pantes. Additionally, both narratives use the phrase “epi to auto” (in the same place, Acts 2:1, 2:44, 2:47) which creates bookends for this narrative segment. This portrait of the early community of believers is one of multiple glōssais pantes epi to auto. Through this observation, the act of speaking in tongues is made a part of the utopian vision of the early Christian community.[36]

Yet, does this mean glōssa has become the new universal language of a would-be Christian empire? Does this make, as Jobling subtly suggests, Christianity the new empire and glossolalia the universal language of that empire? Perhaps it could be read in that way, but it seems more complex than that. A return to Derridean theory can help to further disentangle the mystery of the tongue as it relates in particular to empire.

Derrida provides an early explanation and exposition on the process of deconstruction in an interview with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta. In this essay, Derrida outlines the process of deconstruction and the emergence of a new concept, or what he dubs “undecidables.” Recognising the hierarchy that is inherent in language, Derrida suggests that “we must traverse a phase of overturning” in order to deconstruct the oppositional hierarchy.[37] But one must not remain in this overturned state. Instead, “[b]y means of this double, and precisely stratified, dislodged and dislodging, writing, we must also mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was high, and the irruptive emergence of a new ‘concept,’ a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime.”[38] These new concepts are what Derrida labels undecidables, and disrupt language and hierarchy. Derrida theorises further: “that is, unities of simulacrum, ‘false’ verbal properties (nominal or semantic) that can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition, but which, however, inhabit philosophical opposition, resisting and disorganising it, without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in the form of speculative dialectics….”[39] Derrida also warns that the original hierarchy not be reinstated through this process. He writes, “We must first overturn the traditional concept of history, but at the same time mark the interval, take care that by virtue of the overturning, and by the simple fact of conceptualisation, that the interval not be reappropriated.”[40]

This process of deconstructing hierarchies as well as the creation of a new concept is one that is profoundly helpful in my exegesis of Acts 2 and the deconstructing of the tongue. Glōssa, as I show, unravels within Acts 2:1-4 and, through the process of deconstruction, morphs into an undecidable, a new concept. For, within this word, the concept of language typically reigns over the concept of tongue. Within glōssa, hierarchies abound: language/tongue; culture/body; abstract/concrete; universal/ particular, etc. The act of overturning these hierarchies occurs within the text itself. The Spirit (pneuma) appears in the form of a physical tongue. What appeared to “all” present at Pentecost first were many tongues that were then divided in order to multiply them further (diamerizomenai glōssaι). The multiplicity of tongues is evident in the plurality of the word. Then that these tongues were divided reveals the unravelling of the original idea. Are we to picture snake-like tongues, with a slit down the centre? Or, one large tongue that is multiplying through division? The text provides fire as an analogy, and the image of a flame in the shape of a tongue that multiplies is provocative. Then, the tongue (now singular) sat (ekathise) on each one (hena). The use of the corporeal verb kathizō here temporarily reaffirms the materiality of the glōssa as the reader attempts to picture a tongue physically sitting on the participants. Immediately, the Holy Spirit fills those present and they begin to speak in other tongues – this time tongue indicates something which cannot be described with a physical description. There is no signified for “language.” No tree that one can point to in order to describe this abstract concept. No tongue that a person can stick out of her mouth and enable it to touch, feel, taste, or lick. This tongue, instead, is abstract and can describe a variety of concepts. It is, in essence, inessential.

In Acts 2:1-4, glōssa resists the systemisation of language. It is a term that is always already resisting binary opposition. It is not one tongue, but many. It is not one language, but multiple. It is a part of the body, a centre for the sense of taste. It is a specific, regional language and also can mean the broad concept of language, all languages. Similarly, the glōssa that is present at Pentecost is at once plural and singular. It is a tongue(s) divided, and it is a tongue that sits, rests, and moves. The glōssa(i) spoken at Pentecost is the language of religious ecstasy while also functioning as the native language of a region or country. In this way glōssa is both universal and particular, both abstract and concrete. It is here, in the glōssa of Acts 2, that the multiplicity of the community is found within the narrative and furthermore, is given a voice (multiple voices, in fact).

Using Derridean theory the understanding of glōssa as a new concept can add to the conversation concerning Acts and empire. Through this exegetical analysis, I have identified the multiplicity of voices present in Acts 2, as well as the undecidable nature of the word glōssa within the narrative. While numerous indistinguishable voices and languages are spoken (multiple tongues move and are heard), a number of voices are not heard and are silenced (multiple tongues are cut out). The “all” present in Acts 2 is not universally inclusive. It is inclusive for the diverse group of people present within Acts. Yet, the text restricts those who are “other,” who mock the ones speaking in tongues. Then, in the middle of the narrative, one voice (Peter’s) dominates the multiple voices that are present in the text, tongues wagging. It is here, in this ambivalent space, that a moment of subtle resistance to empire can be seen.

Concerning the role of empire in Acts, scholars have debated whether Acts is accommodating or resistant to Roman imperial power. Werner Kelber claims, for example, that Luke is arguing for Christianity’s place in the culture of the dominant Roman Empire.[41] More recently, Drew Billings turns to material culture and an interdisciplinary approach in order to argue that Acts embraces the rhetoric of the Roman Empire, specifically during the time when Emperor Trajan ruled.[42] On the other hand, scholars have argued that Acts resist empire through its rhetoric and narrative. Virginia Burris, for example, observes the elements of ambiguity and ambivalence within the narrative of Luke-Acts, an interpretation that encourages a postcolonial reading. Focusing a great deal of her analysis on the scene of Pentecost,[43] Burrus finds a space of ambivalence and hybridity within this narrative. She writes:

Speech in Luke-Acts remains textured by contingency, split or doubled by the awareness of other ‘tongues,’ spaces and temporalities. Perhaps, if we listen very closely, we can even discern in the text a movement toward what Bhabha names a ‘third’ or an ‘in-between’ space of ambivalent signification ‘that may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity’ (1994:38, emphasis in the original).[44]

Similarly, in his comprehensive postcolonial reading of Acts, Ruben Muñoz-Larrondo argues that Luke uses the narrative of Acts as a hidden transcript of resistance, especially when describing and representing the Roman Empire. In fact, the text of Acts declares the empire a false one through its use of resistance. Reading the opening of Acts as a transference of power, Muñoz-Larrondo views the reception of the Holy Spirit as the conferring of authority within Judaism to the followers of Jesus.[45] Ultimately, Muñoz-Larrondo’s reading, like Burrus’ reading, reveals the hybridity present within Acts: “Acts finishes with marked hybridity: always representing characters who submit to hegemony and superiority, law-abiding citizens who respect the authorities; doing so with mimicry and mockery at work, acting contrary to the decrees of the establishment.”[46]

Like Burrus and Muñoz-Larrondo, my own reading recognises the hybridity present in Acts, and the attention to the presence of glōssai throughout Acts furthers this resistance to empire. Considering glōssa as a Derridean undecidable concept disrupts both glossolalia and the text itself. While this could be read as only ambivalence, Derrida’s undecidability pushes past even ambivalence as it cuts all ties to authorial intent. Moreover, the hybrid space within the text provides a place for resistance, perhaps even a hidden transcript, as suggested by Muñoz-Larrondo. While Acts chapter two is dominated by the voice and message of Peter, multiple tongues, a representation of the Holy Spirit, continue to move throughout the narrative and within the mouths of “all.” When connecting this reading of glōssa to the other uses of it throughout Acts, pantes becomes more complex as other nations begin to be included in the “all” and Jews appear to be less included. Jennings alludes to this tendency within Acts which was then absorbed within Christianity through colonialism. He writes, “Christianity was ripe for this tragic collaboration with colonialism because it had learned before the colonial moment began to separate a language from a people.”[47] Ultimately, Jennings leans into the diaspora that Acts enacts, which he suggests is a product of the work of the Spirit. He concludes: “The Spirit directly assaults the forces of assimilation bound up in empire.”[48]

Resisting the pull towards a universal reading, while simultaneously presenting itself as universal, through the use of pantes, as well as glōssai, the text of Acts remains in a state of ambivalence. The conflict within the text of multiple tongues is never satisfied, as tongues never fully disappear from the text. When looking to the constantly changing and surfacing language of glossolalia in Acts, it appears that the tonguepersists in sticking out of the mouth of the text only to disappear back inside for a moment, surfacing at integral moments in the narrative. Tongues, perceived as a physical organ that participates in the senses, are feeling through the text, tasting the diversity of flavours present in the narrative. Tongues, viewed as language, is slippery. While one voice often attempts to take over Acts, multiple tongues continue to speak, guided by the Spirit. In this glossal game of hide-and-seek, multiple tongues resist the solitary tongue just as numerous voices resist empire.


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———. Positions. Translated by Alan Bass. Original Publication 1972. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

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Jobling, David. “Postmodern Pentecost: A Reading of Acts 2.” Pages 207-18 in Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible: A Reader. Edited by A. K. M Adam. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Acts of the Apostles. Edited by Daniel J Harrington. Sacra Pagina, Vol. 5. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992.

Kelber, Werner H. “Roman Imperialism and Early Christian Scribality.” Pages 96-111 in The Postcolonial Biblical Reader. Edited by R. S Sugirtharajah. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2006.

Livingston, Paul. “Derrida and Formal Logic: Formalising the Undecidable.” Derrida Today 3 (November 2010): 221–39, doi:10.3366/drt.2010.0205.

Matthews, Shelly. The Acts of the Apostles: Taming the Tongues of Fire. Phoenix Guides to the New Testament 5. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013. doi:10.5040/9780567671264.

Mills, Watson E. Speaking in Tongues: A Guide to Research on Glossolalia. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986.

Moore, Stephen D. Mark and Luke in Poststructuralist Perspectives: Jesus Begins to Write. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Muñoz-Larrondo, Rubén. A Postcolonial Reading of the Acts of the Apostles. New York: Peter Lang Pub Inc, 2011.

Wolde, Ellen van. Reframing Biblical Studies: When Language and Text Meet Culture, Cognition, and Context. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009.

[1] Here I am leaning on the consideration of the meaning of a word as described by Ellen van Wolde: “In the cognitive approach, a word’s meaning is identified with cognition or mental processing in the broadest sense of that term, including both sensory and motor experience, as well as the speaker’s conception of the social, cultural, and linguistic context. Its basic assumption is that language is inherently symbolic or semiotic, thus emphasizing the mental nature of the linguistic sign in which a concept is related to an acoustic image.” Ellen van Wolde, Reframing Biblical Studies: When Language and Text Meet Culture, Cognition, and Context (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 54.

[2] As Stephen D. Moore writes in a section entitled “Reading with Uncommon Senses” of Mark and Luke in Poststructuralist Perspectives: Jesus Begins to Write: “What is at stake is a reorganization of the way we read, for such reading would bring other organs into play besides the sexual organs—the organs of touch, for example.” Stephen D. Moore, Mark and Luke in Poststructuralist Perspectives: Jesus Begins to Write (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 150.

[3] For a description and overview of Derrida’s concept of undecidable see: Paul Livingston, “Derrida and Formal Logic: Formalising the Undecidable,” Derrida Today 3.2 (2010): 221–39, doi:10.3366/drt.2010.0205.

[4] The term glossolalia refers to the activity of speaking in tongues, which is linked to the passages in Acts that are mentioned in this paper as well as to 1 Corinthians. See Johannes Behm, “Γλώσσα, Ἑτερόγλωσσος,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, eds. Gerhard Kittel and Geoffrey Willia Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 722–24. For more on glossolalia, see: Watson E. Mills, Speaking in Tongues: A Guide to Research on Glossolalia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986); Felicitas D. Goodman, Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study of Glossolalia (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008); Mark J. Cartledge, “Handbook of Pentecostal Christianity,” in Glossolalia, ed. Adam S. Stewart (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 94–96; Nicholas Harkness, Glossolalia and the Problem of Language, Glossolalia and the Problem of Language (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021).

[5] Paul provides instructions to the community at Corinth concerning speaking in tongues and the interpretation of tongues in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and 14, which is notably an earlier text than Acts.

[6] All translations of biblical passages in this paper are my own.

[7] Shelly Matthews asks a number of insightful questions about the way that Luke describes the crowd of Jews who are present for this event. She notes: “Luke is dealing with a much bigger phenomenon than he can control in his narrative.” Shelly Matthews, The Acts of the Apostles: Taming the Tongues of Fire, Phoenix Guides to the New Testament 5 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013), 82, doi:10.5040/9780567671264.

[8] Hans Conzelmann notably disagrees and argues instead that Acts 2 is not focused on glossolalia. Instead, Conzelmann argues that Luke links glossolalia with prophecy, especially noting the episodes in Acts 10 and 19. Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Eldon Jay Epp and Christopher R Matthews, trans. James Limburg, A. Thomas Kraabel, and Donald H. Juel, German orig. 1963, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 15.

[9] There are other connections to narratives within the Hebrew Bible. For instance, Luke Timothy Johnson suggests a connection between Acts 2 and the scene in Exodus where God gives the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. Johnson writes, “nowhere is the same cluster of symbols found all together except in the LXX description of Sinai (Exod 19:16), with its repeated emphasis on the sound, and the ‘descending of God upon it in fire.’” Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, ed. Daniel J Harrington, Sacra Pagina 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 46.  Johnson, 46.

[10] David Jobling, “Postmodern Pentecost:  A Reading of Acts 2,” in Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible: A Reader, ed. A. K. M Adam (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 208.

[11] For another insightful reading of Babel, see: Danna Nolan Fewell, “Building Babel,” in Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible: A Reader, ed. A. K. M Adam (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001).

[12] Jobling, “Postmodern Pentecost,” 210.

[13] Jobling, “Postmodern Pentecost,” 211.

[14] Jobling, “Postmodern Pentecost,” 212.

[15] Jacques Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” in Poststructuralism as Exegesis, ed. David Jobling and Stephen D. Moore, Semeia 54 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), 3.

[16] Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” 8.

[17] Willie James Jennings, Acts, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 28.

[18] C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 2, The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament 34 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 18.

[19] James D. G Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles, Narrative Commentaries (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), 25.

[20] Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles, 25.

[21] Matthews, The Acts of the Apostles, 83.

[22] Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” 4.

[23] Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 185.

[24] For a broad definition of glossolalia and its usage in the ancient world see: Behm, “Γλώσσα, Ἑτερόγλωσσος.”

[25] Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” 8.

[26] Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” 7.

[27] Shelly Matthews (in Taming the Tongues of Fire) offers a feminist rhetorical/historical reading of this passage with a focus on the gender-domination within this kyriarchal text.

[28] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, The Acts of the Apostles, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 75.

[29] Jennings notes that even though those present speak different languages, they are all connected through their faith. Jennings, Acts, 28.

[30] Jobling notes this contradiction as well: “To the deconstructive mind, it is also no surprise that the end of the story falls into a contradiction, between ‘all’ (v. 12) and ‘others’ (v. 13). All leaves no room for ‘others.’ The story seems to desire unification but be forced at the end to admit division. It is a bind.” Jobling, “Postmodern Pentecost: A Reading of Acts 2,” 212.

[31] Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” 10.

[32] Jobling, “Postmodern Pentecost:  A Reading of Acts 2,” 212.

[33] Jobling, “Postmodern Pentecost: A Reading of Acts 2,” 212.

[34] Burrus’ reading of Acts emphasises the heteroglossia within this scene as she writes: “Luke thematizes such heteroglossia explicitly in the well-known account of Pentecost.” See: Virginia Burrus, “The Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles,” in A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings, ed. Fernando Segovia and R. S. Sugirtharajah, The Bible and Postcolonialism 13 (London: T & T Clark, 2009), 147.

[35] Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” 30.

[36] C. K. Barrett makes a case for glossolalia as a universal language. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 2:18.

[37] Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass, Original Publication 1972 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 41.

[38] Derrida, Positions, 42.

[39] Derrida, Positions, 43.

[40] Derrida, Positions, 59.

[41] Werner H. Kelber, “Roman Imperialism and Early Christian Scribality,” in The Postcolonial Biblical Reader, ed. R. S Sugirtharajah (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2006), 106.

[42] Drew W. Billings, Acts of the Apostles and the Rhetoric of Roman Imperialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[43] In her analysis of Acts 2, Burrus turns to the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin in order to suggest that the scene at Pentecost is an instance of heteroglossia.

[44] Burrus, “The Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles,” 148.

[45] Rubén Muñoz-Larrondo, A Postcolonial Reading of the Acts of the Apostles (New York: Peter Lang Pub Inc, 2011), 128.

[46] Muñoz-Larrondo, A Postcolonial Reading, 235.

[47] Jennings, Acts, 31.

[48] Jennings, Acts, 255.