Curiosity has sent me searching again. This time I was wondering about the traditional associations between Pentecost and languages. And why was the miraculous linguistic ability of the disciples ridiculed as drunkenness?
What was Pentecost? Why were so many different language groups present?
The name Pentecost is associated with the number 50. Pentecost is an alternative name for the Jewish festival Shavu’ot, because it falls on the 50th day after Passover. Shavu’ot is also called the Festival of Weeks and has two more names related to different aspects of its importance. Shavu’ot (Pentecost) is the second of the three major Jewish festivals with both agricultural and historical significance (the other two are Passover and Sukkot).
- Agriculturally, it commemorates the time when the first fruits were harvested and brought to the Temple, and is known as Hag ha-Bikkurim (the Festival of the First Fruits).
- Historically, it celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and is also known as Hag Matan Torateinu (the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah).
In the festival of Passover, Jews commemorate their emancipation from captivity and slavery in Egypt. The period from Passover to Shavu’ot is a time of great anticipation. Jews count each of the days from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavu’ot, 49 days or 7 full weeks, hence the name of the festival. The counting reminds Jews of the important connection between Passover and Shavu’ot. Passover freed them physically from bondage in Egypt, but the giving of the Torah on Shavu’ot redeemed them spiritually from their bondage to idolatry and immorality.
During the feast of Pentecost, the Jewish people expressed their thanks to God for the new fruit of the earth with a public religious celebration. Because of its dual major significances, a great many people from across the country, and from the distant places to where the Jews had spread, came to the capital in great numbers to celebrate Pentecost at the Temple of Solomon. According to Acts 2:5, there were “devout Jews drawn from every nation under heaven.” That is why speakers of so many different languages were present.
Why was drunkenness assumed?
Traditionally it has been assumed that the “other tongues” mentioned in Acts 2:4 were languages that the disciples of Jesus did not already know. Based on this assumption, the amazement of the listeners is because of the linguistic prowess of the disciples. The crowd marvelled because these followers of Jesus were speaking in so many languages.
However, Bob Zerhusen, a researcher of the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University [a private Christian university in Southern California], suggests that the first language of at least the vast majority of those who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost, would have been Greek or Aramaic. If this is so, and if the disciples were speaking mainly in Aramaic and Greek (the languages commonly spoken in Israel) then why were the crowd amazed? And why did some accuse the speakers of being drunk?
According to Zerhusen, a key lies in understanding the unique position of Hebrew in 1st century Jewish culture. Hebrew was highly esteemed as the “holy tongue”. It was the language of God, the language of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms, and thus the appropriate language for worship. Consequently, those who had come to Jerusalem for Pentecost expected to participate in a liturgy conducted entirely in Hebrew, even if they didn’t understand very much Hebrew.
Anthropologists and linguists describe this type of situation as “diglossia”. In a diglossia, two languages play highly specialized roles. One language, designated L for “lower language”, is a vernacular language used for everyday purposes. The other, called H for “higher language” is reserved for special purposes. For example, Latin once played the role of H in Europe, while in Islamic cultures, classical Arabic is H.
In a diglossia context, using L in a situation reserved for H is often frowned upon. For the people who had made the trek to Jerusalem for Pentecost, H was Hebrew and L was usually Aramaic or Greek. In the worship at the Temple, they expected to hear H not L, and so they were surprised to hear the disciples praising God in their own understandable native languages, the L languages. “Why are people carrying on in L on a solemn occasion that calls for H?” they may have wondered. “These people must be drunk.”
An additional reason for the crowd’s surprise was the prejudice with which Judeans typically viewed Galileans in those days. Without real justification, Judeans saw Galileans as uneducated and provincial. Since Jesus was from Galilee, as were many of his disciples, one way to insult the group would have been to dismissively lump them together as “Galileans”. This was a way of implying that they were a bunch of yokels. Because of the anti-Galilean prejudice, some were surprised to hear Jesus’ disciples proclaiming the mighty works of God with such authority.
What languages were involved?
According to the writer in source  below, the speaking by the disciples in many languages was intended by the Holy Spirit to evoke connections with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This was a major milestone from Israel’s history, which, even then, was widely associated with Pentecost. At Mount Sinai, according to one Jewish tradition, God spoke the words of the Ten Commandments in all the languages of the world. The traditional number of languages is 70, corresponding to the peoples listed in the “table of nations” in Genesis chapter 10. The symbolic association with God speaking from Mount Sinai, rather than the actual number of languages involved at Pentecost is important. Even if fewer than 70 languages were needed to communicate in the native languages of all those present, the idea that the gospel would be communicated to all nations was clearly conveyed.
Aramaic and Greek may not have been the only native languages represented among the worshipers in Jerusalem. The two most likely additional candidates are Latin and Parthian. One author  argues that since Jesus intended his disciples to carry the gospel to all nations [“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will bear witness for me in Jerusalem, and all over Judea and Samaria, and away to the ends of the earth” Acts 1:8] he may well have assembled a group with enough collective language expertise to communicate with the cultures they would encounter. So even if more languages were involved at Pentecost, there may have been disciples of Jesus who knew those languages.
Was it a miracle?
Some authors try to discredit the miraculous nature of the events of Pentecost, but it is difficult to explain away all the levels of the miracle. At one level was the fact that un-trained and un-travelled people were suddenly speaking in foreign languages. At another level is that they were understood in several languages at the same time. At a further level is not just that they spoke in foreign languages but the content of what they said and the power and eloquence of their delivery. They spoke with such strength and persuasion that “three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41) “and day by day the Lord added to their number.” (Acts 2:47).
A thought occurred to me when reading “we hear them telling in our own tongues the great things God has done. (Acts 2:11)” The barrier of a “holy language” was removed. It reminded me of the temple curtain being torn from top to bottom, removing what was also a ritual way of allowing only a select group of people to interact directly with God.
- What languages were spoken on Pentecost in Acts 2? ( http://graceandknowledge.faithweb.com/zerhusen.html )
- The miracle of Pentecost ( http://www.sprint.net.au/~corners/May07/Pentecost.htm )
- Judaism 101 ( http://www.jewfaq.org/holidayc.htm )
- Tongues revisited (http://www.tonguesrevisited.com/)