Glossolalia (from Grk. glōssai, “tongues, languages,” and lalein, “to speak”) is a phenomenon of intense religious experience expressing itself in ecstatic speech. It is found in several religions, and in Christianity is understood to be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

Explicit New Testament references to speaking in tongues are confined to 1 Corinthians 12–14 and three passages in Acts (2.1–13; 10.46; 19.6). While Paul and the author of Acts both affirm that tongues are a gift of the Spirit, their portrayals of the experience are very different. Paul, who himself had shared the experience (1 Cor. 14.18), describes speaking in tongues as unintelligible to others unless a further gift of interpretation enables it to be more than private devotion, and he contrasts tongues and prophecy (1 Cor. 12.30; 14.5). Luke's description of Pentecost understands these “other tongues” (Acts 2.4) as intelligible proclamation, and he links tongues and prophecy (Acts 2.16–18; 19.6).

Paul replies to questions and assertions put to him by the Corinthian church. As with other matters in Corinth, Paul is disturbed by the self‐centeredness of those who prize and parade their piety while neglecting the love that builds up the community. Accordingly, his chapter on love as the more excellent way (1 Cor. 13) is at the heart of his discussion, and in the list of gifts of the Spirit he places tongues and the interpretation of tongues last. He suggests that undue preoccupation with tongues represents immaturity (1 Cor. 13.11; 14.20) rather than maturity, and he limits the use of tongues in the church's assembly (1 Cor. 14.27–28).

Luke's account of Pentecost may include residual traces of the unintelligible speech that Paul describes, for he reports that some had charged those who had received the Spirit with drunkenness (Acts 2.13). But Luke interprets the tongues as known languages, and Pentecost as the reversal of Babel (Gen. 11.1–9), where a confusion of languages had divided the human community. Each of the three passages of Acts in which explicit mention is made of tongues represents a breakthrough in the church's mission. At Pentecost, the first three thousand were baptized (Acts 2.41). The second mention (Acts 10.46) represents the beginning of the gentile mission. The third (Acts 19.6) occurs when the Christian mission is clearly differentiated from that of the followers of John the Baptist.

John Frederick Jansen