Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, September 23, 2018

What is a “Divided Tongue”? (Acts 2:3)

I am not sure why there are so many differences among the translations on Acts 2:3, but it is fun to think through the options.

The order of the words in the Greek is a little confusing; but if you think grammatically, translation is not that difficult.

The basic structure of the verse is γλῶσσαι ... ὤφθησαν ... καὶ ἐκάθισεν. The tongues appeared and sat.

Add in αὐτοῖς: γλῶσσαι ὤφθησαν αὐτοῖς. The tongues appeared to them, meaning, they saw the tongues.

There are two modifiers of γλῶσσαι. They were “divided” (διαμεριζόμεναι) and they where “like fire” (ὡσεὶ πυρὸς).

After the tongues of fire split, they settled over each person present (ἐφ᾿ ἕνα ἕκαστον αὐτῶν).

καὶ ὤφθησαν αὐτοῖς διαμεριζόμεναι γλῶσσαι ὡσεὶ πυρὸς καὶ ἐκάθισεν ἐφ᾿ ἕνα ἕκαστον αὐτῶν.

Several translations speak of “divided tongues” (ESV, NRSV), but I have to say that the expression is meaningless. What is a divided tongue? A "forked tongue"? The sequence of the participle and indicative verb means that the fiery tongues divided and then they came to settle over each person. That’s completely lost in these translations.

The CSB does a much better job at explaining the sequence of actions. “They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated and rested on each one of them” (also NIV).

The NET is confusing. “And tongues spreading out like a fire.” They connect ὡσεὶ πυρὸς with διαμεριζόμεναι, which seems unlikely; I am not sure what it would mean. Perhaps the tongues spread in the same way that a fire spreads?

The NLT equates πυρὸς and γλῶσσαι: “what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them.” Certainly the Greek doesn’t say this; it is not “or” but “as.”

Either way you go, it is a confusing verse, but the CBS/NIV is closest to what it says and means. Just as the Spirit of God rested on the nation of Israel corporately, after Pentecost the Spirit divides and rests on every individual of the new covenantal community.

When we get to heaven, I am hoping to watch all of Jesus’s life and that of the early church. This is one of the scenes I am especially looking forward to.