“Tongues” or “Unknown languages” in 1 Cor 12-14?

Mark D. Taylor

Brent Kercheville has been writing a series of blogs about his interaction with the NLT text. One of those posts is called “Tongues vs. Languages (1 Corinthians 12-14).” Brent appreciates the NLT’s use of “languages” in place of the more obscure term “tongues” in 1 Cor 12, but he expresses frustration that the NLT then uses “tongues” in chapter 14.

In fact, the NLT uses both “speaking in tongues” and “speaking in unknown languages” in 1 Cor 14. Why? We had vigorous debates on the translation committee as to how we should translate glossa in a way that would be understandable to modern readers–especially those without much background in biblical teaching. And the situation is further complicated because scholars and church historians are divided as to whether Paul was referring in this passage to human languages not otherwise known to the speaker or to ecstatic utterances that are unrelated to any human language. If the translation had simply and consistently used “unknown languages,” it would imply that Paul was referring to human languages unknown to the speakers (as seems to have been the case on the Day of Pentecost; Acts 2:4-11). But if we had used the traditional term “tongues” throughout, it would imply that Paul was referring only to ecstatic utterances.

So in the end we decided to use both terms. This allows the reader to get the sense that Paul might have been referring to either or both of these meanings. We were apprehensive about using the word “tongues,” because it is a technical term understood only by readers well versed in biblical teaching. On the other hand, it is the term used in Pentecostal churches to refer to the contemporary phenomenon of “speaking in tongues.” So we used both “tongues” and “unknown languages” in order to provide the broadest sense of the meaning of the passage.

Incidentally, the NLT Study Bible provides a word study on the various uses of glossa in the New Testament.

Sentence Structure in the NLT

By Mark D. Taylor

The issue of sentence structure in English Bibles is interesting. On the surface, one might assume that an English Bible could/should simply follow the structure of the sentences in Hebrew and Greek. But the very concept of a “sentence” differs from language to language.

Let’s look at the prologue to Romans (Rom 1:1-7) as an example. We begin by reminding ourselves that koine Greek does not actually use punctuation or paragraph breaks, nor does it differentiate between upper case and lower letters. This might surprise you, because the UBS Greek New Testament uses paragraphs, capital letters, and punctuation (commas, periods, question marks, and semicolons). But this is because the editors of that Greek text have made judgment calls as to how the Greek “sentences” should be presented in a format we’re accustomed to seeing in English.

In the UBS Greek text, Rom 1:1-7 is presented as one long sentence (i.e., the first full stop comes at the end of verse 7). But does that mean that English translations should also use only one sentence for that passage? Formal-equivalence translations tend to do so. For example, KJV, RSV, NASB, NRSV, and ESV all use only one sentence for this long prologue. Interestingly, the NKJV uses two sentences. NIV and TNIV use four sentences. NLT2 uses nine sentences.

Which approach is correct? I would argue that they all are. Each translation uses a unique translation philosophy, and the structure of English sentences plays into that philosophy. Unfortunately, the proponents of formal equivalence sometimes imply that the only legitimate style of translation is to follow the sentence structure of the original texts as closely as possible. But life isn’t quite that simple.