The Mystery of Language and the Mystery of Pentecost

The feast of Pentecost has often been related typologically to the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Yet, the strange ways in which Babel and the question of linguistic multiplicity have been read by Jewish and Christian exegetes make a simple reading of “bad” diversity returning to “good” unity problematic. There are several moments within the history of Jewish and Christian exegesis which allow us to formulate a more interesting and metaphysically capacious account of what the meaning and mystery of Pentecost might be.

If our readings of Babel and Pentecost are insufficiently sensitive, we risk enshrining a simplistic and hierarchical understanding of unity over diversity which affects our theological metaphysics and political theology. Taking our exegetical cues from Hellenistic and rabbinic Judaism as well as from Christian patristic material, we can transformatively reread the narratives of Genesis 11 and Acts 2. This investigation of Babel and Pentecost will uncover the distinctive addition that the Holy Spirit makes for our understanding of Christian metaphysics.

The narrative of the tower of Babel marks a transition in style within the book of Genesis. It is the last of the overtly mythopoetic episodes (etiological stories with a universal scope) and is followed by a genealogy of Shem leading into the patriarchal narratives. Our earliest exegetical treatments of this story come from the Hellenistic Jewish milieu of Alexandria. Late antique Jewish exegetes in Alexandria applied text-critical strategies to the Babel narrative in ways which surprisingly anticipated modern biblical criticism.[1] We know about these daring and creative scholars because the Jewish exegete and theologian Philo expresses annoyance with his comparativist colleagues in his own treatment titled On the Confusion of Tongues. These anonymous colleagues cited lines from Homer’s Odyssey concerning the gigantic Aloeidae piling Mt. Ossa and Mt. Pelion on Mt. Olympus in order to wage war against the gods.[2] In this way, the Jewish Alexandrian scholiasts placed the Torah in a larger context and helped make it seem less alien to their Hellenic compatriots.

Not only did the Jewish scholiasts compare the Torah with myth and fable, but they also assumed its textual history was bound up in such “alien” sources. A second parallel advanced by the Jewish scholiasts concerned an Aesopian fable of the primordial unity and subsequent division of animal languages. This fable is only known to us via the Alexandrian writer Callimachus. As Philo relays the tale, the animals once lived in harmony and linguistic unity with each other. As all their needs were met, their desires grew until they foolishly sent an embassy (presumably to the gods) to inquire about the possibility of immortality. Curiously, part of their argument is that the snake already enjoys immortality (possibly by the shedding of its skin). The animal embassy is rebuffed, and the animal community is scattered and split into separate dialects.[3]

The intertestamental Jewish work Jubilees (2nd century BCE) seems to present a combination of the biblical text and this fable. The animals all spoke one language (presumably Hebrew) in the garden of Eden until the fall of Adam. They were subsequently divided into separate speech and “all scattered into the place that was created for them.”[4] The Alexandrian scholiasts suggested that Moses transferred the Aesopian story to men instead of animals to make it more plausible. Not only did they assume that Moses was repurposing preexisting pagan material, they further criticized the moral import of the Babel story of the Mosaic redaction. Why would God destroy such an important human good, mutual understanding, in a misguided effort to stop wicked behavior through confusion? Surely sin continues apace and there is nothing more desirable for peace than learning the language of another culture: “Why then did He remove the community of language from men as if this was the cause of evil, while it should rightly be established as something most useful?”[5]

These objections from the late antique scholiasts should not seem unreasonable. Does it not seem strange that something so wonderful as the diversity of languages and dialects among peoples should be attributed to a punishment? Would it really have been better if all tribes and nations had spoken some original language, a primordial Esperanto? Many Jewish and Christian theologians have theorized that there was such a language, the usual candidate being Hebrew, all others being degradations or cheap imitations of the original sacred tongue. The force and holy power of the original linguistic stream became slowly (or according to Genesis 11, immediately) diluted in time. In our critical and post-critical age, something about this seems alien to our experience of language. Another language is not another set of referents for the same things I know, it is an entirely new world that I might be able to uncover. Can we consign this experience of beautifully strange new worlds to a postlapsarian horizon?

There are, however, other paths available in the exegetical tradition. Alcuin of York, via the medieval glossa ordinaria on Genesis, makes the puzzling statement that in the confounding of the languages “God created nothing new.”[6] By this Alcuin seems to mean that the same phonemes and syllables are recombined and reconstituted across the multiplicity of languages. Even the same groupings of sounds may have different meanings in different languages. The “confounding” then is an actualization of what was potentially contained in the nature of language itself. This reflection is reminiscent of the myth of Thoth in Plato’s dialogue Philebus illustrating the relationship between the one and the many (not to be confused with Plato’s deployment of the myth of Thoth in the Phaedrus). Thoth, some god or godlike man, realized that sound was infinite or unlimited and must be combined with limiting elements like vowels and consonants in order to be made intelligible. By dividing sound into a limited group of letters, he was able to create and name an instrument of infinity: the alphabet. Even further, when learning the art of reading and writing, one does not truly know how to communicate until the multiple letters and sounds are known not just individually, but in relation to each other. Letters are the many (consonants and vowels) under the aspect of unity (meaning) without ceasing to be individual sounds, phonemes, syllables, etc.[7] Why would the confusion of Babel not be a theological good, then? It would seem to expand the play of unity and multiplicity already inherent in the alphabet of a single language. The miracle of translation, whereby faithfulness to the original is married to a new horizon of linguistic meaning, is an act so profound and so intimately related to the history of Jewish and Christian religion that it demands an explanation beyond Babel.

Even Jewish rabbis committed to the profound significance of the Hebrew language composed eloquent readings on the goods of translation. The magisterial composition of rabbinic exegesis on Genesis, Bereshit Rabbah, was compiled centuries after the existence of the Torah in Greek translations. The Palestinian rabbis were not unaware of this fact and included a poignant reflection on this historical relationship within their exegetical labors. Commenting on the verse “May God enlarge Japeth and let him dwell in the tents of Shem” (Gen 9:27a), the rabbis offer several readings, including: “Bar Kappara explained it: Let the words of the Torah be uttered in the language of Japheth [i.e. Greek] in the tents of Shem. R. Judan said: From this we learn that a translation is permitted [i.e. the Septuagint].”[8] The rabbis even reflect on what changed in the translation of the Torah from Hebrew to Greek during the account of Babel. Genesis 11 is one of the passages where God is recorded speaking reflexively in the plural. Come, let us go down. The Septuagint (here and in Genesis 1:26) changes this into a singular form in order to avoid theological misunderstanding, and the rabbis do not have any condemnation for this change. The lament of Psalm 137—“How shall we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?”—and the prophetic warning that the Jewish people will hear strange languages in exile have been modulated into another key. The curse of Deuteronomy 28:49 that the people of God will be dragged into captivity and forced to hear an alien language has been transfigured. The Jewish communities in exile learned the languages and cultural forms of their captors which in turn allowed a new flowering of theological understanding. The songs of the Lord were sung in a foreign land and the unfamiliar tongues became a new gift and mode of expression for those in exile.

The same could be said for those Jewish communities who were not violently taken captive yet still lived outside of Judea. By the end of the first century BCE, almost every region of the Mediterranean world was suffused with Jewish communities speaking every conceivable dialect. The existence of the Septuagint and the Aramaic translations/paraphrases of the Torah known as the Targumim provide evidence that for most Jewish people, there was no universal or strict prohibition on multiplying the languages in which the word of God should be spoken and studied. The plurality of linguistic and cultural forms in which Judaism was practiced fostered a dynamic intellectual and theologically creative environment within and without Judea, even to the point where Jewish proselytism of Gentiles was so common and successful that Roman poets began complaining about it. The annual practice undertaken by some Jewish communities of returning to Jerusalem for major pilgrimage feasts (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot) only increased this cross-pollination. Babel, it seems, was on the verge of being undone.

One of these pilgrimage feasts, Shavuot or Pentecost (as translated in the Septuagint), always took place fifty days after Passover. Shavuot was a celebration of the wheat harvest, the first fruits, and in its numerological significance (a week of weeks plus one) it functioned as a miniature year of Jubilee. Within the Jewish liturgical calendar, Shavuot became a remembrance of previous Jubilees and a foretaste of Jubilees to come. Later rabbinic tradition would identify Shavuot as the day on which God gave Israel the law, making it also a kind of marriage covenant. Perhaps this association with marriage is why the book of Ruth came to be the liturgical reading for this feast in rabbinic Judaism.[9] The narrative of Ruth is itself a mysterious sign of the undoing of Babel. Ruth is a Gentile from Moab, a kingdom often in conflict with Israel in the biblical histories, yet she is presented as an intelligent and virtuous woman. Not only does she marry Boaz, an act seemingly contrary to the prohibitions of Deuteronomy 23, but she is celebrated as the source of the future Davidic kingship! If the Gentiles are grafted into the lineage of the Davidic kingship, is it possible to maintain a strict division between peoples?

Acts 2, in its presentation of the first Shavuot after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, carries with it this tangled tradition of exegetical, metaphysical, and political questions. The narrative emphasizes that it is devout Jews, along with Gentile proselytes, of every nation who have gathered in Jerusalem on this occasion. The list of these regions can seem like a tedious addendum but in the context of wrestling with the story of Babel and several historical exiles of the Jewish people, each name, from Parthia to Rome, is like an incantation summoning forth a new kind of universality and a new kind of particularity. The inclusion of Judea on the list is a stark realization that the Jewish people and even the Hebrew language is also a kind of fractured particularity born from the confounding of languages. There was no group and no dialect unaffected in the account of Genesis 11, no cultivated preserve of unity safe from multiplicity; all existing peoples and languages require a new kind of unity, without exception.

The miracle of speaking in tongues at Pentecost further demonstrates this lesson. Each person hears the apostles speaking in his or her own dialect. It is not a new imperial unity of Greek or Latin or any other single language. It is the gathering of all languages and all peoples into the rushing wind and fire of the Holy Spirit wherein the true universality can be found. The tongues of flame descend multiply in order to reside above each person. Even these multiple tongues are themselves further modified as being διαμεριζόμεναι, diversifying, cloven, split! The holy fire seems almost unable to stop itself from seeking more diversity. The apostolic kingdom bursts forth as a multiplicity without subordination, an order and taxis of total equality, a seemingly infinite difference which is coextensive with intelligibility and harmony.

Pentecost is the public debut of the Holy Spirit, bringing with it the first fruits of a nuptial apocalypse, a theological metaphysics and political theology, an almost unimaginable translation of the equality of the Trinitarian persons into human communities. Christ commanded us to be one as He is one with the Father, and without erasing this, the Spirit teaches us to be different as each sublime and unfathomable person of the Godhead is different. It is better for you that I go, says Christ in John 16:7, in order that he may send the Spirit. And in sending the Spirit, we may also know Christ more fully. The description of this first Jewish-Gentile community of the Holy Spirit as living together and having all possessions in common later on in the same chapter is not accidentally related to this moment in the divine economy. It is the coherent political-ecclesial expression of the mystery displayed in and through the apostles at Pentecost. The apostle Peter bears witness that this new apostolic-egalitarian politeia is distinctly a result and responsibility of the Holy Spirit when he confronts Ananias in Acts 5:3. In lying about his donation, Ananias lied not to men but to the Holy Spirit. Ananias wished to ape and imitate the community of the Spirit without ecstatically emptying himself into it.

In renewing the pre-propertied communal life of the first parents in Genesis (or various Greco-Roman myths of the Golden Age), the political theology of Pentecost brings back a healthy nostalgia for Eden. At the same time, it is clearly an eschatological vision stretching toward the reconciliation of all things as they have grown and diversified in history. St. Gregory of Nazianzen helps us to theorize how Pentecost can be both the beginning of history and the end beyond history in one of his sermons on Pentecost:

Hebdomads of days give birth to Pentecost, a day called holy among them; and those of years to what they call the Jubilee, which also has a release of land, and a manumission of slaves, and a release of possessions bought. For this nation consecrates to God, not only the firstfruits of offspring, or of firstborn, but also those of days and years. Thus the veneration paid to the number Seven gave rise also to the veneration of Pentecost. For seven being multiplied by seven generates fifty all but one day, which we borrow from the world to come, at once the Eighth and the first, or rather one and indestructible.

The eighth day of Creation, which is also the first day of the new creation, is what is necessary to bring the days after Passover to completion. It is the one day added to the forty-nine (7x7). And like the unity which Pentecost brings, it is not simply another unit, it is not just another one. As Erik Peterson so beautifully argued, the transcendent unity beyond monarchy, beyond subordination, beyond a crude mono-theism, is precisely what prevents us from having a tyrannical political theology. Going beyond Peterson, we must argue that a political theology is possible, but it must constantly conform to the mystery of Trinitarian equality in action manifested in the mystery of Pentecost. The mysteries of God are also theophanies of God communicating an eschato-logic to be understood and imitated. No branch of understanding and activity can excuse itself from the summons of mystery, not metaphysics and certainly not politics. A failure to speak and enact this Pentecostal logic leaves a vacuum which will always be filled by tyrannizing and inherently subordinationist political theologies.

The insight that divine transcendence means more and not less than apophatic silence is why Nicholas of Cusa, the brilliant Renaissance cardinal, insisted that one of the highest and most transcendent names for God was non aliud: not-other. Again, it is why, within a sophisticated erotic metaphysical structure of all things processing and returning to God (exitus-reditus), Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite emphasizes that God goes ecstatically outside Godself in order to maintain the remaining of each creature in its individuality, unto the uttermost:

For everything loves to be at peace with itself, to be at one, and never to move or fall away from its own existence and from what it has. And perfect peace is there as a gift, guarding without confusion the individuality of each, providentially ensuring that all things are quiet and free of confusion within themselves and from without, that all things are unshakably what they are and that they have peace and rest.[10]

Apophasis and silence are crucial, but they are ultimately ordered toward a new kataphasis—liturgical manifestations, ecclesial revelations, the body of Christ in the world, the new creation coming into its liberation.

Where does this leave our readings of Babel now? In Acts 17:26-28, Paul gives a speech to the Athenians where he narrates the story of Babel in a post-Pentecostal horizon:

And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for “in him we live and move and have our being,” as even some of your poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”

God made all nations from one, diversifying their existence chronologically and geographically as a means for them of more easily finding God! It is this confidence which Paul has in the significance of the unity and diversity of human cultural-linguistic history that allows him to then cite theological truths from Greek poets: In him we live and move and have our being. The diversity was not the punishment; it was, and remains, the medicine.

And lest we are tempted to rest in an easy and abstract universality, it is important to remember that the entirety of the New Testament was written before any clear parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. Within the cosmopolitan late antique world, even the diverse modes of rabbinic and patristic exegesis were being formed in the same places and even reciprocally influencing each other.[11] Whatever mystery of unity-diversity is being politically and ecclesially revealed by Pentecost is neither Jew nor Gentile, not a simple expansion of a parochial national-ethnic religion into a safely universal-ethical one. The irrefragable particulars of salvation history remain: Pentecost happens in Jerusalem, and Paul warns us that it is we who have been grafted into the community of Israel, not the other way around. All are humbled so that all may be exalted.

The last element of Pentecost to consider in relation to Babel is the descent of fire itself. If, in Genesis, the sin of Babel is an attempt to reach and rival God, the descent of flames at Pentecost could be seen as a simple reversal. It is bad to reach and it is good to receive. In the liturgical poetry of St. Ephrem the Syrian, we encounter a fruitful complication of this dynamic. In the underworld, personified Death encounters Christ in the midst of harrowing his kingdom and cries out:

I will hurry to shut/the gates of Sheol
In front of the Dead One/whose death has plundered me.
Whosoever hears of it will wonder at my humiliation,
That I was conquered by a Dead One from outside./All the dead want to go out,
But only this One pushed in./The Medicine of Life has entered Sheol
And restored its dead to life.
Who was it who brought me/surreptitiously the Living Fire
By which the cold and dark womb of Sheol was warmed?[12]

Death is frightened by Christ who has, like the philanthropic Prometheus, secretly brought the divine fire in order to save humanity. He was lifted up on the cross in order to descend into the underworld.

In a similar way, Christ’s ascension was for the sake of the descent of the Holy Spirit. We should follow St. Ephrem’s example and see this as another image of the Promethean gift of flame. Christ has left us in order to ascend to the Father and, theopoetically speaking, to steal the divine fire from where it is sequestered in heaven. The descent of tongues of flames at Pentecost is the work of the Spirit and also the action and gift of Christ-Prometheus. It is he who sends and is in no way occluded by the Spirit. We should not be surprised then, that the Paschal Candle, which symbolizes Christ, is hymned in precisely these terms of infinite diversity and transcendent unity that characterizes the Pentecostal flames. In the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil we find the following lines:

But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.

We must seek the personal face of the Holy Spirit in the diversification of flames, the glossolalia of translation and interpretation, and in the paradoxical structure of the ecclesia-polis which maintains its unity by emptying itself and achieves its universality by seeking the margins. With reference to language and reasoning, Pentecost further grounds a diversity of genres as truly theological. Wisdom herself speaks with a heteroglossia and hybridity of forms. The lyric, epic, narrative, logical, exegetical, dialectical, symbolic, and dialogical modes of investigation must all be contained within theology. Each genre is another tongue of flame, and if any one of them were to be separated, the whole would be diminished. “The letter kills but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6).

Seeking the face of the Holy Spirit means seeking the wholeness which mothers and nurtures fertile multiplicity. If we can say that there is an image of the personal face of the Spirit given to us by Sacred Scripture, it must be the descending Heavenly Jerusalem from the book of Revelation: all of creation become the ecclesia and all of the ecclesia become the Bride of the Lamb. Perhaps then even the community of animals scattered in Aesop and Jubilees will be made intelligible to us and each other. As Romans 8 tells us, all creation is groaning for liberation through the glorified children of God. What the Spirit has always been and is now we will see when the full redemption of diversity reaches eschatological fulfillment. In that power and with that hope, we must strain every nerve to enact the theological metaphysics and political theology of the mystery of Pentecost.

[1] The incredible story of how techniques of Homeric exegesis became applied to the Torah by Jewish scholars can be read in Maren Niehoff’s Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria (2011).

[2] Odyssey 11.315-316.

[3] Philo, Confusion of Tongues, 7-9.

[4] Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by James Charlesworth, 60.

[5] Ibid., 13.

[6] Biblia cum Glossa Ordinaria: Genesis, annotated and translated by Samuel J Klumpenhouwer, 99.

[7] Plato, Philebus, 18b-d.

[8] Genesis Rabbah, 36.8.

[9] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Soferim, 14.

[10] Ps. Dionysius, Divine Names, Chapter 11.

[11] See Maren Niehoff’s chapter “Origen’s Commentary on Genesis as a key to Genesis Rabbah” in Genesis Rabbah in Text and Context (2018) for an astounding analysis of Origen and the rabbinic exegetes in Caesarea.

[12] Ephrem the Syrian, Nisibene Hymn 36.

Featured Image: Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel, 1563; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Andrew Kuiper

Andrew Kuiper usually writes about Christian theological appropriation of esoteric discourses and lives in Michigan with his wife and three children. His essays and poetry have been published in various magazines.

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