And when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded in mind, because that every man heard them speak in his own tongue. And they were all amazed, and wondered, saying: Behold, are not all these, that speak, Galileans? And how have we heard, every man our own tongue wherein we were born? […] We have heard them speak in our own tongues the wonderful works of God. (Acts of the Apostles 2:6-8,11)
After the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the apostles went forth from their hiding-room and boldly proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all peoples. The word of the Lord was preached, quite literally, to all peoples: To Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews also, and proselytes, Cretes, and Arabians. (Acts 2:9-11)
What is particularly marvelous about this first public act of preaching by the Church is that each of these peoples, from all their diverse cultures, heard the apostles speaking in all the diverse tongues or languages of the nations. As the apostles preached, the Parthians heard Parthian, the Medes heard Median, the Elamites heard their own language, and so forth.
Interpreting this passage, some are inclined to think that, while the apostles spoke only one language (Aramaic), this single tongue was transformed in the ears of the audience into all the diverse languages of the nations – thus, the miracle would not be in the preaching itself, but in the listening (since the one language of the apostles would be heard as multiple languages by the audience). However, as we look closely at the text, we can see that this interpretation is flawed and that the miracle was in the preaching more than in the hearing.
The apostles spoke in multiple languages
And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak diverse tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak. (Acts 2:4)
As we have mentioned in recent articles, by “speaking in tongues” we do not refer to the modern charismatic practice of random mumblings, but to the Biblical reality of preaching the Gospel in multiple languages through the special inspiration and action of the Holy Spirit. By speaking in tongues, the apostles were moved literally to speak many languages of which they had no previous knowledge.
At the Pentecost after the first Easter, the apostles were moved by the Holy Spirit to speak in tongues – and this was not a miracle in the hearing of the audience, but in the preaching of the apostles. When the crowd in Jerusalem states that we have heard them speak in our own tongues, we are not to think that the apostles spoke only one language (Aramaic) and that this single language was transformed into many languages according to the needs of the hearers. Rather, it is clear that they began to speak diverse tongues.
In other words, the diverse tongues is in the speaking and not simply in the hearing. The reason that the crowd heard the apostles speaking each in his own language is that the apostles literally were speaking multiple languages.
We might imaging that St. Jude Thaddeus was speaking Parthian while St. Thomas Didymus spoke Median. Moreover, it is quite likely that each of the apostles began to speak, in rapid succession, many different languages – proclaiming to all the peoples the wonderful works of God.
The charism of interpretation of tongues
The particular charism which is in the hearer and which moves a man to understand a foreign language is the charism of interpretation of tongues. If the apostles had all spoken Aramaic and each of those present understood the speech as though it were in his own native language, the miracle would be in the crowd and not in the apostles.
Indeed, if the first Christian Pentecost witnessed not glossolalia (speaking in tongues) but rather the interpretation of tongues, we would be forced to come to the awkward conclusion that the Holy Spirit was not working in the apostles, but in the crowd!