If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. – 1 Corinthians 13:1 (NET)
Whenever the topic of “speaking in tongues” is considered, a common misperception, together with a failure in basic knowledge of the subject, is advanced. That common misperception is that “speaking on tongues,” or “glossolalia,” somehow began with Christians. Whether one is “for” or “against” the idea of speaking in tongues, which is generally considered to be an ecstatic form of speech that is unintelligible to both the speaker and any hearers as it does not bear resemblance to any known languages, it is impossible to engage in a discussion without first considering the fact that the practice of speaking in tongues predates Christianity. In fact, records of its historical practice, akin to the way in which it is practiced by millions of Christians around the world today, can be found centuries prior to the advent of the church, and in complete isolation from the influence of God’s chosen people Israel.
The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the congregation of Corinth, deals extensively with the issue of spiritual gifts, with that of speaking in tongues receiving what appears to be an inordinate amount of focus and attention. This particular spiritual gifting appears to be of grave concern to the Apostle, and we can only have any hopes for understanding the reasons for Paul’s dealing with the subject in the context of the body of people that stood in representation of the kingdom of God, if we understand a bit of the history of the actions, its place in the culture, what it signified, how it was received, how it functioned, and in what it would result.
So yes, as we gaze through the pages of recorded history, we will find that there have been many occasions where people have spoken in what has been referred to as ecstatic language. The records indicate that this is no different, in practice and in appearance, than what is to be seen in the contemporary Christian practice of speaking in tongues (ecstatic language). We also must understand that the given reasons for the speech have remained unchanged, and that they are merely adapted to the new situation. Most of the accounts of ecstatic speech predate Pentecost (though we will have to admit to a helpful distinction between what is recounted in the second chapter of Acts and the activity that is being addressed in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church) and were of decidedly non-Christian origin (this should give pause to Christians that decry, perhaps quite rightly, the fusion of pagan holidays into Christianity, rejecting the celebration of Easter and its associated traditions or Christmas and its associated traditions because of their questionable origins, while uncritically embracing pre-Christian acts such as speaking in tongues that have also been carried over into the church). As the simple facts of the matter will serve to demonstrate, Christians cannot say, with any degree of confidence, that every occurrence of glossolalia (again, this is not necessarily what we see in the Acts two) must be an expression of the will of God. Many, of course, subscribe to this view, though it is historically untenable and does not withstand an even moderate degree of scrutiny.
The very first recorded cases of that which can be termed as glossolalia, or ecstatic speech attributed to the activity of the gods upon a believer, goes as far back as 1100 B.C. On that occasion, it is a worshiper of the Egyptian God Amun that attracted attention to himself through making sounds in a strange, ecstatic tongue. He reported himself to have been possessed by the god. Seven hundred years later, the famous Greek philosopher, Plato, demonstrated that he was quite well acquainted with the phenomenon of speaking in tongues, as he made reference to several families who habitually practiced ecstatic speech, with prayers and utterings offered as they were supposedly possessed by the spirit of their gods. He would also go on to point out that these practices had even been said to have brought physical healing to those who engaged in them. Accordingly, and because they had no reason to presume otherwise, Plato, and those contemporary with him, casually and confidently asserted that these occurrences were in fact caused by some type of divine inspiration. It was his suggestion that the god simply took possession of the mind during this state, inspiring him with utterances that he could neither understand nor interpret.
In the century prior to the coming of the Christ, the poet Virgil, speaking of the Sybilline priestess that lived on the island of Delos, described her activity of speaking in ecstatic tongues. This was explained by her being in union with the god Apollo. This was said to have happened while she meditated in a haunted cave, amidst what was described as the eerie sounds of the wind, as it played strange music through the narrow crevices of the rocks.