Several of the mystery religions that inhabited the Greco-Roman world in which the church first developed also record the phenomenon of speaking on tongues. These include the Persian cult of Mithra, the Egypt-based cult of Osiris, and the Dionysian, Eulusinian, and Orphic cults of Macedonia, Thrace, and Greece. Lucian of Samosata, a reliable historian of the ancient world that lived in the second century, to whom we owe a debt because of his records concerning the meal practices of the Greco-Roman world, described an example of glossolalia in one of his written works. In it, the ecstatic utterance was performed by somebody described as a roaming believer in the Syrian goddess that went by the name of “June” (the month is named after her). Focusing on Corinth, the prevalence of cults that spoke in tongues, especially in what is the wider geographic area by which the city of Corinth was bounded, informs us that there would be a high degree of familiarity with the practice within the city. This becomes especially poignant if we are to consider the geographical and cultural position in which Corinth was situated at the time of Christ, and a short time later, of Paul.
Corinth was a very wealthy city, as it was a center of commerce. Naturally, a city that is a center of commerce is also an intersection of culture as well. Corinth was situated on the isthmus that connected the area of Achaia with that of Macedonia and Thrace, all of which, taken together (along with some islands), form the area generally referred to as Greece. Situated on the isthmus, Corinth had two harbors, east and west, thus effectively connecting Asia with Italy (Rome most importantly) and by extension the rest of the known western world. One can easily imagine Corinth’s being viewed as a quite attractive place to do business. Owing to that, it would also be an ideal place from which to exert cultural influence, which probably accounts for the fact that Paul spends so much time with this church, taking great pains to influence it in its unique role as an embassy for the kingdom of God, and working diligently to see that it behaves in ways that will appropriately represent the King and the kingdom to which it claims its allegiance. At the same time, we can also understand how and why accepted practices of the wider culture could creep into this church, as its members were constantly exposed to the ideologies and practices of practically the entire world, and almost always within what would have been a competitive commercial environment.
Not only was Corinth a center of commerce, but it was center for sport, as it would play host to the Isthmian games (similar to the Olympics) every two years, while hosting the Imperial and Caesarean games every four years. This, of course, would attract tourists, increasing the opportunities for commerce as well as its cultural importance. Though Corinth would have had its share of wealthy inhabitants, it would also have had its poor, with some in-between, therefore reflecting the variety of social levels which characterized the large cities of the ancient world. As we consider Paul’s letters to the church of Corinth, and specifically deal with the issue of speaking in tongues and what it would represent within the church and to those outside the church, as the church lived and worshiped and exercised their spiritual gifts within a culture largely dependent on constructs of honor and shame (the pursuit of honor for social advancement in public and in private associations), we cannot allow ourselves to forget the underlying and quite visible and accepted social stratifications of the ancient world.
It is also quite interesting to note that the very term “glossolalia,” which is used to denote what is generally believed to be the uniquely Christian practice of speaking in tongues, is a term that is in wide use long before the church is on the scene. This lets us know that it is not a term that needed to originate with Christians so as to explain their ecstatic utterances. They were simply able to employ a term already in use, to describe a relatively widespread and known practice, with the term adequately conveying, for the Christians, the same information it would have conveyed on behalf of non-Christians---speaking in tongues while possessed by a god. Glossolalia did not describe something new that originated with or in the church, but was merely adopted and adapted, by Christians, as an accepted religious practice that was full of meaning and richly symbolic.
It is undeniable that what can be seen in the church today bears a heavy resemblance (identical?) to the occurrences of ecstatic tongues that took place in these ancient cults well before the day of Pentecost, to which is generally looked as the time of the outpouring of the Spirit that has, since then, enabled the ecstatic speech of Christians, though there are marked differences between both Christian, non-Christian, and pre-Christian speaking in tongues from what is recorded in the second chapter Acts. Let us not be naïve. In all cases of speaking in tongues, based upon the facts of history, the one performing the action is said to be doing so under the influence of their god. Speaking in tongues is not a uniquely Christian practice by any means. A large number of studies have revealed the fact that speaking in tongues is present in non-Christian religions all around the world. We can find it practiced, distinct from the church, in China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Siberia, Arabia, and Burma, just to name a few locations. Glossolalia can be heard among Eskimos, in Japanese séances on the island of Hokkaido, from the shamans of Zar cult in Ethiopia, in Haitian Voodoo, and quite extensively in African tribal religions. In each case, it functions differently for the group, though it will generally sound the same.