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 misconception, together with a failure in basic knowledge of the subject, is advanced. That common misconception is that “speaking in tongues” or “glossolalia” somehow began with Christians at Pentecost. 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 records of the practice of speaking in tongues predates Christianity by several hundred years. Yes, records of its historical practice in a way that is 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 the Creator God’s covenant people.
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 one 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 one also understand a bit of the history of the action itself, its place in the culture, what it signified to the performer and to an audience, how it was received, how it functioned in a community, and in what the action of speaking in tongues would result.
So yes, as one gazes through the pages of recorded history, one finds 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 (and historical) Christian practice of speaking in tongues (ecstatic language). Shortly, this study shall also make clear that the given reasons for the speech have remained unchanged, and that the practice has merely been adapted to the new situation.
Most of the accounts of ecstatic speech predate Pentecost (though it will be necessary to provide a helpful delineation 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 fact should give pause to Christians that decry, and 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 (pagan) acts such as speaking in tongues that have also been carried over into the church.
As the simple facts of the matter will eventually serve to demonstrate, Christians cannot say with any degree of confidence, that every occurrence of glossolalia (again, this is not necessarily what is seen in the second chapter of Acts) must be an expression of the will of the Creator God. Many, of course, subscribe to this view, though it is historically untenable and does not withstand an even moderate degree of scrutiny.