What Is a “Divided Tongue” (Acts 2:3) – Mondays with Mounce 313

Bill Mounce on March 12th, 2018. Tagged under ,.

Bill Mounce

Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at BillMounce.com.

If you were raised in the church with a biblical pastor, you might have some idea what a “divided tongue” is, but possibly not. My guess is that the most natural understanding is that you have multiple tongues (of fire), and each one is split into different parts (i.e., “cloven”), but one tongue. But then you get to the second half of the verse and you realize that this fire is going over each person present, possibly 120 people (Acts 2:3).

As you compare the translations, it can get even more confusing. The NRSV says, “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” As I said, I am not sure how people would understand “divided tongues.” And then later you have a single tongue over each person.

The problem is that you have two modifiers of “tongues” (γλῶσσαι), both “spreading out” (διαμεριζόμεναι) and “as fire” (ὡσεὶ πυρὸς). How do you say this?

To begin with, the “as if” goes with “fire,” so the NIV places the emphasis on the wrong word. “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire.” They did not “seem” to be “tongues”; they “seemed” to be “fire.” Granted, the NIV makes sense and what they saw was not really a tongue, so at least this makes sense.

The NET reads ὡσεὶ πυρὸς as modifying διαμεριζόμεναι, “And tongues spreading out like a fire.” So the tongues spread out like fire spreads? I don’t think that’s what the Greek says.

I like the NASB better than most here: “And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.”

But I like the CSB even better: “They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated and rested on each one of them.” But notice that they added “flames of” to help the reader understand. The CSB claims to be “optimally equivalent;” I am not sure what that means, but here words are being added to help the reader, which sounds more like functional equivalence.

The NLT adds “flames or” and doesn’t translate διαμεριζόμεναι. “Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them.” I assume they are letting the second half of the verse carry the idea of διαμεριζόμεναι.

In other words, this is a really hard verse to translate because you have to indicate that the tongues (plural) spread out (διαμεριζόμεναι) over each person, and that the tongues looked like fire (ὡσεὶ πυρὸς), but weren’t.

How would you say it?

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Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.

  • Mike 5 months ago

    Normal secular, modern translation of ‘tongue’ is a language or a body part associated with the ingestion of food. I go with body part. What is the anatomy of fire? Most have probably read narrative of a fire ‘licking’ another potential source of fuel. It is seeking to ‘eat’ another object. A cow licks a salt block to get nutrient-fuel. A fire licks a tree trunk a lump of coal to gain nutrient-fuel. ‘Tongues of fire’ seemed to the author to be as a fleeting, flaring part of the fire that ‘licks’ something else.