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Tongues vs. Languages (1 Corinthians 12-14)

With so many updates to translations and arrival of new translations in the past ten years, it is interesting to compare the translations for accuracy and ease of understanding. There are many in the Bible blog world who argue the need to pick one translation and use only one translation. Thus, the ESV is pitted against the TNIV or the NRSV is pitted against NASB. It is useful to know where there may be deficiencies in a translation. But to advocate the use of only one translation is ridiculous, in my opinion. Instead of having the KJV-only group, we are seeing the development of ESV-only, TNIV-only, NRSV-only, and NLT-only groups. Having multiple translations to study from is a blessing so that the student and teacher can more readily see the possible meanings of a given text. My interest in promoting other translations is not so that you will leave one translation and only use one new translation. Rather, my hope is that people will see that there are other useful translations available to study along with the version you currently use. If you have always used a NASB, NKJV, or NIV, purchase a HCSB, ESV, and NLT (among others) and study from multiple translations. Why does a student or teacher have to pick only one translation to ever use for teaching or studying? A different translation may do a better job on a given text than the translation you have always used. Try them all out and use them all for comparisons in your studies.

With that disclaimer out of the way, as you know I have been reading from the NLT 2007 revision, checking it against other translations as I read. I found that I like what the NLT has done with concept of “tongues” in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Most translations read 1 Corinthians 12:10 as follows:

to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:10; ESV)

The ESV is a new translation, yet it keeps the word “tongues” consistently throughout 1 Corinthians 12-14. The NIV maintains the word “tongues.” Even the TNIV, which is to use updated language, also uses the word “tongues” throughout this text. Of the major translations, I found only the HCSB and the NLT using a more easily understood translation.

to another, the performing of miracles, to another, prophecy, to another, distinguishing between spirits, to another, different kinds of languages, to another, interpretation of languages. (12:10; HCSB)

He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. (12:10; NLT)

The HCSB uses the word “languages” rather than “tongues” and the NLT uses “unknown languages” instead of “tongues.” I think these are improvements over the traditional rendering, “tongues.” I believe the average person has no idea what one means when discussing the gift of speaking in tongues. The miraculous spiritual gift was the ability to speak in a language that the speaker had no knowledge, training, or ability to speak. This is an instance where it would be useful to use the HCSB or NLT when studying and teaching 1 Corinthians 12-14 so that everyone can understand what the apostle Paul is teaching.

The HCSB consistently uses the word “languages” throughout 1 Corinthians 12-14. For some strange reason, the NLT uses “unknown languages” in 1 Corinthians 12-13, but reverts to using “tongues” in 1 Corinthians 14. I do not understand why the NLT would make this switch in a section still talking about the same spiritual gift. I think that is a shame because the translation would have been clearer if it had maintained “unknown languages” throughout this section. Other than this, great job by both the HCSB and NLT in making a clear and accurate translation here.