Re: 1Cor13:1 tongues of angels

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Wed Mar 11 1998 - 12:01:03 EST

At 7:34 PM -0600 3/10/98, Ward Powers wrote:
>As I was saying when I was so unexpectedly interrupted ...
>Resend of a post which disappeared into the ether during the b-greek

Well, I'm very glad that the discussion has been RESUMED!

>Fellow b-greekers:
>There have been some very interesting contributions indeed on this thread,
>which seems now to have prettywell run its course.
>A couple of (belated) comments that I would like to add.
>Firstly, has anyone else noticed the translation of our verse, 1
>Corinthians 13:1, in J.B.Phillips? He has, "If I speak with the eloquence
>of men and of angels, but have no love ..." That is, he takes it that
>Paul's reference is to speaking well, or, as well as one possibly could,
>even beyond normal human ability.
>This is in line with the interpretation favoured by some contributors to
>the b-greek discussion. It sits well with the context, in which Paul is
>describing several situations where he (speaking of himself
>representatively) does something at a very high level of proficiency or
>sacrifice, but acts without love. An angel is above all else a messenger -
>which is primarily and originally what the word meant. He is the perfect
>messenger of God, always delivering God's message clearly and accurately.
>So I take Paul's meaning to be, "If I were to speak [God's message] as well
>as any man can - indeed, if I were to speak as effectively as the angels of
>God [in their role of delivering the message of God], but have no love ..."
>Secondly, there was some discussion on the list as to the language(s) which
>angels spoke. Now it is undoubtedly possible that angels may have, and
>speak, a unique and distinctive angelic language. But if so, we have no
>knowledge of it. If this verse refers to such a language it is the only
>such reference in all of Scripture. Rather, what we do know from Scripture
>about angels when they speak is that they spoke in the language of the
>person whom they were addressing, and he/she understood perfectly what was
>being said. I would presume the angels spoke Hebrew to Hagar (Genesis
>16:7), Aramaic to the shepherds (Luke 2:10), Greek to Philip (Acts 8:26)
>and maybe Paul (Acts 27:23), Latin to Cornelius (Acts 10:4). The language
>used by the angelic messenger is never named in these (or any other)
>references and therefore this issue could be a quodlibet to argue; but one
>thing is certain: the language used was always a human language understood
>by the person addressed.
>It makes more sense therefore, it seems to me, to take it that the
>reference in 1 Cor 13:1 to angels speaking in GLWSSAI is to angels speaking
>in human languages (as the occasion required), and being totally effective
>in getting their message across. This contrasts with the total situation
>that Paul is dealing with in this part of 1 Corinthians, where one of the
>problems he is addressing is that some of the Corinthians were speaking and
>not being understood.
>Thirdly, it is significant (it seems to me) to note that Paul writes, EAN
>with the subjunctive. This is a Class Three Condition: an Uncertain
>Condition. It does not indicate that Paul actually does what he refers to:
>he is posing a hypothetical possibility, best translated, "If I were to
>speak ..." This verse is sometimes appealed to in support of glossalia, as
>indicating that Paul himself spoke "the languages of angels", interpreted
>as "heavenly languages", this verse being linked with 14:18, "I thank God
>that I speak in tongues more than all of you". But 13:1 will not bear this
>weight. Paul is saying, "If I were to do [such and such, whatever the such
>and such may be]", without indicating whether or not he does do so.

I think that Ward's account here is very plausible and that it may possibly
be right. Yet the context of this chapter and its positioning, one that can
hardly be thought accidental, right in the center between chapters 12 and
14, where glossolalia and CARISMATA that transcend natural human endowments
are sufficient reasons for me to remain unpersuaded. Even if the antithesis
of heaven and earth, of earthly language and heavenly language, were not
traditional in the cultural context within which Paul addresses this
particular congregation, the discussion of rhetoric and of the eloquence of
evangelists in chapters 1-4 seems to me to underscore the NON-importance of
rhetorical skills: evangelization depends on what God accomplishes through
perfectly ordinary human speech, not upon the accomplishments of the
trained orator. And in those opening chapters it seems to me that Paul,
rather than exalting traditional rhetoric as something of great worth,
relativizes it in contradistinction to the truth delivered through ordinary
means by divine initiative. And I really think that chapter 13 within the
context of chapters 12-14 serves a similar function of relativizing the
sort of virtuoso religious "performance" upon which the Corinthians, or
some of them, at any rate, pride themselves: just as in 1-4 human eloquence
was relegated to secondary importance in relationship to the truth
delivered by divine initiative, so here virtuosity in worship, the subject
of chapters 12 and 14) is relegated to secondary importance in relationship
to the supreme manifestation of the inbreaking spirit of God: AGAPH. And
that's why I think that "tongues of men and tongues of angels" is not a
hendiadys for human eloquence but rather that it refers to two distinct
types of performance that are esteemed by the Corinthians as
accomplishments elevating those who have them above their would-be peers in
the congregation. Rather, Paul is saying, neither of these accomplishments
has significant value apart from AGAPH.

When I wrote my own paraphrase of 1 Cor 13 ten years ago for my daughter's
wedding, I phrased verse 1 thus:

          Unless I make my voice show loving-kindness,
                the eloquence of orators
                and even lyric ecstasy of angels
                        is meaningless babel.
Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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