From Babel to Pentecost to the English Language

By Luther Martin

In the beginning, the race of man had but one language or speech. Thus, without any “language barrier” mankind was able to plan and work together to accomplish goals that were either good or evil, but evil prevailed.

Genesis 11I tells of a man’s desire to build a tower that would reach to heaven. The builders concluded that they would “make a name for themselves,” by so-doing. Both the Assyrian and Babylonian people were noted for their “ziggurats,” which was a terraced tower in the form of a pyramid. It may be that the Tower of Babel was one of these. In any event, because of their desire to construct for themselves a monument, a project that was purely built to foster their own pride and self-importance, the God of heaven determined to prevent this project from being completed. God did this by “confusing their speech. ” They could no longer communicate among themselves, and this was the beginning of the languages or tongues of men.

The Miracle Of Speaking In Foreign Languages

When the Lord’s church was established in the city of Jerusalem, on the day of Pentecost (A.D. 33), one of the noted aids that God provided for His spokesmen, was that of accomplishing “oneness of speech.”

They began “to speak with other tongues” (Acts 2:4). “Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language. And they began to be amazed and to marvel, saying, ‘Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?” (Acts 2:5-8). Then followed a listing of sixteen or more different dialects and languages represented by the Jews who had gathered at Jerusalem.

It had only been a short time before, that Jesus, before His ascension into heaven, had instructed the apostles to go and make disciples of all the nations. This required the ability to communicate in the many different languages with which the apostles were unfamiliar. Mark 16:20 records: “And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed.” One of several signs or evidences of their apostleship was the ability to speak in languages that were unknown to them, and to resist assassination by poisoning or the bite of deadly serpents (Mk. 16:17-20).

As the Lord’s church continued to spread, the ability to teach the gospel to people of other languages became very necessary. But once again, man’s pride contributed to his troubles. The Christians in the congregation at Corinth, to whom the apostles had imparted some “spiritual gifts,” took pride in demonstrating their “gift” or imparted-ability, to speak in another language, to interpret other tongues, or in a proud way, demonstrate some other spiritual gift. So, the apostle Paul found it needful to devote a portion of his first letter to the Corinthians, reprimanding them for their abuse of “spiritual gifts.” Incidentally, the total purpose of miraculous gifts from the Holy Spirit was to aid the spread of the gospel of Christ, and its acceptance by those who were taught. The miracles and “gifts” were not to unduly prolong anyone’s life, but to insure that the Apostles would live long enough to take the gospel of Christ to the inhabited world, and this they did!

The Gospel To The English

The religion of Christ was introduced into the British Isles very early, anno domini, possibily as early as the second century. There was no Bible as yet, in the Saxon language. Religion was spread totally through the oral proclamation of the gospel. Few people could read and write, and as we have already indicated, there were no Bibles in the Saxon language to read. The mixture of dialects of the Vikings, the Danes, the Picts, the Scots, and the Normans served as continuing barriers that complicated communication between the various parts of the British Isles.

It was not until the middle of the seventh century that any material was prepared in the Anglo-Saxon tongue, and then there were episodes from the Bible set in poetic form, by Bede, who preserved some of these as written by a fellow named Caedmon. There were other poets in this century, who covered parts of England and recited or sang their poems relating biblical stories.

The first actual translation of any part of the Scriptures into Anglo-Saxon was done in the early eighth century by Aldhelin. Then Egbert produced a copy of the four gospels in Anglo-Saxon English.

The First English Bible By Wycliffe

John Wycliffe’s life spanned 1320-1384. He was educated at Oxford. He was a long-tenured and popular faculty member at Oxford. In 1366 he spoke out with approval, when the English Parliament refused to send monies to the Pope in Rome. He thus soon became a popular orator, reformer, and opponent of the Roman Church. By 1380 Wycliffe translated the New Testament into English, and the Old Testament was finished by about 1382. He gathered together a good number of itinerant teachers and preachers who covered England with Wycliffe’s Bible, as well as taught it across the English countryside. These were termed “Loliards” usually by their opponents . . . meaning “one who mumbles.” It is estimated that half of England began to shun the church of Rome and to embrace the teaching of Wycliffe.

Roman Catholic Opposition To The Bible In English

In the year 1408 the “Archbishop of Canterbury,” Arundel by name, decreed that any person be jailed who read Wycliffe’s Bible or his writings in the province of Canterbury. Six years later (1414), it was decreed that all persons who read the Bible in English would lose their lands, cattle, goods, and their lives . . . from their heirs forever. Although Wycliffe’s Bible had to be written by hand, there are still known to be nearly two hundred of them, all written in the first quarter of the fifteenth century.

At this same time, the Papacy in Rome was having its own problems. What was called the “Great Schism” prevailed from 1379 until 1417. During this period, there were occasionally as many as three rival “Popes,” all claiming to be the head of the Roman Church, and each excommunicating the other. There was a series of Popes reigning from Avignon in France. Finally, one faction assembled a “Council” known as the Council of Constance. It was this august body that had Wycliffe’s remains dug up, burned, and his ashes scattered upon the waters of the river Swift. Such was the violence and vehemence of the Roman Catholic Church against the memory of the man who first provided the Bible in the English language to the common people of England. Incidentally, one of the rival popes was named John XXIII (John 23rd). In an effort to erase from history the shame and disgrace of the “Great Schism” as well as their treatment of Wycliffe’s body, another “John 23rd” was elevated to the Papal throne in the mid-twentieth century, and Catholicism now denies that the first Pope John XXIII was ever actually a “Pope.”


The ability to communicate, to teach the Gospel of Christ, is the most important task that is to be shouldered by man. It is God’s plan that faithful men in every generation communicate God’s soul-saving Word to the lost and dying world. Since the invention of printing, the Word of God has been translated and published in some 1,700 different languages and dialects.

Equally important today is the spread of the Gospel of Christ by means of the electronic media, radio and television. But in order for the Gospel to be understood, the study of language and dialects must be pursued diligently. The continuing study of the language of mankind is vital to the continued spread of God’s Word, and thus God’s influence in the world.

Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 24, pp. 745-746
December 20, 1984