Science in Christian Perspective


Ecstaticism as a Background for Glossolalia

Department of Philosophy and Religion
Averett College Danville, Virginia 24541

The significance of the experience of glossolalia would be much easier to grasp if some of the questions about its origin could be answered. Interpretation of tongue-speech would be greatly facilitated if examples of similar phenomena could be gleaned from the extant literature for comparison. The purpose of this study is to investigate certain materials with that goal in mind, Since there is a close correlation between ecstatic prophecy and glossolalia the study includes a treatment of ecstaticism both within and outside the Hebraic tradition.

Ecstaticism Outside the Old Testament

The earliest report of ecstaticism that included frenzied speech is found in the report of Wenamon, an Egyptian who journied through Palestine and Phoenicia about 1117 B.C. While in Byblos he wrote this account of his experiences:
Now when he sacrificed to his gods-, the god seized one of his noble youths, making him frenzied, so that he said:

"Bring [the god] hither! Bring the messenger of Amon who hath him. Send him, and let him go."
Now, while the frenzied [youth] continued in frenzy during this night, I found a ship bound for Egypt, and I loaded all my belongings into it. I waited for the darkness, saying: "When it descends I will embark the god also, in order that no other eye may see him."l

The attention that is focused upon this frenzied youth sems to indicate that in Cebal such ecstatic utterances were thought to be of divine origin.2 Moreover, the report indicates that he was a devout worshipper of Amon and that his speech contained some words that were understandable.

About the end of the second millennium before Christ, there occurred a revival of the worship of Dionysus. This movement spread rapidly over Greece and Syria-Palestine.3 The devotees experienced a kind of religious rapture or ecstasy whose closest analogy would be found in physical intoxication.4 Such was the essence of Dionysian religion. In the service of their god the Bacchanals drank wine until they became intoxicated. The wine they drank was for them the very quintessence of the divine life.-" Their enthusiasm was quite literally a matter of having the god within themselves, of being full of and completely possessed by their god. The Dionysiacs have been likened to the participants at revival meetings-"and these of a very emotional and exciting sort."

The ecstatic nature of the Dionysiac cult is parent in this description:

The dances in honor of Dionysus were usually held at night time by torchlight and were preceded by fasting. They were accompanied by the weird music of wind instruments and the clashing of tambourines. Mingled with this strange music were the shouts of the Bacchan als themselves as they waved their torches in the darkness, thus giving to the scene an unearthly light. The dances were wild and irregular and were characterized by a tossing of the head and a violent whirling bodily motion. Thus by the very movements of the dance a physical frenzy was quickly induced, quite as the "dancing dervishes" of Mohammedanism lose control of themselves in the delirium of their ritual.7

Euripides, in the play Bacchae, tells how these Dionysiac worshippers longed for this ecstatic experience.

Ah, shall my white feet in the dances gleam 
The live-long night again? Ah, shall I there 
Float through the Bacchanal's ecstatic dream, 
Tossing my neck in the dewy air;8

It is at this point that Israelite ecstaticism is somewhat akin to the ecstatic frenzy of the Dionysiac worshippers. In fact, W. F. Albright suggests that the legendary Bacchantic irruption into Greece of which Euripides wrote, and the prophetic movement in Israel may have a common historical source.9 Although such an hypothesis is both sociologically and psychologically credible, it is plainly evident that Yahwistic ecstaticism followed a very different line of development after the eleventh century.

Actually, the Yahwistic movement probably arose partly as a reaction against ecstaticism.'° Such a theory seems tenable in light of the relationship of the Dionysiac and Appollonian art forms in both religion and culture in Greece. The relationship between these two forces in art, for example, was one of tension. The Dionysiac artist was ecstatic; the Apollonian found creative expression in "dreams." These were two approaches to reality itself: that of intoxication and that of the dream." It was in the Greek drama that these two forces resolved themselves into a unified whole.12

Ecstaticism in the Old Testament

The frail of historical appearances of ecstaticism leads directly to the Old Testament prophets; indeed, Canaanite religion may have been the medium through which the ecstatic movement filtered into Israel.12

The first reference to the ecstatic is found in Numbers 11:24-29. This is a clear picture of a frenzied, involuntary utterance. The occasion was the selection of the seventy elders who were to assist Moses in leadership responsibilities. Thse "seventy" elders demonstrated ecstaticism as did Moses, Miriam and Aaron.13 It appears that Joshua did not know what to make of the experience.14 The account indicates that the seventy became frenzied on this one occasion only.

  Eldad and Medad, who were left behind at the camp, "prophesied." Moses recognized the validity of the phenomenon and suggested that others seek the same experience. The entire episode is in no wise regarded as a psychopathic situation, and the account is set in a religious context and given religious significance. 

The earliest detailed examples of ecstaticism in the Hebraic tradition are to be found among the prophets. Originally the prophets went about in bands that formed a kind of separate society within society. In keeping with this societal status, the prophets were commonly designated "sons of prophets"15,' by subsequent generations. Some scholars see the existence of bands of ecstatic prophets as late as the time of David.16 Possibly they lived together in communal
dwellings, and certainly they considered themselves to be inspired by the Spirit.17 A central passage for ascertaining the nature of this inspiration is found in I Samuel:

... you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them, prophesying. Then the spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you, and you shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man.18

While it appears that Saul's behavior is spontaneous, the band of prophets has employed a certain "technique for bringing on the ecstatic condition."19 The resultant ecstasy is highly contagious, and Saul appears to be caught up in it. Music was commonly used to include this ecstasy.20 Also, among the earlier prophets as in the case of the Baal prophets, various drugs and wines were probably employed.21 

Some scholars maintain that the term nabi itself is derived from the condition of ecstatic frenzy into which the subject passes; hence, the term denotes a "raving condition" or one who is "peculiarly susceptible to ecstatic excitement."22 W. F. Albright, however, contends that the central idea of the term is "one who is called" and concludes that 

this interpretation of the word suits its meaning exactly; the prophet was a man who felt himself called by God for a special mission, in which his will was subordinated to the will of God, which was communicated to him by direct inspiration. The prophet was thus a charismatic spiritual leader...23

Other scholars hold that ecstatic forms of prophecy were native to Canaanite rather than Hebrew culture. Various "pagan" parallels are cited,24 and generally it is assumed that the Hebrew people first encountered the phenomenon at the time of the conquest and during the settlement of Canaan.2' The difficulty with this notion is that some of the earlier literary materials refer to similar phenomena in Irsael prior to the time of the conquest .26 Moreover, succeeding generations became so suspicious of the ecstatic form of prophecy that the prophet was considered to be "mad," and the prophet of the eighth century did not hesitate to say so.27 If the influence of the later prophetic movement is to be seen in the Numbers account of Eldad and Medad, it is most likely the writing into it of the distrust of ecstatic prophecy of that later time and not in the account of the prophecy itself. It appears, then, that even though ecstatic experiences and states in prophecy can he more fully documented in extracanonical literature, it does not necessarily follow that no comparable phenomena existed in pre-conquest Israel.

External patterns of behavior, such as incoherent speech, insensibility to pain, wild leaping and contortions, and abnormal expressions, were manifested in the ecstasy of both the Hebrew prophets and those of the Canaanites. It would have been easy, therefore, for the two to merge into a kind of syncretistic form in subsequent generations; and such was probably the case. There would then develop a reaction of true prophetic enthusiasm among the Hebrews against the mystical-ecstatic forms of Canaanite culture; however, this does not mean that there is a resulting, rigid distinction between the "cultic" and the "canonical" prophets. On the contrary, there were definitely ecstatic features among the writing prophets.28 The difference lay in the fact that there was a continuous, gradual, but definite development away from ecstatic forms of prophecy toward the more ordered form of discourse.29 By the time of the writing prophets there was evidently an intense dislike for the older form of spirit manifestation in prophecy that allowed for little, if any, intelligible communication.

Gradually, through the sheer moral force and righteous living of these great prophets, the ecstatic manifestation of possession of the deity was replaced by more moral concepts of the divine indwelling of the Spirit. That is to say, ecstasy was no longer held to be just fanatic behavior; on the contrary, the objective "proof" of possession issued forth in a state of spiritual exaltation for the persuasive communication of the message. This brought about the very evident and continuous resistance of the latter prophets to all abnormal demonstrations of spirit possession. Hosea notes that "the prophet is a fool, the man of the spirit is mad,"30 while Jeremiah writes:

The Lord has made you priest instead of Jehoiada the priest, to have charge in the house of the Lord over every madman who prophesies, to put him in stocks and a collar.31

Developing, then, is a higher standard by which to evaluate spirit possession-no longer are ecstatic manifestations the sole criterion.

Ecstaticism in the Inter-Biblical Period

During the years between the writing of the major portions of the two testaments, there is not much literary evidence relating to frenzied, inarticulate, ecstatic speaking among the Jews. This scarcity may be due partly to the policy of Jewish religious leaders of the period. '32 although of more influence was the attitude of suspicion concerning the validity of these phenomena.33

II Esdras affords one example of frenzied speech. In the account of Ezra's ecstaticism, the text reads:

Then I opened my mouth, and behold, a foil cup was offered to me; it was full of something like water, but its color was like fire. And I took it and drank; and when I had drunk it, my heart poured forth understanding, and wisdom increased in my breast, for my spirit retained its memory; and my mouth was opened, and was no longer closed.34

In the contemporary Graeco-Roman world frenzied speech in a religious context was not extraordinary, but rather commonplace.

In this case frenzied speech was induced through the use of drugs.

The remaining literary references to ecstatic speech are to be found outside the Hebraic tradition. In three separate instances, Plato reveals his knowledge of ecstatic speech. In Phaedrus35 he discusses the question of "madness." He does this in terms of prophecy, inspiration, poetry, and love. In discussing madness as prophecy, Plato alludes to the prophetess at Delphi, the priestess at Dodona, and Sibyl, all of whom, he thinks, have conferred great benefits upon Hellas through their ecstatic speaking when out of their senses, but when not, little or none. In connection with inspiration as madness, he refers to certain families where madness has entered with holy prayers, rites, and by inspired utterances. For Plato, the contemporary poets were much akin to the prophets and priestesses; they created compositions during ecstatic trances and from ecstatic utterances. In Plato's discussion there seems to be a link between ecstatic speech and religions significance. Also it should be noted that Plato himself regarded the persons so gifted as of more value than the normal, sane persons.

In the Ion36 Plato further describes the poets when he likens them to the Corybantian revellers who became ecstatic both in action and in utterance. He likewise compared them with the Baeehi maidens of the Dionysian cult.

Again, in Timaeus37 he sought to draw a distinction between the diviner and the true prophet. The diviner was pictured as similar to ecstatic persons-demented, unable to evaluate the visions which he sees on the words which he utters. In describing these diviners Plato ascribed to them certain features similar to those of glossnlaliaes: their speech being due to spirit possession; their being unable to discern what they said while in a given ecstatic mood; their state being unconscious. Plato recognized that many people had identified these diviners with the prophets of his own time, and so he was determined to draw a valid distinction. It is strangely similar to that distinction between prophets and glossolaliacs drawn by St. Paul in I Corinthians 14.

A final example of frenzied speech from nonHebraic sources during the inter-biblical period is found in the Aeneid.35 Virgil here refers to the Sibylline priestess on the isle of Delos. She is pictured as attaining her ecstatic speech in a haunted cave. After the priestess was "unified" with the god Apollo, she began to speak ecstatically. At times this speech was intelligible, and at others it was less coherent. The religious context and connotation of the story are apparent.
These accounts from the inter-biblical period indicate the presence of this frenzied, inarticulate speech in the Graeco-Roman world. It appears that in at least some cases these practices were connected with religion and were given a religious interpretation and significance.

Ecstaticism in the First Century

Contrary to many modern writers,39 the case is not so easily made for the existence of parallels to glossolaha among the "religions of the first century ."40 The sources dating from the first and second centuries of the Christian era; e. g., Strabo, Plutarch, Pausanias and Philo, indicate that the "oracles" may have been an intelligible, though difficult, language.41 The oracle at Delphi was the most famous in the ancient world,42nd several scholars declare that she uttered her prophecies in an ecstatic frenzy.43 T. K. Oesterreich, however feels that no clear picture of the inspiraation at Delphi has yet been given. "Everything," he continues, "is wrapped in obscurity and contradiction. Unfortunately, there is little known about her; there exists no eyewitness's description .........44

Strabo indicates that the Pythia at Delphia received the "breath" that inspired a "divine frenzy" and then uttered oracles in both verse and prose.45 In addition, Plutarch refers to the emotional frenzy of the mystery religions. He quotes Herodotus regarding the rites of these groups: "Frenzy and shouting of throngs in excitement with tumultuous tossing of heads in the air."46 Strabo gives an account of the whirling of cymbals and clanging of castanets that were used in the worship of Dionysus, Cybele, and others.47 He also describes the shouts of "ev-ah" and the stamping of feet that produced a religious frenzy.48

It appears that women usually played the ecstatic part in Hellenistic religion,49 though Pansanias indictates that men once prophesied at Delphi.50 These women who went into an ecstatic state for the purpose or oracular prophecy may well have spoken in intelligible language, but nevertheless they were obviously under great emotional strain. Plutarch tells of one Pythia who went berserk, frightening the people who had come to consult the oracle as well as the male interpreters.51

The cause of the ecstatic state in Greek religion was artificial and exterior to the person involved. Erwin Rohde has described the wild frenzy, the use of wine and drugs, and the use of dancing to induce the ecstasy.52

It seems that one can posit the existence of ecstatic, frenzied speech on the basis of the extant records; however, it is too hypothetical to postulate that this speech was the same as that in Acts and I Corinthians. It appears that the Greeks were ecstatic, but that their speech was not always unintelligible. This means that in the contemporary Graeco-Roman world frenzied speech in a religious context was not extraordinary, but rather commonplace. It means that the early Christians may well have known of a religious phenomenon not wholly different from what occurred on Pentecost.


1"The Frenzied Youth" in the Report of Wenamon cited in James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt (5 vols.;
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906), IV, 278.
2George A. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible (7th ed.; Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union, 1937), p. 453.
3 W. F. Alhright, From Stone Age to Christianity (2nd ed.; Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1946), pp. 304-305.
4Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Francis Golffing (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956), p. 22.
5Harold H. Willoughby, Pagan Regeneration: A Study of Mys tery Initiations in the Craeco-Roman World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929), pp. 74-75.
6James B. Pratt, The Religious Consciousness (New York: Macmillan and Company, 1937), p. 167.
7Willoughby, op. cit., p. 79.
8Euripides, Bacchae, 862-865.
9Albright, op. cit., p. 305. Cf. also E. H. Dodds, "Maenadism in the Bacchae," The Harvard Theological Review, XXXIII (July, 1940), 155-176.
10Albright, toe. cit.
11For a fuller discussion see E. H. Dodds, The Greek and the Irrational (Boston: Beacon Press, 1951), passim.
12Cerhard von Had, Old Testament Theology, trans. D. M. C. Stalker (2 vols.; Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1965), II, 8.
13Numbers 11:17; 11:26; 12:1, 12:2.
14Numbers 11:28.
152 Kings 2:3; 2:5; 2:6; 2:15; Amos 2:11; 7:14.
16Von Rad, op. cit., p. 10. Cf. Amos 7:14. Alfred Cuillaume, Prophecy and Divination among the Hebrews and Other Semites (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938), pp. 144-145, claims that "in 853 B.C. four hundred prophet, raved in ecstasy before the gate of Samaria."
17Cf. Walter Eiclsrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, trans. J. A. Baker (2 vols.; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), I, 315.
181 Samuel 10:5b-6, RSV.
l9Francis J. McCounell, The Prophetic Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1930), p. 86. For further discussion of the relationship of glossolalia to the prophets see Emile Lombard, De la Clossolalie c/re, les premiers Chrétiens (Lausanne: Bridel, 1910), pp. 189ff.
201 Samuel 10:5 refers to a "psaltry and a timbrel, and a pipe, and a harp."Cf. 2 Kings 3:15.
21Theodore H. Robinson, Prophecy and the Prophets (London: Gerald Duckwurth and Company, 1950), p. 32.
22Haruld Knight, The Hebrew Prophetic Consciousness (London: Lutterworth Press, 1947), p. 23.
23Albright, op. cit., p. 303.
24Hughel Fosbrake, "The Prophetic Literature," The Inter preter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1952), I, 202.
25 Robioson, op. cit., p. 33.
26Cf, Numbers 11:25-29.
27Hosea 9:7; Jeremiah 29:26; Cf. 2 Kings 9:11.
28For example, Ezekiel's psychic transports (Ezekiel 3:14; 11:5; 11:13; 37:1-10); Jeremiah's emotional outbursts (Jeremiah 4:19; 8:18-9:1; 10:19-20); Isiahia's vision in the temple (Isaiah 6:1-13); and Isaiah's mention of prophetic babbings (Isaiah 28:10-13).
29H. Wheeler Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946), p. 175.
30Hosea 9:7b. 
31Jeremiah 29:26. 
32 Hzechariah 13:3. 
33See Zechariah 13:3; 13:6; Psalm 74:9. 
342 Esdras 14:39-41. 
35Plato, Phaedrsss, 244. 
36Plato, ion, 533-534. 
37Plato, Timaeas, 71-72.
38Virgil, Aeneid, 259-260.
39Cf. Clarence T. Craig, "Exegesis: The First Epistle to the Corinthians," The Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953), x, 146. James Moffatt, First Corinthians (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1933), pp. 207-208; Jean Hiring, The First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, trans. A. W. Heathcote and P. J. Allcock (London: Epworth Press, 1962), p. 128; Maurice Barnett, The Living Flame (London: Epworth Press, 1953), pp. 79-112.
40Eliat Andrews, "Tongues, Gift of," The Interpreter's Dic tionary of the Bible, (4 vols.; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), H-H, 671.
41Cf. Plutarch, The Oracles at Delphi No Longer Given in Verse, 22.
42Richard Haywood, "The Delphic Oracle," Archaeology, V. (Summer, 1952), 110-118.
43For example, cf. Moffatt, op. cit., p. 208. The same idea may be seen in "The Famous Oracle at Delphi," National Geographic Magazine, LXXXV (March, 1944), 304.
44T. K. Oesterreich, Possession: Demonical and Other (New York: Richard Smith, 1930), p. 312.
45Strabo, Geography, IX, iii, 5.
46Plutarch, The Obsolescence of Oracles, 14.
47Strabo, Geography, X, iii, 13, 16. 
4SIbid., X, iii, 15. 
49Oesterrcich, op. cit., p. 311. 
50Pausanias, Description of Greece, X, xii. 
5lPlutarch, The Obsolescence of Oracles, 51. 
52Erwin Rohde, Psyche (New York: Harconrt, Brace and Company, 1925), pp.257-60.