Reviews of

Contesting Languages

In 1 Corinthians, Ekaputra Tupamahu, Heteroglossia, Isaac T. Soon, Oxford University Press, Paul, Spiritual Gifts on March 10, 2023 at 3:00 pm

2023.02.05 | Ekaputra Tupamahu. Contesting Languages: Heteroglossia and the Politics of Language in the Early Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2023. 

Review by Isaac T. Soon, Crandall University, Moncton, NB.

The author begins the book with three subjects that experience struggle at the site of language: Medea, the Corinthian community, and Tupamahau himself. From its first pages, the reader becomes fully aware that this book is not only a critique of Paul’s handling of a multilingual community in Corinth but of the way that dominant languages, such as English (not least in the study of the New Testament), function as colonizing and suppressive forces. Tupamahu’s book is carefully written, and—more than any other academic monograph I have read in a long while—the distinct voice of the author comes across in its pages. The self-aware inclusion of first-person narratives detail the formation of the study and personal experiences that have shaped the research question and approach provides a refreshing frame for receiving Tupamahu’s work. At times, he even leaves expressions in German (e.g., p. 84) or in Greek untranslated to remind the reader of the way language (and its unintelligibility) can be othering for the person who is not proficient in it. Language is a political struggle, and Tupamahu’s book invites readers to learn about its dynamics in Corinth and to experience it themselves through his study itself. 

In his first chapter, Tupamahu presents a history of interpretation for tongue(s) in the NT by delineating two epochs, a “Missionary-Expansion mode” and a “Romantic-Nationalist mode.” Tupamahu traces the former through the second to the nineteenth centuries and argues that the focus of many interpreters was that “tongues” was the miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages for the sake of Christian expansion and mission (p. 13). The latter epoch, initiated by Johan Gottfried Herder, increasingly understood the NT portrayal of tongue(s) as unintelligible, even ecstatic, speech. 

In the second chapter of the book, Tupamahu uses his own “Heteroglossic-Immigrant Mode of Reading” (drawing on Bakhtin) to analyze the multilingualism of Corinth in the Roman period. Tupamahu presents a rich analysis of multilingualism in the Mediterranean world and, of course, for Corinth. Focusing much of his analysis especially on epigraphic evidence in Corinth itself, Tupamahu argues that immigrants, trade, local events (e.g., the Isthmian games), distinct ethnic communities (e.g., Jewish, Egyptian), and the presence of foreign names in prosopographical data strongly suggest that Corinth was a multilingual city. 

In chapter 3, Tupamahu turns to an analysis of Paul’s use of “tongue(s)” and “voice” in 1 Corinthians. He treats the linguistic situation not as ecstatic or oracular circumstances but as heteroglossia, literally that a multiplicity of languages is being used in Corinthian assemblies, and Paul tries to maintain order by compelling those speaking non-majority languages to translate what they are saying into the dominant language—for Corinth, likely Greek. Tupamahu first investigates Paul’s unique (at least the NT) use of heteroglossia and its connection with his surprising and creative use of LXX Isaiah 28:11. Both its use in an Isaianic context as well as elsewhere in the ancient Greek Lexicon (Polybius, Strabo, Onasander, Philo), heteroglossia refers not to ecstatic languages (e.g., glossolalia) or the miraculous ability to speak foreign languages (e.g., xenolalia) but in the Bakhtinian sense of speaking a multiplicity of languages. 

Before turning to some of the most exhilarating exegesis in the whole book (pp. 102–16), Tupamahu then turns his focus on to the singular and plural use of glossa in 1 Corinthians 12–14, noting that Paul uses the plural exclusively in 1 Corinthians 12–13 but then oscillates between plural and singular forms in 1 Corinthians 14. From this Tupamahu discerns that Paul’s focus on singular individual languages intimates a situation where multiple different languages are being used in the Christ assembly at the same time (p. 98). Drawing on contemporary discussions about generations of immigrants and language usage in the United States, Tupamahu imagines a three-generational situation at Corinth where first generation immigrants are using their native languages, second generation immigrants are proficient in both native and dominant languages, and third generation immigrants who have largely assimilated linguistically to the dominant culture (pp. 98–99). While I find this scenario helpful for understanding the situation in 1 Corinthians 12-14—and it certainly fits well within Tupamahu’s argument—it is largely speculative especially given the fact that we have little to no detailed demographic information for the Corinthian Christ group. 

Tupamahu argues that by encouraging (=forcing) multilingual Corinthians speaking in “barbarian” languages to translate and communicate their thoughts in Greek, Paul marks the assembly not just as a sacred space but also a political one (p. 118). The unintelligibility of the languages in the Corinthian congregation is not just a problem for Paul (p. 116), however, but it is likely also that his instructions in 1 Corinthians 12–14 are at the behest of Chloe’s people (1 Cor. 1:11), possibly the leadership of the Corinthian assemblies themselves. To extend Tupamahu’s analysis, then, Paul does not only intervene for himself because of the unintelligibility of foreign languages but also on behalf of the convenors of the Christ groups in Corinth. 

In chapter 4, Tupamahu addresses Paul’s comparison of prophecy and tongue(s) in 1 Corinthians 14 in light of his reading of the Corinthian lingual situation. Drawing particularly on Charles Ferguson’s conception of diglossia and the interaction between multiple forms of language (pp. 120–21), Tupamahu offers a simple and elegant solution to Paul’s rhetoric about prophecy and tongues. Namely, that Paul treats prophecy in the dominant language (Greek) as a high form of language and tongue(s) in non-Greek languages as a low form of language. Why does Paul treat foreign languages as such? He views the use of language as a means to an evangelistic end, the obverse of the missionary-expansionist mode outlined in 1 Corinthians 1; rather than increasing languages to maximize the spread of the gospel, Paul restricts the use of language for the spread of the gospel in Corinth (p. 138). Through this linguistic stratification, Tupamahu argues that Paul effectively silenced all other languages in the Corinthian assembly. In the voice of the Corinthians, Tupamahu responds to Paul’s hypothetical scenario of outsiders who speak only the dominant language being confused by multiple languages in the assembly: what about if a Syrian unbeliever visits and hears their home tongue (p. 139)? One wonders, then, if the missionary-expansionist mode of reading began as a response to Paul’s restriction and stratification of language in the Corinthian correspondence. (Tupamahu does address responses to Paul in his final chapter.) At least twice Tupamahu says that Paul thinks nondominant languages are useless (pp. 138, 144). I would argue that Paul does not think that they are useless universally but that in the context of the Corinthian assembly they have limited use. 

In chapter 5, Tupamahu re-reads Paul’s rhetoric in 1 Corinthians 14 through the politics of race, gender, and imperialization. Tupamahu argues that Paul’s uses barbaros to subjugate foreigners and their language (14:11), particularly that Paul thinks views barbarian speakers are a social and missional threat to the community (pp. 156–156). In his helpful discussion and analysis of Paul’s rhetoric through the politics of race (pp. 146–57), I would have liked to see some engagement with the work of Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi (Goy, OUP: 2018) with how Paul’s own Jewishness shapes his understanding of the barbarian other. Tupamahu then addresses Paul’s silencing of women in 14:32–36, connecting it to the multilingual situation he has reconstructed. He argues that past interpreters have relied on a stable but unrealistic conception of the women speaking here, monolithic and caricatured (pp. 161–62). Tupamahu focuses on the way pagan culture silenced women’s speech because of its perceived inferiority and irrationality (pp. 163–65). He argues that Paul’s rhetoric against women speaking in the assembly not only matches the subjugating rhetoric of writers like Plutarch, but that Paul amplified the rhetoric by effeminizing foreign nondominant languages (pp. 166–75). Turning finally to Paul’s notion of maintaining peace, Tupamahu argues that the apostle appropriates rather than subverts linguistic imperial power, pontificating and silencing linguistic politics for the sake of godly peace. Instead of countering imperial propaganda, Paul instantiates it. After reading this chapter I (as a scholar of ancient disability) cannot help but view Paul’s restriction of foreign languages, his effeminization and subjugation of them, as a kind of disabling practice. The Corinthian foreigners speaking non-dominant languages are not only de-normalised as divergent speakers but also, in Paul’s understanding, their practice of speaking other languages disables the mission of the church itself. Further work could build upon this chapter analyzing Paul’s words through the politics of disability

In his final chapter, Tupamahu turns to responses of Paul’s silencing of nondominant languages, focusing on Luke’s responses in Acts (of course, with particular focus on Acts 2) as well as the longer ending of Mark. Tupamahu argues that Luke is a Pauline rival (p. 202) who counters Paul’s silencing discourse by presenting multilingualism without erasure or silencing, as an essential benefit for early Christian communities.

As the son of Singaporean immigrants to Canada, a second-generation immigrant who is only able to speak fluently a dominant North American language and who knows nothing about any number of mother-tongues his parents grew up speaking (and continue to speak around him when they do not want him to understand what they are saying!), I read this book with personal curiosity. I have always been very self-conscious of the fact that I present South-East Asian but am unable to speak a South-East Asian language. It is perhaps this liminality that makes me attention to the kinds of language politics that global New Testament studies is immersed in worldwide, particularly the language policies of the eminent Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (SNTS). For membership, SNTS requires that a significant amount (at least 50%) of a nominee’s eligible scholarship be published in one of the dominant languages of the society: English, French, and German. Furthermore, papers in the Society’s annual meeting are given in only one of these languages. In Tupamahu’s conclusion, he turns his attention to the issue of translation itself, and he characterizes (rightly) Paul’s expectation that foreign languages be translated in Corinth to be an act of violence rather than hospitality (p. 217). Drawing on Derrida, Tupamahu argues that true hospitality is welcome without requirement, without imposition either of translation or the expectation that one speaks the dominant language. Although the SNTS touts an interest in encouraging international debate, with dominant language policies that orbit only three European nations, this reviewer cannot help but see an analogy with Paul’s compulsion for Corinthian immigrants to speak something intelligible to the civilized. Why is there a language requirement for membership in the first place? And what violence do membership requirements enact on those who write, think, and research in nondominant global languages today? Tupamahu’s book has inspired me to pick up nondominant research languages to engage scholarship and traditions outside of the dominant language traditions that I occupy, not just for reasons of justice, but also because there are vital insights that I am sure that I am missing. 

Isaac T. Soon
Crandall University
Isaac.soon [at]


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