Early Christian Spiritism in Translation: First Corinthians 12 and 14

For many modern Christians, the terms "spiritism" and "Christian" simply do not go together; they are incompatible.  The directives against "spiritism" and "consulting mediums" or "ghosts" in the English versions of Deuteronomy 18:11 and Leviticus 20:27 suggest as much.  But the earliest Christians did, in fact, communicate with the spirit world of holy spirits as recorded in First Corinthians 12 and 14.  Most English versions of these chapters do no justice to both the historical context (first-century AD) and the Greek text.  For instance, the plural pneumata, "spirits," is almost always translated as "spiritual gifts" in 1 Cor 14:12, suggesting that these are gifts from "the Holy Spirit" or "the Spirit of God" or "the One Spirit" mentioned in 1 Cor 12:3,4,9,11.  Such a translation gives a nod to fourth-century Trinitarian theology that views a special, unique, and singular Holy Spirit as a part of the Godhead.  But since there was no Deity known as "the Holy Spirit" in the first century, a further distortion of these texts occurs by reading them through a fourth-century theological prism; a prism that Paul and the Corinthians, and the rest of the earliest Christians for that matter, did not manufacture.  By capitalizing the word "spirit" to "Spirit," the English versions give the impression that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit can be translated from the Greek text itself.  This is very misleading because one cannot derive theology from grammar.  The earliest Greek texts made no such distinction between "spirit" and "Spirit," for in the earliest Greek manuscripts there were no spaces and the Greek letters were all in "capitals."  As a historical note, during the fourth century, Athanasius was the first to make the distinction between "spirit" and "Spirit" by saying that the "Holy Spirit was not a spirit of the many but a unique Spirit" (see this website).  In his Greek text, Athanasius actually takes the liberty of distinguishing Pneuma from pneuma, the Greek word for "spirit": Pneuma is "the Holy Spirit" and pneuma is just "a spirit."  But the Greek text of First Corinthians 12 and 14 reveals that the doctrine of a singular Holy Spirit is artificial.  Sure enough, Paul does mention "the one spirit," but he does so in a sense of "unity" and not in the sense of a literal numerical singularity (see this website).  Presented below are two English translations of First Corinthians 12 and 14, a "standard" version and a translation made by Johannes Greber.  The reader may compare the two translations in parallel fashion in order to see how the Greber translation clarifies the standard English version.  For those who know Greek and are privy to first-century Judaism and Christianity will see that Greber's translation reflects the historical meaning of the Greek text more so than any other English version available.

1 Cor 12:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRS):


1Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.

2 You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.

3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says "Let Jesus be cursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit.

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;

5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;

6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,

9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,

10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

1 Cor 12:1-11 Greber New Testament Translation:

1 With respect to spirit-communication, brothers, I wish you to have a clear understanding.

2 You know that at the time when you were still heathens you entered into communication with the hideous spirits of the abyss as often as you were impelled to do so.

3 I will therefore give you a rule of thumb by which you can distinguish between the spirits: No spirit from God who speaks through a medium will call Jesus accursed; and no spirit can speak of Jesus as his lord unless he belongs to the holy spirits.

4 Spiritual gifts vary widely, but it is the same spirit-world of God that bestows them all. 

5 The services rendered in the Christian congregation also vary, but here again it is the same lord who allots them.

6 Moreover, there are various effects produced by the spiritual power; but it is the same God Who acts as the source of power in every instance and with every medium.

7 Each medium is given manifestations of the good spirit-world for the common good alone.

8 Thus God's spirit-world endows one with words of wisdom; another is endowed with the gift of discernment under the operation of the same spirit-world;

9 another, with understanding of doctrinal truths, by the same spirit-world; another is given the gift of healing by the same spirit-world;

10 another, power over evil spirits; another, the gift of becoming a medium through whom the mother tongue of the spectators is spoken; another is endowed with the ability to discriminate between good and evil spirits; another becomes a medium through whom spirits can speak in foreign languages; another, a medium through whom foreign languages can be translated into the mother tongue.

11 All these gifts are bestowed by one and the same spirit-world, which selects for each the gift that he is suited for and dispenses it in such measure as the spirit-world sees fit.

1 Cor 14:1-40 NRS: 

1Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.

2 For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit.

3 On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.

4 Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church.

5 Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.

6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?

7 It is the same way with lifeless instruments that produce sound, such as the flute or the harp. If they do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played?

8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?

9 So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air.

10 There are doubtless many different kinds of sounds in the world, and nothing is without sound.

11 If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.

12 So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.

13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret.

14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive.

15 What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.

16 Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the "Amen" to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying?

17 For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up.

18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you;

19 nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

20 Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.

21 In the law it is written, "By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people; yet even then they will not listen to me," says the Lord.

22 Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers.

23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind?

24 But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all.

25 After the secrets of the unbeliever's heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, "God is really among you."

26 What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.

27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret.

28 But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God.

29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.

30 If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent.

31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.

32 And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets,

33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. (As in all the churches of the saints,

34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.

35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)

37 Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.

38 Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.

39 So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues;

40 but all things should be done decently and in order.

1 Cor 14:1-40 Greber New Testament Translation:

1 Exert yourself to the utmost to obtain love.  Also be eager, of course, to enter into communication with God's spirits.  Above all, strive to become instruments through which God's spirits speak to you in your mother tongue. 

2 For if a spirit speaks in a language unknown to those present, he cannot make himself understood by these people, but only by God.  He therefore remains incomprehensible to every one, for the spirit uses words whose meaning is hidden from his hearers.

3 But if he speaks in their mother tongue, this conduces to their edification, admonishment, and consolation.

4 A spirit speaking in a foreign language derives spiritual benefit from it for himself alone, while one who speaks in the mother tongue of his hearers edifies the whole congregation.

5 I wish that you had all progressed so far in your development as mediums that spirits could speak through every one of you in a foreign language; but it would please me even better if they could speak through you all in your mother tongue.  For a spirit who speaks to you in your own language is of greater service to you than one who speaks in a  foreign language---unless, indeed, he also interprets that foreign language into your own, so that the congregation may derive spiritual benefit from it.

6 Suppose, brothers, that I were to come to you as one through whom God's spirit-world speaks in a foreign language; what good would I do?  Unless I could speak to you in such a way as to reveal to you truths hitherto unknown, or unless by virtue of my gift of clairvoyance, or as a speaking-medium or a teacher, I could impart the gospel to you in your mother tongue, my coming would be to no purpose.

7 It would be the same as it is with lifeless musical instruments.  If, for example, the sounds given out by a flute or a harp are such that no melody can be distinguished, how is one to recognize the air that is being played on the flute or harp?

8 The same applies to the trumpet.  If one hears nothing but unintelligible sounds blown on it, how can the call to arms be recognized? 

9 It is the same in your case also.  If a medium should speak in a foreign language, how could you understand what he was saying? It would all be spoken to the air alone.

10 There are ever so many languages in the world, and not one of them is in itself unintelligible.  But it is unintelligible to me, if I do not know the meaning of the words in these languages.

11 Then if someone speaks to me in these languages I cannot understand him, nor can he understand me.

12 Therefore in your earnest endeavor to communicate with the spirit-world you should be intent on reaching a great number of the most diverse of God's spirits.

13 Thus a person who is a speaking-medium for foreign languages should also ask for a spirit able to translate foreign languages.

14 For supposing that I, a medium, were to pray in a foreign language, the spirit speaking through me would, it is true, utter the words of the prayer, but my own spirit would get no benefit from it.

15 What value would such a prayer have?  I may indeed be glad to pronounce the words of the prayer spoken by one of God's spirits, but it concerns me even more to understand their meaning and thus be enabled to participate in the prayer myself.  I should be glad to praise God in the words of one of His spirits, but also to understand the words of praise myself.

16 Suppose that you were to offer a prayer of thanksgiving as the medium of a spirit speaking a foreign language; how should  simple folk, ignorant of foreign tongues, who sit there listening to you, say "Amen" at the conclusion of your prayers?  For they do not understand what you have said.

17 Without a doubt the prayer that you have offered is beautiful in itself, but it in no way benefits the other people.

18 I am, God be thanked, a better medium for speaking in foreign languages than any of you;

19 but when I am conducting the service I would rather speak five words that I understand, in order thereby to teach others, than many thousand words in a foreign language.

20 Brothers, do not act like inexperienced children in judging such matters.  In evil be ignorant as children, but in other matters show the understanding of mature men. 

21 In the Law of Moses it is written: "'In foreign languages and with the lips of foreigners I will speak to this nation; but even then they will not listen to me,' says the Lord."

22 From this it follows that speaking in foreign languages is a proof, not for believers, but for unbelievers.

23 Suppose that the whole congregation were gathered in one place, all speaking in foreign languages, and that people came there who knew nothing of communicating with spirits and did not believe in it; would they not say that you had lost our wits?

24 But if you as mediums were speaking your own language, and an unbeliever or a person inexperienced in such things came to you, he would be furnished with proof of spirit-communication, and his doubts would be dispelled;

25 the secrets of his heart would be laid bare; he would fall on his face and praise God and acknowledge that a messenger from God was actually in your midst.

26 Then how shall you proceed, brothers?  In this way.  Whenever you have met for worship, each one of you receives something from the spirit-world; with one it is a song of praise, with another a lesson, with a third a revelation, with a fourth an address in a foreign language, and with a fifth the translation of that address.  All this is for your edification.

27 If a foreign language is to be spoken, let two spirits, or at the most, three, be permitted to speak, one at a time, and let one spirit translate the addresses into the mother tongue of the hearers.

28 If no spirit is present who can translate the foreign language, let the other spirit forego his address also, and offer a silent prayer to God instead.

29 Even addresses in the mother tongue should be limited to two or three, and those present should discuss what they have heard.

30 If any one attending the service is suddenly given an inspiration, the speaking-medium should be silent;

31 for the speaking-mediums all have sufficient  opportunity to teach and encourage the whole congregation.

32 The spirits manifesting themselves through the speaking-mediums will obey the mediums,

33 for God is not a God of disorder but of harmony.  Thus I teach in all the congregations of the faithful.

36 But perhaps you suppose that the word of God proceeded first from you, or that you were the first to receive it and therefore know everything better?

37 If any one considers himself a speaking-medium or otherwise in communication with the world of spirits, let him assure himself by inquiring of God's spirit-world that what I am writing to you is a command of the lord.

38 But if he disregards it, he too will be disregarded in the future by God's spirit-world.

39 Therefore, brothers, earnestly endeavor to become instruments of the spirit-world for speech in your own language.

40 Nevertheless, do not try to prevent the spirits from speaking in foreign languages altogether, but let everything be done decorously and in perfect order.

34 Let the women keep silent at the meetings of the congregation; for their mission is not to speak but to subordinate themselves, as the Law of Moses prescribes.

35 If they wish information at any point, let them ask their husbands at home; for it does not become a woman to begin a discussion at a religious gathering.


Greber's translation requires commentary.  The NRS reflects accurately when it translates the Greek text as "to prophesy" or "prophecy" and "speaking in tongues"; these terms are what the Greek text says: prophetuein, "to prophesy," and lalein glossa, "to speak a tongue."  But what do these mean?  Paul's audience knew full well what these terms meant, but for modern Christians, their meanings are elusive or misunderstood.  The Greber translation is a paraphrase of the Greek text that explains the meaning of the Greek text in translation.  For instance "prophecy" is "the utterance of a spirit through a medium in the mother tongue of the congregation" and "speaking in tongues" is "a spirit that speaks through a medium in a foreign language."  A "prophet" is "an instrument of the spirit-world for speech in the mother tongue of the congregation" or is a "speaking medium."  These paraphrases are not in the least bit "a spiritistic ploy to accomadate the Scriptures to the heresy of spiritism," as some conservative Christians might assert.  Anyone who knows about prophecy and prophets in the ancient world, particularly the ancient near east, the Greek, and the Greco-Roman cultures,  understands that what we call "a medium" today was known then as "a prophet."  Scholarly books and articles on the subject of prophets and prophecy in early Christianity are clear and objective on this point.  A prophet was simply "one who speaks forth" [pro = 'before' + phetes = 'speaker'].  In Greek antiquity, the word "prophet" was used in both a secular and in a religious context.  Descriptions of "holy spirits" and "divine spirits" entering into a person who is in a trance state and speaking out of that person while he is temporarily unconscious is found in both early Jewish and early Christian texts.  These people, too, were known as "prophets," but when they spoke forth, the holy spirit inside of them was actually speaking, for the human prophet only seemed to be speaking to outward appearances.  For those who know the Greek text, they will see that Paul speaks of those who speak en pneumati hagio, "with a holy spirit," or en pneumati theou, "with a spirit of God."  These Greek phrases are actually Semitic constructions, that is, Paul's mother tongue, Aramaic, in Greek dress.  These phrases appear in 1 Cor 12:3, 14:2 and 14:16.  In each case, the meaning is the same as that found in Mark 1:23 and 5:2 where the identical phrase is used but with a different spirit, en pneumati akatharto, "with an unclean spirit."  In the Mark passages, the phrase indicates involuntary possession by an evil spirit whereas in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 the phrase indicates voluntary possession by a holy spirit for the purposes of instruction in the gospel.  To speak "with a holy spirit" means to speak while under the power or guidance of a holy spirit who is the one actually doing the speaking through the person who is in a trance state.  Greber's translation of 1 Corinthians 12:3, 14:2, and 14:16 brings this out clearly and accurately.  For a further, more detailed historical-critical and grammatical-critical analysis of the Greek text of First Corinthians 12 and 14, see Clint Tibbs, Religious Experience of the Pneuma: Communication with the Spirit World in 1 Corinthinas 12 and 14 (WUNT 2/230; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007).