Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun γλωσσα (glossa) means tongue, but where our English word "tongue" brings to mind something wet and slobbery that flops about without skeletal restrictions, in the classical mind this may not have been so. Our noun originates in the Proto-Indo-European root glogh, meaning thorn, pointy end or projected thing (which suggests that Christ's crown of thorns serves to symbolize "things said" about him). Another derivation from this ancient root is the noun γλωχιν (glochin), meaning pointy end (of an arrow or knife) or extremity. It's doubtful, however, that the ancients saw a resemblance between arrow points and tongues because they were shaped the same (they're not, namely).
A much more compelling connection lies in the effect a volley of words may have. Well-aimed words can wound a person. Words can penetrate a person, make the person bleed in a mental way and even cause a person to succumb. The Hebrew word for mouth is פה (peh), which was also used to describe the edge of a sword (Proverbs 5:4), whereas the word for sword, namely חרב (hereb) is very similar to the name of the mountain from which God gave the Law, namely Mount Horeb (Exodus 3:1). Hence the White Horseman has, instead of a tongue, a sword sticking out of his mouth, with which he rules the nations (Revelation 19:15). The Hebrew word for Law is Torah, which comes from the verb ירה (yara), which is the verb that describes the shooting of many arrows. Paul famously promised that the "shield of conviction" would extinguish the flaming darts of the slanderer (Ephesians 6:16), with which he referred to the even more famous promise of the Word to Abraham that the Word would indeed be Abraham's shield (Genesis 15:1).
A tongue is like a sword not because it might resemble one to a simple-minded observer, but because nominal reasoning (that is the art of giving words or names to things; see our article on ονομα, onoma, meaning name or noun) allows a mind to distinguish between items that would otherwise blend together. Or said otherwise: in order to distinguish Bob from Bill, you have to name Bob "Bob" and Bill "Bill". Only mammals like elephants, dolphins and apes like us have the power of nominal reasoning, which is why we get upset when we lose one particular child. Ducks, for instance, don't notice when duckling number thirteen suddenly goes missing. This is why it is so mind-bogglingly important that Adam's most defining deed was to name the animals (Genesis 2:19-20), and why it is such an incredible feat of theological insight to realize not only that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4) but that he calls us by name (Isaiah 43:1, Revelation 21:27).
Whatever that might mean to religious people isn't our concern right now, but to scientifically inclined folks such as us here at Abarim Publications it means that the ancients not only realized that the universe is governed by one Grand Unified Force (described by Logos, or the Grand Unified Theory) rather than warring and whimsical deities, but also that That Which Governs The Universe is alive and intelligent, and consciously distinguishes between all individuals.
The Hebrew word for to distinguish is בין (bin), which is also the verb for to understand (because all understanding starts with being able to tell differences). This word is strikingly similar to the word for son, namely בן (ben), which in turn resembles the word for stone, namely אבן ('eben), and the verb to build, namely בנה (bana). The feminine version of the word for son is the word for daughter, namely בת (bat), which resembles the noun בית (bayit), meaning house or temple. So no, when the disciples marveled at the stones of the temple (Mark 13:1), they weren't marveling at the stones of the temple.
When the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles "tongues of fire" reportedly appeared upon their heads (Acts 2:3). This doesn't tell of crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics but rather of a diversification of intellectual leaning: "for the Holy Spirit will teach you what to say" (Luke 12:12, 21:15). Prior to this event, the apostles were largely identical, but after this they began to specialize. The same thing happens when a zygote (a fertilized ovum) becomes a blastocyst (a blob of mostly identical cells) and then an embryo (an organism comprising distinct cell types). An organism can't be complex without differing cell types, but these different cell types must still be in perfect compliance with the same identical genetic code, since non-compliance of any sort means cancer. None of the cell types can exist without the others and together these cell types add up to whatever their shared genetic code is all about.
Likewise the Logos. There's only one universe and only one Logos that governs it, but there are many scientific disciplines that study it and describe it and many art forms that celebrate it and ponder it. Yet none of these scientific and artistic expressions mean anything without all the others, and any scientific or artistic expression that in some way or form doesn't acknowledge the unified one-ness of all the others and is not in accordance with the Logos that underlies it all, this scientific of artistic expression is cancerous and will lead to the death of the whole of humanity when left unchecked and uncorrected.
And just like it is impossible for a transparent eye cell to understand what a contracting muscle cell might be all about, or for an electricity conducting nerve cell to understand what an acid-producing stomach-lining cell might mean, so is it impossible for any specialized member of the Body of Christ to understand all others all the time. The famous activity of glossolalia, or "speaking in tongues," likewise has nothing to do with uncontrolled blabbering or trying to sound Arabic or pretending to communicate with angels, but with knowing what you are talking about even when others don't. Or in other words: one does not discuss complex numbers with folks who specialize in making music, and one does not force triliteral conjugations upon those endowed with the hospitable gift of gab.
Our word γλωσσα (glossa) only on occasion refers to the body part we call tongue. It mostly means divider or distinguisher, and refers to any sort of mental, intellectual or verbal specialization. It occurs 50 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- Together with the verb κομεω (komeo), meaning to tend or take care of: the noun γλωσσοκομον (glossokomon), which appears to have denoted a box or case in which folks stored the reeds of musical instruments. This word occurs only twice in the New Testament, namely John 12:6 and 13:29, as one of the attributes of Judas, who "had the glossokomon".
Why Judas would carry a box with woodwind reeds around with him has never been properly explained, and most lexicons solve this problem by confidently stating that in this particular case this word must mean "money box." More critical readers may note that if John had wanted to say that Judas had the money box, he would have said "money box," and by using the word for tongue-tender he most likely meant to say "tongue-tender."
Here at Abarim Publications we have the answer neither, but if we would have to guess we would probably guess that Judas' glossokomon was a kind of instrument with which one could carefully divide or distinguish. Between what and what isn't clear, but perhaps it was an instrument that helped with medical examinations — perhaps a clamp or spreader of some sort. The adjectival form of this word, γλωσσοκομος (glossokomos), was in the classics indeed used to describe a surgical instrument, particularly one that had to do with fixing skeletal fractures and dislocations. The Greek comedic poet Eubulus even related this word to the female pudenda (apparently relating the corresponding male member to a bone; comedy and propriety worked different back then).
Contrary to popular belief, Jesus wasn't into magic or shock and awe but rather into teaching people how to handle life with the levels of sophistication that were available (see texts like Mark 8:22-25 and Matthew 17:19). Modern religion, after all, arose when the Romans deposed the actual wise men and gave their books, tools and authority to the village idiots, who were widely clueless about what went where and turned once effective procedures into hocus pocus that had to be "believed". That's all nonsense of course because the rule was as simple then as it is now: if it obviously doesn't work, it's not from God and whoever said it would work is a liar and an imposter who probably works for Roman overlords to keep everybody ignorant, docile and tax-paying (Deuteronomy 18:20-22, Matthew 7:16, Luke 7:35).
- Together with the pronoun ετερος (heteros), meaning another or of another kind: the adjective ετερογλωσσος (heteroglossos), meaning of another language (1 Corinthians 14:21 only).