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Acts 8: The Holy Spirit and Unknown Tongues in Samaria

If the initial evidence of the Holy Spirit was unknown tongues in Samaria, why was this not mentioned?

Did Simon the sorcerer want to buy the power to induce glossolalia or to do miracles?

The Assemblies of God position paper entitled "The initial physical evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit"(1) explains that the following "circumstances seem to indicate" the use of tongues as evidence that the Samaritans were baptized in the Holy Spirit in Acts 8:

At Samaria, Simon, a former sorcerer, saw something to indicate that the Holy Ghost was given to believers (Acts 8:18, 19). Had the experience been only by faith without any accompanying sign, Simon would not have known whether the Samaritan believers actually received the Holy Spirit. When this incident is compared with the three experiences where details are given, it is only logical to assume that what Simon saw and heard was people speaking with other tongues.

Yes, it may be logical to assume that what Simon observed was tongues. However, regardless of how logical this assumption may be, when one first assumes the manifestation of tongues to be present in Acts 8, then infers from Acts 8 and other scriptures that tongues are always present when Spirit baptism occurs, one uses an invalid circular argument. Simply saying that the assumption is logical does not transform it from an assumption into an observed fact from which inferences and generalizations may properly be drawn.

Moreover, manifestation of tongues at the laying on of the Apostles' hands is not the only possible logical explanation for Simon's offer to buy their power. Prior to Philip's arrival in Samaria, Simon had been a quite accomplished sorcerer — indeed, he had been so skilled at his art that the people of his city had called him "the Great Power of God." Acts 8:9-10. Lying wonders were his stock in trade. Acts 8:11. Then Philip came to town, proclaiming Christ, healing, casting out demons and doing greater miracles than Simon, and the Samaritans believed Philip's message and were baptized. Acts 8:5-8, 12. The Word says that, at this point, "Simon himself also believed. Being baptized, he continued with Philip. Seeing signs and great miracles occurring, he was amazed." Acts 8:13 (WEB). Note that what attracted Simon to Philip and his message was "signs and great miracles" — acts, from Simon's perspective, like those he himself had done as a sorcerer, only done with more power. Note also that, at the time to which this verse refers, the Apostles had not come to town to lay hands on the people, so Philip was presumably the only authentic Spirit-baptized tongues-talker in Samaria (2).

Then, when the Apostles heard about the revival occurring in Samaria, they sent Peter and John to pray for them and lay hands on them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. (v. 14-16). Further, as a result of the laying on of the Apostles' hands, "they were receiving the Holy Spirit." (v. 17). Here, Luke could have clarified the matter by adding just six words ("and they began speaking with tongues"), as he did in Acts 19:6, but no words to this effect are found in the entire context. Instead, the writer immediately proceeds to narrate that Simon "saw" that the Holy Spirit was conferred through the laying on of the Apostles' hands and offered them money to sell him the authority to confer the Spirit on others through the laying on of his hands. How did Simon "see" that the Spirit was conferred through the Apostles' hands'? Was he able to "see" this because those upon whom hands were laid immediately started to speak in tongues? Maybe. But considering Simon's background in sorcery, the relative ease with which glossolalia may be faked(3) and Luke's failure to mention tongues, it would be at least as reasonable to believe that what Simon "saw" was the manifestation of miraculous power through these Spirit-filled Samaritans.

Furthermore, it should be noted that a mass manifestation of tongues was not necessary in Samaria for any of the reasons for which it was necessary at Pentecost or in Acts 10 or 19. Philip obtained the attention of the crowds in Samaria through healings and miracles, not tongues, and these works of power adequately authenticated his message to produce faith in those who heard. Jesus had ministered in Samaria during his earthly ministry, many Samaritans had believed, and Jesus had clearly indicated his acceptance of the Samaritans. See, e.g., John 4. Thus, when the Apostles heard of the revival in Samaria, they sent Peter and John without resistance. There was no need for a special vision such as the one which sent Peter to preach to Gentiles in Acts 10 and there was no need for an authenticating sign to show the Jewish believers that God had accepted the Samaritans and given them his Spirit. Finally, whereas the disciples Paul found in Ephesus in Acts 19 had never heard of the Holy Spirit and apparently needed tongues as evidence of his work in their lives, the Samaritans had for many days witnessed signs and great wonders done by the Spirit through Philip and had believed and been baptized as a result. When the Apostles laid hands on them they did not need tongues as evidence of the Spirit's existence or work.

Thus, while tongues occurred in the New Testament church and even sometimes occurred as a sign that a group of people had received the Spirit, it does not appear that the Spirit's control or empowerment of a life was always manifested by speaking in tongues(4).

End notes

(1) This position paper may be found posted on the Assemblies' web site. The web version is copyright 1999 by the General Council of the Assemblies of God. I chose it over some other Pentecostal doctrinal statements in part because it is so easily accessible on the Web. To find it, go to the Assemblies of God main page using the link above, then click on the link for information "about" the denomination. From that page, click on the link to "what we believe," and from there go to the denomination's position papers. From the page on position papers, follow the link to the position paper named above. Unfortunately, I cannot spare the truly curious all of this work by linking directly to the position paper because all of the pages of the Assemblies' web site except the main doorway page are dynamically generated.

(2) Indeed, in verse 16, it says that the Spirit had not yet fallen on any of them. Thus, unless some other brethren who already had been filled with the Spirit accompanied Philip (and none are mentioned) he was the only authentic tongues-talker there. However, because glossolalia associated with demonic control or ecstatic emotional states induced by various religious rituals was common to several of the pagan mystery religions that had followers throughout the Roman Empire at this time, there may have been some pagan tongues-talkers in Samaria.

(3) The ease with which glossolalia can be deliberately faked or produced by spiritual or psychological states other than control by the Holy Spirit is, in fact, one of the major problems with the insistence that it is the invariable evidence of any spiritual event.

(4) I wish to stress again that this site is not intended as an attack on the Assemblies, or any other denomination, but as an attempt to raise a question about a doctrine which interferes with practical recognition of the oneness which exists between Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal believers.

Ian Johnson
Please do email me!
ian4christ41@yahoo.com

All except the quotation from the Assemblies of God position paper, © 2000 by Ian Johnson. The quotation is copyrighted by the Assemblies of God and is used by permission.

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