When I first read in Acts 2:3 about how the early Christians received the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues (or glossolalia), I learned it from the KJV’s rendering of “cloven tongues”. However, this is not necessarily an accurate picture of what may have happened in Acts 2:3. Different translations differ in how they portray the appearance of the flame of Pentecost. This may also impact our theology of the charismata.
How is it rendered in the original Greek? It uses διαμερίζω (“diamerizō”, divide, part, cloven). The word diamerizō may be defined in several ways: literally in distribution or in appearance, and also, figuratively in dissension. We can rule out the third: dissension. This leaves us with either distribution or appearance.
Greek: καὶ ὤφθησαν αὐτοῖς διαμεριζόμεναι γλῶσσαι ὡσεὶ πυρὸς καὶ ἐκάθισεν ἐφ᾽ ἕνα ἕκαστον αὐτῶν,
The NRSV, ESV, CSB and KJV all seem to portray flames (or tongues of fire) being “divided” (in the sense of being split in half), and resting over their heads. (Notice first picture below on the left with the divided flames). The NRSV/ESV/CSB renderings interpret diamerizō in such a way that it leads the readers to view the flame as the object of the matter. As a result, the reader will focus on the physical appearance of the flame, rather than, the action of the flame.
ESV: And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.
CSB: And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them.
NRSV: Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
When I read the New English Translation (NET), I noticed that the flame is not “divided” (in the sense of not being split in half), but rather, it is “distributed” and “spread out” amongst the people. Notice NET’s rendering of “spreading out” projects an action of distribution, rather than, a static image of physical appearance. The word diamerizō may be interpreted as being distributary or dispersionary, which is also in line with the Spirit’s nature of distributing gifts or charismata. This helps the reader to perceive tongues in a more active sense (like fire in a raging forest fire).
NET: And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them.
The Revised English Bible (REB) use of the word “distributed” also portrays an image of tongues of flames being distributed in the dispersionary sense. This rendering of diamerizō is dynamic too.
REB: And there appeared to them flames like tongues of fire distributed among them and coming to rest on each one.
The NLT, however, completely avoids making any interpretation regarding the appearance or distribution of the flame, all though it tends to focus on its appearance rather than action. Perhaps its translators didn’t know how to properly render diamerizō.
NLT : Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them.
The TNIV could be interpreted either way.
TNIV: They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.
I tend to prefer the NET bible’s rendering because it allows for γλῶσσα (“glōssa”) to be interpreted as a language that is dynamic and is actively spread out or distributed to others, rather than a tongue of flame being a static object. The REB is my second choice.