From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 2:1-11
The listeners are astounded, because they all understand the Galilean speakers in their respective languages: “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language?”
The countries mentioned cover most of the world that was known to first-century Palestine and symbolize the fact that the Church will embrace the whole world, transcending all barriers of race, class, and nation. They include the regions of Israel’s historic enemies, Mesopotamia (the center of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires) and Egypt, fulfilling God’s promise that Israel’s oppressors would one day turn and acknowledge the God of Israel as the true God (Ps 87:1–4; Isa 19:22–25).
The list refers to Jews from the Diaspora who have relocated to Jerusalem, or Jews who have come there on pilgrimage for the Feast of Pentecost. Jesus promised his apostles that they would be his witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), as had been prophesied concerning the Servant of the Lord in Isa 49. Their witnessing to God’s mighty acts in many languages is an initial fulfillment of this promise.
The fact that Jews from many different nations all heard the disciples speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God portends that the ancient tragedy of Babel (Gen 11:1–9) is now being reversed. The people at Babel had arrogantly tried to “make a name” for themselves by building a tower to the heavens—symbolizing the human attempt to seek power, wealth, and security without any reference to God. In consequence God confounded the universal human language into many different languages, which made it impossible for them to complete that tower. Instead, they were scattered throughout the world as separate nations, each with its own language.
At Pentecost, the Spirit-given ability of Jesus’ disciples to speak in various languages signifies that God is beginning to overcome human divisions. Now the Spirit has miraculously enabled Jesus’ followers to speak and be understood in many languages from all over the known world. The unifying power of the Spirit will be frequently demonstrated throughout Acts as people who would never before have associated with one another—Jews and Gentiles, slaves and prominent people, the upright and the formerly impious—share a common life of brotherhood and sisterhood in the Church.