A Somewhat Brief Explanation of Verbal Aspect Theory as it Pertains to Koine (NT) Greek, with Focus on Temporal Reference (pt 1)

 The theory of verbal aspect, though not necessarily difficult in and of itself, is so foreign to native English speakers that it can be a challenge to grasp initially. My humble goal here is to present this concept in a way that individuals with no training whatsoever in NT Greek can understand the essentials, while simultaneously posing it in such a fashion that those with some schooling in Koine Greek who may have some difficulty in grasping the basics of the theory will reach a fuller comprehension (though this is not to suggest that the material will be easily apprehended with merely a cursory reading). Any failure in that objective, as well as any errors, rests with this writer and not the work of those upon whom I’ve relied.

Most of the technical information, as well as tangential remarks, have been placed in the footnotes to make the body of the article more accessible; nevertheless, occasionally it has been necessary to bring some technical jargon and related explanation into the main text. For the novice, I’ve done my best to define those terms and concepts specific to the theory, as well as the Greek, in a comprehendible manner. As stated, the intent is pedagogical – as researching this theory has been to this writer, for, to paraphrase another, I didn’t start writing because I had something to say, but because I had something I wished to learn.1 Consequently, this work is the product of countless hours of research, the writing itself having been reshaped numerous times. My sincere desire is that fruit will be borne in the form of educated readers.

Introduction

Though I have only sporadically studied Koine (NT) Greek (informally, and not systematically – not something to be recommended), I have focused much of that effort on the Koine Greek verbal system, for “the verb lies at the heart of serious analysis of the Greek language.”2 This resulted from my attempts at comprehending the function of the NT Greek perfect tense-form and subsequently finding some disparity among Koine Greek scholars on its usage. This, in turn, led to a study of what is termed verbal aspect, a relatively new theory with respect to Koine Greek, but not new in general, as verbal aspect is an integral part of other languages.3 Assuming this new conception presented in the following is true for Koine Greek, “[t]he implications of these theoretical conceptions of grammar are far-reaching, particularly for exegesis of the New Testament,”4 which would, consequently, bear upon translation into receptor languages (English Bibles, Spanish Bibles, etc.), associated commentary, the classroom, and even the pulpit.

Drawing on various works by Kenneth L. McKay, a specific book by Bernard Comrie, and other material, Stanley E. Porter produced his hefty tome Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood5– a monograph as daunting as it is important. Without a firm grasp of the discipline of linguistics and its associated terminology the average reader is bewildered – even those with formal schooling in NT Greek may find it challenging.6 Thankfully, some have critiqued and referenced Porter’s book, making it a bit more comprehensible to the non-specialist.7

Rodney J. Decker, who largely follows Porter, has done a favor for most everyone interested in the subject by producing “The Poor Man’s Porter”: A condensation and summarization of Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood by Stanley E. Porter.8 Though very helpful, this explanation of Porter’s work is still a bit challenging to the non-scholar. Constantine R. Campbell has written the more layman-friendly Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek,9 designed as an introduction to verbal aspect to those with at least some Koine Greek training, making this perhaps the best place to start, though with a few caveats.10

Porter, Decker, and Campbell all agree that, according to verbal aspect theory, temporal (time) reference is not an intrinsic part of the Koine Greek verb form.11 Campbell, though, departs from Porter and Decker in his treatment of the perfect tense-form12(not to be confused with perfective aspect below). While there are varying opinions, with differing associated terminology, as regards verbal aspect, for the purposes of this article the Porter/Decker/Campbell view of no temporal reference within the verb forms of NT Greek has been adopted, along with the Porter/Decker stance on the perfect tense-form, and Porter’s terminology.

But, what is verbal aspect? To explain, its usage in English will be illustrated first (though this is not 100% correlative to Koine Greek13). To alleviate potential confusion, the word “tense” will not be used either as a synonym for “time” or for a verb’s form in this article, whether English or Greek. This is because, in the English language, the word “tense” most always conveys both verbal form and temporal (time) reference.14 Instead, the more descriptive “tense-form” will be utilized for a verb’s form, while “time” or “temporal reference” will be used for temporal function. Using the example of the English past tense, when the form of the verb is the subject of discussion “English past tense-form” will be used; when its temporal function is being discussed “past time” or “past temporal reference” will be used.15 It is important to distinguish the form of the verb from its temporal function, as this is how the NT Greek verbal system operates, with the tense-forms encoding aspect but without any specific time element attached, as shall be illustrated below.

Verbal Aspect in English

As stated, the English language features verbal aspect; however, time is (most always) attached to the verb’s form, as this section will show.16 In comparing the two pairs of sentences below, observe how each one differs from the one with which it is paired (1A compared to 1B, and 2A compared to 2B), and how each is similar to the other. Also, note how each pair is both similar to and different from the other (1A & 1B compared to 2A & 2B).

1A) I released.
1B) I was releasing.

2A) Peter comes.
2B) Peter is coming.

The first sentence of the first pair (1A) reflects simple past time, with the verb release in the English past tense-form (released). It merely states that an event happened at some point in the past (I released) without any further reference, such as how long the event lasted, when it took place (was it yesterday or last week?), etc. This particular event is depicted in its complete form, as a whole, in summary. This is known as perfective aspect.17

The verb in the first of the second pair of sentences (2A) reflects simple present time, with come in the English present tense-form (comes). All we are told in this sentence is that at the present moment Peter comes; we’ve no idea the duration, speed, etc. Simply, at the present time, Peter comes. Like the previous example, this is illustrating the event in its complete form (note: not completed), as a whole, which is, once again, perfective aspect.

In the second sentence of each pair (1B & 2B), a process, or progression, is depicted. In each one, an auxiliary (“helping”) verb is placed in front of the main verb, with the suffix -ing attached to the main verb itself to create a participle. In the first instance (1B), the auxiliary verb was is used to illustrate past time (was releasing = English past continuous tense-form, aka past progressive tense-form). In the second (2B), is is used to illustrate present time (is coming = present continuous tense-form, or present progressive tense-form). Yet, again, in both instances a process is pictured, an event was taking place (was releasing), or is taking place (is coming), over a period of time (though we still don’t know the duration, speed, etc.). Each event is viewed incompletely, rather than as a complete, whole event. This view of continuous action is illustrating imperfective aspect.18

Just as the first sentence in each pair above (1A & 2A) is expressing perfective aspect, the second sentence in each pair (1B & 2B) is expressing imperfective aspect. Yet the first pair (1A & 1B) is set in past time, while the second pair (2A & 2B) is set in present time. However, each individual pair (1A & 1B; 2A & 2B) may actually be speaking of the same exact event. The only difference is the particular perspective with which a speaker chooses to convey the information – either from a remote point of view of the event, expressing perfective aspect (1A & 2A), or one of proximity to it, expressing imperfective aspect (1B & 2B). This is a choice of verbal aspect.

To help explain, we could use the analogy of a newscaster reporting a parade.19 If the newscaster is in a helicopter, she reports the parade perfectively.  If the newscaster is at street level reporting the parade as it unfolds in front of her, she is reporting it imperfectively.  In the pair of sentences reflecting perfective aspect (1A & 2A), the view is from the outside, seeing the event as a whole, undifferentiated, from a distance – a remote perspective – “without reference to its internal structure.”20 This is the view from the helicopter, from a position remote from the event.  Alternatively, in the pair reflecting imperfective aspect (1B & 2B), the view is from the ‘inside’, one of nearness – a proximate perspective –viewed such that “its internal structure is…unfolding.”21 This is the view at street level, from a position very near, in close proximity, or ‘within’ the event.

Regrouping the sentences above by verbal aspect:

Perfective aspect:

1A) I released. (past time)
2A) Peter comes. (present time)

Imperfective aspect:

1B) I was releasing. (past time)
2B) Peter is coming. (present time)

It is important to stress that both imperfective aspect and perfective aspect can be used for either present time or past time events (or even future). Continuing with our parade analogy, the parade itself may have occurred yesterday, but it can still be described imperfectively – as a process. That is, though the parade is no longer in progress, it can still be described as a progression or process, from street level:

I was watching the parade. (past time event reported using imperfective aspect)

Conversely, even if the parade is currently in progress, it may be viewed perfectively, as a complete event (not completed), from the helicopter:

I watch the parade. (present time event reported using perfective aspect)

So, to recap, today I may see the parade, describing it either perfectively (I watch the parade) or imperfectively (I am watching the parade); yet, if tomorrow I wish to tell someone else about it, I can still describe it either perfectively (I watched the parade) or imperfectively (I was watching the parade). To provide a summary report of an event or situation, i.e., from a remote viewpoint, the perfective aspect is used. On the other hand, if the desire is to provide more details in order to draw the reader into the event or situation – a proximate, up-close perspective – the imperfective aspect is employed.

Part 2 will provide an explanation of verbal aspect in NT Greek, then proceed to a discussion of the perfective aspect, exhibited solely by the aorist tense-form, illustrating the diversity of temporal references of the form in various NT contexts.

 

1   Marianne Meye Thompson, The God in the Gospel of John, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001, p vii.

2   Stanley E. Porter, “Greek Language and Linguistics,” in Porter, Studies in the Greek New Testament: Theory and Practice (Studies in Biblical Greek 6), New York: Peter Lang, 1996, p 12. This essay originally appeared in The Expository Times 103 (1991-92), T & T Clark, pp 202-208. The self-study on the part of this writer should not be confused with anything approaching competency.

3   With respect to work in NT Koine Greek, verbal aspect here is new in the sense that it understands aspect as the sole property encoded in a verb’s morphological form (semantics), with Aktionsart not intrinsic to the verbal form but instead a pragmatic function determined by the lexical meaning of the verb in a particular context in conjunction with its morphological form; however, the most important distinction is the understanding that temporal reference is not intrinsic to the verbal form, time being yet another pragmatic function determined by lexical features and context (see below). As to the validity of adopting new approaches to NT Greek study Porter states (“Greek Language and Linguistics”), “Just because the languages are called ancient does not mean that the methods for studying them must be ancient also” (p 18). And, quoting A. T. Robertson (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 4th ed., Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1934 (1914)): “It is not possible…to write the final grammar of Greek either ancient or modern. The modern is constantly changing and we are ever learning more of the old” (p 32). Porter further comments, lamenting that (“In Defense of Verbal Aspect” in Porter, Studies in the GNT), “For whatever reason…the discipline of biblical studies hesitates to appropriate fully developments in other related and potentially productive areas of knowledge. These include…modern linguistics” (pp 22-23). [The latter first appeared as an essay in Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics: Open Questions in Current Research, JSNTS, Sup 80, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.] In addition, George H. Guthrie observes (“Boats in the Bay: Reflections on the Use of Linguistics and Literary Analysis in Biblical Studies,” in Stanley E. Porter & D. A. Carson, eds. Linguistics and the New Testament: Critical Junctures, {Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 168: Studies in New Testament Greek, 5} Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), “It does not take a tremendous amount of perception to recognize the fragmented nature of current New Testament studies” (p 25); and he later asserts, “We must continue to ask questions of our methodologies as well as of the text” (p 32).

4   Rodney J. Decker, “Verbal Aspect in Recent Debate: Objections to Porter’s Non-Temporal View of the Verb,” a paper presented at the Evangelical Theological Society, March 30, 2001, hosted by Philadelphia Biblical University, Langhorne, PA, p 1; emphasis added. This paper is an adaptation of a section of Decker’s Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark with Reference to Verbal Aspect, (Studies in Biblical Greek 10), New York: Peter Lang, 2001, pp 38-49. Decker similarly states in the Peter Lang work: “The implications of adopting Porter’s approach to aspect are significant and far-reaching in light of the fact that it affects the exegesis of the text…especially true for arguments based on the assumed temporal reference of the verb forms” (p 2).

5    Stanley E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood, (Studies in Biblical Greek 1), New York: Peter Lang, 1993 (1989). Hereafter: Porter, VAGNT. Porter draws from various journal articles by K. L. McKay, as well as his full-length grammar: K. L. McKay, Greek Grammar for Students: A Concise Grammar of Classical Attic with Special Reference to Aspect in the Verb, Canberra: Australian National University, 1974. The Bernard Comrie book noted as influential to Porter is Aspect: An Introduction to the Study of Verbal Aspect and Related Problems, (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976 – see Porter, VAGNT, pp 39-65.

6   Robert E. Picirilli, former academic dean at Free Will Bible College, Nashville, TN, critiqued Porter’s volume (“The Meaning of the Tenses in New Testament Greek: Where Are We?” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS), 48-3 (September 2005)) as “extremely tough reading”, opining that Porter is “too much controlled by technical linguistic terminology”, noting that such “insider vocabulary” is a pedagogical impediment (p 541).

7   These include the various works by Rodney J. Decker cited throughout this current article, especially “Poor Man’s Porter” (full citation just below); the Picirilli work cited just above; Kenneth L. McKay, A New Syntax of the Verb in the New Greek New Testament: An Aspectual Approach, (Studies in Biblical Greek 5), New York: Peter Lang, 1994, pp 35-38 (he critiques Buist M. Fanning’s work in this area as well); Dave Mathewson, “Rethinking Greek Verb Tenses in Light of Verbal Aspect: How Much Do Our Modern Labels Really Mean?”, a paper from Gordon College, Wenham, MA, Spring 2006; and, Porter himself who defends and explains his work while critiquing Fanning and McKay, “In Defense of Verbal Aspect,” pp 21-38.

8   Rodney J. Decker, “The Poor Man’s Porter”: A condensation and summarization of Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood by Stanley E. Porter (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), a paper written while Decker was Asst. Prof of NT Studies, Calvary Theological Seminary, Kansas City, MO, October 1994. In this work Decker goes through VAGNT section by section, summarizing yet presenting the material in more reader-friendly language (to those with some Greek studies under their belt), while more clearly defining linguistic terminology, and providing specific examples from the work (focusing only on the NT, though Porter also looks to non-biblical literature for more illustration of his concepts).

9   Constantine R. Campbell, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.   Campbell here provides helpful graphics to assist in comprehension, using numerous Biblical examples, translating all the Greek, while highlighting the specific verbs to which he refers, providing easy reference for the novice or struggling student.

10   One caveat is his claim that the future tense-form encodes perfective aspect (pp 39, 83-102); see notes 12 and 22 below. Another caveat is Campbell’s view of the Koine Greek perfect tense-form as encoding imperfective aspect (pp 32, 103-117); though see note 12 below.

11   C. R. Smith, (“Errant Aorist Interpreters”, Grace Theological Journal (GTJ) 2.2 (Fall 1981)), who investigated the aorist tense-form more than 30 years ago, states, “Even in the indicative, time is not intrinsic to the aorist tense” (p 208). And time is also not intrinsic to the other tense-forms (and moods) as well. Jeffrey T. Reed (“The Cohesiveness of Discourse: Towards a Model of Linguistic Criteria for Analyzing New Testament Discourse” in Stanley E. Porter & Jeffrey T. Reed, eds. Discourse Analysis and the New Testament: Approaches and Results, { Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 170: Studies in New Testament Greek, 4} Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999) is not quite as forceful as some: “…Recent research in Greek verbal aspect either abandons or significantly dilutes the idea of time in the verbal tense-forms” (p 39). However, the following works make the explicit claim that temporal reference is not intrinsic to the tense-forms, including the indicative: Porter, VAGNT, especially pp 75-109; Porter Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. ((Biblical Languages: Greek 2), Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1994), pp 25, 29-42; Decker, “Poor Man’s Porter,” pp 8, 12-13; Decker, Temporal Deixis, especially pp 29-59; Decker “Verbal Aspect in Recent Debate”; McKay New Syntax, p 39; D. A. Carson Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996) pp 67-73; Mavis M. Leung, “The Narrative Function and Verbal Aspect of the Historical Present in the Fourth Gospel” in Journal of Evangelical Theological Society (JETS), 51-4 (December 2008), pp 704-708; Constantine R. Campbell, Verbal Aspect, the Indicative Mood, and Narrative: Soundings in the Greek New Testament ((Studies in Biblical Greek, 13), New York: Peter Lang, 2007), especially pp 14-16. In Campbell Basics, the author states forthrightly, “I follow Porter and Decker on the issue of tense [time]: it is not regarded as a semantic value of verbs in the indicative mood” (p 32). In Porter’s newest grammar (Stanley E. Porter, Jeffrey T. Reed, and Matthew Brook O’Donnell, Fundamentals of New Testament Greek, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), it is concisely stated that, “Verbal aspect, not time, is the fundamental meaning expressed by the Greek tense-forms” (p xix; italics in orig.).

This article will focus on verbs in the indicative mood, or, as Porter calls it, the assertive mood (VAGNT, pp 163-167; cf. Idioms, pp 50-51) – a redefinition I find very helpful.

12   To include the pluperfect: Campbell, Verbal Aspect, pp 161-237; Campbell, Basics, pp 32, 103-117. Decker reviewed Campbell’s more detailed Verbal Aspect, which serves as the basis for his Basics. This review, which is posted on Decker’s own blog, provides an overview of the work, while specifically addressing Campbell’s unique position on the plu/perfect tense-forms (as well as Campbell’s assertion that the future is perfective in aspect – also see note 22 below): http://ntresources.com/blog/?p=35.

13   Stanley E. Porter, “Tense Terminology and Greek Language Study: A Linguistic Re-Evaluation”, in Porter, Studies in the GNT: “…English is really quite different from Greek, with English using primarily periphrastic tense-forms [ED: using auxiliary verbs in conjunction with participles], having analytic rather than synthetic aspect (that is, aspect is not tied to morphology), and maintaining temporal reference in most moods” (p 42; parenthetical note Porter’s, brackets mine). In other words, analytic aspect = derived from syntax rather than morphology; synthetic aspect = derived from morphology. Porter’s work here first appeared in Sheffield Working Papers in Language and Linguistics 3 (1986), pp 77-86.

14   An example of an exception to the English forms always conveying specific time reference follows: I am going to the mall tomorrow. Here the present continuous tense-form is used for a future event; cf. Porter “Tense Terminology and Greek Language Study,” p 39. This well illustrates the importance of looking to context as a final determining factor for temporal reference, even in English. However, it must be conceded that the following is more accurate: I will be going to the mall tomorrow.

15   Of course, there’s still no escaping the fact that English tense-forms predominantly convey specific temporal reference. I’m hopeful the illustrations in the next section will add clarity.

16   This section is indebted to Decker’s class notes that both readapt and replace sections of chapter 15 of Mounce (Basics of Biblical Greek, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan) with his own material, which better explains verbal aspect to English-speaking beginning NT Greek students. See here: http://ntresources.com/blog/documents/MounceCh15rev.pdf.

17   Porter, VAGNT, p 91; Porter, Idioms, p 21; Decker, Temporal Deixis, p 26; Campbell, Basics, p 19; McKay New Syntax, pp 30-31, though McKay calls it “aorist aspect.”

18   Porter, VAGNT, p 91; Porter, Idioms, p 21; Decker, Temporal Deixis, p 26; Campbell, Basics, p 19; McKay New Syntax, pp 29-30.

19   See Porter, VAGNT, p 91; Porter, “Greek Language and Linguistics,” p 16; Porter, Idioms, p 24; cf. Campbell, Basics, pp 19-20.

20   Buist M. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek, (Oxford Theological Monographs), Oxford: Clarendon, 1990, p 27, as cited in Campbell, Basics, p 19. Cf. Porter, Idioms, p 21.

21   Porter, Idioms, p 21.

 

One Response to A Somewhat Brief Explanation of Verbal Aspect Theory as it Pertains to Koine (NT) Greek, with Focus on Temporal Reference (pt 1)

  1. Craig says:

    In private correspondence I’ve been told that Arabic distinguishes between complete (perfective) and incomplete (imperfective) verbs.

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