A Somewhat Brief Explanation of Verbal Aspect Theory as it Pertains to Koine (NT) Greek, with Focus on Temporal Reference (pt 3)
June 8, 2014 2 Comments
After an introduction of verbal aspect, followed by its illustration in English in part I, we proceeded to an overview of verbal aspect in Koine Greek, moving to a discussion of the perfective aspect in part 2. This third part will cover the imperfective aspect.
As previously noted, the imperfective aspect is exhibited by both the imperfect tense-form and the present tense-form. The difference between the two is one of remoteness, with the imperfect tense-form more remote than the present tense-form. In other words, the present tense-form is more proximate56 (closer to the event/situation) than the imperfect tense-form, yet both are ‘street-level’ perspectives, using our parade analogy.57 The difference could be envisioned as the present tense-form standing on the sidewalk next to the parade, while the imperfect tense-form is perched upon a grandstand placed alongside the street, or some other position at a slight distance from the parade.58
It may be helpful to provide diagrams to differentiate between the remoteness of the aorist tense-form (perfective aspect) and that of the imperfect tense-form.59 In the figures below, the horizontal line illustrates the time element of the event/situation (derived from the pragmatics of the context), with T1 representing the beginning point and T2 the end. The time period can be of very short duration or very long. Taking the example of John 11:35 above (Jesus wept), this time period is likely only a few minutes or so, whereas in Romans 5:14 (death reigned from Adam to Moses) it is quite long!
The perfective viewpoint is like a snapshot of the action, an overview, a summary perspective of the whole event/situation. In John 11:35 and Romans 5:14 both T1 and T2 are in the past; however, as noted in the previous section, the event/situation could be in present time, future time, of an omnitemporal nature, or timeless. In the latter case the viewpoint would retain its relative remoteness, or distance from the horizontal line (event/situation), however neither T1 nor T2 would be able to be definitively identified in terms of past, present, or future.
Comparatively, the imperfective viewpoint of the imperfect tense-form is only remote relative to the proximity of the present tense-form. It is much closer to T1 – T2 than the perfective aspect, as the imperfective aspect is the street level perspective, with a closer look at the interval between T1 and T2.
The present tense-form, then, is graphically illustrated as closer yet to the event/situation (on the sidewalk), as compared to the imperfect tense-form (on the grandstand).
While the perfective aspect looks at the entirety of the event/situation, the imperfective aspect looks at its internal structure as it is unfolding, with the present tense-form providing a comparatively closer look at its enfoldment than the imperfect tense-form. And while the perfective perspective includes both the beginning and the end points, the imperfective is depicting the internal progress or process rather than focusing on the beginning and/or end. The imperfective aspect is more heavily marked than the perfective aspect, and it logically follows that the present tense-form, due to its relative proximity, is comparatively more heavily marked than the imperfect tense-form.60
To help demonstrate Porter’s assertion that verbal aspect is subjective, i.e., that the NT writer makes a (probably subconscious) choice to use one particular aspect over another,61 we’ll compare the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew and Mark.62 Matthew uses the aorist form for the verb “give” (δίδωμι, didōmi), while Mark uses the imperfect tense-form for this same exact event. Therefore, Matthew (14:19) chooses to provide a summary view of Jesus’ distribution of the multiplied bread and fish to the 5000 by using the perfective aspect (He gave), while Mark (6:41) chooses to highlight the actual progression of this miracle by using the imperfective aspect (He was giving), focusing on the process of Jesus multiplying and handing out the bread.63
It is its relative spatial remoteness (distance from the event/situation) that makes the imperfect tense-form well-suited for use in past time narratives, and this is most often where they are found. Along with the example of Mark 6:41 just above, John 5:18 provides an example:
διὰ τοῦτο οὖν μᾶλλον ἐζήτουν αὐτὸν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ἀποκτεῖναι,
because of this therefore more seek/strive him the Jews to kill
For this, therefore, the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him.
Instead of using the aorist form (ἐζήτησαν, ezētēsan, sought), the narrator chose to illustrate the event as in progress, in order to make it more vivid. While the aorist provides the skeletal outline of the narrative, the imperfect tense-form provides further description of events, supporting details, and can introduce conversations.64
The imperfect tense-form is also used in discourse (speech, conversations) that reference the past. One such example is found in the words of Jesus in Luke 17:27, with the Lord speaking of the time before the flood:
ἤσθιον, ἔπινον, ἐγάμουν, ἐγαμίζοντο,
eat, drink, marry, give in marriage,
They were eating, drinking, marrying, being given in marriage,
While the imperfect tense-form is used predominantly for past-time events/situations, it is not exclusively so.65 Its relative remoteness, as compared to the non-remote (proximate) present tense-form, puts it in a “broader, demonstrative category that may be logical, temporal, conditional, physical, etc.,”66 meaning that, e.g., it may signify a spatial (or logical) distance but with a time reference other than past.67 Two examples are found in Acts 25:22 and Galatians 4:20, in which a present temporal reference is used:
Αγρίππας δὲ πρὸς τὸν Φῆστον· ἐβουλόμην καὶ αὐτὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἀκοῦσαι
Agrippa then to the Festus will/want also myself the man to hear
Then Agrippa (said) to Festus: “I myself also would like to hear this man.”
ἤθελον δὲ παρεῖναι πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἄρτι καὶ ἀλλάξαι τὴν φωνήν
want/wish but to be present for/with you now and to change the voice
But I wish to be present with you now and change (my tone of) voice.68
“I am wishing” may work as a translation, though perhaps a bit clumsily, but “would like” and “wish” convey the continuing action of the imperfective aspect just fine. Both Porter and Decker find an omnitemporal use of the imperfect tense-form in Matthew 23:23:
ταῦτα [δὲ] ἔδει ποιῆσαι κἀκεῖνα μὴ ἀφιέναι.
these things it is necessary to do and the others not to neglect.
It is necessary to do these things and not to neglect the others.69
Jesus’ point in His rebuke of the Pharisees is that they should practice the more important part of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness – without neglecting those of lesser importance (tithing – as per OT Mosaic Law). It is always (omnitemporally) necessary to continually exhibit justice, mercy and faithfulness – Jesus is not merely telling them they “should have,” as most translations render this, they should have and they should continue to do so. Hence, it is necessary is probably the best rendering. Even if one were to argue against a continuing relevance into the future, asserting it is beyond the context (though certainly theologically true), it is clear that both a past and present time reference are in view (T1 is past time and T2 would be present time in such a case – rather than future, as in the Porter/Decker stance).70 Nonetheless, with either understanding it is necessary is probably the best translation.
An omnitemporal usage of the imperfect tense-form is found in Colossians 3:18 in the subordinate clause following a present tense-form imperative:
Αἱ γυναῖκες, ὑποτάσσεσθε τοῖς ἀνδράσιν ὡς ἀνῆκεν ἐν κυρίῳ.
The wives submit yourselves to the husbands as is fitting in [the] Lord.
Wives submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.71
The present tense-form imperative ὑποτάσσεσθε (submit) in the independent clause should be understood as an omnitemporal command, with the imperfect tense-form ἀνῆκεν (is fitting) in the dependent clause correlating to this same omnitemporal implicature. The imperfect tense-form is used here since the information is supplementary (though important!) detail.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to get into specific theological interpretation (though this is not completely unavoidable as can be seen above), this verse requires a bit of grammatical analysis. In the main (independent) clause rendered Wives submit to your husbands the middle voice rather than the passive voice in the command “can imply a voluntary submission,” which would make it the wife’s “willing choice, not some universal law that ordains masculine dominance.”72 The subordinate clause (as is fitting in the Lord) qualifies the wife’s submission as “an allegiance shown to Christ,”73 with the likely understanding that the degree of subjection should be in accord with that which befits the husband’s love of the wife “as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for it” (Eph 5:25).74 Note that Paul’s command (present active imperative) to the husband in verse 19 is much stronger.75
While the imperfect tense-form is evident in only relatively few instances outside of past temporal reference in the NT, the present tense-form has as much temporal variety as the aorist. Present temporal reference is the one assumed to be normative, so we’ll begin there. Luke 24:17 is but one example:
εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς αὐτούς· τίνες οἱ λόγοι οὗτοι οὓς ἀντιβάλλετε πρὸς ἀλλήλους
say/speak then to them, what the words these that you exchange with one another
Then He asked them, “What are these words that you discuss with each other?”
James 3 evinces quite a few instances of the omnitemporal use of the present tense-form, in reference to the tongue.76 James 3:9 contains one such usage:
ἐν αὐτῇ εὐλογοῦμεν τὸν κύριον καὶ πατέρα καὶ ἐν αὐτῇ καταρώμεθα τοὺς ἀνθρώπους
With it we praise the Lord and Father and/yet with it we curse (the) men.
With it we praise the Lord and Father, yet77 with it we curse men.
After using timeless aorists in most of Romans 1:18-32 to describe the sinful nature of man, chapter 2 begins with the timeless application of a number of present tense-forms for God’s righteous judgment.78 We’ll illustrate this with the latter part of the first verse of the second chapter in Romans:
ἐν ᾧ γὰρ κρίνεις τὸν ἕτερον, σεαυτὸν κατακρίνεις, τὰ γὰρ αὐτὰ πράσσεις ὁ κρίνων.
In what for you judge the other yourself you condemn the for same you do the one judging
For in what you judge the other you condemn yourself, since you who judge practice the same.
Stated another way: For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, practice the same things.
While it is true that in English the present tense-form can be used for present, omnitemporal, and timeless temporal references,79 the point here is to illustrate that what is termed “present tense-form” in Koine Greek can be used for all temporal categories (see future and past just below) – just like the aorist (see previous section) and perfect tense-forms (see next section below) can be employed for any sphere of temporal reference. This indicates that time is not an intrinsic part of NT verbs’ morphological forms, and that there must be something else that differentiates the tense-forms from one another. That ‘something else’ is, as we’ve been illustrating, aspect.
This next example in Matthew 26:18 illustrates a future usage (from the time of Jesus’ speaking) of the present tense-form:
πρὸς σὲ ποιῶ τὸ πάσχα μετὰ τῶν μαθητῶν μου.80
for/with you I to make/keep the Passover with the disciples my
With you I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples.
The so-called “historical present” (HP), or past-referring present tense-form, has received quite a bit of ink, mostly due to the perceived ‘wrong use’ of the tense-form, which is misconstrued as encoding present-time. When viewed from a framework of verbal aspect, it is understood that past temporal reference is merely one of five possible choices (including Porter’s delineation between timeless and omnitemporal). In narrative these past-referring present tense-forms are usually best rendered as an English simple past tense-form. John 6:19 provides one such example:
θεωροῦσιν τὸν Ἰησοῦν περιπατοῦντα ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης καὶ ἐγγὺς τοῦ πλοίου γινόμενον
They saw the Jesus walking on the water and near the boat becoming
They saw Jesus walking on the water coming near the boat
Scholars have observed some discourse functions of the HP, noting that it is generally a prominence marker, though it seems each Gospel writer employs it a bit differently. This is a natural implicature for the more heavily marked present tense-form, due to its proximity as compared to the relative remoteness of the imperfect tense-form, but especially to the unmarked aorist. It is outside the purview of this article to get into the specific variety of uses of the HP in the various Gospels, so we’ll provide a brief overview:81
(a) To begin a new pericope
(b) To begin a specific scene after a general introduction
(c) To introduce new characters
(d) To illustrate a character’s movement to new locations
(e) To highlight following events (cataphoric function)
(f) To close a pericope
In our example of John 6:19 above (c) applies.82
This concludes our study of the imperfective aspect. The next part will cover the stative aspect.
56 Inferring from Campbell’s words (Verbal Aspect, p 36), Fanning may be the first to use the term “proximity” (Campbell cites Fanning, Verbal Aspect, p 27) in the context of verbal aspect. Campbell then adopts this term to explain the difference between the present and imperfect tense-forms, and, in a different way, the difference between the perfect and the pluperfect tense-forms (see Campbell, Verbal Aspect, pp 48-57, 195-211). I’m adopting a variation of Campbell’s views on both the relationship of the imperfect to the present (see figures just below) and the pluperfect to the perfect (see next section).
57 See above. Campbell (Basics) provides a helpful explanation: “[T]he present tense-form [has] the spatial value of proximity. The imperfect tense-form [has] the spatial value of remoteness. These are semantic values that are not cancelable but are expressed pragmatically in a variety of ways in context” (p 60).
58 My own extrapolation based upon my view of the differences between the present and imperfect tense-forms. Campbell provides helpful diagrams illustrating the relative proximity of the present tense-form, as compared to the imperfect tense-form (Basics, pp 42, 61; cf. Campbell Verbal Aspect, pp 50-51), yet the way in which Campbell has pictured the imperfect tense-form seems to lend itself solely to a past time implicature. It seems better instead to place the viewpoint at a further distance from the timeline of the event/situation than the present, in order to account for its relative remoteness as compared to the present tense-form’s proximity. See figures below.
59 While Campbell provides diagrams for the present and imperfect tense-forms, (see note 58 above), he provides none at all for the aorist/perfective. I’m hopeful the diagrams here will help the reader to distinguish the function of the aorist from that of the imperfect tense-form.
60 Porter, Idioms, p 34: “The imperfect is similar in function to the historic [past] use of the present. Although they share the same verbal aspect, the present is used to draw even more attention to an action.” The “even more” here refers to a comparison with the aorist in which the imperfect “is the narrative form used when an action is selected to dwell upon” (p 34).
61 Porter, VAGNT, pp 88, 91-92; Porter, Idioms, pp 28-29.
62 The idea to use this example comes from David Alan Black’s Learn to Read New Testament Greek (3rd ed., Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, pp 15-16), though Black differs a bit from Porter’s views (see pp 13-16). For more on authorial subjective choice regarding aspect, see Matthew’s use of the historic present (tense-form) in his account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and its juxtaposition with the aorist as compared to Mark’s and Luke’s use of these tense-forms in Stephanie L. Black, “The Historic Present in Matthew: Beyond Speech Margins,” in Porter, Reed, eds., Discourse Analysis, pp 120-135.
63 One could argue that these should be rendered began to give and began giving, respectively, as the context implies that the multiplying of the bread began in Jesus’ hands. Yet, this does not mean we would call these, respectively, an “inceptive aorist” or “inceptive imperfect,” as it’s not the verbs’ form (aspect) that determines this, nor the lexis; it’s the context that would make it so. Hence, according to Porter, these terms should not be used in general (Idioms, pp 27-28). See also short section titled “Semantic Meaning and Pragmatic Effects” in Stephen H. Levinsohn Discourse Features of New Testament Greek: A Coursebook on the Information Structure of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2000), p IX.
64 See Decker, Temporal Deixis, p 107.
65 It is commonly assumed that the imperfect tense-form is a preterite (past-time) marker; e.g., Biblical linguist Randall Buth: “The Greek imperfect is a past imperfective” (“Verbs Perception and Aspect: Greek Lexicography and Grammar” [sic] in Bernard A. Taylor, John A. L. Lee, et. al., eds. Biblical Language and Lexicography: Essays in Honor of Frederick W. Danker, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004, p 182, n 15). However, as we will see, this does not hold unequivocally.
Some contend that the augment is a past-time marker. However, McKay’s 1965 work “The Use of the Ancient Greek Perfect Down to the Second Century A.D.” (cited earlier), remarking in a footnote, questions, “whether the augment, which is generally taken as originally an adverb denoting past time, was not rather an adverb of remoteness, signifying either past time or reduced actuality, as required” (p 19 n 22; italics in orig, bold added). Porter (VAGNT, pp 208-211) is more assertive, stating outright that the augment is not a past-time indicator.
66 Decker, Temporal Deixis, p 106, cf. 107.
67 McKay (New Syntax) observes that, “some common time indicators sometimes occur in situations where they are markers of some other part of the temporal setting, or where they are markers of some other factor, such as reality, rather than time” (p 40). Campbell (Verbal Aspect), citing James T. Hooker, notes that there are “many non-past-referring imperfects in the wider Greek literature,” to include Homer, Aristophanes, Plato, and Aristotle (p 87 n 17).
68 Both Gal 4:20 and Acts 25:22 (among others) are construed by Robertson (Grammar, pp 885-886) and Wallace (Grammar, pp 550-552) as “potential” and “voluntative/tendential” (“an attempt was about to be made or one that was almost desired to be made”), respectively. Yet elsewhere Robertson (Grammar, pp 918-919) refers to this is as a “polite idiom,” similar to the English “I was just thinking,” and while he comes just shy of explicitly affirming the Acts passage as present temporal reference, he affirms the Galatians: “Paul is speaking of present time” (p 919). Somewhat similarly, Wallace states that this particular usage “frequently is present time in which the action is entirely unrealized in the present” in which the imperfect tense-form “seems to be used to indicate the unreal present situation” (p 551; italics in original).
Richard N. Longenecker (Galatians: Word Biblical Commentary, (Dallas, TX: Word, 1990), pp 187, 196), follows Robertson, stating the usage here is “expressing the desire for something in the present, with, of course, that wish unable to be realized” for, quoting Robertson (Grammar, p 886), “‘wishes about the present are naturally unattainable’” (p 196). However, Longenecker is quick to affirm that the context is an actual present time desire (at the time of writing) of Paul, as v 20 picks up from v 18 which “lays emphasis on Paul’s desire to be personally present with his Galatian converts – not present just by means of his letter or some emissary who might have brought the letter, but himself there with them. The adverb ἄρτι (“now”) is often used to connote more sharply defined present time than its synonym νῦν, and so should probably be understood to suggest ‘at this very moment’” (p 196).
In the Acts passage Agrippa clearly wants to hear Paul, with the king receiving that hearing the very next day (25:22-23). Porter (VAGNT, p 210), Decker (Temporal Deixis, pp 46-47, 51), and Campbell (Verbal Aspect, p 86) all affirm these two passages as present time usage of the imperfect tense-form, without qualification.
Another example of present temporal reference is cited by Porter in John 11:8 (VAGNT, p 210; cf. Decker, “Poor Man’s Porter,” p 19, though Decker changed his stance – see just below in this same paragraph), rendered “the Jews are now seeking,” but the NASB/ESV/ISV interpretation is probably correct (“the Jews just now were seeking;” “were trying” in ISV) in view of the overall context, with νῦν understood as representing near-past time reference (see H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (founded upon the 7th ed. of LSG-EL, Oxford: Clarendon, 1889, p 537) for “just now” in Homeric Greek; cf. Decker, “Semantic Range of νῦν,” pp 202-204; cf. John 13:31 above for near-future use of νῦν), considering that the Jewish leaders were seeking to stone Him earlier (8:59, 10:31). It seems difficult to imagine that the Jews in Judea were “now” still actively seeking to stone Him, given the time interval involved in Jesus crossing the Jordan (10:40) to Bethany (“where John had been baptizing in the early days” – see Carson Gospel of John, pp 146-147, for two different Bethany’s) where He had been staying for a period of at least three days (11:6 – Jesus stayed “two more days” before announcing his intent to return to Judea). In the final analysis, a near-past time reference seems most likely.
69 Porter’s translation (VAGNT, p 211), with Decker following (Temporal Deixis, p 51); cf. McKay, New Syntax, p 76. The translation is as a result of the combination of the finite imperfect tense-form verb (ἔδει) in conjunction with the aorist infinitive which follows it (ποιῆσαι) – known as a catenative construction (see VAGNT, pp 487, 488). Cf. Robertson, Grammar, pp 886, 919, 1080.
70 I may incline towards this view, which is one of the reasons why another example of omnitemporal reference is provided just below. Perhaps another category of temporal reference should be coined, such as “multi-temporal reference,” in order to differentiate from “omnitemporal,” if this view has merit.
71 Decker (Temporal Deixis) makes brief reference to this verse in a footnote (p 192 n 109).
72 David E. Garland, Colossians/Philemon: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapid, MI: Zondervan, 1998), p 244. It’s important to note that the verb ὑποτάσσω in the imperative mood is the same in both passive and middle voice, which means the interpreter must decide which is most likely intended (see Todd D. Still “Colossians” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev. ed., Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland, gen. eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), p 337).
73 Garland, Colossians/Philemon, p 244. Robertson (Grammar) calls the usage here as one of “propriety” (pp 885-87, 919-20).
74 James D. G. Dunn (The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: New International Greek Testament Commentary, I. Howard Marshall, W. Ward Gasque, & Donald A. Hagner, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996)) observes that the subordinate clause can be read one of two ways, either “as an affirmation that the husband headship of the household is ‘fitting’ also within the community” of believers in Christ as Lord or “as a qualification that only that degree of subjection to the husband which is ‘fitting in the Lord’ is to be countenanced” (p 248). Dunn prefers the latter, citing 1 Corinthians 7:15 as correlative (ibid.). CF. Peter O’Brien Colossians, Philemon: Word Biblical Commentary, Bruce M. Metzger, gen. ed. (Dallas, TX: Thomas Nelson/Word, 1982), p 222. With this understanding, the scales are tipped more decisively to the middle voice in the independent clause.
75 O’Brien (Colossian, Philemon), asserts, “The exhortation to be subordinate is balanced with the instruction to husbands to love their wives [ED: in v 19]: the admonition is an appeal to free and responsible agents that can only be heeded voluntarily, never by the elimination or breaking of the human will, much less by means of a servile submissiveness” (p 222). Once again, this points to the middle over the passive voice in the main clause in v 18.
76 See Porter, VAGNT, p 224.
77 Robertson (Grammar, pp 1182-83) notes that καὶ can be used in an adversative sense (“and yet”); cf. BDAG (W. Bauer, F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd. ed. (Chicago, IL: Chicago, 2000), p 495, 1bη); cf. F. W. Danker (The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: Chicago, 2009), p 183), though none explicitly cite this verse.
78 See Porter, VAGNT, p 238.
79 And even future temporal reference, see note 14 above.
80 See Porter, VAGNT, pp 77-78, 231; cf. Decker, “Poor Man’s Porter,” p 7, which provides a fuller illustration.
81 These points culled from Porter, VAGNT, pp 196-198; Decker, Temporal Deixis, pp 103-104 (Decker relies on and agrees with Fanning here); S. H. Levinsohn, Discourse Features, pp 200-213; M. V. Leung, “The Narrative Function and Verbal Aspect of the Historical Present in the Fourth Gospel,” p 710; S. L. Black, “The Historic Present in Matthew,” pp 127-139.
82 See Levinsohn, Discourse Features, pp 208-209; Leung, “The Narrative Function and Verbal Aspect of the Historical Present in the Fourth Gospel,” p 710.