A Somewhat Brief Explanation of Verbal Aspect Theory as it Pertains to Koine (NT) Greek, with Focus on Temporal Reference (pt 4)

[See part 1, part 2, and part 3.]

Stative Aspect

This brings us to the perplexing perfect and pluperfect tense-forms. While there are different understandings as regards the outworking of the plu/perfect forms, there is general agreement that the relationship between the perfect and the pluperfect bears resemblance to the relationship between the present and imperfect tense-forms.

Traditionally the perfect tense-form has been described as a past action with present results, or present continuing relevance. Julius R. Mantey, co-author with H. E. Dana of A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, notes the following about the perfect tense-form: “The perfect tense is the most difficult of Greek tenses to understand and to interpret. This is true chiefly due to the fact that it has been explained as being a combination of the two tenses, the aorist and the present.”83 Obviously, this view is time bound, to include the understanding that the aorist tense-form necessarily encodes past time, while the present tense-form encodes present time. This is what is reflected in most Koine Greek grammars, i.e. that the perfect tense-form encodes a past action with presently existing results (sometimes understood as extending beyond the time of the writing to include the modern day present time). It is also fraught with troubles when applied universally, as we shall see.

Fanning identifies the perfect tense-form as a complex consisting of past time with present results, stative Aktionsart, and perfective aspect.84 As noted earlier, Campbell claims the plu/perfect forms encode imperfective aspect. Porter, following McKay, asserts that the plu/perfect tense-forms constitute a third aspect, stative aspect. As a Proto-Indo-European language, Porter’s position that Koine Greek includes a stative aspect comports with the Encyclopedia Britannica: “The Proto-Indo-European verb had three aspects: imperfective, perfective, and stative…The stative aspect, traditionally called ‘perfect,’ described states of the subject…‘be in a standing position’…‘have in mind.85 And as with the perfective and imperfective, Porter asserts that the time element of the stative aspect is not intrinsic.

Going back to the parade analogy, Porter describes the stative aspect thusly:

…[I]f I am the parade manager considering all of the conditions in existence at this parade, including not only the arrangements that are coming to fruition but all the accompanying events that allow the parade to operate, I view the process not in its particulars [imperfective aspect] or its immediacy [perfective aspect] but as “stative,” i.e. as a condition or state of affairs in existence.86

Porter defines it more simply elsewhere as “the action is conceived of by the language user as reflecting a given (often complex) state of affairs.”87 One could criticize Porter’s definition as too vague, and perhaps rightly so.88 Importantly, Porter does not mean that the plu/perfect forms encode stative Aktionsart – i.e. lexical (objective) stativity, as stative verbs such as ἔχω (I possess/have), μένω (I remain/stay), etc. convey stativity with any aspectual form – but instead a “state of affairs” portrayed subjectively by the writer/speaker in the use of these morphological forms, and by this understanding of stativity, either stative or dynamic (actional) lexemes in the plu/perfect tense-forms produce a stative implicature.

As mentioned earlier, according to Porter, the perfective aspect is the least marked aspect, with the aorist carrying the narrative, the story-line, being the “background” tense-form.89 The present tense-form (imperfective) slows down the narrative by bringing in “selected or highlighted events,” and is termed the “foreground” tense-form.90 The perfect is the most heavily marked,91 defined as the “frontground” tense-form, “reserved for selective mention of a few very significant items.”92

As the previous sections above have shown with the aorist and the present tense-forms, the following will illustrate that the perfect tense-form is found in all temporal spheres. We’ll begin with Mark 9:13, which exhibits past temporal reference of the perfect tense-form:93

Ηλίας ἐλήλυθεν, καὶ    ἐποίησαν    αὐτῷ     ὅσα    ἤθελον
Elias come,        and     they do  to him as much as they want
Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wanted

Jesus is speaking of John the Baptist here who had been beheaded earlier (cf. Mark 6:14-29). Importantly, note that this ‘coming’ of John is completely in the past; i.e. there are no continuing results of his coming, as he’s not still alive at the time Jesus spoke those words. Moreover, the context clearly indicates past temporal reference as “they” (Herod and Herodias) had already “done to him everything they wanted.” This is clearly a past state/condition best translated as an English present perfect (has come), indicating an unspecified time before the present (at the time of the speaker). While the English present perfect may indicate either past action at some unspecified time before the present or past action on up to and including the present,94 the overall context here, including personal deixis (“Elijah” – John the Baptist), indicates the former.

Because it is assumed that the Koine Greek perfect tense-form refers to present and/or continuing states, we’ll provide two more examples of past-referring perfects, the first from John 6:32:

οὐ Μωϋσῆς δέδωκεν ὑμῖν τὸν ἄρτον ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ
not Moses      give       you the bread from the heaven
Moses did not give you the bread from heaven

In this context, it is, once again, personal deixis (Moses) indicating a past reference. Obviously the ‘giving’ of the bread has not continued beyond the time of the Exodus.

The next example of past temporal reference is found in John 8:57, in which the Pharisees are astounded by Jesus’ claim in the previous verse that Abraham saw Him (and, by implication, vice versa) – with personal deixis (Abraham) yet again, plus the overall context, illustrating past implicature:

πεντήκοντα ἔτη    οὔπω   ἔχεις καὶ Ἀβραὰμ  ἑώρακας
Fifty             years not yet have and Abraham you see!
You have (are) not yet fifty years (old), and you have seen Abraham?!

The above example cannot be referring to present time, as the Pharisees’ point is that, from their perspective, Jesus is not possibly old enough (not yet fifty years) to have been a contemporary of Abraham in order to have seen him.

Porter cautions against necessarily reading past actions into the perfect form: “Whether a previous event is alluded to or exists at all is a matter of lexis in context and not part of aspectual semantics.”95 Decker makes note of this, providing Mark 6:14 as an example: “Here the point is not that a past action has taken place, but on the present state that exists: the people are convinced that John’s resurrected state accounts for his [Jesus’] power.”96 In other words, in this verse the thought was that a supposed resurrected John the Baptist was providing Jesus’ powers, thereby implicating present temporal reference. Moreover, since one cannot ascertain whether or not the perceived risen state of John extends beyond the time identified by the immediate context, it would seem dubious to claim continuing relevance:

Ιωάννης ὁ βαπτίζων ἐγήγερται ἐκ νεκρῶν καὶ διὰ    τοῦτο ἐνεργοῦσιν αἱ δυνάμεις ἐν αὐτῷ.
John     the Baptist   raise      from dead and through this   he works   the powers in/through him.
John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and by this he performs miracles in Him.

John 1:18 is one example of a timeless application of the perfect tense-form, again with no previous event in view:

Θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε…
God no one see         ever/at any time…
No one sees God ever…

In this clause, the verb seems best translated as “no one sees God ever” (cf. Ex 33:20), rather than as an English present perfect (“no one has ever seen God”) as per most English translations, since πώποτε connotes unrestricted temporal deixis, indicating no specific temporal sphere.97 The Gospel writer’s point is that the λόγος (Logos: word, message), Who came from the Father, became flesh (Jn 1:14) and this enfleshed λόγος, Jesus Christ (Jn 1:17), was the One who revealed the Father to us (Jn 1:18b-d), and though no one ever sees God (Jn 1:18a), we have seen God in a sense, in the Person of Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 14:7, 9-11).

In translating ἑώρακεν as “has ever seen” the temporal reference is strictly limited to the time preceding and on up to and including the Incarnation (past + then-present), or the time the words were narrated by the Gospel writer, rather than leaving it open-ended, timeless. To provide an analogy by way of another example of the English present perfect: Making the claim that no one has ever run a marathon faster than 2 hours does not preclude someone from breaking this perceived barrier at some point in the future. Similarly, stating “no one has ever seen God” does not prohibit the possibility that someone will see God in the future – a statement that violates other Scripture (Ex 33:20; 1 Tm 6:16; 1 Jn 4:12).

An omnitemporal implicature is found in 2 Peter 2:19, according to Porter:98

ᾧ                        γάρ      τις      ἥττηται    τούτῳ δεδούλωται
who/which/what for a certain overcome  that/this enslave
for by what someone is overcome, by this he is enslaved.

In the immediate context, Peter is illustrating the fact that these unregenerate individuals (false teachers, cf. 2:1) are continually overcome and therefore enslaved by their sins.

James 5:2 (and 5:3) provides examples of future temporal reference of the perfect tense-form:

ὁ πλοῦτος ὑμῶν σέσηπεν καὶ τὰ    ἱμάτια    ὑμῶν σητόβρωτα γέγονεν
the riches  your rot    and the garments   your moth-eaten become
your riches will rot and your garments will become moth-eaten99

These perfects are traditionally rendered as either past or present temporal reference (proleptic or prophetic); however, Porter asserts these should best be translated as future. Certainly it would seem that the earthly rich described by James here have their riches unrotted temporally, but they won’t have them to enjoy eternally.

Similar to the perfect, traditionally the pluperfect has been asserted as being a combination of the aorist and the imperfect tense-forms. Porter identifies some problems with the traditional view, noting that there are occasions in the NT in which 1) “the aoristic past is not of importance,” 2) “the result is lacking,” and 3) “the context is not past-referring.”100 As to the first, Porter cites John 6:17 as one example,101 for Jesus had not yet come:

καὶ σκοτία    ἤδη ἐγεγόνει καὶ οὔπω ἐληλύθει πρὸς αὐτοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς
and darkness now become and not yet   come   to   them the Jesus
Now it had become dark and Jesus had not yet come to them.

The second point is evidenced in Acts 23:5:

ἔφη τε ὁ Παῦλος· οὐκ ᾔδειν,      ἀδελφοί, ὅτι ἐστὶν ἀρχιερεύς
said so the Paul   not understand brothers that be   high priest
So Paul answered, “I did not realize, brothers, that he was the high priest.”

The pluperfect, like the imperfect, is used predominately in past-referring contexts, yet not exclusively so. Thus, the final point above is found in John 8:19, with its implicature indicating present temporal reference:

εἰ ἐμὲ ᾔδειτε,    καὶ τὸν πατέρα μου ἂν    ᾔδειτε
if me you know also the father my would you know
If you knew Me, you would also know My Father

Summing Up

Porter contends that temporal reference is not intrinsic to the Koine Greek verb, with aspect being the sole semantic property encoded into the verb’s morphological form, while temporal reference, a pragmatic implicature, is found via the accompanying context. To claim that a specific temporal reference is a feature of the verb that can be cancelled out based on context is to allow for exceptions when it would seem best to minimize exceptional cases to the extent possible in a given system. This somewhat brief survey supports Porter’s position of the non-temporality of the Koine Greek verb, by illustrating that the aorist, the present, and the perfect tense-forms can be found in the full range of temporal spheres (past, present, omnitemporal, timeless, and future), while even the imperfect and pluperfect tense-forms are available in other than the traditionally presumed past temporal reference.

(Also see Appendix)


83  Julius R. Mantey “Evidence that the Perfect Tense in John 20:23 and Matthew 16:19 is Mistranslated” in Journal of Evangelical Theological Society (JETS), 16-3 (September 1973), p 129.

84   Decker (Temporal Deixis, p 108) sketches Fanning’s position, as does Trevor V. Evans (“Future Directions for Aspect Studies in Ancient Greek,” in Taylor, Lee et al eds. Biblical Greek Language and Lexicography, p 205). Campbell (Verbal Aspect, p 189) also defines Fanning’s conception, rightfully criticizing it as “a modern restatement of the classic view,” which then “admits too many exceptions” (p 189; cf. 189-190 for additional, more specific critique).

85   Encyclopaedia Brittanica online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/286368/Indo-European-languages/74556/Morphology-and-syntax

86   Porter, VAGNT, pp 91. Bracketed explanation is mine.

87   Porter, Idioms, pp 21-22; original is italicized. This exact verbiage is also found in Porter’s newest grammar (Fundamentals, p 315).

88   See e.g. Campbell, Verbal Aspect, pp 170-171.   In the appendix a possible alternate understanding of the perfect and pluperfect forms will be proposed, which may or may not provide a more adequate methodological approach and explanation, though this position will not be rigorously argued.

89   Porter, Idioms, p 23. It should be noted that Porter’s terminological distinctions are at odds with other linguists (and Fanning).

90   ibid.

91   Porter, VAGNT, p 258. For background on markedness, see Comrie, Aspect, pp 111-122.

92   Porter, Idioms, p 23

93   This example found in Decker, Temporal Deixis, p 109

94   Following are examples illustrating ‘past excluding present’ and ‘past including present’ usages of the English present perfect. Past time, excluding the present: Dr. Brown has been to Antarctica on expeditions many times over the past 30 years (but he is not currently in Antarctica, and no further expeditions are scheduled). In a different context, with Dr. Brown currently on an expedition in Antarctica, the statement would convey – excluding the parenthetical portion, of course – both past and present. For past time including the present: Jorge has lived in San Antonio his entire life (and he remains a resident of San Antonio).

95   Porter, VAGNT, p 259

96   Decker, Temporal Deixis, p 109

97   See Porter, VAGNT, p 269

98   Porter, VAGNT, p 268

99   Porter (VAGNT, p 267) renders these are going to rot and are going to become moth-eaten.

100   Porter, VAGNT, p 288

101   ibid.