A Somewhat Brief Explanation of Verbal Aspect Theory as it Pertains to Koine (NT) Greek, with Focus on Temporal Reference (pt 2)

In part 1, an introduction to Koine Greek verbal aspect theory, as well as an explanation of verbal aspect in English was provided. This part will begin the explanation of the theory as it pertains to NT Greek, illustrating the various temporal references found of the perfective aspect, reflected in the aorist tense-form.

Verbal Aspect in Koine Greek

As noted previously, the English verbal system is intrinsically time-based (in large part); i.e., time is tied directly to the tense-forms (with many forms aided by the use of auxiliary verbs). For example, as we observed above, the English past tense-form encodes both perfective aspect and past time. However, as stated earlier, according to Porter’s verbal aspect theory with respect to NT Greek, aspect is found in a verb’s tense-form,22 while the specific time element is not included. Time is determined by context.

To be more precise, using terminology from the field of linguistics, aspect is semantically encoded in the morphological forms (tense-forms) of NT Greek verbs, while temporal reference (and Aktionsart, ‘kind of action’) is determined by pragmatics, i.e., the context, derived at clause, sentence, or paragraph level, or even from the entire document. Semantics are the meanings of the tense-forms (verbal aspect), while pragmatics (also known as implicature) are what the writer conveys by the use of the tense-forms in particular contexts.23 It’s important to note that the term semantics is understood more narrowly here than common usage, which is typically the range of meanings for a given term (lexical semantics).24 Here the term is much more specific, indicating the non-cancelable properties of a verb, i.e., its morphological form (aspect) and the meaning inherent within the form (grammatical semantics).25 Porter provides an explanation:

…Verbal aspect is a semantic feature which attaches directly to use of a given tense-form in [NT] Greek. Other values [ED: pragmatics] – such as time – are established at the level of larger grammatical or conceptual units, such as the sentence, paragraph, proposition, or even discourse…The choice of the particular verbal aspect (expressed in the tense-form) resides with the language user, and it is from this perspective that grammatical interpretation of the verb must begin.26

In essence, verbal aspect, which is encoded in the morphological form (tense-form) of the verb, is a subjective choice made between the various aspectual options available to the writer (see below for the third option besides perfective and imperfective). Verbal aspect (viewpoint, perspective) is the foremost exegetical consideration for the reader with respect to verbs.27 Once aspect, the semantic value found in the morphological form, is determined, time (and Aktionsart, kind of action) is then ascertained by context, i.e., pragmatics (implicature).

This idea that time is not encoded into the NT Greek verbal system is difficult to conceive for those of us whose native language/s are western European. K. L. McKay notes this struggle:

Our…difficulty is that of divesting ourselves of the basic assumptions of our own language in order to appreciate better those of another language. We moderns tend to be obsessed in our verb usage with the idea of time – past, present, future…Even when we appreciate that [the conception of time in NT Greek] was not [similar to western European languages’ verbal systems], it remains difficult for us to be entirely free of prejudice.28

It is important to keep this in mind as we go along, for we must be vigilant to not impose our own native language rules upon Koine Greek. We must be ever aware of our own internal bias in this regard.

At the risk of potentially causing some confusion, though hopefully to further aid in explanation instead, we could propose a very rough comparison, an analogy of sorts, between English verbal aspect and NT Greek verbal aspect. Taking the two sentences from the previous section that are expressing imperfective aspect (1B & 2B), while deleting both auxiliary verbs, since it’s the auxiliary verb that explicitly denotes temporal reference in these particular examples, we could render them:

1B1) I releasing
2B1) Peter coming

Obviously, this is very bad English grammar, but the point here is to roughly approximate NT Greek imperfective aspect, by removing the specific time reference (“was” and “is,” respectively). To reiterate, this is just a rough analogy; please don’t think of these as simply English participles in and of themselves; rather, think of these as reflecting imperfective aspect with the time element not intrinsic. Moreover, don’t think of the above as Greek participles translated into English, but rather as the verbal roots release (λύω, luō) and come (ἔρχομαι, erchomai), respectively, with imperfective aspect. In this approximation to Koine Greek, both “releasing” and “coming” are semantically encoding aspect but not temporal reference. More information is needed to determine time of action, and this could be done by adding one adverb to each of these ‘sentences’:

1B2) Yesterday I releasing
2B2) Now Peter coming

“Yesterday” and “Now” are examples of pragmatics, more specifically, temporal deictic indicators,29 adverbs modifying “releasing” and “going,” respectively. The term deictic is the adjectival (adjective) form of the noun deixis (from Greek δείκνυμι, deiknumi, show), which means words that point to such things as time, person, and spatial location in a given text.30 Temporal deictic indicators convey time reference in NT Greek, rather than the verbs themselves. However, in Koine Greek the temporal deictic indicators “yesterday” (ἐχθὲς, echthes) and “now” (νῦν, nyn; ἄρτι, arti) may be placed somewhere else in the larger context (paragraph, discourse, etc.) instead of the sentence or clause containing the particular verb. In such instances, with the immediate context at clause or sentence level not explicitly referencing time, temporal reference must be found by the larger context.

Following are the three aspects of NT Greek, followed by the verb tense-forms which express the particular aspect:31

Perfective aspect: aorist tense-form

Imperfective aspect: present tense-form, imperfect tense-form

Stative aspect: perfect tense-form, pluperfect tense-form

The stative aspect will be discussed a bit later. Recall from the parade analogy that perfective aspect is the view from the helicopter. As indicated above, this is reflected by only one form – the aorist tense-form. Also, recall that imperfective aspect is the view of the parade at street level. But, what is the difference between the imperfect tense-form and the present tense-form you may be thinking? It is one of proximity. The imperfect tense-form is a bit more remote spatially than the present tense-form; i.e., the present tense-form is more proximate (closer to the event/situation) than the imperfect tense-form.32

As we can see in the above, some terminology in the forms are similar to English (present, perfect), but these are used in very different ways. Therefore, the similarity in the names can result in some confusion for those who tend to equate tense-forms with temporal reference and/or those who may inadvertently impose English usage upon the Greek.33 To further confound the issue, many traditional grammars claim that, for example, the aorist tense-form reflects past time but with exceptions, while the present tense-form reflects present time but with exceptions.34 These “exceptions” are eliminated when one views the verb tense-forms as solely encoding aspect rather than time (and kind of action – Aktionsart), which, again, is a pragmatic function determined by context. The following sections will make that assertion clear.

Perfective Aspect

Perfective aspect is the “least marked” of the three aspects, the default, the one used unless a special emphasis is desired.35 Accordingly, the aorist tense-form, the only form semantically encoding perfective aspect, is the predominate tense-form carrying the narrative in the NT.36 The aorist mostly does convey past time, as revealed by the contexts, in the NT. This is primarily because, given its perfective aspect, which provides a summary, wholistic view of individual events or situations, it is well-suited for narrative, which is typically set in past time.37 Yet, as we will see, there are instances in which the aorist tense-form conveys present temporal reference (from the perspective of the speaker and/or situation),38 and even future time (though these are very few).39

Let’s examine a few NT examples of perfective aspect, expressed by the aorist tense-form. We’ll start with the shortest verse in all Scripture – John 11:35. For those with no Greek background, many times verbs are placed before the subject (also, verbs encode person and number: e.g., 3rd person singular {he/she/it} in the following). Also, the definite article (the, in this case ὁ, ho, the masculine singular form) many times precedes names.

ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς.
weep         (the) Jesus
Jesus wept.

Here ἐδάκρυσεν is the aorist tense-form of δακρύω (dakruō, weep). Using this form indicates that the Gospel writer wished to summarize Jesus’ weeping, rather than focus upon its progression. This is the helicopter, or remote, summary perspective. In this example, clearly the setting indicates past time by looking at the immediate context.

Romans 5:14 provides another illustration of perfective aspect:

ἀλλ᾿ ἐβασίλευσεν ὁ θάνατος ἀπὸ Ἀδὰμ μέχρι Μωϋσέως40
But     reign         the death from Adam  to      Moses
But death reigned from (the time of) Adam to Moses

In this verse ἐβασίλευσεν is the aorist tense-form of βασιλεύω (basileuō, reign). Note that this ‘reign’ of death encompasses quite a long interval (from Adam to Moses), yet Paul uses the perfective aspect to show a summary perspective of this time period. Of course, this time period was in the past from the point of Paul’s writing.

Yet, Jesus’ words as recorded by the Gospel writer in John 13:31 indicate the future use of the perfective aspect:

νῦν ἐδοξάσθη ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐδοξάσθη ἐν αὐτῷ·
Now glorify the Son of Man         and (the) God glorify in Him.
Now the Son of Man is to be glorified and God is to be glorified in Him.41

Most English translations render both aorist verbs with present time reference (is glorified);42 however, in order to properly exegete this verse, to find temporal reference, we must look at the larger context. As George H. Guthrie asserts, “[A] key to understanding an act of communication…is to understand the organization of material as related to a given context, and this is the objective of a form of inquiry known as ‘discourse analysis’.”43 The term discourse analysis, as used here, refers to analyzing not just discourse (conversations between individuals), but also narrative. While sometimes the immediate context will make temporal reference obvious, at other times it is necessary to do further discourse analysis, to look not only to the larger context (previous and following sentences) but to even larger chunks, to include prior and subsequent paragraphs, and perhaps the whole document.44

To assist in exegeting 13:31, we’ll go back to John 12:23-29, to find an earlier mention of glorification of which “the hour has come”. In that particular context, Jesus mentions the future event of His being “lifted up” (12:32), just as He had stated this earlier in 3:14 (and 8:28); then He goes on to speak of His death (12:35), as the narrator had earlier (12:33). This is obviously referring to the Crucifixion, and it is this event that will bring glorification. This is the same event in view in John 13:31.

While the adverb νῦν (now) is typically a temporal deictic indicator for present time, in this case it’s in the sense of near-future, like we have in “the hour has come” in 12:23.45 Jesus’ words in 13:31 are immediately preceded by “When he [Judas] was gone, Jesus said” – clearly, it wasn’t Judas’ leaving in and of itself that glorified the Son, however Judas’ forthcoming betrayal would set the stage for the events that would ultimately lead to the Crucifixion. Moreover, the future tense-forms of “to glorify” in the very next verse (13:32 – “will glorify”) appear to logically indicate a future temporal reference for verse 31. [Note that the future tense-form is not listed as an aspect above, because it is “not fully aspectual,” or “aspectually vague” – see note 22.] This particular example well illustrates the importance of looking to broader contextual clues to determine temporal reference.

The Father’s words to the Son just after His baptism, after He came up out of the water, are certainly not past temporal reference, yet they don’t seem to express merely present time either. The Father’s voice at Jesus’ baptism is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels (Mat 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22). The wording in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke is identical:

σὺ     εἶ   ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν      σοὶ         εὐδόκησα.
You be the Son my the beloved in/with You I well pleased
You are my [one] beloved Son, with You I am well pleased.

The use of the English present tense-form in translation is probably the best rendering; however, as noted, this does not seem to fully convey the force of the Father’s words.46 In the Culy, Parsons, and Stigall commentary on Luke in the Baylor Handbook of the Greek New Testament series, the authors take special note of this verb and its form as used in the above context:

…This is a good example of why some scholars (e.g. Porter, Decker, Campbell) maintain that the aorist tense, like the other tenses, does not explicitly refer to time, though it is used most often to refer to past events…Here, God is simply portrayed as speaking of his pleasure with Jesus as a whole action or simple event by using the aorist tense/perfective aspect (cf. McKay, 27) rather than as a process (imperfective aspect). There is no indication in the context that God’s pleasure with Jesus begins at this point, which would require that God also began to be pleased with Jesus at the transfiguration….47

Note the authors’ last sentence above; similar words were spoken by the Father at the Transfiguration (Mat 17:5, II Peter 1:17; though cf. Mark 9:7, Luke 9:35). We wouldn’t think the Father began to be pleased at baptism, and then began again to be pleased at the Transfiguration. So, did the Father begin to be pleased with the Son at baptism and continue to be pleased on up through to the Transfiguration, or perhaps even for the rest of His earthly ministry?  Or, was the Father pleased the 30 years preceding, on up to, and including baptism and the Transfiguration? Without belaboring any further, it’s clear to see that in this case we cannot definitively pinpoint temporal reference.  This illustrates the difficulty of translating an aspect-based language such as Koine Greek to a time-based language such as English. As Porter observes, “The focus upon finding a specific temporal reference in the realm of past, present or future often encumbers discussion of Greek tense-forms.”48

With this in mind, Porter argues that, with no specific temporal deictic indicators in the context to temporally anchor the Father’s assessment of the Son, the usage here is timeless,49 defined as “not restricted to any temporal sphere of reference”, with timeless also including such things as mathematical truths (e.g., 1 + 1 equals 2).50 Porter makes a distinction between “timeless” and “omnitemporal” (Porter’s term, which means “all time” – past, present and future – with the term encompassing yet refining what is usually termed “gnomic” in most grammars).51  The former (timeless) cannot be placed on a time-line because it pertains to “a statement that is not deictically limited,” with this perhaps exemplifying “the essentially non-temporal semantic character of the verb itself.”52 The latter (omnitemporal) is something that is always occurring or recurring: it is occurring, has always been occurring, and will continue to be occurring temporally.53

Perhaps a handy way to differentiate between the two is with the shorthand “not fixed to the time-line” for timeless, as compared to “always on the time-line” for omnitemporal.  A timeless truth or event/situation does not fit on a particular place on the time-line as the time of action is either: (1) irrelevant, or (2) not specified, not determinable by the context. An omnitemporal event/situation is always occurring/recurring, and hence, always on the time-line.

The Apostle Peter quotes from Isaiah (40:6-8) in his first epistle, thus providing an example of the aorist tense-form used for an omnitemporal action. Following is the latter part of 1 Peter 1:24 (cf. James 1:11):54

ἐξηράνθη ὁ χόρτος καὶ τὸ ἄνθος ἐξέπεσεν
dry up    the grass and the flower falls
the grass dries up and the flower falls (off)         

Again, this is the summary, complete (not completed), or remote perspective. The processes of nature are continually recurring, and have always been occurring since creation (or, at least since the Fall in the Garden), so these are on the time-line, or at least recurring at intervals on the time-line.

The only temporal reference we’ve not yet covered for the aorist tense-form is present time (though, of course, omnitemporal actions necessarily include present time, and timeless actions may). We’ll list just a few examples: Luke 8:52 (she is not dead but sleeping); 1 Corinthians 4:18 (some are arrogant/puffed up); 2 Corinthians 5:13 (if we are out of our minds).55

All the preceding examples displaying the various temporal references used of the aorist tense-term aptly illustrate that the verb itself does not encode time. It is the context that is the determining factor.

The next installment, part 3, covers the imperfective aspect.

 

22   To be more technical: “Synthetic verbal aspect [is] a morphologically-based semantic category which grammaticalizes the author/speaker’s reasoned subjective choice of conception of a process” (Porter, VAGNT, pp xi, 1). Or: “Greek verbal aspect is a synthetic semantic category (realized in the forms of verbs) used of meaningful oppositions in a network of tense systems to grammaticalize the author’s reasoned subjective choice of a process” (Porter, VAGNT, p 88).

This is excepting the future and future perfect tense-forms, anomalies in the Koine Greek aspectual system, which are “not fully aspectual,” or “aspectually vague,” encoding “+expectation,” according to Porter (Porter, VAGNT, p 403-439; cf. Porter, Idioms, pp 43-44). Contra Campbell (Verbal Aspect, pp 127-160, esp. 139-151; Basics, pp 39, 83-102) who claims the future encodes perfective aspect. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the future tense-form at any length.

Other exceptions include some specific verbs, such as all -mi verbs, which are “aspectually vague” because there is not a full range of tense-forms, and hence aspects, from which to choose (Porter, VAGNT, p 442-447; cf. Porter, Idioms, pp 24-25). Porter helpfully distinguishes between words which are ambiguous, having more than one meaning, determined by context (the particle δὲ (de) being a good example of one that “it is possible for one interpretation to be true simultaneous with, or to the exclusion of others” (VAGNT, p 442)) , as compared to those which are vague: “Essentially, if an item realizes or is capable of realizing more than one set of meaning choices, i.e. more than one selection expression from a network, then it is ambiguous, if not, then any doubts about its interpretation may be put down to vagueness” (VAGNT, pp 442ff). In periphrastic constructions the form of εἰμί (eimi – be, exist) expresses mood, number, and person, while it is the participle that encodes verbal aspect and voice (Idioms, pp 25, 45-49; VAGNT, pp 440-486).

23   Porter, VAGNT, pp 15-16; cf. Porter, “In Defense of Verbal Aspect”, p 37 n 54. While aspect is the semantic value of the verb’s morphological form, pragmatics are derived from the overall context. Cf. Campbell, Basics, pp 22-25. The beginning point for Aktionsart – which comes after determining aspect – is lexis (the verb’s root), followed by context; time is found by contextual indicators, though sometimes in combination with the verb’s lexical (dictionary) meaning.

24   See Porter, “Linguistic Issues in New Testament Lexicography,” in Porter, Studies in the GNT, p 66.

25   Ibid, pp 66-67.

26   Porter, Idioms, p 21, italics in original. Porter notes elsewhere: “[V]erbal aspect [is] not simply Aktionsart in new clothing, or not simply another way of formulating the same temporal perspective on verbs” (Porter, “In Defense of Verbal Aspect,” p 37).

27   Since the NT writer has already made a (most likely subconscious) choice of verbal aspect (viewpoint, perspective) from the available choices by the use of a specific morphological form, the exegete should consider why the particular aspect was chosen over other possibilities (cf. Porter, VAGNT, p 13). For example, when a verb with imperfective aspect is placed amongst other verbs of perfective aspect, the imperfective verb stands out in comparison.

However, this necessarily excludes εἰμί, and other “aspectually vague” verbs, since εἰμί is available in neither the aorist (perfective aspect) nor the perfect (stative aspect) tense-form, and therefore provides no aspectual choice for these forms.

28   K. L. McKay, “The Use of the Ancient Greek Perfect Down to the Second Century A.D.” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 12-1 (1965), p 4, emphasis added; cf. p 5. Doi: 10.1111/j.2041-5370.1965.tb00014.x.

29   Peter Cotterell & Max Turner, Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989, pp 234-236, 239; Porter, VAGNT, pp 101, 98-101; Decker, Temporal Deixis, pp 52-59.

30   Cotterell & Turner, Linguistics, pp 236, 236-240; Porter, VAGNT, pp 98-102; Decker, Temporal Deixis, p 55; Jeffrey T. Reed, “The Cohesiveness of Discourse,” pp 38-40.

31   Picirilli, (“The Meaning of the Tenses,” p 543), suggests changing the perfective and imperfective to, respectively, “wholistic” and “progressive” (he proposes no improvement on the stative), in order to standardize the terms, while simultaneously making their meanings more self-evident to students. While initially this may appear helpful, the terms perfective and imperfective are from the discipline of linguistics (See Decker, Temporal Deixis, p 17), and are applied to other languages that are aspectually-based; so, it seems proper to retain this nomenclature. Decker (“Poor Man’s Porter,” p 29) cites the International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (William Bright, ed., 4 vols. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992)) definition of Aspect: [D]esignates the internal temporal organization of the situation described by the verb. The most common possibilities are PERFECTIVE, which indicates that the situation is to be viewed as a bounded whole, and IMPERFECTIVE, which in one way or another looks inside the temporal boundaries of the situation… (4.145).

The stative aspect is not as well accepted in Koine Greek circles, with McKay (though he calls it “perfect aspect”; see McKay New Syntax, pp 27, 31, 49), Porter, and Decker among the few affirming this as a third aspect in NT Greek; contra Campbell, e.g., who rejects stativity as strictly an Aktionsart category (Campbell, Verbal Aspect, pp 172-173, citing Fanning and others). The perfect tense-form is the subject of much debate; see below.

32   Porter, VAGNT, p 198; Decker, Temporal Deixis, pp 106-107; Campbell, Verbal Aspect, pp 48-53; Campbell, Basics, pp 60-68.

33   In fact, it appears quite possible these terms were imported from the English. It would seem like a good idea to change the terminology; however, these terms are so well entrenched that it would be very difficult at this juncture, for, in a general sense, “[w]e do not care for people messing with our paradigms” (Guthrie, “Boats in the Bay”, p 27).

34   Particularly the so-called “historical present” (HP) in which pragmatics indicates that the present tense-form verb is functioning in past time in narratives. Some, however, construe that these are instead reflecting present time in order to heighten this part of the context (and there are other explanations; cf. Porter Idioms, pp 30-31). This seems to be a case of viewing the Greek through an English lens. An example of English usage follows: I went to the store yesterday. On the way, I hear this loud bang, and immediately feel the front passenger side sink down; so, I get out of my car, and I see that I have a flat tire. This entire event happened yesterday, but in relating the incident, the speaker only uses past tense once to indicate when the event occurred (went…yesterday) in order to set the stage, and then proceeds to heighten the flat tire incident by using the simple present tense-form for all the verbs associated with it. Some assume this is how the NT Greek is using the Greek present tense-form when used in past time contexts, but a proper understanding of, and reading with, verbal aspect instead seems to make better sense of its usage, providing a universal explanation without exceptions. See Porter, VAGNT, pp 189-198; cf. Decker, Temporal Deixis, pp 101-104; Campbell, Verbal Aspect, pp 57-76; Campbell, Basics, pp 43, 66-68; Leung “The Narrative Function and Verbal Aspect of the Historical Present in the Fourth Gospel”, pp 703-720, though the author of the latter apparently inadvertently omitted a portion of a quote from VAGNT, specifically, in footnote 24. Leung wrote the piece in support of Porter’s position, yet her footnote reads, “In a past-time situation, ‘the historic present has either altered or neutralized its verbal aspect’ (Porter, Verbal Aspect 196),” which does not reflect Porter’s position. It should read, “In a past-time situation, ‘there is no compelling reason to believe that the historic present has either altered or neutralized its verbal aspect,’” with the page reference 195-196 instead.

Steven E. Runge’s mostly excellent Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, © 2010 Logos Bible Software), well explains how the HP can signal a change in the narrative (pp 125-142); however, the author confuses semantics (aspect) with pragmatics (time), as evidenced by the following: “I contend that the present [tense-] form is the most viable option for marking prominence in a past-time setting. Think about what it is that makes it stand out; the name associated with it says it all. It is a present verb, normally associated with present time, being used in a past-tense context” (p 130, emphasis added). As asserted above, the (unfortunately named) present tense-form encodes imperfective aspect, which does not include temporal reference at all, as time is determined by context (pragmatics), though it is many times reflecting present time in the various contexts. However, it’s the fact that it is imperfective in aspect that makes it stand out amongst perfective (aorist) verbs – not that it is ‘supposed’ to signal present time.

Even more concerning is the summary at the end of the book: “Historical Present: Discourse Principle: Marked usage: mismatch of verbal aspect (imperfective aspect verb for perfective action) [?!; cf. pp 128-129], mismatch of temporal association (imperfect associated with past time, present with nonpast)” (p 386, italics in original, other emphasis added, brackets mine). Runge appears to follow Wallace (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996, pp 504-512, 526-532.) here who, in turn, follows Fanning with regard to time being implicit in the tense-forms. (Wallace wrote the Foreword to Runge’s book; however, Wallace does not necessarily agree with all Runge’s material (see p xvi).) See McKay, New Syntax, pp 36-37, for his critique of Fanning in this regard; cf. Porter, “In Defense of Verbal Aspect”, pp 30-32.

35   Porter, VAGNT, pp 90, 90-95, 178-181. Markedness is a linguistics term, which Decker defines in “Poor Man’s Porter” (p 29), using the International Encyclopedia of Linguistics: the concept by which a particular quality is regarded as neutral or expected, i.e., ‘unmarked’, whereas an alternative, more unusual quality is considered ‘marked’ (2:390). In English, it is the present tense-form which is the least heavily marked, the default (see Porter, VAGNT, p 222; cf. Decker, “Poor Man’s Porter,” p 20, n 1), illustrating yet another possible place for confusion between the languages.

36   Porter, Idioms, p 35.

37   Porter, VAGNT, pp 102-108; cf. Decker, “Poor Man’s Porter,” p 13; cf. Campbell, Basics, pp 38-39.

38   Porter, VAGNT, pp 225-230; cf. Decker, “Poor Man’s Porter,” pp 6-8.

39   Porter, VAGNT, pp 232-233; cf. Decker, “Poor Man’s Porter,” pp 6-8.

40   This example is taken from Campbell, Basics, p 35, though the editor there neglects to use elision at the end of ἀλλὰ (deleting {eliding} the final vowel {ὰ}, replacing it with an apostrophe {‘}, because the next word begins with a vowel also). Translation is Campbell’s; the parenthetical clause here is not in parentheses in his book.

41   This example found in Porter, VAGNT, p 233. Translation is Porter’s. Porter lists this verse as one of “a few possible instances” of future referring aorists. While I may not be persuaded with all his other possibilities, I view this one as a certainty, as I argue here; Decker does as well (see note 45).

42   Campbell (Basics, p 89) also identifies this as present temporal reference.

43   George H. Guthrie, “Discourse Analysis” in David Alan Black & David S. Dockery, eds. Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues, Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2001, p 255.

44   Guthrie (“Discourse Analysis”) states: “In longer discourses…strategic organization of linguistic elements and context are vital for communication. Strategically organized words build phrases and clauses; phrases and clauses form sentences; sentences form paragraphs; and paragraphs are grouped to build articles, research papers, whole speeches, or chapters in a book…[W]ords and sentences only have meaning as they are grouped appropriately and given their places in context” (p 254).

For a more technical look at sentence structure, see Reed, “The Cohesiveness of Discourse”, pp 28-46. Reed here focuses on the “semantic and grammatical symmetry within a text” rather than “thematic structure” (p 30).

45   See Decker, Temporal Deixis, pp 50, 194 n 125; cf. Decker “The Semantic Range of νῦν in the Gospels as Related to Temporal Deixis” (Trinity Journal 16 (Fall 1995), pp 203-204): “The language must refer forward: νῦν here is best understood as ‘is about to be’” (p 204). Cf. D. A. Carson, (The Gospel According to John (PNTC), Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991, pp 482-483, 486-487): “…[I]t can easily be shown that verbs in the aorist tense, even when in the indicative mood, can be past-referring, present-referring, and even future-referring…A consistent aspect-theory of the Greek verb finds little difficulty here” (p 487).

46   Disappointingly, Campbell cites the aorist here as merely present-referring: Campbell, Basics, p 89 for Mark 1:11; Campbell, Verbal Aspect, pp 120-121 for Luke 3:22. This seems deficient, as is argued below.

47   Martin M. Culy, Mikeal C. Parsons, and Joshua J. Stigall, Luke: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010, p 119 (Parentheses in original). The parenthetical remark “cf. McKay, 27” is referencing New Syntax, as we’ve referenced here.

47   Porter, VAGNT, p 128.

49   Porter, VAGNT, pp 126-129, 233-234. Cf. Decker, Temporal Deixis, p 98.

50   Porter, Idioms, p 314. Decker uses this mathematical example in “Poor Man’s Porter,” p 15.

51   Porter, VAGNT, pp 182, 218. Cf. Porter, Idioms, pp 311, 312, 314. Decker prefers not to differentiate between these two, adopting instead “temporally unrestricted” for both (Temporal Deixis, p 30). I much prefer “temporally unrestricted” to “timeless”, as the latter could be misconstrued as eternal – even if a thing is temporally always true, it may not necessarily be eternally true. Perhaps only eternal truths should be considered “timeless”, i.e., they are outside time being in the eternal realm, e.g. “God is Love.”

52   Porter, VAGNT, p 182. I find Porter’s delineation between omnitemporal and timeless a useful distinction.

53   I’m using ‘temporally’ as opposed to ‘eternally’ true, though Porter does not appear to make this distinction; see note 51.

54   Both the examples of 1 Peter 1:24 and James 1:11 found in Porter, VAGNT, p 223.

55   These examples found in Porter, VAGNT, pp 227-228.

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 quite educational for 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 function. 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.