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.

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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.