A Somewhat Brief Explanation of Verbal Aspect Theory as it Pertains to Koine (NT) Greek, with Focus on Temporal Reference (pt 3)

After an introduction of verbal aspect, followed by its illustration in English in part I, we proceeded to an overview of verbal aspect in Koine Greek, moving to a discussion of the perfective aspect in part 2. This third part will cover the imperfective aspect.

Imperfective Aspect

As previously noted, the imperfective aspect is exhibited by both the imperfect tense-form and the present tense-form. The difference between the two is one of remoteness, with the imperfect tense-form more remote than the present tense-form. In other words, the present tense-form is more proximate56 (closer to the event/situation) than the imperfect tense-form, yet both are ‘street-level’ perspectives, using our parade analogy.57 The difference could be envisioned as the present tense-form standing on the sidewalk next to the parade, while the imperfect tense-form is perched upon a grandstand placed alongside the street, or some other position at a slight distance from the parade.58

It may be helpful to provide diagrams to differentiate between the remoteness of the aorist tense-form (perfective aspect) and that of the imperfect tense-form.59 In the figures below, the horizontal line illustrates the time element of the event/situation (derived from the pragmatics of the context), with T1 representing the beginning point and T2 the end. The time period can be of very short duration or very long. Taking the example of John 11:35 above (Jesus wept), this time period is likely only a few minutes or so, whereas in Romans 5:14 (death reigned from Adam to Moses) it is quite long!

Perfective Aspect

The perfective viewpoint is like a snapshot of the action, an overview, a summary perspective of the whole event/situation. In John 11:35 and Romans 5:14 both T1 and T2 are in the past; however, as noted in the previous section, the event/situation could be in present time, future time, of an omnitemporal nature, or timeless. In the latter case the viewpoint would retain its relative remoteness, or distance from the horizontal line (event/situation), however neither T1 nor T2 would be able to be definitively identified in terms of past, present, or future.

Comparatively, the imperfective viewpoint of the imperfect tense-form is only remote relative to the proximity of the present tense-form. It is much closer to T1 – T2 than the perfective aspect, as the imperfective aspect is the street level perspective, with a closer look at the interval between T1 and T2.

 Imperfective Aspect Imperfect

The present tense-form, then, is graphically illustrated as closer yet to the event/situation (on the sidewalk), as compared to the imperfect tense-form (on the grandstand).

 Imperfective Aspect Present

While the perfective aspect looks at the entirety of the event/situation, the imperfective aspect looks at its internal structure as it is unfolding, with the present tense-form providing a comparatively closer look at its enfoldment than the imperfect tense-form. And while the perfective perspective includes both the beginning and the end points, the imperfective is depicting the internal progress or process rather than focusing on the beginning and/or end. The imperfective aspect is more heavily marked than the perfective aspect, and it logically follows that the present tense-form, due to its relative proximity, is comparatively more heavily marked than the imperfect tense-form.60

To help demonstrate Porter’s assertion that verbal aspect is subjective, i.e., that the NT writer makes a (probably subconscious) choice to use one particular aspect over another,61 we’ll compare the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew and Mark.62 Matthew uses the aorist form for the verb “give” (δίδωμι, didōmi), while Mark uses the imperfect tense-form for this same exact event. Therefore, Matthew (14:19) chooses to provide a summary view of Jesus’ distribution of the multiplied bread and fish to the 5000 by using the perfective aspect (He gave), while Mark (6:41) chooses to highlight the actual progression of this miracle by using the imperfective aspect (He was giving), focusing on the process of Jesus multiplying and handing out the bread.63

It is its relative spatial remoteness (distance from the event/situation) that makes the imperfect tense-form well-suited for use in past time narratives, and this is most often where they are found. Along with the example of Mark 6:41 just above, John 5:18 provides an example:

διὰ             τοῦτο οὖν       μᾶλλον ἐζήτουν      αὐτὸν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ἀποκτεῖναι,
because of this therefore more   seek/strive  him the Jews     to kill
For this, therefore, the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him.

Instead of using the aorist form (ἐζήτησαν, ezētēsan, sought), the narrator chose to illustrate the event as in progress, in order to make it more vivid. While the aorist provides the skeletal outline of the narrative, the imperfect tense-form provides further description of events, supporting details, and can introduce conversations.64

The imperfect tense-form is also used in discourse (speech, conversations) that reference the past. One such example is found in the words of Jesus in Luke 17:27, with the Lord speaking of the time before the flood:

ἤσθιον, ἔπινον, ἐγάμουν, ἐγαμίζοντο,
eat,     drink, marry, give in marriage,
They were eating, drinking, marrying, being given in marriage,

While the imperfect tense-form is used predominantly for past-time events/situations, it is not exclusively so.65 Its relative remoteness, as compared to the non-remote (proximate) present tense-form, puts it in a “broader, demonstrative category that may be logical, temporal, conditional, physical, etc.,”66 meaning that, e.g., it may signify a spatial (or logical) distance but with a time reference other than past.67 Two examples are found in Acts 25:22 and Galatians 4:20, in which a present temporal reference is used:

Αγρίππας δὲ πρὸς τὸν Φῆστον· ἐβουλόμην καὶ αὐτὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἀκοῦσαι
Agrippa then to the Festus     will/want   also myself the   man    to hear
Then Agrippa (said) to Festus: “I myself also would like to hear this man.”

 

ἤθελον        δὲ    παρεῖναι        πρὸς    ὑμᾶς ἄρτι καὶ    ἀλλάξαι  τὴν φωνήν
want/wish but to be present for/with you   now and to change the voice
But I wish to be present with you now and change (my tone of) voice.68

 “I am wishing” may work as a translation, though perhaps a bit clumsily, but “would like” and “wish” convey the continuing action of the imperfective aspect just fine. Both Porter and Decker find an omnitemporal use of the imperfect tense-form in Matthew 23:23:

ταῦτα [δὲ]             ἔδει    ποιῆσαι  κἀκεῖνα       μὴ  ἀφιέναι.
these things it is necessary to do and the others not to neglect.
It is necessary to do these things and not to neglect the others.69

Jesus’ point in His rebuke of the Pharisees is that they should practice the more important part of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness – without neglecting those of lesser importance (tithing – as per OT Mosaic Law). It is always (omnitemporally) necessary to continually exhibit justice, mercy and faithfulness – Jesus is not merely telling them they “should have,” as most translations render this, they should have and they should continue to do so. Hence, it is necessary is probably the best rendering. Even if one were to argue against a continuing relevance into the future, asserting it is beyond the context (though certainly theologically true), it is clear that both a past and present time reference are in view (T1 is past time and T2 would be present time in such a case – rather than future, as in the Porter/Decker stance).70 Nonetheless, with either understanding it is necessary is probably the best translation.

An omnitemporal usage of the imperfect tense-form is found in Colossians 3:18 in the subordinate clause following a present tense-form imperative:

Αἱ γυναῖκες, ὑποτάσσεσθε τοῖς ἀνδράσιν ὡς ἀνῆκεν ἐν κυρίῳ.
The wives submit yourselves to the husbands as is fitting in [the] Lord.
Wives submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.71

The present tense-form imperative ὑποτάσσεσθε (submit) in the independent clause should be understood as an omnitemporal command, with the imperfect tense-form ἀνῆκεν (is fitting) in the dependent clause correlating to this same omnitemporal implicature. The imperfect tense-form is used here since the information is supplementary (though important!) detail.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to get into specific theological interpretation (though this is not completely unavoidable as can be seen above), this verse requires a bit of grammatical analysis. In the main (independent) clause rendered Wives submit to your husbands the middle voice rather than the passive voice in the command “can imply a voluntary submission,” which would make it the wife’s “willing choice, not some universal law that ordains masculine dominance.”72 The subordinate clause (as is fitting in the Lord) qualifies the wife’s submission as “an allegiance shown to Christ,”73 with the likely understanding that the degree of subjection should be in accord with that which befits the husband’s love of the wife “as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for it” (Eph 5:25).74 Note that Paul’s command (present active imperative) to the husband in verse 19 is much stronger.75

While the imperfect tense-form is evident in only relatively few instances outside of past temporal reference in the NT, the present tense-form has as much temporal variety as the aorist. Present temporal reference is the one assumed to be normative, so we’ll begin there. Luke 24:17 is but one example:

εἶπεν     δὲ πρὸς αὐτούς· τίνες οἱ λόγοι οὗτοι οὓς ἀντιβάλλετε πρὸς ἀλλήλους
say/speak then to them, what the words these that you exchange with one another
Then He asked them, “What are these words that you discuss with each other?”

James 3 evinces quite a few instances of the omnitemporal use of the present tense-form, in reference to the tongue.76 James 3:9 contains one such usage:

ἐν αὐτῇ εὐλογοῦμεν τὸν κύριον καὶ πατέρα καὶ ἐν αὐτῇ καταρώμεθα τοὺς ἀνθρώπους
With it we praise     the Lord   and Father and/yet with it we curse       (the) men.
With it we praise the Lord and Father, yet77 with it we curse men.

After using timeless aorists in most of Romans 1:18-32 to describe the sinful nature of man, chapter 2 begins with the timeless application of a number of present tense-forms for God’s righteous judgment.78 We’ll illustrate this with the latter part of the first verse of the second chapter in Romans:

ἐν ᾧ   γὰρ κρίνεις    τὸν ἕτερον, σεαυτὸν κατακρίνεις, τὰ γὰρ αὐτὰ πράσσεις       ὁ κρίνων.
In what for you judge the other yourself you condemn the for same you do the one judging
For in what you judge the other you condemn yourself, since you who judge practice the same.

Stated another way: For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, practice the same things.

While it is true that in English the present tense-form can be used for present, omnitemporal, and timeless temporal references,79 the point here is to illustrate that what is termed “present tense-form” in Koine Greek can be used for all temporal categories (see future and past just below) – just like the aorist (see previous section) and perfect tense-forms (see next section below) can be employed for any sphere of temporal reference. This indicates that time is not an intrinsic part of NT verbs’ morphological forms, and that there must be something else that differentiates the tense-forms from one another. That ‘something else’ is, as we’ve been illustrating, aspect.

This next example in Matthew 26:18 illustrates a future usage (from the time of Jesus’ speaking) of the present tense-form:

πρὸς σὲ           ποιῶ            τὸ     πάσχα  μετὰ τῶν μαθητῶν μου.80
for/with you I to make/keep the Passover with the disciples   my
With you I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples.

The so-called “historical present” (HP), or past-referring present tense-form, has received quite a bit of ink, mostly due to the perceived ‘wrong use’ of the tense-form, which is misconstrued as encoding present-time. When viewed from a framework of verbal aspect, it is understood that past temporal reference is merely one of five possible choices (including Porter’s delineation between timeless and omnitemporal). In narrative these past-referring present tense-forms are usually best rendered as an English simple past tense-form. John 6:19 provides one such example:

θεωροῦσιν τὸν Ἰησοῦν περιπατοῦντα ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης καὶ ἐγγὺς τοῦ πλοίου γινόμενον
They saw   the Jesus     walking         on the water       and near the   boat    becoming
They saw Jesus walking on the water coming near the boat

Scholars have observed some discourse functions of the HP, noting that it is generally a prominence marker, though it seems each Gospel writer employs it a bit differently. This is a natural implicature for the more heavily marked present tense-form, due to its proximity as compared to the relative remoteness of the imperfect tense-form, but especially to the unmarked aorist. It is outside the purview of this article to get into the specific variety of uses of the HP in the various Gospels, so we’ll provide a brief overview:81

(a)    To begin a new pericope

(b)    To begin a specific scene after a general introduction

(c)    To introduce new characters

(d)    To illustrate a character’s movement to new locations

(e)    To highlight following events (cataphoric function)

(f)     To close a pericope

In our example of John 6:19 above (c) applies.82

This concludes our study of the imperfective aspect. The next part will cover the stative aspect.

 

56   Inferring from Campbell’s words (Verbal Aspect, p 36), Fanning may be the first to use the term “proximity” (Campbell cites Fanning, Verbal Aspect, p 27) in the context of verbal aspect. Campbell then adopts this term to explain the difference between the present and imperfect tense-forms, and, in a different way, the difference between the perfect and the pluperfect tense-forms (see Campbell, Verbal Aspect, pp 48-57, 195-211). I’m adopting a variation of Campbell’s views on both the relationship of the imperfect to the present (see figures just below) and the pluperfect to the perfect (see Appendix).

57   See above. Campbell (Basics) provides a helpful explanation: “[T]he present tense-form [has] the spatial value of proximity. The imperfect tense-form [has] the spatial value of remoteness. These are semantic values that are not cancelable but are expressed pragmatically in a variety of ways in context” (p 60).

58   My own extrapolation based upon my view of the differences between the present and imperfect tense-forms. Campbell provides helpful diagrams illustrating the relative proximity of the present tense-form, as compared to the imperfect tense-form (Basics, pp 42, 61; cf. Campbell Verbal Aspect, pp 50-51), yet the way in which Campbell has pictured the imperfect tense-form seems to lend itself solely to a past time implicature. It seems better instead to place the viewpoint at a further distance from the timeline of the event/situation than the present, in order to account for its relative remoteness as compared to the present tense-form’s proximity. See figures below.

59   While Campbell provides diagrams for the present and imperfect tense-forms, (see note 58 above), he provides none at all for the aorist/perfective. I’m hopeful the diagrams here will help the reader to distinguish the function of the aorist from that of the imperfect tense-form.

60   Porter, Idioms, p 34: “The imperfect is similar in function to the historic [past] use of the present. Although they share the same verbal aspect, the present is used to draw even more attention to an action.” The “even more” here refers to a comparison with the aorist in which the imperfect “is the narrative form used when an action is selected to dwell upon” (p 34).

61   Porter, VAGNT, pp 88, 91-92; Porter, Idioms, pp 28-29.

62   The idea to use this example comes from David Alan Black’s Learn to Read New Testament Greek (3rd ed., Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, pp 15-16), though Black differs a bit from Porter’s views (see pp 13-16). For more on authorial subjective choice regarding aspect, see Matthew’s use of the historic present (tense-form) in his account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and its juxtaposition with the aorist as compared to Mark’s and Luke’s use of these tense-forms in Stephanie L. Black, “The Historic Present in Matthew: Beyond Speech Margins,” in Porter, Reed, eds., Discourse Analysis, pp 120-135.

63   One could argue that these should be rendered began to give and began giving, respectively, as the context implies that the multiplying of the bread began in Jesus’ hands. Yet, this does not mean we would call these, respectively, an “inceptive aorist” or “inceptive imperfect,” as it’s not the verbs’ form (aspect) that determines this, nor the lexis; it’s the context that would make it so. Hence, according to Porter, these terms should not be used in general (Idioms, pp 27-28). See also short section titled “Semantic Meaning and Pragmatic Effects” in Stephen H. Levinsohn Discourse Features of New Testament Greek: A Coursebook on the Information Structure of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2000), p IX.

64   See Decker, Temporal Deixis, p 107.

65   It is commonly assumed that the imperfect tense-form is a preterite (past-time) marker; e.g., Biblical linguist Randall Buth: “The Greek imperfect is a past imperfective” (“Verbs Perception and Aspect: Greek Lexicography and Grammar” [sic] in Bernard A. Taylor, John A. L. Lee, et. al., eds. Biblical Language and Lexicography: Essays in Honor of Frederick W. Danker, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004, p 182, n 15). However, as we will see, this does not hold unequivocally.

Some contend that the augment is a past-time marker. However, McKay’s 1965 work “The Use of the Ancient Greek Perfect Down to the Second Century A.D.” (cited earlier), remarking in a footnote, questions, “whether the augment, which is generally taken as originally an adverb denoting past time, was not rather an adverb of remoteness, signifying either past time or reduced actuality, as required” (p 19 n 22; italics in orig, bold added). Porter (VAGNT, pp 208-211) is more assertive, stating outright that the augment is not a past-time indicator.  Cf. Decker, Temporal Deixis, pp 39-40; Campbell, Verbal Aspect, pp 88-91.

66   Decker, Temporal Deixis, p 106, cf. 107.

67   McKay (New Syntax) observes that, “some common time indicators sometimes occur in situations where they are markers of some other part of the temporal setting, or where they are markers of some other factor, such as reality, rather than time” (p 40). Campbell (Verbal Aspect), citing James T. Hooker, notes that there are “many non-past-referring imperfects in the wider Greek literature,” to include Homer, Aristophanes, Plato, and Aristotle (p 87 n 17).

68   Both Gal 4:20 and Acts 25:22 (among others) are construed by Robertson (Grammar, pp 885-886) and Wallace (Grammar, pp 550-552) as “potential” and “voluntative/tendential” (“an attempt was about to be made or one that was almost desired to be made”), respectively. Yet elsewhere Robertson (Grammar, pp 918-919) refers to this is as a “polite idiom,” similar to the English “I was just thinking,” and while he comes just shy of explicitly affirming the Acts passage as present temporal reference, he affirms the Galatians: “Paul is speaking of present time” (p 919). Somewhat similarly, Wallace states that this particular usage “frequently is present time in which the action is entirely unrealized in the present” in which the imperfect tense-form “seems to be used to indicate the unreal present situation” (p 551; italics in original).

Richard N. Longenecker (Galatians: Word Biblical Commentary, (Dallas, TX: Word, 1990), pp 187, 196), follows Robertson, stating the usage here is “expressing the desire for something in the present, with, of course, that wish unable to be realized” for, quoting Robertson (Grammar, p 886), “‘wishes about the present are naturally unattainable’” (p 196). However, Longenecker is quick to affirm that the context is an actual present time desire (at the time of writing) of Paul, as v 20 picks up from v 18 which “lays emphasis on Paul’s desire to be personally present with his Galatian converts – not present just by means of his letter or some emissary who might have brought the letter, but himself there with them. The adverb ἄρτι (“now”) is often used to connote more sharply defined present time than its synonym νῦν, and so should probably be understood to suggest ‘at this very moment’” (p 196).

In the Acts passage Agrippa clearly wants to hear Paul, with the king receiving that hearing the very next day (25:22-23). Porter (VAGNT, p 210), Decker (Temporal Deixis, pp 46-47, 51), and Campbell (Verbal Aspect, p 86) all affirm these two passages as present time usage of the imperfect tense-form, without qualification.

Another example of present temporal reference is cited by Porter in John 11:8 (VAGNT, p 210; cf. Decker, “Poor Man’s Porter,” p 19, though Decker changed his stance – see just below in this same paragraph), rendered “the Jews are now seeking,” but the NASB/ESV/ISV interpretation is probably correct (“the Jews just now were seeking;” “were trying” in ISV) in view of the overall context, with νῦν understood as representing near-past time reference (see H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (founded upon the 7th ed. of LSG-EL, Oxford: Clarendon, 1889, p 537) for “just now” in Homeric Greek; cf. Decker, “Semantic Range of νῦν,” pp 202-204; cf. John 13:31 above for near-future use of νῦν), considering that the Jewish leaders were seeking to stone Him earlier (8:59, 10:31). It seems difficult to imagine that the Jews in Judea were “now” still actively seeking to stone Him, given the time interval involved in Jesus crossing the Jordan (10:40) to Bethany (“where John had been baptizing in the early days” – see Carson Gospel of John, pp 146-147, for two different Bethany’s) where He had been staying for a period of at least three days (11:6 – Jesus stayed “two more days” before announcing his intent to return to Judea). In the final analysis, a near-past time reference seems most likely.

69   Porter’s translation (VAGNT, p 211), with Decker following (Temporal Deixis, p 51); cf. McKay, New Syntax, p 76. The translation is as a result of the combination of the finite imperfect tense-form verb (ἔδει) in conjunction with the aorist infinitive which follows it (ποιῆσαι) – known as a catenative construction (see VAGNT, pp 487, 488). Cf. Robertson, Grammar, pp 886, 919, 1080.

70   I may incline towards this view, which is one of the reasons why another example of omnitemporal reference is provided just below. Perhaps another category of temporal reference should be coined, such as “multi-temporal reference,” in order to differentiate from “omnitemporal,” if this view has merit.

71   Decker (Temporal Deixis) makes brief reference to this verse in a footnote (p 192 n 109).

72   David E. Garland, Colossians/Philemon: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapid, MI: Zondervan, 1998), p 244. It’s important to note that the verb ὑποτάσσω in the imperative mood is the same in both passive and middle voice, which means the interpreter must decide which is most likely intended (see Todd D. Still “Colossians” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev. ed., Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland, gen. eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), p 337).

73   Garland, Colossians/Philemon, p 244. Robertson (Grammar) calls the usage here as one of “propriety” (pp 885-87, 919-20).

74   James D. G. Dunn (The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: New International Greek Testament Commentary, I. Howard Marshall, W. Ward Gasque, & Donald A. Hagner, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996)) observes that the subordinate clause can be read one of two ways, either “as an affirmation that the husband headship of the household is ‘fitting’ also within the community” of believers in Christ as Lord or “as a qualification that only that degree of subjection to the husband which is ‘fitting in the Lord’ is to be countenanced” (p 248). Dunn prefers the latter, citing 1 Corinthians 7:15 as correlative (ibid.). CF. Peter O’Brien Colossians, Philemon: Word Biblical Commentary, Bruce M. Metzger, gen. ed. (Dallas, TX: Thomas Nelson/Word, 1982), p 222.   With this understanding, the scales are tipped more decisively to the middle voice in the independent clause.

75   O’Brien (Colossian, Philemon), asserts, “The exhortation to be subordinate is balanced with the instruction to husbands to love their wives [ED: in v 19]: the admonition is an appeal to free and responsible agents that can only be heeded voluntarily, never by the elimination or breaking of the human will, much less by means of a servile submissiveness” (p 222). Once again, this points to the middle over the passive voice in the main clause in v 18.

76   See Porter, VAGNT, p 224.

77   Robertson (Grammar, pp 1182-83) notes that καὶ can be used in an adversative sense (“and yet”); cf. BDAG (W. Bauer, F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd. ed. (Chicago, IL: Chicago, 2000), p 495, 1bη); cf. F. W. Danker (The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: Chicago, 2009), p 183), though none explicitly cite this verse.

78   See Porter, VAGNT, p 238.

79   And even future temporal reference, see note 14 above.

80   See Porter, VAGNT, pp 77-78, 231; cf. Decker, “Poor Man’s Porter,” p 7, which provides a fuller illustration.

81   These points culled from Porter, VAGNT, pp 196-198; Decker, Temporal Deixis, pp 103-104 (Decker relies on and agrees with Fanning here); S. H. Levinsohn, Discourse Features, pp 200-213; M. V. Leung, “The Narrative Function and Verbal Aspect of the Historical Present in the Fourth Gospel,” p 710; S. L. Black, “The Historic Present in Matthew,” pp 127-139.

82   See Levinsohn, Discourse Features, pp 208-209; Leung, “The Narrative Function and Verbal Aspect of the Historical Present in the Fourth Gospel,” p 710.

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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.

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.

 

Book Review: Colossians and Philemon: A Handbook on the Greek Text, by Constantine R. Campbell

[Baylor Handbook of the Greek New Testament series, Martin M. Culy, Gen. Ed.; 2013, Baylor University Press, Waco, TX, 114 pages]

The union of Verbal Aspect and ‘Union with Christ’ in one volume

In the continuing series of the Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (BHGNT), Constantine Campbell, in his in-depth look into Colossians and Philemon, highlights his past and continuing work in Verbal Aspect, as well as his more recent research into Paul’s use of ὲν Χριστῳ̄ (en Christw͆) and similar phrases (union with Christ).  This is my second acquisition in the BHGNT series, and I like this one even more.

The series presumes some competence of NT Greek at the intermediate level, with its focus on grammar, while utilizing up-to-date linguistics (discourse analysis, Verbal Aspect), and touching on text critical issues where deemed appropriate.  (See my previous BHGNT review for more info on the series in general.)

With this particular volume, the reader should have a good working knowledge of verbal aspect (I’ll follow Porter’s convention of capitalizing tense-forms  to differentiate from aspect and associated terms), as Campbell focuses on this throughout.  For those unfamiliar with VA, essentially the view is that Koine Greek verb morphological forms (tense-forms) do not semantically encode time, but rather aspect.  Time, instead, is derived from context.  Aspect is the viewpoint, or perspective of the writer, who chose the particular tense-form from among other possibilities, to suit his particular purposes (though some tense-forms are more appropriate for narrative as opposed to discourse and vice versa).

The Aorist, for example is termed ‘perfective’ in aspect, meaning a summary or remote perspective of the event/situation (external view).  Conversely, the Present and Imperfect tense-forms are `imperfective’ in spect, displaying a view of the internal process of the event/situation (internal view).  The function of these aspectual forms, the resulting Aktionsart (kind of action), is determined by lexis and context (pragmatics).

To assist the reader, Campbell gives a handy overview/review of his Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2008a), in his Introduction.  Worth the price of admission, however, is how the author, in the Introduction, breaks down each tense-form into each of its Aktionsart functions [pp xxiv – xxvii], providing a ready reference as one works through Colossians and Philemon.  For example, under ‘Present Indicative’ is ‘Gnomic Aktionsart’, which is described:

“Imperfective aspect with any lexeme in a context of ‘general reality’ can implicate a gnomic Aktionsart.  This expresses a universal and timeless action” [p xxvi].

My only minor criticism – and it is indeed small – is that the aspectual terms ‘perfective’ and ‘imperfective’ are not defined in a general way, in abstraction from their Aktionsart functions, in the Introduction or in the Glossary (hence my explanation above).  I deem this important because, for example, under ‘Aorist Indicative’ is ‘Gnomic Aktionsart’ [p xxiv] with the identical description as ‘Gnomic Aktionsart’ under ‘Present Indicative’ above, except the introductory word, with “Perfective aspect…” replacing “Imperfective aspect….”  Without a firm grasp of the general differences between perfective aspect and imperfective aspect, one may not see the distinction between the Present gnomic and Aoristic gnomic, with the nearly identical descriptions.

This minor quibble aside, Campbell’s book is rich with insights.  While the author argues for his own grammatical and syntactical interpretations, he compares these to other possibilities and other’s viewpoints with clarity.  I may not (currently) agree with all his conclusions, but this may reflect my own theological biases (e.g., Col 1:16-17, with respect to ἐν αὐτῷ [en autō̧] as being locative, rather than reflecting instrumentality, i.e., Christ as both creator and sustainer – could the usage here be both locative [in Him] AND reflect instrumentality [by Him]?).  In these instances I’ll pray and ponder.