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.

 

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Charismatic Ramifications on the “Long Ending” of Mark’s Gospel

Most modern Bible translations include a note expressing serious doubt about the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20.  Individuals who do accept these final verses as part of Mark’s Gospel, however, are committed to an extreme view of the signs listed in verses 17 and 18, to include the explicit ability to drink poison with no ill effects.  If the Greek text in this “long ending” is taken seriously, understood, and translated in proper context, then all five signs are for all those who believe – excepting those actively preaching the Gospel message – at the point of initial conversion and continuing on thereafter.  That is, upon hearing and believing in the Gospel message, newly regenerate believers, without exception, will exhibit all the signs listed in Mark 16:17-18, as accompaniment to the Gospel.  Moreover, these five should be evident among all believers, past, present and yet future, upon initial acceptance of the Gospel and thereafter – at the least, whenever the Gospel is being actively preached.

The Long and the Short of It

For quite some time, it has been the scholarly consensus that the “long ending” of the Gospel of Mark, i.e., the last 12 verses (16:9-20), is not original to the Gospel, even though there are many manuscripts that include this text.1  While there are those who assert that the long ending is indeed original, they are well within the minority among NT scholars and textual critics.  The vocabulary and style of the Greek in the long ending is substantially different than the remainder of Mark’s Gospel.2  In addition, the associated manuscript evidence points rather decisively to the inauthenticity of these verses.3

There is even a so-called “short ending” in one extant Old Latin manuscript.  This short ending consists of a small amount of text following verse 8, about the equivalent of one long Biblical verse or two shorter ones.  While this is found as the ending to Mark’s Gospel in only one manuscript, there is yet another variation in which the long ending is appended to the short ending.4  All three – the predominant long ending, the lone short ending, and the combination of short ending followed by long ending – are almost universally rejected, and identified as spurious.

Some are of the opinion that the Gospel of Mark simply concludes at verse 8.  However, in view of the fact that verse 8 ends rather abruptly with frightened women at the tomb, and, secondarily, that the very last word is a conjunction (the word γάρ, transliterated gar, meaning for, since, or because), others believe the original ending has been lost, or that the Gospel writer just did not finish the work for some unknown reason.5  These may well be factors that influenced the writer of the long ending (assumed to be one lone author by the internal consistency of the text).

Excluding the long ending from Scripture necessarily negates any need to discuss cessationism (the belief that the ‘sign gifts’ have ceased with the Apostolic era and the closing of the Biblical canon) or continuationism (the belief that all the spiritual gifts continue to this day) by appealing to these verses.  Dr. Rodney J. Decker, Th.D., has recently written a paper on this subject, titled Mark and Miracle (Mark 16:17-18), with an emphasis on what the longer ending means in its own context and how it relates to the rest of the New Testament, and posted it on his blog.  This particular work of Decker (see hyperlink at title above, pdf here) will be relied on for portions of the remainder of this article; general references and specific quotes from it will be followed by applicable page number in brackets, e.g.: {p 3}.

Interpreting the Text of the Long Ending

Decker notes that, in academic settings, those who argue for continuationism by and large do not do so by appealing to the Markan long ending.  On the other hand, it is used quite frequently as a basis for argumentation “in non-academic discussions and among poorly trained advocates.  That is perhaps not surprising since even in cessationist circles the authenticity of the Long Ending is commonly assumed since it is in the KJV without note or comment” {p 2, n 11}.  I’ll add that it seems many readers of modern Bible versions pay little mind to the notes, further contributing to ignorance about the legitimacy of the long ending.6  Philip Comfort provides a blanket caution against the lay or academic use of these verses:

…Christians need to be warned against using this text for Christian doctrine because it is not on the same par as verifiable New Testament Scripture.  Nothing in it should be used to establish Christian doctrine or practice.  Unfortunately, certain churches have used Mark 16:16 to affirm dogmatically that one must believe and be baptized to be saved, and other churches have used Mark 16:18 to promote the practice of snake-handling…The writer of the longer ending also emphasized what we would call charismatic experiences – speaking in tongues, performing healings, protection from snakes and poison.  Although the book of Acts affirms these experiences for certain believers, they are not necessarily the norm for all.7

Bill Johnson, Senior Pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, CA, is just one example (and there are many others within the so-called New Apostolic Reformation, aka NAR) of a hyper-charismatic (my term for those who go well beyond more conservative Pentecostal/charismatic theology and practice) who frequently cites Mark 16:15 and Mark 16:20 as base texts for the Great Commission, while selectively using only portions of verses 17-18 (healing the sick, casting out demons, and speaking in new tongues, yet omitting snake handling and drinking poison) for his continuationist stance.8  As but one example, here’s a selection in which Johnson specifically cites Mark 16:20 in the footnote reference to this passage:

…While healing is seldom the subject we teach on, it is one of the most common results.  As we proclaim the message of the Kingdom of God, people get well.  The Father seems to say Amen! to His own message by confirming the word with power….9

In reading Johnson’s quote, observe that the claim is that “people get well” as a result of the proclamation of “the message of the Kingdom of God”.  This passive “people get well” stands in stark contrast to the long ending’s explicitly active “they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover”.  In other words, according to verse 18, those who believe will actively lay on hands, resulting in the sick recovering; the sick don’t just “get well”.  We could give Johnson the benefit of the doubt and just assume he was imprecise with his wording, but what of the other signs that should accompany the message according to the context of the long ending of Mark?:

15 And He said to them [the Eleven], “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will follow [accompany] those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; 18 they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

19 So then, after the Lord had spoken to them [the Eleven], He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs [by those who believe]. Amen. [Mark 16:15-20, NKJV (emphasis and explanatory notes in brackets added)]

The text is book-ended with the preaching of the Gospel (vv 15, 20) by the Eleven (vv 14, 15, 19), but note that signs (σημεῖα, sēmeia) will follow/accompany those who believe (vv 16, 17), to exclude those preaching (the Eleven) {pp 3-5}.  The context specifies that it is regenerate believers – those receiving the preaching of the Gospel (by the Eleven; v 15) and reaching a saving faith (v 16) – who will cast out demons, speak with new languages, pick up snakes, etc.  Following are the five signs that will be exhibited by these believers:

  • Performing exorcisms
  • Speaking in new languages
  • Picking up snakes (presumably without harm)
  • Drinking poison without harm
  • Healing the sick by the laying on of hands

Note that, by the context, the snakes are not specifically identified as venomous (or not), and it’s not specified if those picking up the snakes will remain unharmed; it merely states “they will take up serpents” (some manuscripts add “with their hands”).  Some may appeal to the next point – “if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them” – but these two are not connected grammatically {p 3}.  Also, since all five, as Decker observes, “are listed in parallel with no indication otherwise, it would be precarious to suggest that one (or more) is to be taken metaphorically if the others are not” {pp 3-4, 4 n 15}.  By the context, the statement attributed to Jesus (vv 15-18), as well as the narration in verse 20 (“…the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.”) is clearly meant in a literal sense; therefore, all five should be taken literally.

The text explicitly states that all five signs above will accompany the collective of those who believe {p 8}, as a sign of the Gospel, “whenever they believe” {p 4}.  Moreover, according to Decker, as indicated by the Greek grammar, each believer should perform all five {pp 4, 4 n 19-20}.  Further, this implies that each time the Eleven preached the Gospel there would always be demon-possessed individuals, snakes, poisonous drink, and persons afflicted with ailments in their midst.

Yet, by the context, this is not limited to the Apostolic era, the time period when the Eleven were still living {p 5}.  Since the function of these signs is in conjunction with the preaching of the Gospel – and, of course, the Great Commission is an ongoing command to all Christians (cf. Matthew 28:18-20) – these signs must continue as well {pp 4-5}.  Therefore, those who accept the long ending as part of the canonical Gospel of Mark are committed to the belief that all five signs above are applicable to every single believer, at the point of their conversion and forward.  The only limitation is imposed on those believers who are actively preaching the Gospel.  In other words, by the context provided by the author of the long ending, those who believe will perform the five signs above, which necessarily include all the regenerate – past, present, and yet future – except when they themselves are in the act of preaching the Gospel message {pp 4-5}.

It could be construed that one of the implicit points made by the author of the long ending regarding “confirming the word through the accompanying signs” is that others in the audience who may have been unpersuaded by the Gospel message itself may become convinced by the attendant display of signs.  In fact, there are three pieces of extra-Biblical, apocryphal literature depicting the Apostle John drinking poison for the express purpose of converting others.  These are: Virtutes Iohannis (Miracles of John, circa 5th or 6th century AD), Passio Iohannis (Passion of John, ca. late 6th c.) {p 10},10 and Acts of John in Rome (ca. 4th to 6th c.11), with the latter finding its writer portraying John as explicitly quoting the words of Mark 16:18b (“and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them”) {p. 10}.   With this in mind, would Bill Johnson, or any of the other self-appointed “Apostles” of the New Apostolic Reformation (or any follower of the NAR) who affirm Mark 16:9-20, like to drink from the poisoned cup, toward this same goal?

It seems one could understand this passage a bit more narrowly, interpreting “confirming the word through the accompanying signs” (v 20) as a limitation on those who believe.  That is, these signs will only accompany those who believe during the proclamation of the Gospel, thereby limiting the ‘shelf-life’ of these signs.  In other words, these five signs would be manifested each time the Gospel message is preached until Jesus Christ returns, but only for the duration of the preaching at each particular place and time.12

But note that even this more narrow view would only limit the time at which these signs are made manifest and not their actual expression.  With this limitation in mind, we’ll pose the question above a bit differently: With another actively preaching “the message of the Kingdom of God”, would Bill Johnson, or any of the other self-appointed “Apostles” of the New Apostolic Reformation (or any disciple of the NAR) who affirm Mark 16:9-20, like to drink from the poisoned chalice in order to win others to Christ?

Given his interpretation of Jesus’ promise in John 14:12, Johnson may even desire to identify such acts of ‘poison-bibbing’ {p 10} as manifest evidence of “greater works”, since it is not recorded in Scripture that Jesus Himself drank poison without harm:

Jesus’ prophecy of us doing greater works than He did has stirred the Church to look for some abstract meaning to this very simple statement…And, the works He referred to are signs and wonders.  It will not be a disservice to Him to have a generation obey Him, and go beyond His own high-water mark.  He showed us what one person could do who has the Spirit without measure.  What could millions do?  That was His point, and it became His prophecy.

This verse is often explained away by saying it refers to quantity of works, not quality…But that waters down the intent of His statement.  The word greater is mizon [sic] in the Greek…It is always used to describe “quality,” not quantity.13

But, I’m unpersuaded that even such a charismatic display of imbibing venomous drink without harm would be greater than Jesus’ dying on the Cross for the sins of the world and subsequently raising Himself from the dead (John 2:19-22, 10:17-18).

Nonetheless, as per the context provided by the author of the long ending, poison-bibbing is a requirement of all believers – at least those who accept Mark 16:9-20 as part of sacred Scripture.

Conclusion

Those who consider the long ending of Mark must understand that it’s an all or nothing proposition.  If one is inclined to accept it as authentic, then, in all intellectual honesty, one is forced to conform to a radical form of continuationism – one that must accept that all five signs enumerated in verses 17 and 18, without exception, will be exhibited by those who believe.  To explicitly or implicitly reject any of these five will not do.  On the other hand, to agree with the scholarly consensus that the long ending is not original to the Gospel of Mark means that no portion of it can be referenced for doctrine or practice.

 

Some facts and thoughts about the author of the above referenced article (see especially last paragraph):

Dr. Rodney J. Decker is on faculty at Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania.  He is the author of Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark with Reference to Verbal Aspect (New York: Peter Lang, 2001) and Koine Greek Reader: Selections from the New Testament, Septuagint, and Early Christian Writers (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), as well as other publications, with more material under contract, including his contribution to the Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament series (The Gospel of Mark).

I enjoy reading and being challenged by his works, most of which are a bit beyond my current level, some quite so.  However, it’s obvious he cares about his students’ learning, as he has even taken the time to place additional data, list errata, and translate the German and French text from the Peter Lang book mentioned above (this particular book series requires that all non-English language remain untranslated), onto his own website.  Here’s a portion of his remarks:

…Since, however, I have some hopes that students may find the work helpful, and even that some may be curious as to the content of those [untranslated] quotations (an idealistic notion, I suspect, but one which I hope to nurture for a bit longer!), I have thought it appropriate to provide a translation of many of those quotations here.

In addition, Decker has taken one of Dr. Stanley Porter’s difficult works and made it more comprehendible, providing a tremendous service to those wishing to become more conversant with Porter’s position on verbal aspect.  This is available as an online pdf (the title itself references Porter’s work): “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).

While he’s very serious about his work, he occasionally injects a bit of lightheartedness in his material and on his blog (and presumably in the classroom).  Decker is currently battling stage 4 cancer.  He has recently begun chemotherapy.  He and his wife could use our prayers.

 

Endnotes:

     1 This merely illustrates that subsequent copyists faithfully reproduced (more or less) this long ending once it was introduced into the Gospel of Mark, though many manuscripts have markings suggesting its inauthenticity.
     2 Here I’m referring to what is known as the internal evidence of NT textual criticism: assessing authorial and scribal peculiarities such as style (vocabulary, grammar) and doctrine.
     3 This sentence refers primarily to what is termed external evidence in NT textual criticism: assessing all known variants of a given section of Scripture by focusing on such factors as age, similar readings among manuscripts, and geographic distribution, and then comparing with each other to determine which verbiage is likely original.
     4 The following English translation of the “short ending” is taken from Roger L. Omanson, A Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament: An Adaptation of Bruce M. Metzger’s Textual Commentary for the Needs of Translators (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft (German Bible Society), 2006), p 104.  Note that the first sentence is a continuation of 16:8, for the obvious purpose of not leaving the verse ending with the women fearful: But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told.  And after these things Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.  Amen.  Manuscripts which append the “long ending” to the “short ending” omit the final “Amen” of the “short ending” (Omanson, p 104).
     5 For more on the textual evidence consult Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1994); Roger L. Omanson’s adaptation of Metzger noted above; Philip W. Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary (Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2008); Craig A. Evans, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27 – 16:20 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001); Joel Marcus, The Anchor Yale Bible: Mark 8 – 16 (New Haven: Yale, 2009), etc.
     6 This is based on my own admittedly very limited experience.
     7 Comfort, p 161.
     8 This is evident throughout his books, sermons and other materials.  Of the many works I’ve studied/surveyed, none promote snake handling or the drinking of poison.
     9 Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles, (Shippensburg: Destiny Image, 2003 (first edition)), p 89; emphasis in original.   I’m giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt that he’s speaking of the true Gospel, and not the differentiated “Gospel of the Kingdom” of some New Order of the Latter Rain and/or New Apostolic Reformation teachers and adherents, though the context strongly implies the latter, and he specifically uses the latter term in many places throughout the book.  Probably the best place to find the delineation of the two terms is found in the glossary of Earl Paulk’s Ultimate Kingdom (Atlanta: K Dimension, 1984, p 335), in which “Gospel” is defined as [t]he good news of God’s redemption to man. [Luke 4:18, 9:6; Romans 1:16; Ephesians 6:15]; whereas, “Gospel of the Kingdom” is defined [t]he good news principles of daily life taught by Jesus that the Church must demonstrate as a witness to the world in order to return the rule of the earth to God.  [Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 24:14] – in other words: Dominionism.  Also, one must keep in mind that Johnson equates such signs as part of the “greater works” in John 14:12.  See below.
     10 Here Decker quotes from (as he cites quite a bit in his paper) James Kelhoffer (Miracle and Mission: The Authentication of Missionaries and Their Message in the Longer Ending of Mark, WUNT 2.112, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000, p 450); Decker notes (p  10 n 42) that dates of 3rd to 6th century have been proposed for these two works.  Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli, (Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature, A Literary History, Volume Two: From the Council of Nicea to the Beginning of the Medieval Period, Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005; English transl. Matthew J. O’Connell), claim “perhaps” 5th or 6th c. for Passion of John (“by Pseudo-Melito”) and “end of 6th c.” for Miracles of John (“included in the collection of Pseudo-Abdias”) [pp 221-222].  Both of these works apparently draw from the 3rd c. apocryphal work Acts of John, as Knut Schäferdiek (“The Acts of John”) in Wilhelm Schneemelcher (transl. R. McL. Wilson New Testament Apocrypha: Volume One: Gospels and Related Writings. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1990, English transl. James Clarke & Co. Ltd, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991) notes, specifying that the Passio Iohannis “has taken up several narratives from the Acts of John in a considerably revised form” [p 154, cf. p 155].  Schäferdiek also largely agrees with Moreschini/Norelli regarding dates for Passion “which scarcely came into being before the middle of the 5th century” [p 154] and Miracles “which probably came into being in the late 6th century” [p 155].
     11 Schäferdiek in Schneemelcher, p 172.  The Acts of John in Rome is a recension of Acts of John.  The first 17 chapters of Acts of John are lost; the Acts of John in Rome has a total 14 chapters, in two recensions, written “not before the 4th century” [p 172].
     12 This further nuanced interpretation seems to be implied by Decker, but is not explicit – at least as I read him.  Therefore, I take full responsibility; any errors in understanding Decker or in my exegesis are fully my own!  But, note that the three apocryphal works referenced earlier do not seem to have another preaching the Gospel while John drank the poison.
     13 Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, p 185; all emphasis in original (for those with later editions with different pagination, this is found in the chapter titled “This Present Revival” under the bolded heading GREATER WORKS).   The Greek word is actually (transliterated) meizon, not mizon.  Johnson prefaces this statement with a direct citation of John 14:12. Decker notes that some are of the opinion that the long ending can be paralleled with John 14:12, but he opines differently {pp 10-11}.  For an in-depth look at Jesus’ words in this passage of Scripture, see CrossWise article Greater Works Shall You Do.