This essay was originally written as a discussion document to be used among a group of Bob's friends who are interested in issues related to translation, interpretation, preaching and teaching.



Greek Verb Tenses

Bob Goethe
Edmonton, AB
January 1, 2014



Why Bother Writing this Essay?

The catalyst for this essay was two-fold.  First, I observed in my own translation work frequent (apparently) inconsistent uses of verb tense by NT writers:  using an aorist where the context would suggest that a present was more appropriate, or vice versa; using an aorist referring to events that were clearly set in the future (e.g. in prophecies recorded in the book of Revelation).

Second, I observed that preachers sometimes seemed to hang a lot of their sermons’ content on a finely sliced and mechanical interpretation of the significance of Greek verb tenses. 

In the case of a Vineyard church that Mark Dickens used to attend, this led to a novel interpretation of the Zacchaeus passage[1] … to suggest that Zacchaeus was NOT repenting/changing as a result of his meeting with Jesus...that when he met Jesus there was nothing he had any need to repent OF.

Together, these observations gave me the sense that there was something I was missing in my Greek grammar. 

A coffee meeting with Syd Page, Professor of New Testament at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, suggested that I was far from the only one to notice that the grammar I learned in Greek 101 decades ago was not quite up to the task of reading the New Testament today.

 

How We Create a Grammar

It goes without saying that the native speakers of a given language never learn it by studying a grammar textbook.  They just speak it, and internalize the subtle distinctions of the grammar without thinking about it.

In fact, native speakers are often the last people to be able to verbalize facts about the structure of their language.  That is often the job of people who learn the language as a second language, and analyze the grammar to make it easier for them (and others) to learn this language.

This is no different when it comes to biblical Greek.  None of the Greek speakers of the first century ever really composed a systematic description of the grammar of their own language.

Creating this systematic description of first century Greek has been left to others – most often, to people born after 1800 AD.

Encoding Time into Our Verbs

Whenever a native English speaker talks, he encodes information about time into every verb. 

If somebody says, “I ran” then we know that this event happened sometime in the past.  If they add time-related word(s) to the sentence (“I ran yesterday”; “I ran this morning”) then it gives us more precise information.  But we already knew, in broad strokes, when this action occurred.  It occurred in the past.

This encoding of time into our verb forms is so pervasive and instinctive for us who are native English speakers, that we just naturally assume that other languages (in this case, NT Greek) do the same thing.[2]

So when we found certain word endings in Greek that seemed to be associated with action, we assumed that they were time-related and used the word “tense” to describe the nature of this time-relatedness, e.g. imperfect tense, aorist tense.

That is, we have taken our English verbal template, and laid it over the top of biblical Greek.

Stanley Porter: a Watershed

A typical way of describing the aorist tense has been, for instance, to say that “the aorist describes punctiliar action in the past – that is, action that happened at a particular point in the past.”  The only problem with this is that, if we take this approach, we must say that 40% of the occurrences of the aorist in the NT are “irregular”.

Stanley Porter, currently a professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, noticed that these verb endings we call “tenses” in Greek might be translated more accurately if we did not think of them as being related to time at all.[3]

Porter thought the high incidence of “irregular” uses of verbs in the NT (and it affects not just the aorist tense, but the present and other tenses) might be a pointer to the need to think of these verbal forms differently…that is, differently from thinking that they encode references to time.

It is the subject of the rest of this essay to describe Porter’s hypothesis.  But I can introduce his work by saying that it has been revolutionary.  It “fits the data” that we find in the New Testament…much better than the time-encoding template that we have been using for the past century or more.

Porter’s work[4] has been such a game changer, linguistically speaking, that New Testament commentaries can now be divided into two groups.  The first group includes commentaries written before Porter (or written by New Testament scholars who tend not to stay current in their field).  The second group is made up of commentaries written after Porter, who take him into account.

This is analogous to the situation that occurred in astronomy at the moment when Copernicus and Kepler introduced the idea that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around.  Suddenly, all the observations of planetary movements that astronomers had struggled for centuries to fit into a geocentric model of the solar system…all these observations suddenly fell into place.  There was an “Aha!” moment in astronomy.

A similar sort of “Aha!” moment occurred in New Testament studies when Porter published his book in 1993.


Verbal Aspect

How do you go about redefining the notion of “verb tenses”?  A thousand books all talk about the "present tense" and the "future tense" in Greek.  You cannot simply unravel all that history.

The way Porter chose to proceed was to keep the vocabulary we use in describing verb forms in Greek, but redefine them by saying that they do not refer to time, but rather to “aspect”.

By “aspect”, Porter means that the Greek writer would (probably unconsciously) consider the nature of the action – whether it was a complete package, or was an ongoing process – and then select a verb form.

Time, he says, was not part of this selection except incidentally.  Rather, time was encoded by other words which come from the context.  In English, words like “yesterday” or “this morning” may provide additional information about just when a past action occurred.  In Greek, it is these add-on words that actually define time.  In Greek, the verb tense captures the way the writer thinks about the action.

The aorist encodes completed action.  It is easy to see why you would often use an aorist tense for action that actually occurred in the past…since that action is often complete.  However, if you are thinking about some action in the present, and you conceive of it as a well-defined action – a complete action – then you might use an aorist verb even though the actual time of the action is in the present.

To take this further, the Apostle John often thinks of some of God’s yet-to-come actions as being complete and self-contained.  So he often uses an aorist tense in the context of some prophecy about future actions that God will take.


Examples of the Greek Present Indicative

Matt. 8:25    Lord, we are perishing. (time = present)

Mark 11:27    and they were coming again into Jerusalem (time = past)

Matt. 26:18    with you I am going to make the Passover with my disciples.  (time = future)

Matt. 7:19    every tree not making good fruit is cut off and thrown into the fire (time = omni-temporal; always true: past, present and future)

2 Cor. 9:7    for God loves a joyful giver (time = timeless; a state of being)



Examples of the Greek Aorist Indicative

Lk. 16:4    I know what I intend to do (time = present)

2 Cor. 11:25    Three times I was beaten (time = past)

John 17:14    the world is going to hate them (time = future)

Eph. 5:29    for no one ever hates his own body (time = omni-temporal; always true: past, present and future)

Lk. 7:35    wisdom is justified by all her children (time = timeless; a state of being)



Examples of Greek Perfect Indicative

Matt. 21:27    answering, they said to Jesus, “We don’t know.”  (time = present)

Acts 10:45    because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles (time = past)

James 5:2    your riches are going to rot and your garments are going to become moth-eaten (time = future)

2 Peter 2:19    for by what someone is overcome, by this he is enslaved (time = omni-temporal; always true: past, present and future)

1 Jn. 3:14    we are transformed from death into life (time = timeless)



The Problem We All Have in Translating the Bible

Each of the three groups above use the same tense, but have (in order) five different temporal references:  present, past, future, omni-temporal, and timeless.

The question we have to ask is:  what is the significance of tense if the same tense forms can all refer to the same range of time, and if all three different tenses can have the same range?[5]

Porter’s conclusion is that Greek tenses simply do not encode for time – which is a little difficult for us, since he is saying that "Greek tenses" are not actually tenses. [6]



Hebrew Can Help for Those Who Have Studied It

35 years ago, it would have been said that Greek and Hebrew had radically different approaches to verbs.  Greek had an array of precise, time-linked tenses, while Hebrew had two “tenses” that were not really tenses – the perfect (for completed action) and the imperfect (for not-completed action).

In Hebrew, the perfect was used (though not always) for action which the context indicated was in the past, while the imperfect was used (though not always) for action which was in the present or future.

It would seem that Greek and Hebrew are more alike than any of us imagined 35 years ago.



How Do We Then Speak?

We are not going to overthrow centuries of word usage as pertains to Greek verbs.  Decker suggests that we speak of both word form and word function, e.g. "the aorist form used of present time"; "the aorist form used of future time".

 

If Greek Verbs Don’t Encode For Time, What the Heck DO They Do?

Porter indicates that Greek verb forms encode for the speaker’s concept of the process of the action described by the verb.

He illustrates this by using the analogy of a parade.

•    A New York City TV correspondent in a helicopter flies over the top of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and sees it in its entirety, as a single and a complete whole.  He will use the aorist to describe it.

•    The spectator on the corner is watching the parade go past him.  He will use the present or the imperfect to describe it as an event in process.[7]

•    The parade manager, who thinks of the parade as a concept…the "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade", a tradition – no, not a tradition, but a veritable institution! – since 1924...he uses the perfect to describe the parade as a state of affairs in existence. 

As for the need to encode for time, Greek DOES do this, it just doesn’t do it with verb forms.  It does it with other indicators in the context.

The perfect tense is a bit tricky for us to think of, as it is sometimes used in the context of a historical narrative not just to describe a state-of-affairs, but when the writer wants to add emphasis to the narrative.



Is Porter the Be-All and End-All?

Not very likely.  We now realize that understanding Greek grammar is like understanding particle physics.  People form hypotheses to explain the data they see experimentally (or, in our case, that we see in the New Testament and the LXX). 

If your hypothesis is a poor one (such as we have had in Greek for the last 150 years), then you posit a grammatical rule, and then find that 40% of the data fails to fit the rule. 

If you can come up with a different system (e.g. the idea of “verbal aspect”) and find that it covers 90%+ of the instances we see in the NT, then you say that you have got a pretty good system…at the very least, a huge improvement over what you have had up to now.

There are still gaps.  For instance, Porter doesn’t talk much about the future tense, as it is still a bit difficult for him to explain using his system. 

Whenever we see a future tense verb in the New Testament, its function seems very time related…and very much like that of the English future tense, "I will run".

That said, it is unlikely that anybody will completely jettison verbal aspect (just as nobody has completely jettisoned Isaac Newton’s math to describe gravity, in spite of Einstein's extension of the concept of gravity). 

But it may well be that somebody builds on Porter to come up with a way of conceptualizing Greek grammar that fills in gaps that Porter left behind.



What Does This Mean to the Preacher?

We need to be a little cautious in hanging too much of our sermon content on fine distinctions between verb tenses. 

It is true that Jesus’ death paid for the sins of mankind in a “once and for all” fashion.  But we don’t know that because it was described using an aorist tense.  We know it because this is what the context of the particular passage indicates, and because of how that fits with the broad theological emphases in the Bible.

Our older commentaries are still of enormous use to us, written as the best of them were, by men who paired scholarship with a deep heart for God and a commitment to personal holiness. 

Even with what Porter would call a misunderstanding of biblical Greek, because of how tenses and time do in fact interact, much of what is said may still be (more or less) correct.  For example,

•    While the aorist itself does not encode for past time, since it speaks of completed action it often describes action that occurs in past time.  So even if you misunderstand what the aorist is all about, in a given passage, you may still come up with helpful observations.

•    Similarly, while the present itself does not encode for present time, since it speaks of action-in-process it often describes action that occurs in present time.  So your comments about a verse that uses the present tense may still be (more or less) true.

Our main concern is that (unless we are enormously skilled in biblical Greek) we ought never use some theory of Greek tense to overturn the plain meaning of a passage and its context. 

Further, we should be cautious about making some strong contrast, for instance, between the aorist and the imperfect in a passage.  There may be a contrast intended by the writer…or it may be a stylistic variation similar to what we do similarly when we decide we similarly don’t want to use the word similar too many times in a similar sentence.

To be even more practical, we will never go far wrong if we use the NIV (2010 edition) or the ESV version(first published, 2001) to base our sermons on.[8]  God inspired the NT writers to put the words of Jesus into translation right from Day One – as they translated the Aramaic words of Jesus into the Greek of the gospel of Mark or Luke.

We don’t NEED to preach directly from our Greek New Testaments, as long as we have top-notch translators around who can cast the passages into English.  We can still hear the authentic Word of the Lord. 

And this we have in the NIV and ESV versions.[9] 


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Footnotes

[1] This is reminiscent of the third movie in the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” series, where a young Indiana Jones comes out of a cave in Utah to find that he has become totally separated from his Boy Scout troop. His response to this is to say, “Everybody’s lost but me.” [Return]

[2] Obviously, English is not the only language to encode time in its verbs. But it is my language, and the exemplar I use in this essay. [Return]

[3]In addition to Stanley Porter, Buist M. Fanning is another important name in this revolution in the understanding of Greek verbs. Perhaps he gets less credit because "Buist" is less common as a first name even than "Stanley".[Return]

[4] Stanley E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood (New York: Peter Lang, 1993). [Return]

[5] Rodney J. Decker, “The Poor Man’s Porter”, p. 7. This is available in many places on the web. I failed to note where I downloaded the copy I printed out for myself. [Return]

[6] In English, by definition, tenses have to do with time. [Return]

[7] I am still a bit fuzzy about just what the basis is upon which the NT writer would choose between the present and the imperfect.
       Presumably these two "tenses" would have had slightly different connotations...but just what those connotations are is a task for my NEXT 30 years of NT translation. From what I can sort out about Altzheimer's, the day could come when I can't remember my own name, but I might still be making passable translations from 2 Corinthians. [Return]

[8] The TNIV (Today’s NIV, 2002), was an effort at implementing gender inclusive language. Unfortunately, English simply lacks a singular, gender neutral pronoun: “he” and “she” are all we have to work with.
       The TNIV attempted to work around this with a so-called “singular they” construct, which led to some passages appearing to apply to entire groups of people (e.g. in Revelation 3:20 “I will come in to them and they will eat with me”) when the writer of Scripture intended it to be applied individually.
       The NIV 2010 version dials back a bit on letting its philosophical commitment to gender inclusivity run roughshod over the top of translating what Bible writers actually said.
       In contrast, the ESV (English Standard Version) has decided to solve the problem of gender inclusiveness by leaving that level of understanding for the reader to work out on his own ("on her own"? "for their own"? "on his or her own"?). They simply translate what the Bible author said, using whatever gender references they find in the original text.
       Clearly, this is an area of Bible translation where we have yet to hit the ball out of the park. Action step? Stay away from the TNIV. Not a big hardship, since it seems to have been withdrawn from circulation by the publisher. [Return]

[9] It was perhaps, in part at least, to save us from an excessive reverence for "the original languages" and to affirm the value of translated Scripture that the Holy Spirit inspired the Gospel writers to compose in Greek rather than Aramaic. This has kept us from saying that "You can't really understand the words of Jesus unless you read them in the original Aramaic. Only in Aramaic can you truly experience the inspired Word of God."
       People today sometimes speak of "the original Greek" with a sense of awe that almost implies that Jesus himself SPOKE in Greek. But there is no infallible defence against ignorance. [Return]