John 8:58 and Subordinate Dependant Clause

Alan Repurk (
Mon, 19 Aug 1996 09:12:24 -0700

-- [ From: Mitchell Andrews * EMC.Ver #2.3 ] --

Lars, Would you please post this to b-greek for me? I am still awaiting Juno

Summary: This summary answers Ron Henzel's claim that a subordinate dependent
clause cannot modify the meaning of the main verb. It will clarify the
relationship between tense and time in the Present Active Indicative. It will
further <briefly> touch on the importance of considering verbal aspect and
context to determine the time of the main verb.

"Must" reading: "Time and Aspect in New Testament Greek" Novum Testamentum 34
(1992), 209-228.

Mr. Henzel wrote:
> Subordinating adverbial particles denote the beginning of dependent
> clauses. Therefore, the clause "Before Abraham was" is a dependent
> clause and not a coordinate clause of "I am." Therefore, "Before
> Abraham was" cannot possibly modify the meaning of "I am."
> The net result of this is that due to the presence of the
> subordinating adverbial particle, <eimi> in John 8:58 canNOT POSSIBLY
> be a use of the "perfective present," as A.T. Robertson also points
> out. Therefore, it is improper to translate it "I have been."<<

There are two significant flaws in this statement that I do not think proper to
let go unanswered.
First, >> <eimi> in John 8:58 canNOT POSSIBLY be a use of the "perfective
present," <<
Who is arguing for the use of "The Perfective Present" at John 8:58? Certainly
not the NWT Committee! The Perfective Present is NOT the same as the Extension
from the Past idiom (aka the Present of Past Action Still in Progress). The
Perfective Present emphasizes that THE RESULTS of a past action are still
continuing. For example, at 1John 5:20 HO HUIOS TOU THEOU **HKEI**, KAI DEDWKEN
HMIN tells us that "the Son of God HAS COME." Now, was the Son of God still
coming at the time John wrote these words? Or is John not emphasizing the
continuing RESULTS of that coming? It is the latter, of course. However, the
Extension from Past describes an ACTION from past time continuing to the
present. Thus, BDF tell us: "The present is NOT PERFECTIVE in those cases where
the duration or repetition of an act up to and including the present is to be
designated (a temporal expression indicates the intended period of the past) .
. . John 5 [sic - The intended reference is to John 8; see German original]:58
EIMI." (1961:168, sec. 322). At John 8:58, the Present EIMI with the expression
of past time identifies this as the "Present of Past Action Still in Progress."
Jesus was alive in Abraham's day and was STILL ALIVE when he spoke his words.
The best translation offered in ENGLISH for this is with the ENGLISH PERFECT.
Do not confuse the Greek Perfective with the English Perfect. And please do not
criticize the NWT Committee for not understanding this when it is really the
critics who do not, and then have this misinformation propagated throughout the
Christian world. This quote of the "perfective present" sounds like something
in an anti-JW Greek pop book. I realize that you may have read this from
else you trust, but I hope the above comments are beneficial and enriching in
response. So while at the beginning of this thread the NWT was spoken of
derogatorally, we realize at this time that the mistake was a misunderstanding
on the part of the poster, not the NWT.

The second is:
> Subordinating adverbial particles denote the beginning of dependent
> clauses. Therefore, the clause "Before Abraham was" is a dependent
> clause and not a coordinate clause of "I am." Therefore, "Before
> Abraham was" cannot possibly modify the meaning of "I am."
> Therefore, it is improper to translate it "I have been."

Oops! You missed a big one in Jer.1:5 (LXX) before making this assertion:

PRO TOU [subordinating prep.] ME PLASAI [aorist infinitive] SE EN KOLIA
EPISTAMAI [main clause verb - Present Middle (but deponent - BAGD) Indicative]
SE KAI PRO TOU [subordinating prep.] SE EXELQEIN [aorist infinitive] EK MHTRAS
EGIAKA [Perfect Active Indicative]

Before I formed thee in the belly (subordinate clause with an expression of
past time), I knew thee (main clause); and before thou cames forth from the
womb (subordinate clause with an expression of past time), I sanctified thee
(main clause);

We here find an expression of past time beginning a subordinate adverbial
clause referring to a time in the past before the birth of Jeremiah. From this
time and to the time when God said the words, he knew [epistamai] Jeremiah.
Brenton appropriately shows the TEMPORAL placement of the present tense verb in
the main clause. Brenton translates with an English simple past tense ["I
knew"], which is fine to show the past reference, but "I have known" would more
fully capture the durative nature of the Greek Present tense.

This singular example effectively dispatches this proposed new "rule" without
further explanation.
This applies whether or not the "Present Perfective" or "Present with Past
Extension" is intended.
However, for the benefit of all the students and others who follow this thread,
and who may wish to know why "I have been" is an appropriate translation of
"EGO EIMI" in John 8:58, the rest is an explanation of WHY the subordinate
clause can and does modify the main clause verb TEMPORALLY.

[Note: The parallel clause in Jer. 1:5 uses a Greek Perfect tense EGIAKA,
indicating even more definitely that a clause beginning with "before" can
indicate past actions with duration into the present.]

The proposed assertion reflects a lack of distinction between:
- Greek Tense and English Tense, and
- Greek Tense and Time
which resulted in the confusion reflected in the assertion.

Permit me to clarify the issue. The issue is TIME, not TENSE. A subordinate
clause CAN indicate the TIME of the main verb.

For the benefit of the students following this thread, I will use the terms
used in the second year grammar "Intermediate New Testament Greek - A
Linguistic and Exegetical Approach" by Richard Young.

A Present Active Indicative Greek verb form can be:
- Descriptive Present (p.107)
This is well translated by the English present continuous tense.
How does one identify the Descriptive Present? Context.

- Futuristic Present (p.111)
This can translate to the English future or using "going to."
How does one identify the Futuristic Present? Context.

And for our John 8:58 construction:
- Durative Present (pp.111,112) [Extension from the Past]
"English translations will therefore employ the present perfect."
How does one identify the Durative Present? Context.

As A.T. Robertson (1934:881,882) observed: "Since the pres. ind. occurs for
past, present and future time it is clear that "time" is secondary even in the

How does a translator determine the time of the Present tense verb? Young

This point needs to be stressed here. I capitalize for emphasis: A subordinate
clause may not modify the GREEK TENSE, but if it is a TEMPORAL clause, it may
indicate TIME of the VERB in the MAIN CLAUSE!

Porter stresses this point well in "Verbal Aspect" and in "Idioms of the Greek
New Testament" Second Ed. (1994). I quote from the latter, p.23:

"1.2 Time and Tense-Forms
Temporal values (past, present, future) are not established in Greek
by the use of verbal aspects (tense-forms) alone. This may come as a
surprise to those who, like most students of Greek, were taught at an
elementary level that certain tense-forms automatically refer to certain
times when an action occurs. . . .
This presupposes that in Greek the temporal ordering of events is not
measured in relation to a fixed point (absolute time), but by the relations
established among the involved events with regard to each other and to
the CONTEXT. This relating is achieved by a variety of indicators
available in the language (e.g. use of TEMPORAL ADVERBS, such
as NUN, TOTE [and may I add PRIN? and PRO?]). In other words,
elements OTHER than verbal aspect (CONTEXT, for example) are the
This applies in the case not only of non-indicative mood forms, but of
the indicative mood as well."

In "Verbal Aspect" (p.107), Porter states "... tense-forms in Greek are not
primarily time-based, but ... they are aspectually based." He offers three
aspects: Perfective, imperfective, and stative. Our John 8:58 EIMI aspect is

To assert that "I have been" is an erroneous translation reflects the
impression that Greek grammaticalizes "tense," and that tense absolutely
determines the time value of the verb. Not so. Greek grammaticalizes <aspect>
and the aspect at John 8:58 is imperfective. The time must determined from the
context, which includes an expression of past time, from which the present EIMI
extends. This answers the Jews' question, How have you seen Abraham? (vs. 57).
How long before Abraham the Messiah 'had been' is not stated.

Therefore, the translation "I have been" IS JUST AS LITERAL as "I am" IS JUST
AS LITERAL as "I will be" with regard to the "tense" of EIMI. The issue is
TIME. And PRIN is a glaring red flag aspect word indicating past time. The Jews
would have naturally understood the past extension from the clause indicating
past time.

Our argument here is NOT that EIMI is a Greek Perfect tense. No! Please do not
misunderstand. This is what is presented in literature critical of the NWT. The
tense is Present. However, the present tense is EXTENDED to the past since the
action BEGAN in the past as indicated by PRIN. Young calls this the "Durative

Let us not think merely that the Present Active Indicative of EIMI refers
to "eternity." No. As we said above, time must be determined from context, not
the tense of the verb. In John 15:27, Jesus said "YOU are the ones who have
been (present active indicative) with me from the beginning." Because the verb
is Present Active Indicative should we conclude that the Apostles were with
Jesus from eternity? Of course not. Therefore, Jesus' use of EIMI at John 8:58
does not in itself mean eternal existence. The bounds that the context gives us
is only that Jesus was alive before Abraham up to and including the time he
spoke the words at John 8:58.

Before Abraham came into existence I, the Christ, have been."
This is in fact roughly equivalent to the translation suggested by Edwin
Freed ("Who or What was Before Abraham in John 8:58?"
JSNT (1983): 52-59)

If anyone has any further questions, you are welcome to email me privately.
Frankly, I prefer one on one and do not like public debates, but I think this
was important since it misrepresented the position of the New World
Translation. And don't forget to read "Time and Aspect in N.T. Greek."

Yours Truly to All,
Centennial Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses
Greenwood Village, CO