Re: Tense and Aspect / Action and States of Being

Carl W. Conrad (
Sat, 7 Sep 1996 11:22:59 -0500

At 12:34 PM -0500 9/7/96, Paul Zellmer wrote:
>Carl W. Conrad wrote:
>> I think there is a perilous assumption or two here, a tendency to revert to
>> a conception of the Greek of the NT as something fundamentally different
>> from the Koine spoken and written throughout the Hellenistic/Roman world.
>> That is a long-since exploded notion, although perhaps here Paul is not
>> trying to argue for a "sacred" language that is different from secular
>> Koine. Surely there are Semitisms at several points in the NT texts and the
>> student who comes to read NT texts from reading classical Attic texts
>> previously does have to learn of some peculiar constructions that emerged
>> in the LXX translation from the Hebrew. These tend, however, to be
>> concentrated in the Synoptic gospels, for the most part. I'm somewhat
>> doubtful, moreover, that there was ever a time in the history of the
>> ancient Greek language when context did not play an important role in
>> defining (too strong a word?) the usage of a particular tense. That's
>> already true in the earliest literary Greek, the Homeric poetry; Homeric
>> poetry, moreover, shares with the NT texts an "international" character, in
>> fact an even more dialect-independent idiom (since the formulae of the oral
>> poetry derived from Aeolic, Ionic, and even Doric elements) that was not a
>> spoken language at all but rather an artificial language ("Kunstsprache,"
>> it is commonly termed) chanted and understood by people of different
>> dialect areas throughout the entire Greek-speaking world. I don't think one
>> can ever ignore context when reading Greek of any period, but the
>> fundamental aspect distinctions of the tenses are never irrelevant either.
>> It is a fact of profound importance that the NT, despite those elements
>> within some of its documents that clearly show forth concepts and speech
>> elements deriving from a Jewish milieu (and that milieu is not distinctly a
>> Palestinian Jewish milieu so much as a Diaspora Jewish milieu), survives
>> 100% in Greek. The primitive Christianity that shaped the NT corpus so
>> quickly transcended Jewish ethnic boundaries and became an international
>> movement that we must attribute the bulk of the composition of the NT
>> documents to Gentile Christian writers. I'm inclined to think that even
>> Paul, so far as the Greek he spoke and wrote is concerned, should be
>> understood fundamentally within this Gentile Christian linguistic sphere
>> rather than in any sort of distinctly "Semitic" kind of Koine dialect.
>Your assumption that I am not re-proposing a "sacred" language is
>correct, but neither am I simply asking about Semiticisms in the NT. (I
>would define those as distinct borrowings of words or idiomatic ideas.)
>The question centers around Rich's characterization of the Greek verb
>forms that sounded almost as free from time restrictions as does Hebrew
>verb forms. Specifically, his descriptions of past and present sound
>like completed and uncompleted actions, and his characterization of the
>future sounds almost (but not exactly) like what I was taught was a
>first class conditional. [The difference appears to be that there is no
>"result" clause.] He is using Young as the basis for his argument. So,
>to rephrase the question, could you or someone else on the list contrast
>the way the Greek depends on context for "time" with the contextual
>dependency of Hebrew.
>A major reason for my question is the situation in which I work in the
>Philippines. I work with a language that parallels the Semitic
>two-tense system very closely, yet they live among languages that are
>three-tense. As such, they have developed certain techniques used to
>more economically translate three-tense ideology into their "completed
>action/incompleted action" language. In the past, we have used this
>type pattern to translate the Greek. However, if Greek, and
>specifically the Greek found in portions of the NT, is closer to the
>two-tense model, then we should use that model, which is more natural in
>the language anyway, for our translation.
>Let me give one specific item that may serve as a jumping-off place: I
>was taught that a prefixed epsilon, in either its pure or contracted
>forms, was a clear indicator of past time. If I understand Rich's
>comments correctly, this would be better stated as action which is
>considered to be completed from the point of view of the discussion,
>whether the actual completion of action is past, present, or future as
>we English speakers look at it. Does this play better with the data
>than does the English-like time system?

I think I understand the point you're arguing (but I may be wrong) but I
really think that the questions being raised in this discussion have more
to do with hermeneutics: how do we carry over the intended sense of the
Greek into the language we're using?--than they have to do with the
understanding of the workings of Greek grammar. It is certainly true that
the sense of time and the perception on verbal "aspect" is different in
different linguistic traditions. But I think we ought to distinguish as
carefully as we can two very distinct objectives in our dealing with Koine
Greek: (1) we ought to endeavor to understand what the Greek text in its
own terms and context is saying; that really ought to be our PRIMARY
objective, and I submit that we cannot go on to the second until we have
done that adequately (or as best we can?); (2) we need to find the most
meaningful way to convey the CONTENT of that Greek text into the language
that is native to us--and this is the hermeneutical task (or the beginning
of it, and the SINE QUA NON). What I really fear is that we (by which I
mean all of us who discuss the grammatical problems of Biblical Greek) tend
to PERCEIVE the structures of Koine Greek as if they mirrored the
structures of our own language (enter my pet peeve about "deponent
verbs"--verbs whose voice doesn't behave the way we speakers of English and
other European languages think they ought to behave).

I cannot help but think that a good deal of the splitting of tense usages
into progressively self-ramifying categories says more about our need to
translate into the nuances appropriate to English. This is certainly valid
where the nuances are there in the Greek, but often I think it is a matter
of our discerning the nuances for English (or German, or French ...). There
are real differences of aspect in Greek verbs and the tenses are really
different. It's not the same language as the language of Homer, nor is it
the same language as the language of Plato, either, but then, neither is it
a wholly different language. Robertson may have been wrong about several
things, but I think (personally) that he was right to want to understand
Biblical Greek in terms of the development of the Greek language over the

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR