Re: NUN ([too] long!)

Rod Decker (
Mon, 16 Dec 1996 07:34:02 -0500

Carl has commented that:

>Rod Decker has been so quiet since moving from Kansas City to Pennsylvania
>that I hope we can roust him out of that lurking persuasion. He has
>published a paper on NUN as a marker of temporal deixis (title was
>something like that; I did read it over a year ago); I think it still may
>be at the Hellenistic Grammar web site. Are you there, Rod? Care to comment?

Yes, I'm here. I've been wearily listening, biting my tongue, trying not to
contribute more excess band-width to a second-hand debate that isn't going
to be resolved here. The paper is no longer on the Hell. Gk. site (that
copy was lost when that site crashed several months ago). Since it has now
been published, I thought it unnecessary to repost it. The bibliog. info is
as follows:

"The Semantic Range of NUN in the Gospels as Related to Temporal Deixis,"
_Trinity Journal_ 16 ns (1995) 187-217.

I will also append the conclusion of that article below. Edgar's recent
comments re. NUN are largely confirmed in the article (though I have taken
a diff. approach to aspect than I think he does). I _have_ interacted with
Mari's comments on NUN in the article.

I have another relevant article to be published in the innaugural issue of
_Journal of Ministry and Theology_ (JOMAT) this spring: _The Use of EUTHUS
("immediately") in Mark_. In brief it will argue that English translations
and commentaries on the Gospel of Mark often translate EUTHUS as
"immediately." This ignores the semantic range of EUTHUS and often results
in over-exegeting. A sensitivity to Mark's distinctive use of EUTHUS as
both an adverb of rapidity and as a conjunction suggests that a variety of
English equivalents are needed in translation.

The (longer) conclusion to the NUN article (with all footnotes omitted,
except the last one):

The preceding discussion has demonstrated that NUN is a useful deictic
indicator in determining temporal implicature in the Greek of the Gospels.
It may not, however, be straight-jacketed into immediate present time only.
The semantic range demonstrated from the context of the various uses
includes both past and future reference. Both of these uses are limited to
a fairly short temporal span either before or after the speaker's present
reference point and the event so described is usually, if not always,
closely related to the present situation. It would be inappropriate to use
nu'n to describe events years earlier or in the indefinite future, though
it needs to be remembered that it is used of events that took place several
weeks or perhaps even months earlier (John 11:8).

These conclusions would suggest that Porter's thesis in regard to verbal
aspect and time reference is essentially correct. However, specific deictic
indicators (NUN in particular) may not be restricted too closely and
aspectual evaluations need to take other contextual factors into account.
The range of temporal reference evidenced includes past (aorist and
imperfect forms), present (aorist, present, and perfect forms), and future
(aorist, present, and future forms) time. This validates Porter's point
that the tenses may not be assumed to grammaticalize any specific temporal
relationship but rather depend on pragmatic factors to indicate temporal
implicature. But as McKay has observed, "in his enthusiasm to overthrow the
old erroneous assumptions [Porter] sometimes goes too far, and either
ignores or misapplies the contextual evidence." This ought not to detract
from his basic thesis (with which McKay and this writer are in agreement),
but should caution the reader to verify the evidence cited through a
careful examination of contextual factors.

Those who are engaged in exegesis would do well to examine the text for
similar phenomena as has been illustrated here. Isolated word studies,
occassional assumptions based on individual grammatical features (e.g.,
tense or voice), or nuggets of exegetical ore do not add up to an adequate
or careful handling of Scripture. An exegete must be sensitive to a wide
range of grammatical, syntactical, and contextual features, all of which
harmonize to convey the message. Contemporary aspect theory can enable a
more accurate understanding of some parts of that picture. It is not an
elixir and ought not to be overemphasized. Its chief value may be to
discourage an artificial, atomistic emphasis on individual elements by
forcing the exegete to pay greater attention to the total context.

Footnote: This discussion has assumed a minimalist approach to language in
which meaning is based on the total context with a minimum of value being
attributed to individual grammatical units (such as tense, morphemes,
etc.). Redundancy and linguistic ambiguity (vagueness) are necessary parts
of any language. Silva wisely counsels that "an interpreter is unwise to
emphasize an idea that allegedly comes from the use of a tense (or some
other subtle grammatical distinction) unless the context as a whole clearly
sets forth that idea. Whether the use of the tense contributes to that idea
or whether it is the idea that contributes to the use of the tense is
perhaps debatable, but no interpretation is worth considering unless it has
strong contextual support. If it doesn't, then the use of the grammatical
detail becomes irrelevant; if it does, then the grammar is at best a
pointer to, not the basis of, the correct interpretation." (_God, Language
and Scripture_, 118; see also 56, 108-10.) Fanning notes this explicitly in
connection with verbal aspect: "One can expect aspect, like any linguistic
feature, to be maximally redundant in a context-that is, it will correlate
with other elements of a sentence, and there will be little of importance
which the aspect alone contributes to the overall meaning" (_Verbal
Aspect_, 82).

[Post-article note: Silva's recently released vol. re. exeg. method also
has a lengthy section re. aspect that is worth reading: _Explorations in
Exegetical Method: Galatians As a Test Case_ (Baker, 1996), see esp. pp.

Rodney J. Decker, Asst. Prof./NT Baptist Bible Seminary Clarks Summit, PA