Lesson 55: The Verb/Tense-Aspect


The Imperfect

0790. The imperfect is employed with considerable subtlety. While the present and aorist were stock modes of expression— and used, consequently, with less precision—the imperfect was felt to be a special tense designed for specific purposes. It is always in order to ask why an imperfect was chosen, in a given expression, rather than the aorist; the reverse of this question is not so often applicable. However, the case should not be overstated: with some verbs the difference between aorist and imperfect is not sharply drawn; this is particularly true of verbs of saying (e.g. ἔλεγεν is not consistently used to introduce a lengthy discourse, and εἶπεν does not always introduce a short speech, as might be expected).

790. The nuances of the imperfect may readily be observed in one or two passages in Galatians. In this letter Paul is framing his argument deftly, and we may anticipate that he will choose his tenses with care.

Notice the tenses in Gal 1:13-14:

(24) ἠκούσατε γὰρ τὴν ἐμὴν ἀναστροφήν ποτε
ἐν τῷ Ἰουδαϊσμῷ
For you have heard of my former mode of life
in Judaism
(25) ὁτι καθ' ὑπερβολὴν ἐδίωκον τὴν ἐκκλησίαν
τοῦ θεο
viz., I used to persecute the church of God violently
(26) καὶ ἐπόρθουν αὐτήν
and tried to destroy it
(27) καὶ προέκοπτον ἐν Ἰουδαϊσμῷ ὑπὲρ πολλοὺς
And I kept advancing in Judaism beyond many
my own age

790.1 The aorist in (24) is most naturally translated by the English present perfect: the English perfect, unlike the Greek perfect (§794), does not emphasize a result or effect; its use merely means that the speaker does not intend to interpose a distinct interval between the act expressed by the perfect and the moment of speaking. In this context, consequently, the English perfect sounds natural to English ears since what was heard is immediately relevant to the subject under discussion (the simple past interposes an interval, and so sounds odd).

790.2 The imperfect in (25) indicates action in progress in past time, like all imperfects. But in view of the context, it doubtless means an activity characteristic of that former way of life in Judaism. Used to persecute is therefore a way of representing the customary or habitual imperfect.

790.3 The activity denoted by the imperfect in (26) was evidently not successful: Paul did not succeed in destroying the church. This imperfect is thereforeconative: an action attempted but not fulfilled. One may translate: tried, endeavored, attempted to destroy.

790.4 At the same time, Paul was making progress as a Jew. The progressive imperfect may be translated by the English past progressive, was advancing, to indicate the linear character of the activity. Alternately, a helping verb like kept serves the same purpose.

791. Three occurrences of the imperfect in Gal 1:23f. present one new form and one additional nuance:

(28) μόνον δὲ ἀκούοντες ἦσαν
Only they kept hearing
(29) ὅτι, ὁ διώκων ἡμᾶς ποτε νῦν εὐαγγελίζεται
τὴν πίστιν ἥν ποτε ἐπόρθει
that the fellow who was persecuting us once
now preaches the faith he once tried to destroy
(30) καὶ ἐδόξαζον ἐν ἐμοὶ τὸν θεόν
and they began to glorify God because of me

791.1 The imperfect is occasionally formed periphrastically, i.e. with the appropriate form of the imperfect of εἰμί (ἦν, §568) and the present participle (cf. §785 for the present tense). In (28), ἀκούοντες ἦσav is the formal equivalent of the English past progressive, they were hearing. In this case, hearing reports is probably iterative rather than continuous (the periphrastic imperfect may be used to emphasize either continuous or iterative action), hence the translation, kept hearing.

791.2 The imperfect in (29), ἐπόρθει (cf. (26), §790), is again conative: tried to destroy.

791.3 In (30), the imperfect probably has the inception of repeated activity in past time in view. It is therefore called the inceptive or ingressive imperfect (cf. §788.2 for the ingressive aorist).

792. Summary: nuances of the imperfect. Examples (25)-(30) have served to illustrate the major nuances of the imperfect. Since the imperfect denotes durative (linear) or iterative action in past time, the basic nuances of the imperfect are:

792.1 The progressive imperfect, denoting action in progress, either linear or iterative, e.g.

(31) πολλοὶ πλούσιοι ἔβαλλον πολλά Mk 12:41
Many rich people were putting in large sums

792.2 The customary imperfect, e.g.

(32) μετὰ τῶν ἐθνῶν συνήσθιεν Gal 2:12
He used to eat with the Gentiles

(Peter acquired the custom of eating with the Gentiles and then stopped.) Cf. (27), (28) above, and Bl-D §325.

Other nuances include:

792.3 The conative imperfect (repeated effort), e.g.

(33) ὁ δὲ Ἰωάννης διεκώλυεν αὐτόν Mt 3:14
But John wanted to prevent him

Cf. (26), (29) above, and Bl-D §326.

792.4 The inceptive imperfect

(34) καὶ ἐγόγγυζον οἱ Φαρισαῖοι Lk 5:30
And the Pharisees began to grumble

Cf. (30) above.

792.5 The periphrastic imperfect is usually either durative or iterative, e.g.

(35) ἀτενίζοντες ἦσαν εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν Acts 1:10
They were gazing into heaven

Cf. (28) above. On periphrasis generally, see Bl-D §353.

793. The perfect tenses occasion slightly more difficulty for the native speaker of English than the tenses already considered. One reason is that the perfect tenses are used in a slightly different way in Greek. The difference is not large but it is now and then puzzling. Another reason is that the perfect tenses in Greek sustain a different set of relations to the other tenses of the past, the aorist and imperfect, than do the English perfect tenses to the simple and progressive past. Since native English responses are involved, it will be helpful to begin with a few observations on the English perfect tenses.

793.1 There are two forms each of the present perfect and the past perfect:

(ia) He has gone
(ib) He has been going
(iia) He had gone
(iib) He had been going

(ib) and (iib) are, of course, the progressive forms (cf. the present progressive, I am going, and the past progressive, I was going).

793.2 The simple past contrasts with the present perfect as regards the interval of time between the past event mentioned and the moment of speaking:

(iii) He wrote a book (a year ago)
(iv) He has written a book (just now completed)

The simple past refers to action in past time, and that past is now severed from the present. The past time of the present perfect, however, abuts the present. To sever the present perfect from the present would be felt to be odd:

(v) xHe has written a book a year ago

It may therefore be said: The present perfect in English interposes no interval- between the past event and the moment of speaking.

793.3 The same can be said of the progressive form of the present perfect. Contrast, for example,

(vi) He is writing a book
(vii) He has been writing a book
(viii) He was writing a book

The temporal distinctions may be represented graphically: the slash represents the speaker's present, the dots the activity referred to.

(vi) Present progressive: ... /..
(vii) Present perfect progressive: .... /
(viii) Past progressive: ..... /

The activity in (viii) ceased some time back; that in (vii) continues up to the present; and that in (vi) crosses the threshold of the present.

793.4 The past time referred to by the past perfect is doubly past, i.e. it is past from the standpoint of another event or point of reference in the past. Contrast the present and past perfects:

(ix) I have written a book (completed recently)
(x) I had written a book (completed earlier)

And the progressive forms:

(xi) I have been writing a book (for the last several weeks)
(xii) I had been writing a book (before I left on vacation)

793.5 The English present perfect thus (a) refers to past action but no definite time is indicated and no interval is interposed between the action referred to and the present. In contrast to the Greek perfect, (b) there is no particular reference to continuing effects of that action.

793.6 The English past perfect (a) refers to what is past with reference to a second point also in the past. Like the present perfect, (b) the past perfect does not have continuing effects in view.

The Perfect Indicative

794. The Greek perfect denotes action having taken place in the past but with effects reaching to the present. When the perfect is used with precision, the latter distinguishes it from the aorist (and the English present perfect, §793.5):

(36) ἤχος ... ἐπλήρωσεν ὅλον τὸν οἶκον Acts 2:2
A sound ... filled the whole house
(37) πεπληρώκατε τὴν Ἰερουσαλὴμ
τῆς διδαχῆς ὑμῶν
Acts 5:38
You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching

The aorist in (36) denotes a punctiliar act, without reference to effect. The perfect in (37) means: you have spread your teaching around in the city and its effects are everywhere apparent. One could therefore say: the perfect represents a combination of the aorist (·) and the durative present (_______) (cf. §§309ff. and Bl-D §340).

795. Unlike the English present perfect, the Greek perfect may be accompanied by a specific temporal reference. The following example also affords a contrast between aorist and perfect.

(38) ὅτι ἐτάφη, καὶ ὅτι ἐγήγερται, τῇ ἡμέρᾳ
τῇ τρίτῃ
1 Cor 15:4
that he was buried, and that he was raised
on the third day

The aorist ἐτάφη refers to a past event; the perfect ἐγήγερται. also refers to a past event (which took place on the third day), but with the added nuance: is still risen. The temporal reference requires the simple past (passive) in English, because an interval of time is interposed (§793.2), but the Greek perfect can accommodate such temporal references.

796. The Greek perfect may often be translated by the English present perfect (though with some loss of nuance). However, it is sometimes necessary to translate with a simple past in English, owing to a definite past time indicated in Greek, e.g.

(39) τεθέαμαι τὸ πνεῦμα καταβαῖνον Jn 1:32
I beheld the spirit descending

Cf. (38), §795.

Conversely, a Greek aorist may be properly represented in English by the present perfect:

(40) ἡ σκοτία ἐτύφλωσεν τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ 1 Jn 2:11
The darkness has blinded his eyes

The aorist in (40) is preceded by a series of verbs in the present tense and no particular interval is indicated by the aorist, so that the English present perfect is the natural sequence in English.

797. Observe the characteristic nuance of the perfect (past act with effects reaching to the present) in the following examples:

797.1 With continuing effect on the subject:

(41) ἡμεῖς ἐκ πορνείας οὐ γεγεννήμεθα Jn 8:41
We were not illicitly conceived (and so are not illegitimate)
(42) οὐχὶ Ἰησοῦν τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν ἐώρακα; 1 Cor 9:1
Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? (of course I
have; otherwise I would not be an apostle)

797.2 With continuing effect on the object:

(43) ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε Mk 10:52
Your faith has saved you
(44) Ἕλληνας εἰσήγαγεν εἰς τὸ ἱερὸν καὶ
κεκοίνωκεν τὸν ἅγιον τόπον τοῦτον
Acts 21:28
He brought Greeks into the temple and has
profaned this holy place

797.3 With continuing effect on the indirect object:

(45) ἀφέωνται ὑμῖν αἱ ἁμαρτίαι 1 Jn 2:12
Your sins have been forgiven you
(46) καὶ εἴρηκέν μοι, ἀρκεῖ σοι ἡ χάρις μου 2 Cor 12:9
And he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you'
(What he said put an end to the matter)

Bl-D §342.

798. The perfect may also be formed periphrastically, i.e. with the appropriate form of εἰμί, be and the perfect participle (in addition to the 3. pl. middle-passive of verbs with stems ending in a consonant, §3910). The periphrastic form is scarcely to be distinguished from the regularly inflected form, as the following parallel statements indicate:

(47) ἡ ἀγάπη αὐτοῦ τετελειωμένη ἐν ἡμῖν ἐστιν 1 Jn 4:12
His love is perfected in us
(48) ἀληθῶς ἐν τοῦτῳ ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ
1 Jn 4:5
In this one truly the love of God is perfected

Bl-D §352.

799. The present perfect in Greek is the perfect used to denote a state or condition, or an effect resulting from some previous act (hypothetically, at least). Some of these are perfects without present stem (§§388-3880), e.g.

οἶδα, I know (ᾔδειν, pluperfect = imperfect)

Others have corresponding present forms, but the perfect is used to express state or condition (the lasting effect of some previous activity), e.g.

ἕστηκα, I stand (< ἵστημι)
πέποιθα, I trust (< πείθω)
μέμνημαι, I remember (< μιμνῄσκομαι)
τέθνηκα, I am dead (< θνῄσκω)
πέπεισμαι, I am persuaded (< πείθω)

Bl-D §341.

7990. The aoristic perfect. It is sometimes alleged that the perfect had so transgressed on the domain of the aorist, especially in narrative, by the hellenistic period that its special force was spent. In the Byzantine period, the perfect and aorist are indiscriminantly mixed. The perfect eventually disappeared and was replaced wholly by periphrases (modern Greek). There is doubtless point to these allegations. It is difficult, for example, to see the perfective force in:

(49) ἄλλoι ἔλεγον, ἄγγελος αὐτῷ
Jn 12:29/td>
Others said, 'An angel spoke to him'

One early manuscript (P66), in fact, reads the aorist here. At all events, the perfect is certainly occasionally used in the hellenistic period without its special nuance, i.e. as an aorist. But pending a full study of the Greek tenses of the period, the student will do well to continue to inquire what, if any, special force a given perfect has.

800. The pluperfect, like the English past perfect (§793.4,6), refers to time that is past from the perspective of another, more recent point of reference in the past. Unlike the English past perfect (§793.6), the pluperfect normally points to some continuing effect, or denotes a state or condition, that obtains at the more recent past point of reference. Bl-D §347.

The pluperfect appears with only 22 verbs in the New Testament. It was never in common use. See §§0415-418 for conjugation.

800.1 The use of the pluperfect is simply illustrated by

(50) καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐπίασεν αὐτόν,
ὅτι οὔπω ἐληλύθει ἡ ὥρα αὐτοῦ
Jn 8:20
And no one arrested him,
because his hour had not yet come
(51) παρ' ἧς ἐκβεβλήκει ἑπτὰ δαιμόνια Mk 16:9
From whom he had cast out seven demons

800.2 The perfects which denote a present state or condition (§799) in the pluperfect denote a past state or condition, e.g. ᾔδειν (< οἶδα)

(52) κάγὼ οὐκ ᾔδειν αὐτόν Jn 1:33
And I myself did not know him

800.3 The pluperfect may also be formed periphrastically (the appropriate form of ἦν and the perfect participle), e.g.

(53) καὶ ἀπεσταλμένοι ἦσαν ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων Jn 1:24
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees

Cf. Jn 3:24; Bl-D §352.

800.4 The Greek aorist is frequently used of a past event that precedes another past event in the narrative, where the special nuance of the pluperfect is not required. Consequently, an aorist will sometimes be translated by an English pluperfect.

(54) καὶ ἐπελάθοντο λαβεῖν ἄρτους Mk 8:14
And they had forgotten to bring food

801. The future tense, in contrast to the other tenses, expresses only time (not aspect, cf. §312.2-3). Kind of action may be implied, of course, by a specific context, but the tense stem itself was developed, probably in conjunction with the subjunctive (Bl-D §318), to express future time.

801.1 The future indicative is employed to make assertions about the future:

(55) ἕξει τὸ φῶς τῆς ζωῆς Jn 8:12
He shall have the light of life
(56) ζητήσετέ με Jn 8:21
You will seek me

801.2 The future is occasionally used in injunctions and prohibitions, in the style of the Old Testament.

(57) οὐ φονεύσεις Mt 5:21
You shall not kill
(58) ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου Mt 5:43
You shall love your neighbor

Bl-D §362. Cf. the imperative, §§808f.

801.3 The future is occasionally formed periphrastically (§568). For μέλλω with an infinitive to express the future, s. §569. On the rare gnomic future, s. Bl-D §349.