Re: Grammatical Tense, LEGW, & Mark

From: Philip L. Graber (
Date: Wed Oct 25 1995 - 10:27:59 EDT

On Tue, 24 Oct 1995, Stephen Carlson wrote:

> This discussion on grammatical tense is very interesting, so I am wondering
> if it could shed any light on why Mark, during one of Jesus's discourses
> on the Sabbath, switches from the historical present [LEGEI 2:25] to the
> imperfect [ELEGEN v27] for the pronouncement. The Lukan parallel is similar
> but the switch is from the aorist [EIPEN 6:3] to the imperfect [ELEGEN v5].
> (Matthew lacks a parallel to Mark's KAI ELEGEN AUTOIS of Mk2:27.)
> Is there something about the imperfect that could suggest a punchline
> here?

It has always seemed to me that, in general, aorist finite verbs
carry the story line in gospel narratives. It also seems that present
finite verbs ("historical present" verbs) are also on the story line, but
closely tie the events they encode with what precedes, as in a response
to something that happens or is said. (It is interesting to note how many
of these "historical presents" are verbs of speech, esp. LEGW.)
Nevertheless, they still do seem to me to push the story line forward.
Imperfects, on the other hand, generally do not seem to push the story
line forward, but typically provide background information necessary to
understand the story development, but not strictly part of it. So whereas
Matthew has merged the speech of Jesus into one utterance in Mt 12:3-8,
Mk and Lk have an intervening utterance formula (KAI ELEGEN AUTOIS) prior
to the "punchline," but the imperfect verb indicates that this is not a
separate utterance as event in the story, but part of the same utterance
as in Mt. The utterance formula highlights the saying at the end, but
does not make it a separate event in the story.

It is interesting to note that, according to my understanding of the
tense forms here, the Pharisees' question in Mk 2:24 is not an event
(since it is introduced with ELEGON), but background which sets up Jesus'
utterance; LEGEI in v. 25 is then a response not so much to the
Pharisees, but to the actions of the disciples. This seems a little
awkward. Perhaps this is why Mt and Lk both use the aorist (EIPAN) for
the Pharisees' speech (and Jesus' reply as well). In Lk the actions of
the disciples are presented as background, and the story becomes one
about the Pharisees' challenge and Jesus' response. In Mt both the
disciples' action and the Pharisees' response are in the aorist, all part
of the storyline to which Jesus responds.

Have I made too much of something small?

Philip Graber Graduate Division of Religion
Graduate Student in New Testament 211 Bishops Hall, Emory University Atlanta, GA 30322 USA

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