re: Tense and aspect in Mark 2:18-20

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Sat Sep 07 1996 - 11:38:34 EDT

At 10:39 AM -0500 9/7/96, Mike Phillips wrote:
>> From: Jonathan Robie <>, on 9/7/96 9:02 AM:
>> "Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting (hHSAN NHSTEUONTES,
>> periphrastic imperfect). [Some people] came (ERCONTAI, present mid./pass.)
>> asked (LEGOUSIN, present) Jesus, "How is it that John's disciples and the
>> disciples of the Pharisees are fasting (NHSTEUOUSIN, present), but your's
>> not fasting (NHSTEUOUSIN, present)?"
> This brings up (for me) a further question: Could one render this
>verse as "Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were in the habit of fasting
>(imperfect). [Some people] (continually from the force of the present) came
>(past alluded to by historical present in the narrative) asking (present
>relying still on the since of continuation) Jesus, "How...
> Rather than making this a one time narrative event, it allows it to
>become a doctrinal issue placed in the course of a narrative structure. Is
>there any reason to render this verse as though it were a single event in a
>historical setting vs. a disputational question that Jesus and the disciples
>often encountered, complete with the definitive answer given by Jesus?

There are two distinct questions raised here, first Jonathan's and then
Mike's; although closely related, they are different. Jonathan asks about
the tenses and aspect in the narrative. Of course the present and imperfect
have the same aspect: continuous or recurrent action. I think Jonathan's
observation and surmise are right on target: Mark quite regularly uses an
imperfect to indicate the setting of the event of the pericope, then
narrates the event in the present tense. It is customary to call that a
"historical" present and say that it refers to a past event in a way that
makes it vividly acted out before the reader/listener's imagination.
Unfortunately, the English versions (with a notable exception in the Jesus
Seminar version--a much maligned version, in my own view) generally
translate that "historical" present as a past tense, thereby (1)
interpreting the passage as referring to a historical event, which just MAY
not be Mark's intention at all; (2) deliberately undermining what just MAY
be Mark's intention, namely to confront the reader/listener with a scene
that really is being played out in the present time.

This leads into Mike's question(s) and I would personally respond to this
from a form-critical and redaction-critical perspective. The pericope is, I
suspect, a literary construct composed either by Mark (as I think more
likely) or just possibly (as appears to be the more commonly held view)
earlier in the development of the oral tradition as one unit in the larger
string of controversy narratives beginning at 2:1 and extending through
3:6, where they climax in the plotting (on the Sabbath!) to execute this
man who violates Sabbath and other regulations of the Torah as interpreted
by the rabbis.

I don't know whether Norman Perrin's ideas have passed out of currency
(although I know that some schools still use his little book on Redaction
Criticism), but I thought one of his neatest notions was that each pericope
needs to be interpreted in terms of THREE _Sitzen-im-Leben_: (1) the
context of the original Jesus-saying at the core of the pericope (what did
Jesus mean by this saying originally to his first hearers?); (2) the
context of the oral tradition and the use of the pericope within the
primitive church (what sorts of sermons did they preach from this
tradition--or what standard of their own behavior did they justify by means
of it?); and (3) the context in the particular written gospel and its
author, intended audience, time of composition, etc. (what was Mark using
this story for in his proclamation of the meaning of Jesus to his own
generation and his own community?).

I prefer to view Mark's gospel as different from Mt's and Lk's in that they
focus upon a historical sequence of the ministry of Jesus from birth
through resurrection while Mark focuses upon what the risen Christ is doing
TODAY--even as he writes and readers/listeners receive his gospel message.
And I think this is the primary reason why Mark has a predilection for the
present tense to set the actions of Jesus before his audience. When Mark's
Jesus says, "The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins," this
is not a record of what the historical Jesus said in his earthly ministry
(even if he did say such a thing) so much as it is a declaration that the
Risen Christ is the agent of forgiveness for believers who respond to
him--to those believers who apprehend directly the gospel message of Mark.

I realize that this has exceeded considerably the apparent dimensions of
the original grammatical question concerning the imperfect and present
tenses in Mark 2:18-20, but I have brought these considerations up because
I think they DO have a bearing on how we understand the present tense in
this passage--and in many other passages in Mark's gospel--and because I
thought that Mike's question pointed quite correctly to this line of
interpretation. I know that some will find this way of reading Mark
unsatisfying, but the question of Mark's choice of tenses is not utterly
removed from his understanding of his own mission as an evangelist.

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

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