Re: Tense and Aspect / Action and States of Being

From: Paul Zellmer (
Date: Sat Sep 07 1996 - 13:34:23 EDT

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?

Paul Zellmer
Southern Methodist Missions

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