Re: Attention aspect geeks: John 15:6 EBLHQH, EXHRANQH

From: Don Wilkins (
Date: Mon Apr 07 1997 - 22:05:25 EDT

Whenever I make a controversial statement or throw myself in a lions' den,
I always do it with some trepidation about what Carl and other truly
venerable voices on the list will say in response. Obviously this is one of
those situations where we disagree in part, but I would encourage everyone
else to listen closely to Carl, whose credentials are impeccable and
considerably more than a match for my own.

At 2:54 PM 4/7/97, Carl W. Conrad wrote:
>What do you say, Don, about the augment on an imperfect indicative
>verb--both protasis and apodosis--in a present counter-factual condition as
>a time indicator?

This construction is a very good foil for the gnomic aorist. As has been
suggested in the past, the grammar actually takes us back to a time when
things could have theoretically been different, and we infer that at
present things are in fact contrary to the situation expressed in the
condition (hence the name). One very fine but important distinction to be
made--which potentially could erase the line of disagreement between
"conservatives" and those of the "brave new world"--is that a writer can
use the grammar to make a point which is to be inferred from the context,
even though the point itself is grammatically opposed to the statement in
question. Take my favorite example of the present contrary-to-fact: "If I
were you, I would shoot myself" (Eng. imperfect protasis, subjunctive
apodosis, which instead would be imperfect in Greek). I think the Greek is
literally saying that if at some time in the past I am you (forgive the
awkard Eng.), then at some time past I shoot myself. But the *point* is
that as things stand now, I am not you and thus I am here to talk with you.
As far as I know, this condition is always called a present
contrary-to-fact or something similar, named for the point being made
rather than the grammatical forms being used. My complaint would be
directed towards those who might argue that accepting this construction as
"present" demands that the imperfect tense by its very nature be present
time. In my mind they not only misrepresent the nature of the imperfect
tense but miss the opportunity to analyze and digest what is really going
on in this interesting construction. I would also add that while I have
trouble with linguists attempting to redefine Greek grammar, I think they
have done a great service in prodding us to take a more scientific approach
to contextual and lexical factors and their influence on the *point* of a

>For my own part, inasmuch as I have spoken pretty enthusiastically about
>those aorists and McKay's interpretation of them (nor do I feel otherwise
>now), I feel myself more somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between
>the hard line you have laid down in favor of the so-called traditional
>view of the "tenses" and the "brave new world" espoused by the adherents of
>the aorist as a non-tense. I do not think that the "tradition" is nearly so
>solid as has been claimed regarding the augmented aorist indicative as
>having clear and unvarying reference to past time. I think it may well be
>some time before the dust really settles on the questions of the
>Hellenistic aorist and I am certainly eager to see the results of computer
>searches of the inscriptions, as you suggest. On the other hand, I would
>sort of expect inscriptions of any official sort to be dealing with actual
>events, apart from what is in verse form, and verse form is subject to
>numerous factors.

I would reiterate that to me, the point of a writer's statement may have to
do with another time frame, but the point should be viewed as something
separate from the actual grammar of such a statement. As to the
inscriptions, I would hope and expect that we will in fact find many
references to actual events, which can serve as objective evidence for the
timing of the aorist. It almost goes without saying that our interest is in
prose as opposed to poetry; however, I'm not aware of evidence even in
poetry that calls for a thoroughgoing change of meaning for the aorist
indicative (i.e. along the lines of "the aor. ind. means this in prose, but
this in poetry").

>As for the argument that Homer is the last refuge of a scoundrel trying to
>prove strange theories about the aorist, that, it seems to me is a
>double-edged blade. The Homeric texts may be centuries earlier than even
>classical Attic and still earlier than the Koine of the NT, but there was
>no time in antiquity that Homer was not read and recited aloud and listened
>to by Greek-speaking peoples. Consequently the echoes of Homer in Greek of
>all periods are like the echoes of Shakespeare and the King James Bible in
>the English of all periods since the 16th century. Without pre-judging the
>matter, I'd be curious about the use of aorists in Greek choral lyric,
>including the choruses of Greek tragedy and Greek comedy, and also in the
>whole epigrammatic tradition from Archilochus up to the end of antiquity.
>And yes, I know that there are significant generic differences between
>poetry and prose, but nevertheless poetry and prose impact upon each other
>considerably, and as Edgar Krentz nicely called attention this morning,
>there's a dactylic hexameter not normally recognized as such in James 1:17.

Come, come, Carl; now you are pounding the table. Since you mention
Shakespeare and the KJV, I'll use them as another foil for comparison. All
three (i.e. including Homer) are great, unequaled works of literature which
should be required reading for all college students and perhaps younger as
well (and I speak shame-faced as someone who has never had a class in
Shakespeare). However, we would not serve students well to teach them the
spelling and, in some cases, the grammar of Shakespeare and the KJV (e.g.
"which" for persons; I haven't studied what is going on there and don't
know offhand) as a source of correction for errors in modern English,
though we would probably have more success with that than with using Homer
to correct our understanding of Attic Greek grammar. As to lyric and choral
poetry, etc., I would need to refresh my memory but I don't recall seeing
any significant non-dialectical differences in the use of the aor. ind. (I
recently did a tragedy-in-translation/film class and don't remember
anything odd about the use of tenses). I would certainly be willing to
examine poetry as well as prose, since the differences are mainly in word
order and diction. BTW, I missed Edgar's comments on James 1:17, and did
not see the hexameter in a cursory reading. What section was he referring
to (off-list reply would be fine)?

>If you would, Don, I'd very much like the data on that book on the grammar
>of Greek inscriptions; it does sound interesting. I'm also looking forward
>to the latest version of Prometheus. Whatever we may disagree on, you make
>me proud to be a Mac-user in these days of Apple's low tide.

I now have the book in front of me: Leslie Threatte, _The Grammar of Attic
Inscriptions II: Morphology_ (839 pp., a sizeable fraction of which is
addenda to the first volume) 1996 by De Gruyter (hence the outrageous price
of some $300+ at discount!). As to Prometheus, I hope to get out the next
version sometime this week--conceivably as early as tonight or tomorrow,
but as Jonathan knows, "there's always one more bug". There are some
exciting new Macs coming out, some of which run Windows with a Pentium
built on for $400 extra, so maybe a Mac version of Prometheus will
ultimately suffice (I'm also thinking of a Java version, but that may or
may not be doable).

Don Wilkins
UC Riverside

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