Re: hEURISKEI in Acts 10:27 - Present Tense?

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Sat Apr 11 1998 - 04:15:58 EDT

Ron Ross writes:

>I think your query may have a much simpler answer. It is my definite
>impression that in biblical Greek it is not in the least uncommon to use what
>has often been called the "historical present". This is a present tense verb
>used with a past tense meaning, and is often used to lend vividness to a
>narration once the past tense has been established in the discourse. When
>happens, the present is "freed" from its imperfective aspect. Punctilliar
>situations are in no way at odds with present tense forms whose meaning is not
>present. Consider, for example:
>"Last Saturday I *go* into a restaurant and this guy *walks* up and *hits* me
>once right in the nose."
>None of these verbs is used imperfectively, despite their being in the present
>tense FORM. In the Greek text of Acts 10.27, the past time is established
>before the historical present is used. My English example sounds extremely
>colloquial, but that is no reason to assume that the historical present in
>Greek sounded the same way. I cannot cite you references right now, but I am
>sure that I have come across historical presents in Greek on numerous

Dear Ron,

The word OYWNIA in Rom 6:23 does not mean "pay" but "the pay of soldiers".
In older Norwegian there is a word with just this meaning and it is used in
the translation of 1930. This word is no longer used or understood so the
translation of 1978 uses just "pay". Have we lost anything? The answer
depends on the desired level of sophistication. If we want to convey Paul`s
dramatic imagery of men who are soldiers in the army of king Sin and who
get their OYWNIA, which is death, then we HAVE lost something. But if we
just want to give the reader a general impression, the word "pay" will do.

I do not object to your suggestion that hEURISKEI is an "historical
present"; you are in line with the reference grammars. What I object to is
the level of sophistication and the ad hoc explanations of these grammars.
If we say that the present is "freed" from its imperfective aspect, is this
not a typical ad hoc statement? The only reason for saying this regarding
our verb, as far as I can see, is that the example flies in the face of our
definition of what is imperfective. In such cases I think we should ask
instead: Is our definition wrong? Are we forcing our modern view of
Aktionsart upon the Greek verb? I do not think the study of Greek grammar
will proceed as long as we are satisfied with terms such as aoristic
present and the like.

A native speaker does not think by help of rules, he or she knows because
of experience. The difference between present and aorist was perfectly
clear to the native speaker and the choice between them was primarily based
upon the*meaning* of the aspects and upon *linguistic convention* (what was
accepted and expected). I accept the possibility that hEURISKEI was chosen
to portray vividness, although I do not see the logic behind this in the
particular verse. But to say that the imperfective force of the verb is
blotted out by this choice is in my mind no less than grammatical anarchy.
I believe that a particular discourse effect is achieved BECAUSE OF the
aspect and not in spite of it.

Take for instance conative situations. Why is aorist never used to portray
something that is just attempted but not achieved, but only present and
imperfect? This is because of the difference in aspect. I claim there is no
such thing as conative present or conative imperfect; conativity is a
discourse function and not a grammatical function. When an author will show
that something is just attempted, he or she chooses the imperfective
aspect, because, even though this aspect is not intrinsic conative, it
represents the best tool to communicate this; and therefore it was a
linguistic convention to use the imperfective aspect to portray contative

The traditional definition of imperfectivity as "ongoing action" cannot
account for the use of this aspect to portray conative situations, because
the action (at least in many instances) was just attempted and not started.
However, the definition of imperfectivity as "a closeup view of a small
part of an event" will be better because it implies an unbounded view. A
conative situation is both unbounded and is seen close by. So imperfect and
present are used to portray conative situations, not in spite of their
aspect but because of their aspect. Your suggestion of an historical
present, therefore, is just the first (superficial) step. The next step
must be to ask: "Why is the imperfective aspect used to portray vividness?"
,"Which characteristic of this aspect makes it fit for such a discourse
function?", and "How in the world can verbs with an Aktionsart which we
view as punctiliar be used together with an aspect signalling
unboundedness?" We can also add: "Is there any difference of meaning when
whole discourse units in a narrative only have presents compared with
discourse units which have aorists with one or two presents in between?"


Rolf Furuli
Lecturer in Semitic languages
Unioversity of Oslo



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