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

From: Ronald Ross (
Date: Mon Apr 13 1998 - 12:34:21 EDT

Rolf Furuli wrote:

> 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
> >this
> >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
> >occasions.
> 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
> situations.
> 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?"
> Regards
> Rolf

Dear Rolf,

I guess I don't think my suggested explanation is as ad hoc as you do. Different
tenses (at least in many languages) seem to have different aspectual
possibilities. The past tense seems to have more possibilities than does the
present. This is a little difficult to illustrate convincingly in English because
our simple morphological past tense is ambiguous as to aspect, which is one reason
that English speakers have so much difficulty with the use of morphological
perfectives and imperfectives in languages like Spanish.

In the past tense it is clearly very possible to use either the perfective or
imperfective aspect. We can say things like "John was coughing" and "John
coughed". In the present tense we can say "John coughs" but this cannot, as far
as I can see, be viewed as perfective. Sentences like "John broke his arm" seem to
have no present tense equivalent. If we say "John breaks his arm" it immediately
sounds habitual or is meaningless. Some linguists have said that if you combine
perfectness and present, what you wind up with is a future. And indeed, if John's
breaking his arm were predictable it would be possible to say something like,
"Well, tomorrow John breaks his arm."

In this way, even though tense and aspect are different things, it seems to me that
there are constraints on their interaction. Now, in very many languages, the FORM
of a verb is rather loosely tied to its function. Besides the purely systemic uses
of verb forms, there can be numerous non systemic ones. So in English we can say
things like, "Tomorrow I leave for Jamaica", where the present form functions as a
future. We can say, "This guy walks up and punches me in the nose" where it
functions as a past. And we can say, "Gregory works at Firestone" where the action
coincides with a time span including the present. It doesn't seem ad hoc to me to
assume that when we use verb forms non systemically (i.e. referring to some other
time than the strictly systemic one), we should expect some adjustments in the
aspectual capabilities. At least in very many languages, the present seems to be
incompatible with the perfective (*John breaks his arm" with a strictly present
tense meaning). But if we use that same form with a past tense meaning, it seems
logical that the form should now enjoy all of the aspectual possibilities of
systemic past tense forms.

This is what seems to me to be happening in the case hEURISKEI in Acts 10.27. What
matters here, in my view, is not simply the form for the verb, but the way it's
being used in this context. If it's being used with reference to the past, then it
ought to have past tense aspectual options.

Ron Ross
University of Costa Rica
UBS Translations Consultant

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