Re: historical present

From: Dale M. Wheeler (
Date: Thu Jun 04 1998 - 14:53:58 EDT

Wed, 3 Jun 1998 15:05:56 -0400, Carl Conrad wrote:
>At 11:08 AM -0400 6/03/98, Jim West wrote:
>>Dale's claim that estin is NEVER used as a historical present drove me to
>>look again at Moulton, who says about the present in reported speech
>>referring to the past: "Not only after verbs of speaking, but also
>>perception and belief, the NT prefers the pres. tense in indirect discourse"
>>(vol 3, p. 64).
>I will admit that it was inaccurate to label the ESTIN of OUK HDEI POQEN
>ESTIN an "historical present" or "narrative present." But I've been
>meditating on the Moulton citation Jim's given. I think it is essentially
>right that an indirect question or indirect statement remains in the TENSE
>of the direct citation; in Attic dialect the fact that the question or
>finite verb statement is indirect is signaled by switching it into the
>optative as a marker of subordination. Since the optative, for practical
>purposes, is a dead letter in NT Koine, that marker of subordination is
>lacking and the indirect statement or indirect question LOOKS LIKE (but
>ISN'T) a "historical" or "narrative" present.

Yes, that is exactly the point I was trying to make in reference to the
original post, in which the questioner asked basically why the present
tense verb was being translated by a past time form in English, and if
that was legitimate. I answered "Yes.", because in Koine (not in
Classical, which as Carl points out uses the Optative) in general the
tense of the original statement is retained in the indirect discourse/
quote/question. This is NOT the procedure we follow in English,
which requires the indirect discourse clause to back up one time
frame (present becomes past, etc.) or to use the subjunctive (not
unlike the use of the Optative in Classical). This is one of a
group of things (eg., Apollonius' Canon, the Gr Aorist for the
Eng Perf, etc.) that I constantly and repeatedly quiz/question/
point out to my 1st year students precisely because the Greek
conventions are so different from the English conventions.

Moreover, as all the grammars point out, and reading experience
confirms, the use of the indirect discourse retention pattern applies
to a broad range of things, not just spoken words, like teaching
(cf., the Ind Disc Inf's in Eph 4:21ff), but also to thoughts,
beliefs, emotional reactions, and many other things. I've seen
examples of the "use of the present" in certain publications (no,
I won't say which ones, for fear of offending) in which ind disc
uses are cited to show some really obtuse (ie., invalid) nuance
for the present tense...which is then inappropriately applied to
some other passage to prove some equally erroneous point.

'nuf said...


Dale M. Wheeler, Ph.D.
Research Professor in Biblical Languages Multnomah Bible College
8435 NE Glisan Street Portland, OR 97220
Voice: 503-251-6416 FAX:503-254-1268 E-Mail:

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