Re: Present tense copulative verbs

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Thu Aug 20 1998 - 09:16:03 EDT

<x-rich>At 12:57 AM -0700 8/20/98, Kyle Dillon wrote:

<excerpt>Are present tense copulative verbs (EIMI verbs) known to take
on a perfect meaning when in a past tense context (e.g., John 8:58)?


EIMI is here existential (asserting existence) rather than copulative
(linking a subject to a predicate word). In this instance, many
scholars believe that the intent of the expression is to allude to the
Ex 3 explanation of God's name as "I am" (EHYEH ASHER EHYEH) and so to
declare Jesus' identity with the Father. Others dispute that
interpretation. There's been extensive discussion of this on-list;
unfortunately much of it has been heated and sectarian in nature--and I
earnestly hope we shall see none of that in any responses to this
query, which really concerns itself with Greek usage only.

On the grammatical question let me say two things in particular:

(1) Verbs in the present tense often have a perfective sense; some have
it built in (hHKW, for instance, means "I have arrived"; in the NT era
PAREIMI often has this same sense, "I have arrived" rather than "I am
present"--hence PAROUSIA gets translated into Latin as ADVENTUS and
into English as "advent" or "coming"--in the sense of "arrival"). Also,
a verb may acquire a perfective sense when certain adverbs accompany
them: e.g. HDH or PALAI.

(2) EIMI is no ordinary verb (I'm always reminded of the title of a
book on blood rituals; "Blut is ein ganz besonderes Saft".). It has
only present, imperfect, and future tense forms; forms of GINOMAI seem
to serve in its stead in the aorist and perfect tenses (as in the
Johannine prologue). The philosopher Parmenides relied upon these facts
about the verb EIMI to argue that if anything exists (ESTI) at all, it
can never have come into existence or NOT EXISTED nor can it ever pass
out of existence or NOT EXIST hereafter. In fact Parmenides went on to
deny any meaning to notions of space and time as a consequence of what
he held to be the meaninglessness of the negative phrase OUK ESTI,
thereby becoming the first in the history of Western philosophy to
recognize consciously the "law of contradiction." It is on the basis of
this very distinctive character of the Greek verb EIMI that many would
argue that EIMI in this passage (Jn 8:58) means "I exist eternally."
But, as I've already noted, others are likely to dispute this. You may
very well find a majority on one side of a question like this, but you
are not likely to find any universal consensus, and it's perhaps worth
noting that majority vote may elect officials or determine popularity,
and, as Aristotle repeatedly emphasized, majority opinion is not
negligible, but neither is it determinative of truth.

Carl W. Conrad

Department of Classics/Washington University

One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018

Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR



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