Verbal Aspect in Greek

Constantine Campbell used to teach at Trinity Evangelical, but I guess he doesn’t now. His website says that he “was a professor” and that he now lives in Australia. Anyway, he’s still writing on the New Testament and the Greek language. I’ve previously read his book Advances in the Study of Greek (Zondervan 2015) and his Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek (Zondervan 2008). This post is based on his essay “Aspect and Tense in New Testament Greek” (pp. 37–53) in the recently released collection of essays Linguistics and New Testament Greek (Baker 2020).

In this context, “aspect” (deriving from French) means “viewpoint.”

We are concerned with the way that Greek verbs present actions and states from a certain point of view. Every verbal process, such as an activity, action, or state, may be presented from one perspective or another, depending on one’s point of view. A verb will be used to view an action either from outside the action or from inside the action.

internal viewpoint = imperfective aspect (where imperfective means something like “incomplete”)

external viewpoint = perfective aspect (where perfective means something like “complete”)

Perfective aspect views an action as a whole and is often used to present an action in summary form. Imperfective aspect views an action from within it and is often used to present an action as unfolding or in progress.

Campbell notes that everyone agrees that the aorist is external/perfective and the present and imperfect are internal/imperfective, but there is debate about the perfect, pluperfect, and future (p. 38). He discusses this disagreement further at pp. 43–44. Porter (see below) and others think there is a “stative” aspect in the Perfect tense. About the future tense, Porter says it has no aspect, while Campbell that its aspect is perfective, but there are also other views.

The two doctoral dissertations published close together that advanced opposite arguments on Greek tenses are:

Stanley E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood (New York: Peter Lang, 1989).

Buist M. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990).

Porter argued that Greek tenses have no time element at all, only aspect. Fanning argued the more prominent idea that Greek tenses do express time in the indicative mood, but are strongly aspectual everywhere (even in the indicative).

Campbell summarizes a conference held at Cambridge in 2015 (published proceedings here):

While not all contributors were completely uniform, the volume taken as a whole argued for tense within the indicative mood, and two aspects—rejecting stative aspect but arguing for “combinative” aspect for the perfect and pluperfect forms. These forms represent a combination of perfective and imperfective aspects that allows the perfect to retain a more or less traditional expression of perfective (past) action with an imperfective (present) resulting state.

p. 42

Since aspect is about viewpoint, it is a spatial concept, viewing activities and actions either internally or externally.

p. 43

Campbell talks about tense (pp. 44–50). There is the morphological concept of tense, and this is usually what we mean when we talk about tense: an aorist tense has an augment and a sigma-alpha. That’s morphology. But in this discussion we use “tense” to talk about verbal function, and the question is: do Greek verbs express tense? I’ve already indicated that this is a part of the debate between Fanning and Porter.

While Curtius laid the groundwork for Greek aspect studies in the nineteenth century, he also made significant advances in understanding tense in the Greek verbal system. The most significant advance was to demonstrate that tense does not exist outside the indicative mood. Prior to Curtius, the common assumption had been that all the Greek moods conveyed tense—the subjunctive, imperative, and optative, as well as participles and infinitives. This assumption was derived from Latin, which conveys tense across all its moods, and Latin was the lens through which Greek (and other languages) was studied after the Renaissance period. Curtius’s claim that tense existed only within the indicative mood was a radical suggestion at the time but is now teh standard understanding. No one today considers tense to be a factor within non-indicative Greek moods.

p. 45

Campbell describes how McKay and Porter have argued that tense is not a feature even of the indicative. He notes that “there are other languages that do not encode tense in their verbal system” (p. 46).

Taking Fanning (tense in the indicative) and Porter (no tense even in the indicative) as the two poles, Campbell summarizes the state of the debate.

Olsen mediated between the two, accepting tense for some indicative forms and rejecting it for others. Decker followed Porter. Evans followed Fanning. I followed Porter (with modifications). Mathewson, Cirafesi, and Huffman followed Porter. Runge and his collaborators followed Fanning.

p. 46

Campbell offers these statistics (presumably for the New Testament alone):

  • present tense indicative refers to the present 70% of the time
  • aorist refers to the present or future about 15% of the time
  • perfect refers to past action with present consequences “less than half the time”
  • the future is the only consistent tense

He explains why some scholars (such as himself) do not regard tense as a feature even of indicative Greek verbs, while other scholars do (pp. 47–48). (It’s an issue of semantics and pragmatics; is tense a semantic feature of Greek verbs in the indicative, or is it a pragmatic feature?)

The Greek augment has long been regarded as an indicator of past temporal reference, adorning the Greek aorist, imperfect, and pluperfect indicative tense-forms. … But the augment could indicate the spatial metaphor of remoteness rather than past temporal reference.

While it is perhaps a little difficult for modern English speakers to wrap their minds around the concept of remoteness, it is actually quite a natural concept, especially for ancient cultures. Actions are perceived as being “distant” from the speaker. They are remote compared to actions that are nearer. We might normally think of actions in the past as opposed to the present, but this is a very temporal way to conceive of actions, while many ancient cultures leaned toward more spatial ways of thinking.

p. 49

Campbell ends his essay by addressing exegetical outcomes (pp. 50–52).

He mentions exegetical mistakes regarding the aorist at Romans 5:6 and John 17:17. He spends some time talking about aspect and Aktionsart, and arguing that more objective exegesis happens when one recognizes patterns of combinations of aspect and Aktionsart. In other words, there are all kinds of different present tense functions (progressive, iterative, gnomic, etc.) and similarly aorist tense functions, and the recognizing patterns of word choice can help the interpreter determine which function is intended in a given context. Campbell also discusses narrative structure.

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