Esoteric Scholarship: Linguistics and the New Testament II

I want to come back to the issue of Aspect & Tense now. Let’s look at the debated issues:


There are a couple things to be said on this. For one, the concept of remoteness and proximity as used by Porter, Decker, and Campbell are rarely used in linguistics. And indeed, as far as I can tell the use of such terminology for what we seen in the Greek verb is definitely not main stream description. Most linguists prefer the tense terminology. And the vast majority of linguistic literature that uses the these two terms remoteness and proximity use them in reference to demonstratives, not verbs (just do a google search for remote proximate linguistics; you’ll see). This fact makes me more uncomfortable with calling the aorist and imperfect forms “remote” than even the criticisms put forward by people like Randall Buth or Moises Silva.

The (Plu)Perfect Form

The issue of the perfect is really a subset of this debate because Campbell is really the one who has separated himself more than anyone else.* He doesn’t like the term stative and then because he sees parallel usage between the imperfective aspect and the Perfect form in direct and indirect discourse. This leads him to the conclusion that its imperfective in Aspect. To differentiate it from the present form, he proposes the term “heightened proximity,” which he describes as a sort of narrowing in on the action in view (see page 195ff. of Verbal Aspect).

Now what gets me about this explanation is this. What happens when you narrow closely in on a given action. Might it perhaps begin to look like a state? We find is that Campbell’s explanation of the perfect is less different than supposed.

But there’s also another problem. I’ve already said that discussion of remoteness and proximity are quite rare in linguistic literature. And when we move to Campbell’s proposal of heightened remoteness & heightened proximity, the linguistic literature seems to be non-existent. As far as I can tell, Campbell’s terminological proposal is completely unique in linguistic and grammatical discussions as a whole regardless of language.*** Campbell doesn’t help is case when hiss larger book (see the reference above), gives absolutely no citation of any literature that uses such terminology. That makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Its never a good idea to go around creating new categories unless there is extremely clear evidence in the language. And the fact that we have such a stalemate in this debate suggests that the evidence is far from clear!

Moving Beyond the Stalemate

Now I don’t really care what terminology is used. I can use the remoteness/proximate terminology just as easily as tense terminology. I don’t see them as that distinct. So here are some suggestions:

  • Until scholars begin to work harder at understanding the other side’s use of terms, we’re only going to cause more confusions for the non-specialist.
  • It shouldn’t require a PHD in linguistics to understand what you write (and in the case of Porter’s dissertation, it shouldn’t take a magnifying glass either – I would have 1,000 pages).
  • If you don’t write for the non-specialist, your work is destined for the wastebasket because the majority of NT scholars don’t have the time to invest in translating it into normal English.
  • Creating new terminology doesn’t help the problem unless that terminology is obviously self-explanatory.**

[Update] Be sure to read Dr. Campbell’s comment on the post.

* Porter maybe relatively unique is his explanation of the Perfect as Stative among NT scholars, but his basic description is not that different from anyone elses, at least not in my opinion.

** In terms of Aspect terminology, I think we need to move beyond Aspect and Aktionsart to the language proposed by Carlota Smith (The Parameter of Aspect): Viewpoint Aspect and Situation Aspect. For one, using these terms will prevent future students from applying modern definitions of Aktionsart to early 20th century grammarians. It also makes explicit that distinction between “subjective” and “objective” action that we hear so much about.

*** This refers to terminology only. His definitions *are helpful*, though I probably would have described them differently.

4 thoughts on “Esoteric Scholarship: Linguistics and the New Testament II

Add yours

  1. Dear Mike,

    Thanks again for your clear processing of the issues. I’d like to clarify a few things further if I may. You’re right that my terminology is quite novel, but to imply that its meaning is without precedent is not quite right, I think. For one, there is plenty of discussion within Hebrew literature of verbs being ‘intensive’. Now the terminology might be slightly different, but the idea is basically the same. Second, Curtius and others recognized the ‘intensive’ origins of the perfect, stating as plain fact that the perfect began life as an ‘intensive’ present. Again, that is in line with my approach. Third, my first book discusses the views of Andre Sauge, who has made a strong case for a view of the Greek perfect that is very similar to my term ‘heightened proximity’ in his book Le degres du verbe. Unfortunately, NT scholarship has virtually ignored his work. Fourth, modern linguistic theories talk about prominence a lot with regard to a range of language features. This is a relatively new development, but does not seem to be as controversial as saying similar thing about the Greek perfect. Yes, I have tried to use terminology that I think gets at the heart of what’s going on, and which is therefore seemingly ‘unique’. However, what I mean by that terminology that has plenty of antecedents, and is not out there on its own, conceptually.

    By the way, you are right that my approach ends up being quite similar to stative aspect, except that I believe it accounts better for the range of usage that stative aspect does not account for very well. And, the fact that stativity is not an aspect, but is an Aktionsart value.


  2. Dr. Campbell.

    Thank you very much for responding. I apologize if I sounded harsh. I greatly appreciate the work you have done (in contrast to Porter) in making accessible aspect studies to general students. In fact, most of my frustration about esoteric scholarship is more connected with him than you. So I also apologize for placing you front and center in this post. Unfortunately, it has been your work that I’ve been thinking about the most lately and thus your books come to mind first (I’ve read the first and third thus far).

    I also apologize for not clarifying that I like your definitions – its only your terminology that I struggle with. I will update the post to represent that better. Personally, my own inclination would be to describe the forms in such a way that the (Plu)Perfect are the two forms which contain the most interaction between Aspect and Tense/Proximity. I see an interaction between the stative (as Clackson, Indo-European Linguistics, uses the term) and the tense/proximity that creates what Curtius and yourself have shown in the usage. In my view, it is the combination of the two that creates the usage we see in the perfect.

    But I still don’t find the distinction between Aspect & Aktionsart with the stative to be helpful. As I’ve said before, the term is used to refer to the perfect form in Indo-European Linguistics. Then there’s the fact that perfective & imperfective aspects are marked lexically (rather than in morphology) in other languages, why shouldn’t it be possible to stative to be marked by morphology?

    Once I learn French, I’ll have to take a look at Sauge.

    Again, thank you for the dialog and clarification. I appreciate it.

  3. Thanks Mike, I appreciate those comments.

    On the Indo-European thing, we need to be careful about circularity here. We need to remember that much of what is known and said about IE and Proto-IE has developed from studying Greek. It’s the approach of comparative linguistics to go from the ‘known’ to the unknown, which means going from Greek to other things. But this of course means that it is circular to say that, because there is apparently stative aspect in IE Languages, then there might be such a thing in Greek, when it’s because of Greek that such things are said in the first place! The same has happened with Hebrew: as aspect research is conducted, some have argued that the conclusions are at odds with other Semitic languages. But of course, most of what is known about those languages was developed from Hebrew, so it is again circular to make such objections.

    As for morphological marking of an Aktionsart value, this is, in fact, what Evans has suggested about the Greek perfect: it is imperfective in aspect, but also encodes stative Aktionsart. My only problem with that analysis is that I think there are several perfects that don’t appear to be stative.

    Thanks again,


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