Occasional Surveys in the History of Greek Grammar: G. B. Winer & William Moulton (1882)

Despite the production of other New Testament grammars, Winer’s work continued to hold the greatest influence throughout the century and by 1882, it was in its ninth English edition.[1] William Moulton’s contributions to the grammar grew consistently with each of his own editions/translations, though the basic organization continues to be the same. Most importantly, by the time of Moulton, the grammar is no longer the mere supplement that it was in 1825, and it is not merely a grammar of the New Testament, despite the title. The edition of 1882 is full of references, not only to the New Testament, but also to contemporary literary authors such as Appian & Pausanias and Classical authors like Xenophon. Moreover, the tenses are discussed in far more detail with a clear aim toward comprehensiveness. The goal of the grammar is no longer to merely be a supplement functioning along side a Classical Greek grammar.

It is also apparent that Moulton had access to the later German grammars such as Raphael Kühner’s based on some of the terms he uses. The aorist is a simple past and the narrative tense that contrasts with the imperfect and the pluperfect which “always have reference to subordinate events which stood related, in respect of time, with the principal event (as relative tenses).”[2] The perfect functions as a relative tense “and represents an action as a complete one, in relation to the present time.[3] The addition of the concept of relative tenses here suggests that, at least to some degree, Moulton viewed Kühner’s model as an advancement in their understanding the interaction of temporal location and temporal constituency—to borrow Comrie’s turn of phrase for the categories of tense and aspect, respectively.

In terms of usage, Moulton drives home the point of Winer that tenses do not stand in for one another and his examples reflect similar patterns we found in other grammars: the so-called peculiar usages reflect extra verbal linguistic factors, such as the “procedural characteristics” described by Fanning.[4] Of course this is not how Moulton expresses it. Rather, he writes,

Strictly and properly speaking, no one of these tenses can ever stand for another … where such an interchange seems to exist, either it exists in appearance only, there being in point of fact some assignable reason (especially of a rhetorical kind) why this tense is used and no other; or else it must be ascribed to a certain inexactness belonging to the popular language, through which the relation of time was not conceived and expressed with perfect precision.[5]

When we recognize the dramatic difference in context terminologically between 1882 and the present, a few things become apparent. It seems reasonable to take a statement “reason[s] … of a rhetorical kind” as being roughly to modern day pragmatics.[6] And the observation that spoken language is not particularly precise has only been confirmed and emphasized in contemporary linguistic research.[7]

Nonetheless, this is precisely the point Porter chooses to take issue with in his own survey.[8] To Porter’s credit, he chooses an excellent example: Matthew 26:2, provided below.

(1) οἴδατε ὅτι μετὰ δύο ἡμέρας τὸ πάσχα γίνεται, καὶ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου παραδίδοται εἰς τὸ σταυρωθῆναι.
You know that after two days the Passover takes place and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.

That the present only appears to function as a future confuses form and function, says Porter, because, “he does not say how that would differ from actually functioning futuristically.”[9] On the one hand, this is an extremely good point. Moulton-Winer says nothing about the difference between appearance and actual replacement, but Porter would do well to at least comment on the fact that Moulton provides a reason for the usage:

“It is used for the future in appearance only, when an action still future is to be represented as being as good as already present, either because it is already firmly resolved on, or because it must ensue in virtue of some unalterable law.”[10]

It may very well be true that Moulton does his readers a disservice by not explaining the mechanisms for the apparent replacement of forms. That is not an unreasonable criticism. At the same time, however, Porter does his own readers a disservice by not telling the entire story on this particular point. Moulton’s discussion is far more nuanced than Porter lets on in his critique of Moulton-Winer. Porter selectively quotes Moulton-Winer here, proving only the beginning the statement above, “It is used for the future in appearance only…”[11]. He does not quote Moulton’s actual explanation of the usage at all. Even worse, Porter does not even provide the ellipsis marking that he’s quoting an incomplete sentence. At best this is a horribly unfortunate editorial error, at its worse, this could possibly be viewed as a somewhat manipulative move to slant Porter’s readers toward a particular view of the Greek verb.

It is precisely this kind of discussion of the old grammarians that motivated these occasional studies: to give the old grammarians a fair hearing of their views in this historical contexts. A grammar is a communicative act to a particular audience. Minimally, Moulton would likely be able to defend himself on this point by saying that he lived one hundred years before any sort of adequate theory of the mechanisms of semantics had been developed, but it also is not unreasonable to assume that Moulton had full capacity to give sufficient explanation, even without the kinds of explicit theoretical frameworks that linguistics work within today. William Moulton and G. B. Winer may not have articulated their views of the Greek tenses in the same manner that is done today, but the reasons they give for their grammatical claims make it quite clear that they understood the language extremely well.


[1] Georg B Winer and William F. Moulton, A Treatise on the Grammar of New Testament Greek, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1882). The 3rd edition in the title refers to Moulton’s third edition—the spine of the volume lists both numbers: 3rd edition and 9th English Edition.

[2] Ibid., 331.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Fanning, Verbal Aspect, 126ff.

[5] Winer and Moulton, Treatise , 331.

[6] Pragmatics, as opposed to semantics: how language is used rather than how language means, though where one ends and the other begins is far from clear, particularly since, in a sense, all meaning in language arises from usage of language. See Taylor, Linguistic Categorization, 132-134.

[7] Indeed, the idea of perfectly precise semantics likely disappeared with the end of logical positivism.

[8] That is, this is the issue Porter takes issue with beyond his standard disparaging remarks about how these old grammars take an out of date “time based” view of the tenses—a criticism that is, itself, quite unfair.

[9] Porter, Verbal Aspect, 51.

[10] Winer and Moulton, Treatise , 331.

[11] Porter, Verbal Aspect, 51.

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