We have a history problem in New Testament grammar

The difference between Porter and those he has convinced (the “tenseless” side) relative to the rest of us (the “both tense and aspect” side) is not merely an issue of the empirical linguistic data.

It’s far more complicated than that.

A while back, I wrote up an analysis of tense and aspect in the 1882 edition of William Moulton’s translation of Winer’s Greek grammar. In that discussion, I made the observation that Porter had treated Moulton-Winer unfairly in his criticism of how certain usages of the Greek present imperfective are explained in the grammar. I won’t go back over the question here. My analysis is available in the link above, though it’s important that you read the comments on that post as well, since they’re central to the issue.

New Testament Greek grammar is broken. And nobody seems interested in trying to fix it.

But eventually I realized that Porter was not intentionally misrepresenting Moulton-Winer on Porter’s part, a realization that was driven home for me while rereading some of the papers in the JSNTSupp volumes from the 1990s. In his critique of Fanning’s position, he writes:

Fanning presents a revisionist view of the history of verbal aspect, going to great lengths to preserve the traditional categories and terminology. He stresses his belief that the comparative philologists of the nineteenth century were in actual fact discussing verbal aspect, even if they did not call it this or recognize it as such (Porter 1993, 36).

I hope it goes without saying that it is Porter’s view of the history that I view as revisionist, rather than Fanning. But the fact that Porter views Fanning’s literature review as “revisionist” goes an incredibly long way in explaining how Porter’s reading of Moulton-Winer (1882) arose.

Open Questions in Current Research
Maybe “open questions” means “Let’s not try to solve anything.”

So on that basis, should we consider Porter’s discussion of Moulton & Winer (1882) as an honest one? Yes. We should. Does that make it right? No, it doesn’t. I think the discussion fundamentally misunderstands these old grammars and the context they were written in. And Porter would likely say the same about my own analysis. For the lack of a better turn of phrase, our “world-views” are simply so dramatically different. This isn’t an unusual or exceptional instance. I can multiply the differences in how we read old grammars on tense and aspect going back centuries. At no point are we on the same page in terms of historical interpretation of research.

And in that context here lies the rub: each side of this “debate” (true debate implies actual engagement and there isn’t any) reads an entirely different history of Greek grammar and views the other as revisionist. How can there be any substantive discussion about language data or linguistic method if we cannot even agree on the history of research? New Testament Greek grammar is simply broken. And nobody seems interested in trying to fix it. So where do we go from here?

I’m not sure I know.

Works cited:

Porter, S. E. 1993. “In Defence of Verbal Aspect.” Page 26-45 in Biblical Greek language and linguistics: Open questions in current research. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Winer, Georg B. and William F. Moulton. 1882. A Treatise on the Grammar of New Testament Greek. 3rd ed. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

7 thoughts on “We have a history problem in New Testament grammar

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  1. I essentially agree but I wonder if part of that is a function of Porter’s approach to “dialogue” rather than the state of NT grammar as a whole? I’ve personally had many good discussions with folks on both sides of this issue (both about history and theory).

    1. I think there’s an extent to which this is true, but there is a set of patterns consistent beyond Porter.

      (1) Both sides have a select group of people who think the other side is not writing in good faith.

      (2) Some on both sides think the best way forward is to simply pretend that the issues are resolved and ignore any dissent.

      Now, that isn’t true across the board for either side and I have people I call friends whom I disagree on the theory/method/description issues, but the fact that it’s true for some makes it a problem for all.

  2. Thank you for writing this. You are not alone in your perception of the status quo.

    John T. “Jack” Jeffery
    Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
    Greentown, PA

    1. Thanks John, that’s good to know. I think coming to terms with and having a substantive discussion of this problem is going to be necessary before there’s any possibility of moving forward.

      (I made those edits, too, This was originally two separate pieces that I was trying to sew together. Clearly, I created some extra problems in the process! Thanks for the help!)

  3. Still getting into the history myself. What 18th? century resource would we look at to see an example of the non/indicative mood being understood temporally. As it’s a hinge point within a narrarive of temporality to non-temporality, it seems quite important.

    1. Yes, this is another important point. So far as I have found in my search (~40 grammars thus far), there is no scholar who ever claimed anything about temporality or tense for the non-indicative moods.

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