A brief guide to aspect in Greek: Part II, The debates

When it comes to introducing Greek grammar, the terms tense and aspect can have an intimidating affect on students. They often have an an intimidating affect on teachers, too. The term aspect is especially foreign. Aspect is not a category discussed in grade school English grammar classes. And grade school is likely where the majority of students, especially in North America, gained their knowledge of English grammar. In Part I, I wanted to lay out a simple definition of what aspect is without simply rehashing Greek grammars and monographs.

Part II asks two questions:

  • What is consensus?
  • What is debated?

This part is more directed at teachers and those with a more advanced knowledge. I have done my best to summarize everything fairly, but it does get much more technical.

In Part III, we will conclude by looking at the usage and meaning of the Greek perfect.

What is consensus?

There is effectively no debate about the definition of aspect in Greek. There is also effectively no debate about the definitions of the imperfective and perfective aspects, two categories we discussed in Part I. This is true whether you’re reading Fanning (1990), Decker (2007), Campbell (2007), any of the contributors to Runge & Fresch (2016), or anyone else. Campbell (2020, 37-38) says it well:

While different definitions of “aspect” exist within grammatical and linguistic studies, this original meaning is most widespread in the study of Greek—“aspect” refers to “viewpoint.”

All Greek scholars agree that the aorist is perfective in aspect, while the present and imperfect are imperfective in aspect. This means that the aorist is used to convey an action as a whole, often in summary fashion, while the present and imperfect convey an action as unfolding, often in progress or as a state.

There is strong agreement on (1) what aspect is and (2) what the aspect of the aorist, imperfect, and present verb–forms are. The reality is that Comrie (1976) casts a long shadow not only in NT Greek grammar, but in aspect studies generally. This one book from the 1970’s is arguably too dated now, but the research that continues to flow from its wake is the mainstream of the field. The entire trend of what could be termed the “typological approach” begins with Comrie and continues especially through Bybee (1985), Dahl (1985, 2000) and Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca (1994), as well as Smith (1997) and Bhat (1999). Even Comrie’s (1976) critics, such as Bache (1997), limit their critique to methodology. The basic definitions stay intact. For those who want to dive deep into questions of methodology and aspect, Bache (1997) is an essential read.

In New Testament studies, the definitions of aspect as a category and the definitions of perfective and imperfective aspect correspond well to the definitions in linguistics generally. The aorist (perfective) and the imperfect & present (imperfective) share important typological correspondences in function with the perfective and imperfective of other languages. They are not identical, but the parallels matter and are clear. For this reason the definitions work and they work well.

The attentive reader likely has noted that I have not mentioned Porter’s position on these definitions. Porter does agree with them, but he is also dissatisfied that nobody else connects the meanings of the aspects to the charts used in Systemic Functional Linguistics. He sees these are essential for grounding the meaning of these categories to a linguistic theory. He has actually laid out his own view of how everyone agrees and disagrees in chapter 12 of Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Porter 2015). It’s a survey that is sometimes passive-aggressive and occasionally just mean (see my review of the book: Review Part II: Porter (2015) Linguistic analysis of the Greek New Testament).

A disagreement over the perfect

It’s become a bit of a common trope for literature reviews for the perfect to reduce the state of discussion to three basic positions:

  • Traditional View: Fanning (1990), Wallace (1997)
  • Stative Aspect View: Porter (1989, 1999, 2015), Decker (2007)
  • Imperfective Aspect View: Evans (2001), Campbell (2007, 2008)

Surveying perspectives on the perfect is its own challenge. There are clear disagreements of substance on the Greek perfect, but the majority of differences and disagreements here are ones of terminology and theory rather than application. Having spent the past 12 years thinking, reading, and studying the Greek perfect, it is clear to me that despite a wide set of theories and approaches, scholars are mostly seeing the same patterns in this verb–form. Our contemporary disagreements might be more terminological than anything else.

“A surprisingly large degree of consistency can be found in definitions of the meaning of the Greek Perfect, i.e. definitions of its aspectual function.”
—Porter (1989, 248)

“There is a remarkable consistency in the way that grammars of NT Greek have treated the perfect form.”
—Fanning (1990, 103)

The question of the day is not so much about how the perfect functions. We all seem to basically agree on that. The question is how to describe it.

Porter’s summary of Ruipérez (1954) might useful here. I won’t quote Ruipérez directly since the Spanish text takes us beyond “simple” and “introductory.” Ruipérez describes the perfect as involving a “resultant state” An event requires an initiation of change (A), a change in process (B), and new final state (C) at the end. The perfect refers to the final, resultant state.

  1. A___________B . . . . . . . . . C . . . . . .

Porter summarizes Ruipérez (1954) as follows (Porter 1989, 248).

The Perfect, he claims, expresses state C resulting from action AB. The resultant state is different from the action itself, and in fact does not consider the event itself (Estructura, 45).

This is the thing that everyone is more or less trying to describe. Consider ἵστημι, ’cause to stand,’ and its the perfect ἕστηκα ‘am standing’ (Aubrey 2020, 68).

  1. Aorist: λαβὼν παιδίον ἔστησεν αὐτὸ ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν. Taking a child, he made him stand among them. (Mark 9:36)
  2. Present: ἵστημί σοι πάντα τὰ ἀφαιρέματα. I am setting before you all the tribute. (1 Macc. 15:5)
  3. Perfect: Ἡ μήτηρ σου καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοί σου ἑστήκασιν ἔξω. Your mother and your brothers are standing outside. (Luke 8:20)

Whatever process of standing up that might have taken place prior to the state of standing that Jesus’s mother and siblings are in outside the house it outside the view of what the perfect portrays in Luke 8:20. The attention or viewpoint of the aspect is here on the resultant state that exists after the process. Then the question becomes: how do we describe it?

The traditional view looks at this pattern and says,

The perfect (as also the pluperfect) unites in itself as it were present and aorist, since it expresses the continuance of completed action (Blass 1911, 198).

Or more recently:

The perfect in NT Greek is a complex verbal category denoting, in its basic sense, a state which results from a prior occurrence (Fanning 1990, 119).

The “traditional” view builds the relationship between the ‘cause to stand’ (prior occurrence) and ‘am standing’ (the state with results from that occurrence).

The stative view looks at this pattern and says:

The perfect and pluperfect tense-forms occur in contexts where the user of Greek wishes to depict the action as reflecting a given (often complex) state of affairs (Porter 1999, 39).

For Porter, the “complexity” he refers to is the AB elements of the change-of-state described by Ruipérez. It is not merely a simple state: I am hungry, but a state that comes after and as a result of a process: the action of stating up is logically prior to the state of standing. It is “often” (as he says) a state that exists because of the way it subsumes these other elements of event structure. But also that complexity is not inherent, it is part of lexical semantics, not the meaning of the aspect.

The imperfective aspect view looks at this and says:

In my view stative force is consonant with focus on the verbal occurrences internal temporal constituency, thus agreeing with the general definition of imperfective aspect (Evans 2001, 31).

Further, Campbell (2007, 2008) observes parallels in narrative between the perfect and the present.

The patterns of perfect usage in narrative texts is virtually identical to those of the present. Nearly all perfect indicatives in narrative texts occur within discourse, just like the present (Campbell 2008, 50).

They interpret Jesus’s mother and siblings are standing outside as an ongoing and in progress state and they say: That looks similar to the imperfective aspect.

Everyone is looking at the same patterns and coming up with different terms for them. This is a bad state–of–affairs. It is why my own work (Aubrey 2014, 2020) focuses on the patterns themselves more than on the terminology. If we can effectively explain the patterns of usage to students, we’ll take them further along than simply telling them “the perfect means X” and moving on.

A disagreement over grounding

The term grounding is used in two distinct ways in New Testament Greek studies. Porter has proposed a model of discourse prominence in which he uses the terminology of grounding (background, foreground, and frontground). His approach has been applied by a number of his own students and a few others who have adopted his approach to prominence. It’s validity has been called in to question by a number of scholars (Bernard 2006, Runge 2014, Soon 2020), both in its applicability to texts and its theoretical foundation.

The term grounding is also used to refer to how texts are structured, generally, without reference to prominence. This view of grounding is not directly about aspect, but is a domain where speakers use aspect to structure narrative. We discussed this exact relationship of the perfective aspect to sequencing events and the imperfective aspect to contextualization in part one of this series. In this context: the term foreground is used to refer to the narrative storyline—the sequencing of events expressed with aorist/perfective verbs. The term background is used to refer to contextualizing information around the narrative, which parallels the manner imperfective verbs are used to communicate things happening at the same time as other events. This use of the term grounding is established in the larger linguistic literature (Hopper 1979, 1982; Wallace 1982; Fleischman 1985), as well as in New Testament Greek (Campbell 2007; Levinsohn 2000, 2016; Runge 2010, 2014). It’s also something that Greek grammarians have known intuitively for centuries, albeit with little insight beyond general statements. For example, Winer (1825, 10), comments: “the aorist … is the usual tense of narration.”

In principle, neither of these two approaches to grounding is inherently in opposition to the other. For example, Culy & Parsons (2003) attempt to adopt a mix of both in their Baylor handbook on Acts with mixed success. More recent volumes in the Baylor series have dropped Porter’s model (see on Luke, for example, Culy, Parsons, & Stigall 2010). The acceptance of each approach in general linguistics and in New Testament studies diverges greatly. Arguably the most unusual thing about the Porter model is that it cites much of the literature for the other approach, but evinces no awareness that this literature has nothing to do with his model beyond the shared use of the words “background” and “foreground” (there is no “frontground” in the general linguistics literature).

A disagreement not over aspect

The existence of tense in Greek is closely tied to the scholarship on aspect.

A majority of scholars and linguistics who study Ancient Greek continue to hold and argue for the position that the Greek secondary personal endings (subject agreement) and the augment that co-occurs with those endings function as markers of past tense on the Greek verb.

A minority of scholars do not, including Porter (1989), Decker (2007), Campbell (2007). Porter (2015, 177) views the augment as a marker of indicative mood for the secondary tenses or a marker of event sequencing in narrative. Campbell (2007) considers the augment a remoteness marker that functions as a broader category than just tense, but subsumes temporal reference within its domain. Methodologically, Campbell’s approach makes more sense than Porter’s, though I do not find either convincing within the larger context of how tense systems are described cross-linguistically.

A concluding comment

Finally, it is worth asking: On a practical level, how much do these debates matter?

The answer is probably not much at all. These are often differences at a theoretical level that tend to be flattened once applied to actual text. An example: As far as I have seen, every introductory Greek grammar that advocates a tenseless/non-temporal position still provides English past tense glosses for the aorist and imperfect.

Works cited

Aubrey, Michael G. 2014. The Greek perfect and the categorization of tense and aspect. MA Thesis. Trinity Western University.

Aubrey, Michael G. 2020. The Greek perfect tense-form: Understanding its usage and meaning. Pages 55-81. In Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key issues in the current debate. Edited by David A. Black and Benjamin L. Merkle. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Bache, Carl. 1995. The study of aspect, tense and action: Towards a theory of the semantics of grammatical categories. Berlin: Peter Lang.

Bernard, Jody. 2006. Is verbal aspect a prominence indicator? An evaluation of Stanley Porter’s proposal with special reference to the Gospel of Luke. Filología Neotestamentaria 19:3-29.

Bhat, D. N. S. 1999. The prominence of tense, aspect and mood. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins and William Pagliuca. 1994. The evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Campbell, Constantine. 2007. Verbal aspect, the indicative mood, and narrative: Soundings in the Greek of the New Testament. New York: Peter Lang.

Campbell, Constantine. 2008. Verbal aspect and non-Indicative verbs: Further soundings in the Greek of the New Testament. New York: Peter Lang.

Campbell, Constantine. 2008. Basics of verbal aspect in Biblical Greek. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Campbell, Constantine. 2020. Aspect and tense in New Testament Greek. Pages 37-53. In Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key issues in the current debate. Edited by David A. Black and Benjamin L. Merkle. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Comrie, Bernard. 1976. Aspect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Culy, Martin M., and Mikeal C. Parsons. 2003. Acts: A handbook on the Greek text. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Culy, Martin M., Mikeal C. Parsons, and Joshua J. Stigall. 2010. Luke: A handbook on the Greek text. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Dahl, Östen, ed. 2000. Tense and aspect in the languages of Europe. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter

Dahl, Östen. 1985. Tense and aspect systems. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Decker, Rodney J. 2000. Temporal deixis of the Greek verb in the Gospel of Mark with reference to verbal aspect. New York: Peter Lang.

Evans, Trevor V. 2001. Verbal syntax in the Greek Pentateuch. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fanning, Buist. 1990. Verbal aspect in New Testament Greek. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fleischman. S. 1985. Discourse functions of tense-aspect oppositions in narrative: toward a theory of grounding. Linguistics 23: 851-882.

Hopper, Paul J. 1979. “Aspect and foregrounding in discourse.” In Discourse and syntax, edited by Talmy Givón, 12:213–241. Syntax and Semantics.

Hopper, Paul J. 1982. “Introduction.” In Tense-aspect: Between semantics and pragmatics, edited by Paul Hopper, 1-18. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Levinsohn, Stephen H. 2000. Discourse features of New Testament Greek: A coursebook on the information structure of New Testament Greek. 2nd edition. Dallas, TX: SIL International.

Levinsohn, Stephen H. 2016. Verb forms and grounding in narrative. Pages 163-183. In The Greek verb revisited: A fresh approach for biblical exegesis. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Porter, Stanley E. 1989. Verbal aspect in the Greek of the New Testament with reference to tense and mood. New York: Peter Lang.

Porter, Stanley E. 1999. Idioms of the Greek New Testament. 2nd Edition. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Porter, Stanley E. 2015. Linguistic analysis of the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Ruipérez, M.S. 1954. Estructura del sistema de aspectos y tiempos del verbo Griego Antiguo: Analysis funcional sincronico. Mieses et studia philologica salmanticensia 7. Salamanca: Colegio Trilingue de la Universidad.

Runge, Steven E. 2010. Discourse grammar of the Greek New Testament: A practical introduction for teaching and exegesis. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Runge, Steven E. 2014. Contrastive substitution and the Greek verb: Reassessing Porter’s argument. Novum Testamentum 56:156-173.

Smith, Carlotta. 1997. The parameter of aspect. 2nd Edition. Dordrecht: Kluwer Publishers.

Hong, Soon Ki. 2020. The Greek perfect tense in the Gospel of Mark and the Epistle to the Romans. New York: Peter Lang.

Wallace, Daniel B. 1997. Greek grammar beyond the basics: An Exegetical syntax of New Testament Greek. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Wallace, Stephen. 1982. Figure and ground: The interrelationships of linguistic categories. Pages 201-223. In Tense-aspect: Between semantics and pragmatics. Edited by Paul J. Hopper. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Winer, Georg B. 1825. A Greek grammar of the New Testament. Translated by Moses Stuart and Edward Robinson. Andover, MA: Codman Press.

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