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Biblical Greek Verbal Aspect



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Greek Verbal Aspect and Greek Verbal Time

The Greek Verb has three aspects, each of which can be expressed in three times. The aspects are continuous (imperfective), finished (perfective) and unstated (aoristic).

The following is the Executive Summary of the current draft of Mark Beatty's book Bible Study Methods for the Greek Verb: Aspect and Time. Estimated Completion time, Fall 2014.

 

Overview-Executive Summary of Bible Study Methods for the Greek Verb: Aspect and Time.

Executive Summary

An Executive Summary in a business setting is an overview of the entire business plan. Whether one calls this section an executive summary or an overview, the purpose is the same, to briefly set forth the final conclusions and some of the reasons for those conclusions. Most of the arguments, examples and other supporting details can be found in the remainder of the book.
A technical word for Bible study is “exegesis” which is from the Greek word ?????s??, which means "to lead out." Exegesis, therefore, can be defined as drawing out the meaning of the original author. Whether the methodology of someone studying the Bible is called “exegesis” or “Bible study methods” makes no difference. What makes a difference is whether the methodology is consistent and produces results. If you are interested in what were details of meaning of original authors when they choose various forms of the Greek verb, this book is for you.
The original language of the New Testament is Koine Greek (KB). The biggest payoff of studying the Bible in Greek is being able to identify those details chosen by the original author which are not readily translated and which most commentaries have missed.
Aspect is “kind of action,” and in KG there are three: the simple or unspecified action, also called aoristic after the aorist morphological form. The aoristic aspect is found in the aorist indicative, present indicative, and future indicative morphological forms. The aorist indicative occurs some 85% of the time (Reference forthcoming), and therefore is the most common aspect. In fact, this is the default aspect and is selected by the author when no specific kind of action is to be indicated. 
In contrast, the continuous (imperfective) aspect and the finished (perfective) aspect are selected by the author when some specific detail is being communicated. The continuous (imperfective) aspect is communicated by the imperfective morphological form for past time and various two word (periphrastic) forms for the present and future time. The finished (perfective) aspect is communicated by the perfect morphological form in the present time and mostly by various two word (periphrastic) forms in the past and future times.
In the study of aspect and time, the most profitable questions are why the author selected one aspect over another, and why the author selected one time over the other. The system presented in this book allows anyone studying the Bible to both ask and answer why authors chose specific aspect and time. The other linguistic systems presently being taught seldom can provide an answer to why a certain aspect or time was chosen. What is more alarming, often other systems fail to even recognize the significant exegetical questions, and therefore cannot even ask relevant questions. As a threshold starting point, if a system cannot identify indicative verbs with aoristic aspect and predict that all indicative verbs with aoristic aspect are the default aspect, then that system cannot ask the significant exegetical questions about the New Testament Greek text. The indicative verbs in the aoristic aspect are the future, present and aorist morphological forms.
The Greek indicative verb, with its semantic features of both time and aspect, is displayed in Figure 1.  The morphological forms of time are past, present and future. The morphological forms of aspect are listed under the columns of aoristic, imperfective and perfective. These three aspects can be described as unspecified, continuous and finished. "Periphrasis" can be any combination of words.
I suggest the native speaker of Koine Greek had the following productive knowledge about aspect and time of the Greek verb: 
Figure 1 : Koine Greek Aspectual System:

 

Aoristic (Unspecified)

Imperfective
(Continuous)

Perfective
(Finished)

Past

Aorist morphology

Imperfect morphology or periphrasis

Pluperfect morphology or periphrasis

Present

Present morphology

Periphrasis

Perfect morphology or  periphrasis

Future

Future morphology

Periphrasis

Periphrasis

Productive knowledge means that, the original writers of the New Testament were able to select any of the three aspects in any of the three times. Furthermore, these original authors, being great communicators, choose aspect and time intentionally and skillfully to communicate important details about what they wrote.
A review of the actual practice in Bible translations, commentaries, and illustrations of grammarians show that as a practical matter, the theories presented in this book is the prevalent theory. Furthermore, the theory laid out in this book is the only theory that can be applied consistently. Theories promoted by recent writers, Campbell, Decker, Fanning, Porter, and Wallace are incomplete and cannot be applied consistently. In other words, the leading theories about Greek aspect misunderstand the very principles by which all languages function; and these deficiencies limit their usefulness for translating and Bible study.
In the indicative mood, any Koine Greek writer could choose any aspect (kind of action) in any time. In Bible study (exegesis), therefore, time and aspect are independent choices made for independent reasons. The one studying the Bible (exegete), therefore, should ask both why the author selected that certain time and why the author selected that certain aspect.
The answer to why an author selected a given aspect is always tailor made to the context. The general answer, however, is that the author selected the aoristic (simple) aspect because the author did not want to communicate any aspectual details. In contrast, the author selected the continual (imperfective) aspect or the finished (perfective) aspect because that author wanted to communicate the details of an ongoing activity or a finished activity.
The answer to why an author selected past, present or future time is also answered from the larger context. One must ask two questions: First, was the action under discussion past, present or future. Second, is the perspective of the narrator contemporary, subsequent, or future? In other words, if the narrator is present at the action, then the present time morphology is used. It does not matter if the action is past, present or future, because in a text, time travel is possible. An author, in Greek and in many other languages, can be describing a past action as if watching it happen before the narrator’s eyes. Such an action would be described in present morphology even though the action happened prior to the time of writing. This particular discourse strategy of describing a past event in the present morphology, is called the “historic present.” Missing this “time travel” is the biggest error in Decker’s treatment of time in the Gospel of Mark (Reference forthcoming).
The strategy of time travel also works with future  time. For example, in the book of Revelations, the future events are described in present time morphology because the narrator is seeing the events as if happening in the present before his eyes. Missing this future time travel is the biggest error in some writer's treatment of time in the book of Revelation. (Reference forthcoming)
As charted in Figure 2, other KG moods have aspect, and only the participle used adverbially can be said to have time, which is relative to the main verb.
2 Verbs in the non indicative moods:

 

Non Specified (Aoristic)

Continual (Imperfective)

Finished (Perfective)

Participle

Aorist, Future

Present

Perfect

Infinitive

Aorist

Present

Perfect

Imperative

Aorist

Present

None

Subjunctive

Aorist

Present

None

Optative

Aorist

Present

None

Aorist is the default aspect and is unspecified kind of action translated by the simple English as in "talk." Imperfective is continuous aspect translated by the continuous English as in "am talking" or by using an adverb like "continually." Perfect is finished aspect translated by the finished English form as in "have talked." The explanation of why an aspect was chosen is an interpretive decision based on discourse reasons. Discourse reasons deal with levels higher than the sentence.
Exegesis of these alternate moods, therefore, must ask why the aoristic, imperfective or perfective aspects were chosen. The aoristic, the aspect of about 70% of verbs, is the default mode. The more precise questions are why the author wanted to add the detail of the imperfective or perfective aspect. Often, the answer to why the author selected the aoristic aspect is simply that every verb must have some sort of aspect. Aoristic aspect is the default to indicate no special aspect.
Other grammarians have erred for a variety of reasons to include:

  • Their foundational variables are ill-defined with vague and contradictory definitions of "perfect," "aspect," "semantics," "syntax," and "discourse";
  • Their foundational variables are "complex" (that is, their variables contain multiple parts that should be dealt with as separate variables);
  • They do not test their theories in other languages which would reveal their weaknesses. (If their linguistic theories do not work on a language like English which they know well, how are those theories expected to work on ancient Greek?);
  • They mistake observations with theories;
  • They failed to include periphrastic forms in their analysis, thus basing their theories on incomplete data;
  • They tend to catalogue semantic observations resulting in a plethora of labels.
  • To catalogue morphology by semantics results in a lexicon of morphological usage.
  • Because there are many words, and words adjust meanings to an infinite number of contexts, any lexicon of morphological usage must be infinite to be complete.
  • The lexicons of morphological usages presented by Wallace, Robinson, and others are incomplete.

The analysis in this book avoids these errors primarily at the theoretical level, where interfacing theories of syntax, semantics and discourse allow analysis of simple variables that interface. Furthermore, the theories presented in this book are tested, both in numerous Biblical texts but also in a variety of diverse languages. The rigors of these linguistic theories should give the reader confidence that the theories presented, as well as the exegesis based on those theories, are valid.
So ends this overview (executive summary). There might be enough here for anyone to start studying (exegeting) aspect and time of the Greek verb. Following in this book are details to help you do this better.

Layout of the chapters and strategies for study

The content of this book is as follows:
Chapter I sets forth a brief overview of the major claims of this book.
Chapter II contains various topics prerequisite to studying aspect and time in the Greek verb to include:
Chapter IIA provides a brief suggestion about how to learn sufficient Greek morphology to get valuable insights from Greek as you study the Bible.
Chapter IIB, which you are reading, provides chapter organization so you can strategize your study.
Chapter IIC contains a glossary of key terms for your reference as you study.
Chapter III introduces reasons to purchase and ways to use this book.
Chapters IV-VI give an introduction to my system based on time, and three aspects that can occur in each time  of the indicative mood.
Chapter-VII: A discussion of systems used by others who presently are writing about Greek verbal aspect.
Chapter VIII: A discussion of my theoretical systems where autonomous theories of syntax, semantics and discourse interface.
Chapters IX: My system of aspect and time is organized by mood.
Chapter X: My system of aspect and time in non indicative moods.
Chapter XI: My system of aspect and time is applied to the exegesis of the book of Hebrews.
Chapters XII-XVI: These chapters cover the more technical subjects of this study to include: Statistical distribution; periphrasis in multiple languages; whether aktionsart or my system is psychologically real; the historic present; and a final catch-all chapter for remaining issues brought up by other writers.

Glossary

This section is being added here because learning the terms is part of the biggest challenge of learning Greek. Often the terms are used by different authors with different meanings. Sometimes the terms are used by the same authors with different meanings at different times. Below I will first give you my meaning of the term and then various other meanings of the terms as used by others. See index at end of books for list of places these terms are used.
Aktionsart: Fanning defines Aktionsart as (Reference forthcoming). I define aktionsart as part of the semantics of a verb observed in highly abstracted context resulting from a failure to differentiate between syntax and semantics in one’s linguistic theories.
Aorist: A morphological form in KG. The aorist occurs in the following moods: indicative, imperative, subjunctive, optative, infinitive and participle.
Aoristic aspect: I define “aoristic” aspect “simple” or as “no comment on the kind of action.” The original word “aorist” means “no horizon” which fits the aspect—the author is expressing no limits and no details on the verb. I think aoristic is analogous to the English simple. Porter defines the aspect of the aorist as “perfective.”
Aspect: I and others define this as kind of action. In Koine Greek, and other languages like English, the three kinds of action are simple (aoristic), continual (imperfective), and finished (perfective). The disagreements over what “aspect” means, what are the aspects in KG, and what morphological forms correspond to what aspect is the core of this book.
Continuous:
Discourse:
Explanatory Variables: These are the variables of any theory used to explain what is going on in the data. For my system, the variables are time and aspect. I see the variable of time as having three possible values, past, present and future. I see the variable of  aspect as having three possible values, aoristic (unspecific), imperfective (ongoing), and perfective (finished). These two variables can have a total of nine combinations.
The question of "why" and author choose one of the combinations is answered by discourse. A possible explanation for the author choosing aoristic aspect is that it is the simple default and was selected because the verb has to be in some form. A possible reasons for the author choosing imperfective aspect is that the author wanted to indicate that something was happening at the same time as something else. A possible reason for the perfective aspect is that the author wanted to indicate that something was finished before some other aspect. Details of why the author wanted to indicate contemporary or completed action is found in the context, which is a discourse explanation having to do with the meaning of sentences, paragraphs, and larger units.
See the glossary definition of "viewpoint" below for a discussion about why an author might select one time over another.
Focus: is the mental space which demands the primary attention of the reader at any given time. 
Holistic Theories: This is my label for non autonomous theories of linguistics. An autonomous theory of linguistics has separate theories of syntax, semantics and discourse which interface. In holistic theories, the linguist essentially claims that syntax, semantics and discourse are the same thing and that language data can be accounted for with one theory. I criticize this as being the source of most errors made by my Greek grammarian colleagues. Porter uses a holistic theory that might be called functionalism.  I believe that "functionalism" is primarily a discourse theory so in effect Porter is doing discourse study and missing much of the general patterns of syntax and details of the words selected by the authors.
Fanning, Wallace, and Robinson use a holistic theory which might be called "Aktionsart." I suggest that they err by combining semantics, discourse and syntax. Their system consists of categorizing meanings based on morphological forms. These meanings come mostly from the semantics of the word in the context of  the sentence in the context of the discourse. But the Aktionsart group attribute the meanings to the morphology and then abstract these meanings so that each morphological form has a dozen or two dozen categories. Such a methodology is cumbersome, redundant and vastly incomplete. 
Imperfect: This is the traditional name for the past time imperfective aspect morphological form in Greek. This morphological form is present in Classical, Koine, and Modern Greek.
Imperfective Aspect: Imperfective aspect is one of the three aspects in Greek and indicates continuous, ongoing, uncompleted action. Often this aspect is used to indicate an action that is going on while another action is going on.
Morphology: Morphology is changes on a word that is phonologically and syntactically one unit. Some languages like Vietnamese have no morphology at all and indicate things like plural on a noun by adding additional words. Some languages like Hungarian and to a lesser extent Russian have extensive morphology and indicate vast details with prefixes and suffixes. English and Greek are in between these extremes with Koine Greek having more morphology then English and also more morphology than Modern Greek.
That which can be indicated by morphology in one language can usually be indicated by additional words or phrases in another language.
Perfect: a morphological form in KG.
Perfective Aspect: I define “perfective aspect” as finished action as illustrated by the perfect morphological form in Koine Greek. This is also the aspects of the perfect participle, infinitive, subjunctive, optative, imperative. Porter claims “perfective” as illustrated by the aorist indicative. I believe that Porter here is making the mistake of past time with perfective aspect.
Semantics: I define this as “how words mean.” My theory is based on exemplar inferential semantics and I criticize feature based, prototype based and frame based semantics as being incomplete. Most Greek grammarians do not articulate what semantic theory they use, but Wallace and other who follow aktionsart theory use a form of feature based semantics.
Simple Aspect: For me, this is analogous to “aoristic” aspect. This is represented by the English simple form such as “talk” in contrast with continuous (imperfective) “is talking” and finished (perfective) “have talked.”
Syntax: I define as “how words fit together in sentences.” I follow what I call a revised minimalist program (RMP) which is based on words merging into a syntactic structure and being checked by their syntactic features. I maintain that syntax is autonomous from semantics and discourse, though interfacing with those other components. Autonomous means action independent from the other components. My grammarian colleagues often do not specify their syntax and apparently deal with small bits of syntax as part of their holistic theories. I criticize my colleagues’ systems as not being able to account for such simple syntactic phenomena as the structure of a prepositional phrase or how an object of a prepositional phrase is similar to the object of a verb. 
Tense: I define this as time expressed in the morphology of the language. Others use this term to generally mean “verb morphology” which usually includes “aspect.” Because this term has so many contradictory meanings, I stay away from it and use the terms "time" or "aspect" and/or "morphology" when I want to talk about those concepts. 
Viewpoint: I define this as the relationship between the base space and focus space in discourse. Fanning describes this as a perspective of the author toward aspect. Fanning also defines aspect as the perspective of the author, which seems circular and redundant. I believe that Fanning's failure to recognize "viewpoint" as a discourse function is a source of many errors in his holistic aktionsart system.


The word “tense” conveys the notion of “time,” the word “tense” in most Greek grammars is generally often used with the meaning “morphological form.”

This sans time (meaning "without time"), three aspect participle system adequately accounts for participles used adjectivally. Participles modifying verbs must be analyzed as a combination of aspect and relative time. Aorist participles are prior time unspecified action. Perfect participles are prior time, finished aspect. Present participles are contemporary time, continual aspect. Future participles, which occurs only 11 (reference forthcoming) times in the New Testament, is subsequent time, aoristic aspect. Do not confuse, however, participles used as adverbs with participles that are part of a periphrastic structure. In periphrastic structures the two verb construction might have the first word indicating time and the participle indicating aspect.

Notice here, the imperfective present English periphrastic verb "are reading" which indicates ongoing activity in the present time, indicating the exact location in the book as you read it. The use of the Greek present time imperfective aspect is not much different.

 

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Copyright by Mark Beatty