Gospel Guidebook: Getting and Keeping It Right  

Greek Verb Tense: Time, Kind of Action, and Bad Scholarship

I started studying Koine Greek in 2014. I used David Alan Black’s “Learn to Read New Testament Greek.” It is an easy-to-understand introduction to Greek that is suitable for people who are studying independently. On page 15, Black says the following in Section “16. The Significance of Tense (Aspect) for Reading Greek”:

Even in the early stages of learning, it is important to become aware of both the importance and the function of aspect in the Greek verb system. Unlike English, the most significant feature of tense in Greek is kind of action. A secondary consideration of tense, and one that applies only in the indicative mood, is time of action. But the essential signification of the Greek tense system is the kind of action—whether it is represented as ongoing, finished, or simply as an occurrence.

At the time, I definitely didn’t understand the significance of this statement. After all, I had just started studying Greek and I was only on page 15 of his book! It wasn’t until a couple years later that I started questioning the claim made by modern-day scholars that kind of action (i.e., ongoing, finished, or simply an occurrence) is the most significant feature of the Greek verb tense.

I guess it was 2016 or 2017 that I first encountered Stanley Porter’s theory that Koine Greek verb tenses do not express time at all. According to this theory, the tense primarily (or perhaps exclusively?) conveys aspect, which in itself is a bit different from kind of action. Aspect is basically the subjective depiction of an action or state from the viewpoint of the writer or narrator, whereas kind of action is the objective depiction of an action or state. To say it another way, aspect is about depicting actions or states from different vantage points in terms of them being proximate (e.g., using the present tense) or remote (e.g., using the aorist). In contrast, kind of action is about depicting the same actions or states in terms of them being ongoing (e.g., using an imperfective tense), finished (e.g., using a perfective tense), or simply as an occurrence (e.g., using an aoristic tense).

After reading about Porter’s theory, I started feeling confused. However, while researching the topic, I learned about an ancient Greek grammarian named Dionysios Thrax (170-90 BC). It just so happened that he defined the Greek verb in one of his short grammars by saying the following:

A Verb is an indeclinable word, indicating time, person and number, and showing activity or passivity.

There are three Tenses: Present, Past, Future. Of these, the Past has four sub-species- Imperfect, Perfect, Pluperfect, and Aorist--which stand in three respective relations : the Present is related to the Imperfect, the Perfect to the Pluperfect, and the Aorist to the Future.

Dionysios Thrax’s work completely resolved the matter for me. According to his definition, a verb indicates time. Also, the Greek word he uses for “tenses” is chronoi, which literally means “times.” So, he is saying, “There are three times: Present, Past, Future.” Clearly for Dionysios Thrax, the time element of the verb tense was of primary importance. If aspect were more important than time, he would have defined the verb in terms of aspect instead of time.

I didn’t think about this topic again for several years. However, in 2021, one of my friends was insisting that kind of action was more significant than time. He told me that his instructors in college told him over and over again that Greek verb tenses are different from English verb tenses and that kind of action is of primary importance.

Thanks to my friend, I started thinking about this topic again. It seemed to me that somewhere along the line modern New Testament Greek scholars departed from the traditional way of viewing the Greek verb tense. How else could they disagree with Dionysios Thrax? After all, he was a native Greek speaking Greek grammarian who lived during the Koine Greek period. How could he be wrong?

In addition to Dionysios Thrax, Aristotle also defined a verb as follows:

A verb is that which, in addition to its proper meaning, carries with it the notion of time.

He goes on to say the following:

Similarly ‘he was healthy’, ‘he will be healthy’, are not verbs, but tenses of a verb; the difference lies in the fact that the verb indicates present time, while the tenses of the verb indicate those times which lie outside the present.

Obviously, Aristotle also thinks a verb indicates time. If aspect was more important than time, wouldn’t he have defined the verb in terms of aspect? So, again, it seems that modern Greek scholars (at least those whose primary focus is the New Testament) have departed from the ancients in regard to their understanding regarding Greek verb inflections. When and how did this happen? And why does it continue to persist?

I am not sure if I’ll find the answer to my questions, but I think I might have found a hint while reading A. T. Robertson’s “A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research.” On page 824, Robertson said the following about Dionysios Thrax in the context of kind of action:

Dionysius Thrax erred in explaining the Greek tenses from the notion of time, and he has been followed by a host of imitators. The study of Homer ought to have prevented this error.

This comment by Robertson really surprised me. I initially thought to myself, “How could a 19th century native English speaking Greek scholar possibly know more than a Koine Greek period native Greek speaking Greek grammarian? That would be like a 35th century native Greek speaking English scholar saying he knew more about Elizabethan English than Shakepeare.” Robertson’s reasoning regarding Homer also seems misplaced. We are not interested in Homeric Greek. We are interested in Koine Greek. Homeric Greek covered the period between 1200 to 800 BC, while Koine Greek covered the period between 336 BC to 300 AD (according to Wikipedia). Those two periods are so far apart. Language is living and always changing. For example, if I wanted to know about 21st century English, it wouldn’t be wise to consult an English grammar from the 15th century. Needless to say, there are numerous differences between the English of those periods. If I want to know about 21st century English, I have to consult a 21st century English grammar. Likewise, if I want to know about Koine Greek, I have to consult a Koine Greek period grammar, such as that of Dionysios Thrax. Also, it seems strange that Robertson would mention Homer, since Dionysius Thrax was an Homeric scholar. He would have certainly been aware of how Homer used the Greek verb.

In addition, I was a bit curious about this “host of imitators” that Robertson was referring to. During my research I found an interesting paper online written by Graydon L. Stephenson. He has a list of ancient Greek scholars and authors who described the Greek verb tense as indicating time. His list includes the following people:

Aristotle (Greek philosopher of the 4th century BC), Dionysius Thrax (Greek grammarian of the 2nd century BC), Dionysius of Halicarnassus (historian and linguist of the 1st century AD), Dionysius Longinus (Greek author of the 1st century AD), Apollonius Dyscolus (Greek grammarian of the 2nd century AD), and Stephen of Alexandria (Byzantine grammarian of the 7th century AD who commented on Stoic grammarians).

I am wondering if Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Dionysius Longinus, and Apollonius Dyscolus are among the imitators that Robertson was referring to. At any rate, I can’t help but think that Robertson misunderstood the importance of time in Greek verb inflections. It also seems to me that Robertson has a “host of imitators” following him who keep insisting that verb tenses emphasize kind of action over time.

In addition to Stephenson’s research, Chrys C. Caragounis (a native Greek speaker and scholar) has dedicated a whole chapter of his book “The Development of Greek and the New Testament” to refuting Stanley Porter and his idea that Greek verb tenses do not express time (see pages 316-336). The refutation was good enough that even Moises Silva, a sympathizer of Porter’s, was forced to admit that Caragounis succeeded in “refuting the view that the Greek verb does not express time.” https://www.galaxie.com/article/wtj67-2-11

Here are few excerpts from Caragounis’ book:

There is a move from the earlier understanding that the verb expresses time as well as aspect, to the view that the verb expresses primarily or exclusively aspect.

These views are put forward as new insights, never before utilized in the exegesis of the NT, to the extent of speaking of the “pre-verbal aspect” period. Such ponderous claims make it incumbent on me, both as a NT scholar with a keen historical and linguistic interest in Greek and as a user of the Greek language as my mother tongue, to critically examine the views advanced and the grounds on which they have been founded.

However, while a Greek would never deny or minimize the importance of Aspect, he would, at the same time, insist that the verb signals not only aspect, but also time, and that the two are equally pronounced. This has been recognized from the very first attempts that Greeks made in ancient times to reduce their language to grammatical analysis all the way to the present day. The evidence for this claim is overwhelming, but here I will content myself with mentioning a few grammarians from ancient and modern times.

When commenting on the work of Dionysios Thrax, he says the following:

Nevertheless, from what he does say, it becomes quite clear that Dionysios isolated two important categories: time and aspect. He did this, first, by calling the various tenses χρόνος, i.e. ‘time’, secondly, by dividing time into present, past, and future, and thirdly, by bringing together the imperfect, perfect, pluperfect, and aorist under the umbrella of past, as denoting past action. His isolation and distinctions of aspect can be gathered from the fact that he calls one of the tenses παρατατικός, a designation that expresses the main characteristic of this tense, i.e. one of duration. Moreover, Dionysios connects the imperfect with the present, again underlying the durative nature of these tenses, and the aorist with future, whose chief characteristic is its punctiliar aspect.

He then comments on the prestigious Greek scholar Georgios Hatzidakis:

The great Hatzidakis, who, like Jannaris, has treated the entire history of the Greek language, although aware that the verb in its primitive stage did not express time, recognizes that once the tenses were formed, they expressed both time and aspect, and that these are essential to the Greek verb.

Later, in the context of Homer, he says the following:

Greeks of all periods - and that goes for the educated and the uneducated - have made a clear distinction with regard to aspect between the imperfect and the aorist indicative, with regard to time between the present indicative and the imperfect and aorist indicative, and with regard to time and aspect between the present indicative and the aorist indicative.

Despite Caragounis’ important research, it seems that he has been largely ignored. If that were not bad enough, what’s worse is that a large number of New Testament Greek scholars seem quite content with ignoring (or perhaps remaining ignorant of) the witness of the ancient Greek scholars all together. In light of this prevailing trend, I can’t help but think of Proverbs 22:28.

Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.

It is my opinion that the departure from the ancient Greeks in their understanding of the Greek verb has created all types of exegetical problems. See, for example, my article on John 3:18 where I discuss the error that results when exegetes place too much emphasis on the generalized category of “durative action” for the present tense to the disregard of time, contextual, and lexical considerations. The consequences of this type of misuse of the Greek verb tense directly impacts soteriological matters. This is a big deal.