Whence a tenseless Greek Indicative?
Within NT studies the notion that the Greek verb lacks tense/temporal reference has become fairly accepted. If we compare this tenseless view of Greek with what has been claimed by every linguist and grammarian Porter cites in his research, you might scratch your head a bit. Why? Not one of them argues that Greek lacks tense. The linguists like Lyons, Comrie, Wallace and Haspelmath treat Greek as a mixed system with tense, aspect and mood all present in the indicative.
If it is true that the broader field of linguistics has treated Greek as having both tense and aspect, where did the “tenseless” idea come from? Why did it come about? I do not really know the whole story, but it seems that Porter was seeking to account for the incorrect claims of mainly commentators–not grammarians1–some of whom treated Greek verbs as though they had absolute temporal reference. It also seems that he was seeking to set his work apart from what was becoming a crowded field, claiming something no one else had claimed before, viz. that the Greek indicative lacked any temporal semantics.
But again, why was there a need to claim a total lack of temporal reference? In my last post I highlighted the areas of significant consensus between Porter and myself. However, Porter added two significant claims to his dissertation, claims not found either in biblical studies or in linguistics: a tenseless view of the verb and a semantic weighting/prominence view of the verb. Both of these proposals lack support or motivation from the field of linguistics. They are essentially rhetorical inventions originating from Porter’s dissertation.
The basic premise of the timeless view is to not just argue against the presence of absolute time/tense in the verb in favor of aspect. Rather it completely rejects the notion that the Greek verb conveys any temporal semantics in the indicative. The most compelling data for this is the multivariate use of the Present, attested by the statistics gathered in Decker’s Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark with Reference to Verbal Aspect. Note the almost equal distribution of the present tense-form in past, present and future temporal contexts, not to mention the timeless/atemporal uses, cited from my HP article (p. 215):
As you can see, the Present tense-form shows the most damning distribution when it comes to the traditional understanding of it referring to present time.
If you have read much of my work, you will have heard me harp on the importance of one’s theoretical framework. This lesson was thankfully beaten into my head by Larry Perkins, Stephen Levinsohn and Christo Van der Merwe; it has saved me from ruin on a number of occasions, and held the key to unlocking sticky problems. The strange distribution of the Present indicative is one of them.
There are two widely accepted principles that were ignored by Porter and those who have adopted his model. The first is the fact that most every Indo-European language–which would includes English, Greek, German, etc–has what linguists call a past/non-past distinction, rather than the past/present/future distinction presupposed by Porter. This means that the Present tense-form in these languages doesn’t exclusively refer to the present, but rather more broadly to the non-past.
For example, I could say “I am eating dinner with Bob [Monday]” and have either a present or a future meaning depending on the presence or absence of the adverb “Monday.” So too with Greek. This means that the “futuristic presents” are not anomalous, but are behaving like a good Indo-European language would be expected to behave. The failure to incorporate a past/non-past principle into his framework led Porter and those who have followed him to misconstrue the data.
The second principle missing from his framework was treating the historical present as a pragmatic usage rather than as prototypical. The numbers above treat the past use of the Present as though this is part of its basic semantic meaning, rather than as a pragmatic highlighting device based on the mismatch of tense and aspect to the narrative context.You’ll need to read the paper for the full argument.
Recognizing the past/non-past distinction, and treating the historical present as a pragmatic device–just as both traditional grammarians and linguists have done for decades–changes what originally seemed like a mess into something quite a bit tidier. Here is the updated table from my article.
- The HP usage is excluded, based on it not representing the basic semantics of the Present.
- The future reference is part of the core semantics, based on the non-past reference.
- The temporally undefined data tells us nothing about the temporal reference. It says the form was chosen based on the aspect that it conveyed in a timeless/atemporal context. It should thus either be included in the core usage, or excluded as not telling us anything about temporal reference.
In either case, the Present indicative forms in Mark render a 99% consistency in usage with what would be expected of an Indo-European tense form.
So had the widely-accepted linguistic notions of Greek having a past/non-past temporal distinction and of the historical present being a pragmatic usage been incorporated into Porter’s theoretical framework, there would have been no basis for making a tenseless/timeless argument in Greek. There likely would not have been much of a Porter/Fanning debate, and our field would not have squandered the last 20 years arguing about a linguistically unsound proposal.
One’s presuppositions play a huge role in determining outcomes. Beware.