Verbal aspect and exegesis
Most of us learn Greek in order to read the Greek New Testament, to deepen our understanding of the text, and to improve our abilities in exegesis. Those same issues are what first prompted my interest in verbal aspect. Since verbs are so important in the Greek language, I wanted to be better equipped to do exegesis by understanding how verbs work. In this, my final post in this series, I wish to explore a little more how to use aspect in exegesis.
In the first four posts, we explored what aspect is, how it is different to Aktionsart, and how aspect and Aktionsart affect our understanding of the aorist and present indicatives. Let’s try to put some of this together now.
To understand what a verb is “doing” in the text, we need to identify its aspect, think a little about the lexeme involved, and appreciate what’s going on in the context. By reflecting on these things we will be better placed to determine the Aktionsart of the verb in each specific occurrence. I suggest that once we have correctly identified the Aktionsart of the verb, we have made an exegetical observation. Sometimes this kind of exegetical observation will not be terribly remarkable, and other times it will be critical. In any case, however, it will help us to read the text better, and that has to be a good thing.
1. Aspect. This is our first step, and it’s pretty easy once we’ve learnt which aspect goes with which tense-form. The present indicative has imperfective aspect built in.
2. Lexeme. Categorizing lexemes can be complicated sometimes. In my book I offer a simplified approach to this, but let’s not get into it now. The lexeme here is intransitive (it does not take an object).
3. Context. In the context, the word ‘often’ tells us that this is repeating action, and so the action is iterative.
1. Aspect. The aorist indicative has perfective aspect built in. 2. Lexeme. The lexeme here is transitive. This is complicated a little because the verb is in the passive voice, but it is still clear that the action is performed upon an "object". 3. Context. The context makes it clear that this is a proverbial utterance, which is universal and timeless. As such, the aorist is best treated as gnomic, and translated by the English present.
1. Aspect. The aorist indicative has perfective aspect built in.
2. Lexeme. The lexeme here is transitive. This is complicated a little because the verb is in the passive voice, but it is still clear that the action is performed upon an "object".
3. Context. The context makes it clear that this is a proverbial utterance, which is universal and timeless. As such, the aorist is best treated as gnomic, and translated by the English present.
What I’ve demonstrated above has a few steps to it, and might appear mechanistic or overly involved at first. But I think this is what we need to do to make informed exegetical decisions. Over time and with practice, this will eventually become more intuitive, and I think that’s a good goal to have. And that’s why I’ve included lots of exercises in my book. Our ‘intuition’ needs to be well-informed, and based on Greek usage, not English, and not based on the glosses we learn at the beginning of our Greek studies.
This leads me to a question that I am sometimes asked. How does all this fit in with other Greek tools that we use, such as Mounce and Wallace, for instance? It’s an important question, especially for teachers.
Maybe one way to approach it is that each book helps at different stages. Mounce offers a "gloss" for verbs; a way to translate and get going, which is appropriate for beginning students. Wallace offers a range of Aktionsart descriptions; a more nuanced approach to what verbs are doing, which takes students to the next level. My book offers an analysis of what’s going on beneath the surface, and shows how this works out on the surface (and is somewhat parallel to Wallace on the Aktionsart descriptions). So, different tools do different things. They’re not always entirely compatible in the details, but that’s just the nature of the beast, and it’s always been that way. Such tools can nevertheless be used together to further our understanding and ability.
Well, with that, I’ll conclude this series of posts. Thanks to Koinonia for the opportunity to discuss verbal aspect this week, and thanks all for your interaction and interest. I hope that we will all keep working at our appreciation of, and ability with, verbal aspect, and with it, the Greek New Testament.
Thanks Con for an excellent series of posts! And thanks to the bloggers for all the insightful questions and comments. All of us here at Z have really enjoyed following the discussion. --Andrew