Greek Tenses and FarAboveAll's English

Graham Thomason

28 February 2022

This article can be found on www.FarAboveAll.com

The FarAboveAll (FAA) Translation is based on the New Testament majority (or rather, universal,) text, as published by Robinson and Pierpont [RP], and the Old Testament Masoretic text, as represented by the Westminster Leningrad Codex. It aims to be suitable for public reading, which requires idiomatic (but not colloquial) renderings, respecting the proprieties of the English language, whilst being fairly literal and concordant where no violence to the English ensues. Many notes give a literal translation where it is deemed significant. Readers who require a thoroughly literal translation are advised to consult e.g. [YLT], though even this is not completely reliable (see below), whilst another consideration is to be aware of the discrepancies between the underlying Greek text of the literal translations and the majority text.

This article is not a study of the use of tenses in the New Testament. For that, please see our references [MZ], [NT], [EDWB]. Rather, we illustrate some of the issues guiding the FAA translation by some of the more striking examples.

It should be borne in mind that a literal translation, apart from being very un-English, can give the wrong impression, and can actually be wrong. The literal Hebrew in Psalm 143:2 לֹא כָל is not every (living person will be justified in your presence), but it means no (living person will be justified in your presence). That is standard Biblical Hebrew syntax. In Matthew 24:22 the same construction, as a Hebraism, is used: not all flesh would have been saved, i.e. some flesh would not have been saved, but it means no flesh would have been saved. Greek tenses are also subject to Hebrew influence, and it is an open question as to whether Hebrew has tenses at all, apart from conversive forms. [MZ] cites Lk 1.51f (the Magnificat) as being suspected of Hebrew influence, where the perfect is used for a universal truth, as in the syntax of the song of Hannah:

Luke 1.51a

Ἐποίησεν κράτος ἐν βραχίονι αὐτοῦ

Literally: He acted in strength with his arm,

FAA: He has acted in strength with his arm;

1 Samuel 2:1b

עָלַ֤ץ לִבִּי֙ בַּֽיהוָ֔ה

Literally: My heart exulted in the Lord,

FAA: My heart exults in the Lord,

Coverdale and Tyndale translate Luke 1:51 in the present tense, recognizing the Hebraism, but only those of 46 translations on Biblehub.com. Even of the 5 literal translations, only 2 use the simple past; the others use the perfect.

English traditionally defines seven basic “tenses” (though they denote more than just time): the present, future, imperfect, simple past (or preterite), perfect (or present perfect), future perfect and pluperfect (or past perfect). Greek as taught from English similarly defines these seven tenses, with one name change: aorist for simple past. But we show that to rigorously (not to say slavishly) match these does not produce an accurate translation, though such a translation could be said to be literal. That is because the Greek “tenses” denote factors other than tense, such as completion, repetition, perseverance, attempt, failed attempt and inception, and not all of these are conveyed by their English counterpart. A literal translation has the advantage of revealing the underlying Greek, which has its value to readers who can appreciate the significance of that, but to others it simply makes for unidiomatic English. We now consider some more examples.

The Imperfect

In English, the imperfect typically sets the scene for a punctiliar event, e.g.:

In other cases, the use of the imperfect in English may appear forced. However, in Greek it can simply suggest that something of long duration is about to follow.

Acts 26:1

Ἀγρίππας δὲ πρὸς τὸν Παῦλον ἔφη, Ἐπιτρέπεταί σοι ὑπὲρ σεαυτοῦ λέγειν. Τότε ὁ Παῦλος ἀπελογεῖτο, ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα,

Literally: Then Agrippa was saying to Paul, “It is permitted for you to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and was speaking in his defence.

FAA: Then Agrippa said to Paul, “It is permitted for you to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and spoke in his defence.

In the following example the imperfect was teaching may well indicate the length of the lesson, but it makes for coarse English:

Matthew 5:2

καὶ ἀνοίξας τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ, ἐδίδασκεν αὐτούς, λέγων,

Literally: and he opened his mouth and was teaching them, saying,

FAA: and he opened his mouth and taught them, and said,

It is an affront to the English language to use a stative verb (to love) in a progressive tense (I am loving). Readers may be aware of the advertising slogan I am loving it, but please realize that its effect comes from the very fact that it is not correct English. Likewise, a literal translation of John 11:36 cannot have a place in an idiomatic translation:

John 11:36

Ἔλεγον οὖν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι, Ἴδε πῶς ἐφίλει αὐτόν.

Literally: Then the Jews were saying, “See how he was loving him.”

FAA: Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him.”

In addition to the ordinary progressive imperfect, the imperfect has a conative (attempting) use. Example:

Matthew 3:14a

Ὁ δὲ Ἰωάννης διεκώλυεν αὐτόν

Literally: but John was preventing him

FAA: although John tried to prevent him

[MZ] §272 gives verbs that of their nature tend to be put in the imperfect when used of past time: verbs of saying, asking and ordering (especially in vain). We add that verbs of remaining also adequately convey the notion of duration without the imperfect in English, provided the backdrop is not interrupted: Mark 14:61, Acts 5:4, Acts 17:14, Acts 18:3.

The Aorist

The aorist is frequently used where a perfect is required in English.

We have seen how Luke 1.51 reflects the Hebrew style of 1 Samuel 2:1. Another example is Luke 2:30, with similar poetic style in Isaiah 6:5:

Luke 2:30

ὅτι εἶδον οἱ ὀφθαλμοί μου τὸ σωτήριόν σου,

Literally: Because my eyes saw your salvation,

FAA: Because my eyes have seen your salvation,

Isaiah 6:5b

כִּ֗י אֶת־הַמֶּ֛לֶךְ יְהוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת רָא֥וּ עֵינָֽי

Literally: For my eyes saw the king – The Lord, of hosts.

FAA: For my eyes have seen the king – The Lord, of hosts.

An example where English requires a perfect because the context indicates a resulting situation:

Matthew 12:28

Εἰ δὲ ἐν πνεύματι θεοῦ ἐγὼ ἐκβάλλω τὰ δαιμόνια, ἄρα ἔφθασεν ἐφ' ὑμᾶς ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ.

Literally: But if I cast the demons out by the spirit of God, then the kingdom of God came upon you.

FAA: But if I cast the demons out by the spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

In John 17, the Lord sums up his earthly ministry. Surely a perfect tense is required in English.

John 17:4a

Ἐγώ σε ἐδόξασα ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς·

Literally: I glorified you on the earth;

FAA: I have glorified you on the earth;

John 17:6a

Ἐφανέρωσά σου τὸ ὄνομα τοῖς ἀνθρώποις οὓς δέδωκάς μοι

Literally: I manifested your name to the men you have given me

FAA: I have manifested your name to the men you have given me

Burgon [JWB-RR] p.158 pronounces the pedantry of twisting this into the indefinite [= aorist] past as altogether insufferable. He speaks of the requirements of English idiom and the proprieties of English speech, against the Revisers' application of the schoolboy method of translation [p.155]. It is interesting to note that of the about 50% of the main translations on Biblehub.com that translate with a literal simple past tense, some of them (NLT, ESV, LSV, NAB, NET, NRSV) unliterally translate the perfect δέδωκάς as you gave, partially easing the violence done to the English.

The Perfect

The perfect in English seems out of place in Hebrews 11:17 and 11:28. Consider Hebrews 11:4-31, here translated literally:

The two perfects above in English are contrary to English idiom. The ordinary English reader would be distracted by them. They belong to a literal translation, but even [YLT] and [LSV] on Biblehub.com reject the English perfect in Heb 11:28. [EDWB] §§80,88 describe how the Greek perfect gradually supplanted the aorist.

Appendix: A Multi-dimensional Approach to Verbal Forms

The word tense is derived from the Latin word tempus meaning time. Let us restrict the use of tense to three reference frames: present, future and past. In Greek and English (the terms in square brackets will be explained later) we have:

Where does that leave the imperfect “tense”? Its main purpose is to denote continuity, an ongoing circumstance. That is independent of time-when. The distinction between time as a point (punctiliar, instantaneous, compressed-time time) and extended time (progressive, linear, durative time) is known as aspect or Aktionsart. The Russian language is best known for aspect, because almost all verbs have two forms, known as the perfective (punctiliar) aspect and the imperfective (durative) aspect, so we adopt that terminology. The terms perfective and imperfective must be regarded as separate from the terms perfect and imperfect. Russian examples of aspect:

In Greek and English, combined with tense (the terms in square brackets will be explained later):

Where does that leave the perfect “tense”? It is used to denote a state as a consequence of something in the past. It is described as a tense or aspect in Wikipedia [Perfect_(grammar)], but it needs a new name because it is a new dimension. We propose actualization with the modes operative and perfect (or resultative).

In Greek and English, the operative actualization, combined with tense and the perfective aspect:

In Greek and English, combined with tense and the imperfective aspect:

Summary:

Other dimensions can be added for a full parse: person (first, second, third), number (singular, dual, plural), mood (indicative, subjunctive, optative, infinitive, imperative, participle) and voice (active, middle, passive). We could add separate dimensions for concepts such as repetition (iteration), attempt, inception (initiation, inchoation), conditionality (real and unreal). And many more from English and other languages: see Wikipedia [Grammatical_mood].

References

[EDWB] Ernest DeWitt Burton, Syntax of Moods and Tenses in N.T. Greek, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, Third Edition 1898, Impression of 1987. ISBN 0 567 01002 3.
[JWB-RR] J. W. Burgon, The Revision Revised, Dean Burgon Society Press, ISBN 1-888328-01-0.
[LSV] Literal Standard Version. Available on Biblehub.com.
[MZ] Maximilian Zerwick S.J., Biblical Greek, Editrice Pontificio Instituto Biblico, Roma 1990. ISBN 88-7653-554-3.
[NT] Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek VOL III Syntax, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1963. ISBN 0 567 01013 9.
[RP] (Compiled and Arranged by) Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont, The New Testament in the Original Greek, Byzantine Textform 2005, Chilton Book Publishing, Southborough, Massachusettes. ISBN-10: 0-7598-0077-4 and ISBN-13: 978-7598-0077-9.
[YLT] Young's Literal Translation. Available on Biblehub.com.