Recent Views regarding the Greek Perfect Tense

The meaning of the Greek perfect tense has become a matter of huge debate in recent years. When I began my Greek studies with Mounce’s grammar (2nd ed.) about ten years ago, I learned that “The Greek perfect describes and action that was brought to completion and whose effects are felt in the present” (p. 225). This is a pretty standard explanation, and represents something of a “traditional” view among Greek grammarians. For example, BDF say that “[t]he perfect combines in itself, so to speak, the present and the aorist in that it denotes the continuance of completed action” (§340; cf. A. T. Robertson, Grammar, 892–3).

However, the attempt to work through the implications of verbal aspect on the Greek tenses has led to some substantive disagreements among Greek grammarians on the nature of the perfect tense. Constantine Campbell, in his 2015 book Advances in the Study of Greek, discusses three different views on the Greek perfect that are represented by himself, Stanley E. Porter, and Buist Fanning.

Campbell says that Fanning holds to an “aspectually-modified version of the traditional understanding of the perfect” (p. 118). In other words, Fanning basically holds to the “traditional” view described above, in which the perfect indicates an action completed in the past with continuing effects. However, he seeks to rearticulate it through an “aspectual” framework. Porter, according to Campbell, views the perfect tense as “stative in aspect” (ibid.). The result for him is a system with three aspects: perfective, imperfective, and stative. Campbell himself thinks that the perfect tense is “imperfective in aspect” (ibid.), with the result that he believes there are two aspects in Greek: perfective and imperfective.

A recent work which attempts to bring a number of specialists to bear on the topic of the Greek verb is the book The Greek Verb Revisited, which was edited by Steven E. Runge and Christopher J. Fresch (published in 2016). The contributions made by this volume on the perfect tense are as follows.

Rutger J. Allan discusses the historical development of the augment and the perfect tense in Greek (chapter 3). He says that the perfect developed in three stages: (1) in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and Homer, the Greek verb mainly expresses a state resulting from a past action, with the focus being on the present state (“the perfect denotes a present state, while it presupposes a past event” [pp. 102–3]). (2) After Homer, the perfect develops a meaning of a previous action with current relevance (p. 108). (3) Finally, possibly as late as the 4th or 5th century AD, the perfect developed to indicate past action without reference to the present time (p. 112). At this stage, the perfect became similar in meaning to the aorist.

In chapter 4, Nicholas J. Ellis discusses the nature of the Greek language as an “aspect-prominent” language (as opposed to a “tense-prominent” language like English). He says that Greek has three aspects: perfective aspect, imperfective aspect, and what he calls “combinative” aspect, which is found in the perfect and the pluperfect tenses. Ellis believes that the label “combinative” is the most appropriate because it is a “combination of semantic categories of the other two aspects” (p. 132). They say that the perfect tense refers “to an event that is completed at the time of speaking, though it has present relevance” (pp. 156–7). This is essentially a restating of the “traditional” view, echoing BDF’s language that the perfect “combines in itself” the aorist and the present.

In chapter 5, Stephen H. Levinsohn addresses the issue of verb forms and grounding in narrative. He says that the perfect tense (along with periphrastics and pluperfects) tends to “present background information because of their stative nature” (p. 179). Steven E. Runge addresses the same issue with regard to non-narrative discourse in chapter 6, where he says that the use of the perfect tends to be correlated with supporting information rather than “theme line” information: “A preliminary study of the perfect in Luke, Romans, and Hebrews found that the overwhelming majority of perfect indicatives served as a ground for a theme line assertion, i.e., were supportive” (p. 236). Later, in chapter 15, Runge says that the fact that the perfect verbs support the main points of the authors calls into question the conclusions of Porter and Campbell, who both claim that the perfects are “more prominent than the surrounding information” (p. 482).

In chapter 13, Randall Buth discusses the morphology of the perfect tense and Greek pedagogy. He says that the meaning of the perfect tense is “continuing an achieved state” (p. 422). However, he does not think “stative” is the right term for the perfect verb’s aspect (contra Porter): “I am uncomfortable with the idea of using the term stative in the aspectual descriptions, because stative is a lexical, semantic feature of certain verbs rather than a subjective, deictic, morpho-syntactic aspect category” (p. 423). If I read him right, he is saying that stativity is not an aspect, it is part of the meaning of certain verbs. Furthermore, he seems to support viewing perfects as having what Ellis called “combinative” aspect. While he doesn’t use this term, he says that the Greek aspectual system can be described as consisting of one aspect {+perfective}, one aspect {+imperfective}, and the perfect tense consisting of {+perfective, +imperfective} (p. 422–3).

One interesting element related to his discussion of stativity is the following quote that Buth gives from Robert Crellin’s dissertation on the perfect verb (2012): “The aspect of the perfect active [is] dependent on whether the subject participant can be presented as being either in or having entered a state: if it can, the perfect active stem will not necessarily carry past time reference, whereas if it cannot, it will in almost all circumstances do so” (p. 424–5). This is interesting because grammarians have often noted that sometimes the perfect tense focuses on the completed action in the past, almost to the exclusion of the continuing effects in the present, while at other times the perfect seems to focus on the resulting state, almost to the exclusion of the completed action in the past. The quote from Crellin suggests that the meaning of the lexeme itself (and possibly context?) might be the determining factors. Buth concludes his essay by suggesting that if students of Greek internalized the Greek language as we have our mother tongues (presumably through a living language approach to learning Greek), understanding the perfect tense would not be the problem that it has become.

Chapter 14 is by Robert Crellin, who wrote his dissertation on the perfect tense in 2012. Crellin says that in post-classical Greek, the perfect can denote: (1) a “past action with current relevance,” (2) “a state resulting from an event taking place prior to reference time,” and (3) a “[s]tate concurrent with the reference time of the clause with no reference to any prior event” (pp. 431–2). The point of his essay is to present a “unified semantic description” that explains all of these uses (p. 435). His proposal is complex, so it is necessary to spell out the most important elements of his framework (pp. 435ff):

  1. He considers tense and aspect a property of propositions, rather than a property of verbs by themselves.
  2. The event spoken of in a proposition has various time components (i.e. a beginning, a middle, and an end). The relationship of each of these to each other are the event’s “time structure,” and the “time structure” as a whole is the event’s “situation time.” If I understand him right, the “situation time,” therefore, is the time of the whole event.
  3. Different kinds of events have different time structures. For example, events can be activities (swim), accomplishments (build), states (sit), etc.
  4. In addition to “situation time,” an event has a “topic time,” which is the time the speaker is talking about. The situation time has to do with the time of the whole event referred to, but the speaker may or may not be referring to the whole of the event.
  5. “Utterance time” is the time when the speaker makes her statement. The relationship between the topic time and the utterance time is the “tense” in the sense of past, present or future. If the topic time comes before the utterance time, then the utterance is a past time statement, and if the utterance time comes before the topic time, it is a future time statement.
  6. Aspect relates the “topic time” to the “situation time.”
    1. Perfective aspect: the topic time includes the situation time. The whole event is being referred to.
    2. Imperfective aspect: the situation time includes the topic time. The time being referred to is less than the whole event. The time that the speaker is referring to is “inside” the event, in the sense that the beginning and end are not being referred to, but the event is in the middle of unfolding.
  7. With regard to the perfect, he finds that often times a description that works for one occurrence of the perfect doesn’t work for another. For example, some perfects can be described as referring to “pure states,” others to “resulting states,” and still others to “situations pertaining after an event” (p. 449). With a little bit of reflection, the reader can see that these are similar, but not the exact same. Crellin says that what they have in common is that they are “homogenous” and “atelic” in terms of their “event structures.” That is, the event structure is unchanging, and has no inherent end point.
  8. His proposed semantic description of the perfect is as follows: “The perfect of a predicate derives a homogeneous atelic eventuality from the predicate for the grammatical subject and includes Topic Time in the Situation Time of this derived homogeneous atelic eventuality” (p. 451). The best that I can make of this is as follows:
    1. The perfect verb is used in propositions which refer to some event that is derived from the action of the verb (i.e. it is secondary, not referring to the action of the verb itself, but an event derived in some way from the action).
    2. This derived event is unchanging and has no inherent endpoint.
    3. The topic time (what the author is referring to) is inside of the situation time (the time of the derived event).
  9. He believes that this explanation solves the problem of descriptions that only fit some of the perfect tense verbs.

In this latest volume we have a wealth of information and analyses regarding every dimension of the Greek verbal system, including the perfect tense. Time will tell whether it will lead to a clearer understanding that bears fruit for NT exegesis.

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