The Greek Verb:  Aspect

It is only in recent decades that New Testament scholars have started to take notice of insights from linguistics.  One key linguistic concept that has made waves is that of verbal aspect.

If I say, "I studied last night", this indicates that the event was completed last night.  It views the event as a completed whole.  This is called the completed aspect, and is usually used of events in the past.

If I say, "I was studying last night", then it is describing the action as ongoing, a process, something that took place over a period of time.  This is called the continuous aspect.

  Present Past Future
Completed I study I studied I will study
Continuous I am studying I was studying I will be studying

Greek grammar books written between AD 1500 and AD 2000 treated "verb tense" and "time of action" as interchangeable.  One innovation in Greek grammar books written in the past 20 years is that they have come to understand that "verb tense" carries two connotations:  time and aspect.

In fact, it sometimes seems like "tense" is a word that is mostly useful in determining verb suffixes, and that you must determine from the context what the verb means with respect to type of action and time.

I will include here an essay I wrote several years ago when I was first wrestling with the meaning of verbs.  I had some friends with whom I was in conversation about issues in NT translation, and this was intended to help move that conversation along.

Greek Verb Tenses

Bob Goethe
Edmonton, AB
January 1, 2014

Why Bother Writing this Essay?

The catalyst for this essay was two-fold.  First, I observed in my own translation work frequent (apparently) inconsistent uses of verb tense by NT writers:  using an aorist where the context would suggest that a present was more appropriate, or vice versa; using an aorist referring to events that were clearly set in the future (e.g. in prophecies recorded in the book of Revelation).

Second, I observed that preachers sometimes seemed to hang a lot of their sermons’ content on a finely sliced and mechanical interpretation of the significance of Greek verb tenses. 

In the case of a Vineyard church that Mark Dickens used to attend, this led to a novel interpretation of the Zacchaeus passage1 … to suggest that Zacchaeus was NOT repenting/changing as a result of his meeting with Jesus...that when he met Jesus there was nothing he had any need to repent OF.

Together, these observations gave me the sense that there was something I was missing in my Greek grammar. 

A coffee meeting with Syd Page, Professor of New Testament at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, suggested that I was far from the only one to notice that the grammar I learned in Greek 101 decades ago was not quite up to the task of reading the New Testament today.


How We Create a Grammar

It goes without saying that the native speakers of a given language never learn it by studying a grammar textbook.  They just speak it, and internalize the subtle distinctions of the grammar without thinking about it.

In fact, native speakers are often the last people to be able to verbalize facts about the structure of their language.  That is often the job of people who learn the language as a second language, and analyze the grammar to make it easier for them (and others) to learn this language.

This is no different when it comes to biblical Greek.  None of the Greek speakers of the first century ever really composed a systematic description of the grammar of their own language.

Creating this systematic description of first century Greek has been left to others – most often, to people born after 1800 AD.

Encoding Time into Our Verbs

Whenever a native English speaker talks, he encodes information about time into every verb. 

If somebody says, “I ran” then we know that this event happened sometime in the past.  If they add time-related word(s) to the sentence (“I ran yesterday”; “I ran this morning”) then it gives us more precise information.  But we already knew, in broad strokes, when this action occurred.  It occurred in the past.

This encoding of time into our verb forms is so pervasive and instinctive for us who are native English speakers, that we just naturally assume that other languages (in this case, NT Greek) do the same thing.2

So when we found certain word endings in Greek that seemed to be associated with action, we assumed that they were time-related and used the word “tense” to describe the nature of this time-relatedness, e.g. imperfect tense, aorist tense.

That is, we have taken our English verbal template, and laid it over the top of biblical Greek.

Stanley Porter: a Watershed

A typical way of describing the aorist tense has been, for instance, to say that “the aorist describes punctiliar action in the past – that is, action that happened at a particular point in the past.”  The only problem with this is that, if we take this approach, we must say that 40% of the occurrences of the aorist in the NT are “irregular”.

Stanley Porter, currently a professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, noticed that these verb endings we call “tenses” in Greek might be translated more accurately if we did not think of them as being related to time at all.3

Porter thought the high incidence of “irregular” uses of verbs in the NT (and it affects not just the aorist tense, but the present and other tenses) might be a pointer to the need to think of these verbal forms differently…that is, differently from thinking that they encode references to time.

It is the subject of the rest of this essay to describe Porter’s hypothesis.  But I can introduce his work by saying that it has been revolutionary.  It “fits the data” that we find in the New Testament…much better than the time-encoding template that we have been using for the past century or more.

Porter’s work4 has been such a game changer, linguistically speaking, that New Testament commentaries can now be divided into two groups.  The first group includes commentaries written before Porter (or written by New Testament scholars who tend not to stay current in their field).  The second group is made up of commentaries written after Porter, who take him into account.

This is analogous to the situation that occurred in astronomy at the moment when Copernicus and Kepler introduced the idea that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around.  Suddenly, all the observations of planetary movements that astronomers had struggled for centuries to fit into a geocentric model of the solar system…all these observations suddenly fell into place.  There was an “Aha!” moment in astronomy.

A similar sort of “Aha!” moment occurred in New Testament studies when Porter published his book in 1993.

Verbal Aspect

How do you go about redefining the notion of “verb tenses”?  A thousand books all talk about the "present tense" and the "future tense" in Greek.  You cannot simply unravel all that history.

The way Porter chose to proceed was to keep the vocabulary we use in describing verb forms in Greek, but redefine them by saying that they do not refer to time, but rather to “aspect”.

By “aspect”, Porter means that the Greek writer would (probably unconsciously) consider the nature of the action – whether it was a complete package, or was an ongoing process – and then select a verb form.

Time, he says, was not part of this selection except incidentally.  Rather, time was encoded by other words which come from the context.  In English, words like “yesterday” or “this morning” may provide additional information about just when a past action occurred.  In Greek, it is these add-on words that actually define time.  In Greek, the verb tense captures the way the writer thinks about the action.

The aorist encodes completed action.  It is easy to see why you would often use an aorist tense for action that actually occurred in the past…since that action is often complete.  However, if you are thinking about some action in the present, and you conceive of it as a well-defined action – a complete action – then you might use an aorist verb even though the actual time of the action is in the present.

To take this further, the Apostle John often thinks of some of God’s yet-to-come actions as being complete and self-contained.  So he often uses an aorist tense in the context of some prophecy about future actions that God will take.

Examples of the Greek Present Indicative

Matt. 8:25 Κύριε, σῶσον, ἀπολλύμεθα.
Lord, save us!  We are perishing. (time = present)
Mark 11:27 Καὶ ἔρχονται πάλιν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα.
And they were coming again into Jerusalem (time = past)
Matt. 26:18 πρὸς σὲ ποιῶ τὸ πάσχα μετὰ τῶν μαθητῶν μου.
I will come to your house to eat the Passover meal with my disciples.  (time = future)
Matt. 7:19 πᾶν δένδρον μὴ ποιοῦν καρπὸν καλὸν ἐκκόπτεται καὶ εἰς πῦρ βάλλεται.
Every tree not making good fruit is cut off and thrown into the fire (time = undefined; always true: past, present and future)
2 Cor. 9:7 ἱλαρὸν γὰρ δότην ἀγαπᾷ ὁ θεός.
For God loves a joyful giver (time = undefined; a state of being)


Examples of the Greek Aorist Indicative

Lk. 16:4 ἔγνων τί ποιήσω
I know what I intend to do (time = present)
2 Cor. 11:25 τρὶς ἐραβδίσθην
Three times I was beaten (time = past)
John 17:14 καὶ ὁ κόσμος ἐμίσησεν αὐτούς
The world is going to hate them (time = future)
Eph. 5:29 οὐδεὶς γάρ ποτε τὴν ἑαυτοῦ σάρκα ἐμίσησεν
for no one ever hates his own body (time = undefined; always true: past, present and future)
Lk. 7:35 καὶ ἐδικαιώθη ἡ σοφία ἀπὸ πάντων τῶν τέκνων αὐτῆς.
But wisdom is vindicated by all her children (time = undefined; a state of being)

Examples of Greek Perfect Indicative

Matt. 21:27 καὶ ἀποκριθέντες τῷ Ἰησοῦ εἶπαν· Οὐκ οἴδαμεν.
They answered and said to Jesus, “We don’t know.”  (time = present)
Acts 10:45 ὅτι καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ ἔθνη ἡ δωρεὰ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος ἐκκέχυται·
because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles (time = past)
James 5:2 ὁ πλοῦτος ὑμῶν σέσηπεν, καὶ τὰ ἱμάτια ὑμῶν σητόβρωτα γέγονεν,
your riches are going to rot and your garments are going to become moth-eaten (time = future)
2 Peter 2:19 ᾧ γάρ τις ἥττηται, τούτῳ καὶ δεδούλωται.
For whatever a person succumbs to, to that he is enslaved. (time = undefined; always true: past, present and future)
1 Jn. 3:14 μεταβεβήκαμεν ἐκ τοῦ θανάτου εἰς τὴν ζωήν
we are transformed from death into life (time = undefined)

The Problem We All Have in Translating the Bible

Each of the three groups above use the same tense, but have (in order) four different temporal references:  present, past, future, and undefined (or timeless).

The question we have to ask is:  what is the significance of tense if the same tense forms can all refer to the same range of time, and if all three different tenses can have the same range?5

Porter’s conclusion is that Greek tenses simply do not encode for time – which is a little difficult for us, since he is saying that "Greek tenses" are not actually tenses. 6  If this is true, then the word "tense" is just a shorthand we use to describe a particular set of verb suffixes.6.1

Hebrew Can Help for Those Who Have Studied It

35 years ago, it would have been said that Greek and Hebrew had radically different approaches to verbs.  Greek had an array of precise, time-linked tenses, while Hebrew had two “tenses” that were not really tenses – the perfect (for completed action) and the imperfect (for not-completed action).

In Hebrew, the perfect was used (though not always) for action which the context indicated was in the past, while the imperfect was used (though not always) for action which was in the present or future.

It would seem that Greek and Hebrew are more alike than any of us imagined 35 years ago.

How Do We Then Speak?

We are not going to overthrow centuries of word usage as pertains to Greek verbs.  Decker suggests that we speak of both word form and word function, e.g. "the aorist form used of present time"; "the aorist form used of future time".


If Greek Verbs Don’t Encode For Time, What the Heck DO They Do?

Porter indicates that Greek verb forms encode for the speaker’s concept of the process of the action described by the verb.

He illustrates this by using the analogy of a parade.

As for the need to encode for time, Greek DOES do this, it just doesn’t do it with verb forms (or maybe we could say, it doesn't consistently do this with verb forms).  It does it with other indicators in the context.

The perfect tense is a bit tricky for us to think of, as it is sometimes used in the context of a historical narrative not just to describe a state-of-affairs, but when the writer wants to add emphasis to the narrative. A matter of style.

Is Porter the Be-All and End-All?

Not very likely.  We now realize that understanding Greek grammar is like understanding particle physics.  People form hypotheses to explain the data they see experimentally (or, in our case, that we see in the New Testament and the LXX). 

If your hypothesis is a poor one (such as we have had in Greek for the last 150 years), then you posit a grammatical rule, and then find that 40% of the data fails to fit the rule. 

If you can come up with a different system (e.g. the idea of “verbal aspect”) and find that it covers 90%+ of the instances we see in the NT, then you say that you have got a pretty good system…at the very least, a huge improvement over what you have had up to now.

There are still gaps.  For instance, Porter doesn’t talk much about the future tense, as it is still a bit difficult for him to explain using his system. 

Whenever we see a future tense verb in the New Testament, its function seems very time related…and very much like that of the English future tense, "I will run".

That said, it is unlikely that anybody will completely jettison verbal aspect (just as nobody has completely jettisoned Isaac Newton’s math to describe gravity, in spite of Einstein's extension of the concept of gravity). 

But it may well be that somebody builds on Porter to come up with a way of conceptualizing Greek grammar that fills in gaps that Porter left behind.

What Does This Mean to the Preacher?

We need to be a little cautious in hanging too much of our sermon content on fine distinctions between verb tenses. 

It is true that Jesus’ death paid for the sins of mankind in a “once and for all” fashion.  But we don’t know that because it was described using an aorist tense.  We know it because this is what the context of the particular passage indicates, and because of how that fits with the broad theological emphases in the Bible.

Our older commentaries are still of enormous use to us, written as the best of them were, by people who paired scholarship with a deep heart for God and a commitment to personal holiness. 

Even with what Porter would call a misunderstanding of biblical Greek, because of how tenses and time do in fact interact, much of what is said may still be (more or less) correct.  For example,

Our main concern is that (unless we are enormously skilled in biblical Greek) we ought never use some theory of Greek tense to overturn the plain meaning of a passage and its context. 

Further, we should be cautious about making some strong contrast, for instance, between the aorist and the imperfect in a passage.  There may be a contrast intended by the writer…or it may be a stylistic variation similar to what we do similarly when we decide we similarly don’t want to use the word similar too many times in a similar sentence.

To be even more practical, we will never go far wrong if we use the NIV (2010 edition). the ESV version (first published, 2001) or the NET Bible to base our sermons on.8  God inspired the NT writers to put the words of Jesus into translation right from Day One – as they translated the Aramaic words of Jesus into the Greek of the gospel of Mark or Luke.

We don’t NEED to preach directly from our Greek New Testaments, as long as we have top-notch translators around who can cast the passages into English.  We can still hear the authentic Word of the Lord. 

And this we have in the NIV, ESV and NET versions.9 



[1] This is reminiscent of the third movie in the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” series, where a young Indiana Jones comes out of a cave in Utah to find that he has become totally separated from his Boy Scout troop. His response to this is to say, “Everybody’s lost but me.” [Return]

[2] Obviously, English is not the only language to encode time in its verbs. But it is my language, and the exemplar I use in this essay. [Return]

[3]In addition to Stanley Porter, Buist M. Fanning is another important name in this revolution in the understanding of Greek verbs. Perhaps he gets less credit because "Buist" is less common as a first name even than "Stanley".
    In the years since Porter has written, NT scholars have reached a consensus that we should not say that verb tense has nothing to do with time.  That is an overstatement.  But it is true that we must think about aspect as well as (possibly) time as we consider a verb in any NT text.[Return]

[4] Stanley E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood (New York: Peter Lang, 1993). [Return]

[5] Rodney J. Decker, “The Poor Man’s Porter”, p. 7. This is available in many places on the web. I failed to note where I downloaded the copy I printed out for myself. [Return]

[6] In English, by definition, tenses have to do with time. [Return]

[6.1] March 2022 Update: In the years since I first wrote this essay, the consensus has become that Porter pointed out something really important, that people had not thought of much before.  Aspect is a genuinely useful concept.  But we cannot simply dismiss the notion of time in verb tenses.  That would be too simple. 🙄 Verb tense has connotations that touch on both time and aspect.  It is up to us as translators to sort out how this works out in a particular verse. [Return]

[7] I am still a bit fuzzy about just what the basis is, as far as Porter is concerned, upon which the NT writer would choose between the present and the imperfect.
       Presumably these two "tenses" would have had slightly different connotations...but just what those connotations are is a task for my NEXT 30 years of NT translation. From what I can sort out about Altzheimer's, the day could come when I can't remember my own name, but I might still be making passable translations from 2 Corinthians. [Return]

[8] The TNIV (Today’s NIV, 2002), was an effort at implementing gender inclusive language. Unfortunately, English simply lacks a singular, gender neutral pronoun: “he” and “she” are all we have to work with.
       The TNIV attempted to work around this with a so-called “singular they” construct, which led to some passages appearing to apply to entire groups of people (e.g. in Revelation 3:20 “I will come in to them and they will eat with me”) when the writer of Scripture intended it to be applied individually.
       The NIV 2010 version dials back a bit on letting its philosophical commitment to gender inclusivity run roughshod over the top of translating what Bible writers actually said.
       In contrast, the ESV (English Standard Version) has decided to solve the problem of gender inclusiveness by leaving that level of understanding for the reader to work out on his own ("on her own"? "for their own"? "on his or her own"?  "for themselves?"). They simply translate what the Bible author said, using whatever gender references they find in the original text.
{March 2022 addition:  I am becoming ever more impressed with the clarity and accuracy of the New Living Translation.  Their rendering of this verse is Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.} [Return]

[9] It was perhaps, in part at least, to save us from an excessive reverence for "the original languages" and to affirm the value of translated Scripture that the Holy Spirit inspired the Gospel writers to compose in Greek rather than Aramaic. This has kept us from saying that "You can't really understand the words of Jesus unless you read them in the original Aramaic. Only in Aramaic can you truly experience the inspired Word of God."
       People today sometimes speak of "the original Greek" with a sense of awe that almost implies that Jesus himself usually SPOKE in Greek. But I have neither the time nor enough crayons to deal with the kind of people who say this from the pulpit. [Return]