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How can the Imperfect be Instantaneous? — Mondays with Mounce 207
Are you familiar with the grammatical category called the “instantaneous imperfect”? To any first year Greek student, this sounds like a contradiction. Isn’t the imperfect always, well, imperfective? Continuous?
Wallace lists the “instantaneous imperfect” as the first category under “Narrow-Band Imperfects.” He writes, “The imperfect tense is rarely used just like an aorist indicative, to indicate simple past. This usage is virtually restricted to ἔλεγεν in narrative literature. Even with this verb, however, the imperfect usually bears a different nuance.” His last sentence is tantalizing; I will see him next week and ask him what he means.
Here are some of his examples. Jesus “said” that the girl was not dead (Matt 9:24). When done teaching through parables, Jesus “said” they should pay close attention (Mark 4:9). When the woman with the problem of bleeding touched Jesus to be healed, he “asked” who touched him (Mark 5:30).
Another great example is Mark 9:24. “Immediately the father of the boy cried out and said (ἔλεγεν), “I believe; help my unbelief!” Certainly, this was an instantaneous action.
But all this does bring up some interesting exegetical decisions. Take Mark 6:18 for example. “For John had been saying (ἔλεγεν) to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (ESV). John certainly did not say it just once or he would not have caught Herod’s attention. That is why the ESV (and most translations) use “had been.”
But what about a verse like Mark 7:9? “And he said (ἔλεγεν) to them, ‘You are clever at setting aside the command of God in order to establish your own tradition.’” Did Jesus simply say it, or is the gospel giving us a summary of a longer dialogue, and that is meant to be conveyed by the imperfect?
And what about when it is paired with another imperfect that is clearly continuous? “And he was teaching (ἐδίδασκεν) and saying (ἔλεγεν) to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it ‘a hideout for robbers.’” (Mark 11:17). In the midst of cleansing the temple, Jesus was apparently engaged in ongoing teaching and talking.
But there are two passages of special interest to me. “And he [Jesus] said (ἔλεγεν), ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36). Did Jesus simply say it once, or is this a summary of an extended time of pleading?
From the cross, “Jesus was saying (ἔλεγεν), “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 ). Again, did Jesus simply make a statement of forgiveness — of course, there is nothing “simple” about that — or, again, was this a repeatedly expressed desire of Jesus?
I am anxious to see Dan next week and to ask him what that special nuance might be, but two things are clear:
1. Take second year Greek! Read Dan’s book. In first year we give you the basic building blocks, but there is a lot of mortar between bricks that needs to be studied. Language is not simple, but nuanced and complex. Rarely can you make a general statement and expect it to be true all the time.
2. The imperfect is often under-translated. It often paints a picture of what is going on, and in the case of the last two examples I suspect the gospel writers are not depicting a simple, single event. The continuous nature of the verb allows us to see sustained agony, and sustained forgiveness.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.
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