Sunday, July 15, 2012
How the Greek Present Tense Works
"Greek tense stems convey time distinctions in most uses of the indicative and in a few uses of the infinitive and participle. But the fundamental distinction conveyed by Greek tense stems is one of aspect, that is, of the type of action or state of being denoted in terms completion vs. noncompletion, customary action vs. single occurrence, general truth vs. a specific occurrence, or some similar distinction." (Donald Mastronarde, Introduction to Attic Greek, page 145. Emphasis is mine.)
Regarding the present-stem aspect, Mastronarde points out that "The present stem has the aspect of action not yet completed, or in progress, repeated, customary, or pertaining to general truth" (146).
Therefore, the aspect or Aktionsart for the Greek present tense is varied.
For example, the verb LEGW can be understood as "action in progress" (e.g. "I am talking"). But we cannot infer that Greek present tense always denotes ongoing action:
"The exegete should remember that the present tense normally expresses continued action going on at the time of writing, or speaking. There are, however, several phases to this meaning. The context should make clear the exact shade of meaning" (An Exegetical Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 70).
Richard A. Young presents evidence that could support the multivalent nature of the Greek present tense: "In our study of the present indicative, for example, we will find that it can have past, present, future, and even non-temporal reference" (Intermediate New Testament Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach, 105). The examples that he gives are John 1:29 (past reference time), Acts 16:18 (present reference time), Luke 19:8 (future reference time), and John 3:18 (timeless reference).