We recently featured an important new book on Greek verbs entitled The Greek Verb Revisited edited by Chris Fresch and Steven Runge. We wanted to learn more about the book and about co-editor Fresch’s research. Chris was kind enough to provide us with plenty of background on the book and lots of useful information on Greek verbal research. NB: Chris knows his stuff.
This is a large collection of essays on the Greek verb. How did this book come about and what does it hope to accomplish, especially with the essays tackling so many different topics?
The book is the direct result of a conference Steve Runge and I put on in July 2015 at Tyndale House Library in Cambridge, England, entitled “Linguistics and the Greek Verb: Recent Discussions and their Implications for NT Exegetes.” The story of how the conference came about, from my perspective, can be read on Old School Script
, but I will attempt to provide a condensed narrative here.
I say “my perspective” because there were multiple conversations happening in various circles that all fed into and played a part in realizing the conference. Stephen Levinsohn and others had been floating the idea of a Greek linguistics conference at Tyndale House around the time of the Tyndale Fellowship conference that takes place every July. Mike Aubrey, Nicholas Ellis, and Mark Dubis had been having discussions about the Greek verbal system for years, as a part of their work creating the BibleMesh Greek curriculum. I know that Steve Runge had numerous conversations with other Greek linguists over the years regarding the nature of the Greek verbal system, including conversations with Randall Buth, Mike Aubrey, and me. If I spent long enough on it, I could probably produce a giant Venn diagram of all of the overlapping conversations taking place in the years leading up to the conference! Suffice it to say, the Greek verbal system is a subject that engendered (and still engenders!) lively discussions in many overlapping circles.
For many of us, the discussions contained an element of holy discontent and an element of excitement. The element of holy discontent had to do with how the discussions in Greek New Testament circles had progressed, or rather, not progressed. For years, there had been three camps of thought (represented by Porter, Fanning, and Campbell) but no movement. Each camp had become more and more entrenched in its position instead of learning from one another and forging new paths forward. Another factor was the disparity we saw in how the Greek verbal system was discussed in New Testament circles vs. how it has been treated by Classicists vs. how verbal systems are discussed and analyzed in linguistics proper. The discussions in New Testament circles, whether on tense, aspect, grounding, etc. largely did not line up with treatments on these issues in wider linguistic literature. On the other hand, we were excited because of how much linguistic literature on verbal systems could inform and refine our understanding of the Greek verb. There were unexplored avenues and there was so much from linguistics proper that could provide insight into and clarity into the Greek verbal system.
So, from my perspective: At the 2013 annual SBL meeting, Steve Runge, Randall Buth, Nicholas Ellis, and I spent much of our free time discussing the Greek verbal system and throwing ideas around. These conversations led to more reading, conversations, and emails in the following months. Then, in July 2014, Stephen Levinsohn talked to me about putting on a Greek linguistics conference in Cambridge the following July. I then proceeded to ask New Testament scholars around the UK what they would want to see in a Greek linguistics conference. The overwhelming response was “The Greek Verb.” More specifically, they wanted 1) to hear from non-partisan, non-entrenched voices, 2) to be given a clear description of tense and aspect and how they relate to the Greek verb, 3) to hear from classicists on the Greek verb, and 4) to learn anything else they needed to know about the Greek verb for teaching and for their work as NT scholars. So we decided to put on a conference focused on the Greek verbal system. It was a chance to invite various scholars who were not beholden to one of the three camps to collaborate and push the discussion forward. Moreover, we wanted to provide more than theory on tense and aspect, since the New Testament scholars to whom we talked also expressed interest in learning about the Greek verb more generally and how it affects their teaching and their reading of the Greek New Testament. This meant including papers on grounding in discourse; test cases of grounding in discourse; the pragmatics of adverbial participles and periphrastic participles; the morphology, semantics, and pragmatics of the perfect; prohibitions; and the middle voice. More could have been added, of course, but we only had a day and a half conference to work with! Given that time constriction, we knew we could not cover everything, so we had to make difficult decisions regarding what to include. We had the responses from the New Testament scholars we surveyed as a baseline for what we needed to prioritize. Beyond that, our guiding question was: “What would be the most helpful for a reader of the Greek New Testament?”
This brings us to what was the most important aspect of the conference and book: who contributes? One of the most glaring shortcomings in the Greek verb discussions of the past 25 years was that only New Testament Greek scholars were contributing! Where were the classicists? Where were the linguists? Surely there was much we could learn from those outside of our guild, but our guild had, by default it seemed, closed itself off to outside voices and insights. This was something we wanted to rectify, even before hearing the same concern from the New Testament scholars we surveyed. For me, personally, this became all the more important after a meeting I had with a prominent classicist and a few others in January 2015. The classicist was asked what his guild thought of the discussions on the Greek verb in NT Greek circles. His response was, to put it politely, that they did not think much of the discussions we were having and thus they ignored them.
Given all of this, it was imperative that the conference and the book be interdisciplinary. We invited New Testament scholars, linguists, classicists, and those with feet in two or more of those worlds to participate. The response was overwhelmingly positive and we quickly had a full lineup for the conference. The result was a collection of papers that complemented each other and presented a coherent picture of a large portion of the Greek verbal system from an interdisciplinary perspective.
What did we hope to accomplish? We had three goals: 1) To present a coherent, interdisciplinary picture of the Greek verb, 2) to provide New Testament scholars with answers (or at least some answers) to the questions they were asking, and 3) to forge a new path forward for discussions on the Greek verbal system that invites others to agree, to disagree, and to forge on ahead for the benefit of our guilds. We have no delusions that we have given the final word on the Greek verb. For starters, there is so much more to talk about that we did not even touch! But more importantly, scholarship is, by its very nature, a discussion. There will be those who agree and those who disagree, and I look forward to those conversations, because they will serve to refine our thinking and illuminate further the nature of the Greek verb.
As I noted in my original post on this book, I feel like Thomson’s article on verbal aspect was really significant for potentially improving NT scholars’ understanding on the topic. Although I’m sure it’s hard for you to pick favorites, which essays did you personally find most significant for current discussions, and why?
This is such a difficult question. Can I say all of them? If not, let me single out Thomson, Ellis, Aubrey (both), and Allan/Horrocks.
Regarding Thomson’s paper, my thoughts on it are similar to yours. He has so helpfully refined our thinking when it comes to the category of aspect, and it is a paper that deserves to be read and re-read until it all sinks in! I was incredibly excited that Chris agreed to present and contribute, because he and I had talked about aspects of this paper for years. We were both readers at Tyndale House working on our PhDs at the University of Cambridge and would often talk linguistics at tea. Chris had such keen insights that could offer needed correctives to the field, so when we started talking about the conference, Chris was one of the first people I approached.
Nicholas Ellis’s paper presents an informative, clear overview of the verbal system. This in itself is helpful for the Greek learner and can also improve the Greek lecturer’s pedagogy. Moreover, Nick’s paper includes two crucial considerations that will pay dividends to those trying to understand the Koine verbal system. First, his overview is largely informed and motivated by grammaticalization. Grammaticalization is a key concept in linguistics and it has a large amount of explanatory power. By describing the verbal system according to its grammaticalized elements, Nick provides a neatly categorized system that helps students and scholars alike understand the “why” behind the “what.” Second, Nick frames the verbal system in terms of aspect prominence, acknowledging the importance of aspect in the Greek verbal system without sacrificing the other two members of TAM (tense-aspect-mood). This was a needed development in our field that is in line with typological research on verbal systems in linguistics proper. (It should be noted, an extended version of this article was published in JETS 59/1 (2016).)
I am still learning from Michael Aubrey’s paper on prohibitions. It is a dense chapter that will reward those who mine its depths. Mike brought some much needed clarity to how negation and verbal aspect interact, building on and nuancing previous discussions. He also brings our attention to negation scope and predicate types, illuminating topics rich for further research.
The middle voice is a fascinating topic. In the past decade or so, we have seen excellent research come out on the Greek middle, but there is still much to learn and we are still working against the great and terrible tradition of deponency. Rachel Aubrey gives us a linguist’s perspective and helpfully builds on the current discussion. Not only does she provide a clear description and analysis of the development of middle voice in Greek but she also explains the semantics of the middle voice from a cognitive perspective and then maps Greek verb forms onto that taxonomy, demonstrating in particular how -θη middles comfortably fit in the system. This chapter is sure to help anyone trying to deepen their understanding of middle voice and wanting to read and exegete Greek texts well.
Lastly, I want to make special mention of Allan’s and Horrocks’s chapters. Their contents are fantastic, but just the fact that these two scholars were willing to participate and contribute is significant for current discussions. Rutger Allan and Geoffrey Horrocks are both established, well-respected classicists, and their participation in this discussion demonstrates the value of interdisciplinary conversations comprised of scholars from New Testament and Classics. It was an honor to have their voices a part of the discussion (we learned a lot from them!) and to witness their desire to hear and learn from us. I hope that The Greek Verb Revisited
can be a catalyst for more and more cross-disciplinary discussions. All of us, from both guilds, stand to benefit greatly from being exposed to and hearing from others with different perspectives and different data sets!
What topics do you wish had been covered in this book, but weren’t? What are the main questions that surround these topics?
The first thing that comes to mind is the imperfect. Classicist Helma Dik presented a paper on the imperfect at the conference, but for various reasons beyond our control, it was not included in the volume. There is no real mystery surrounding the imperfect, but it is always useful to devote time to thinking about how a past imperfective verb is used in language. In exegetical grammars, we often see various different categories for the imperfect (which is fair enough), but it is rare to see discussions of why those exegetical categories come about, that is, how the imperfect lends itself to such categorization owing to the interaction of its tense and aspect in various contexts.
More than anything, though, I would have loved to see chapters devoted to the future tense-form. How did it develop (was it originally a desiderative, of which the -σ- infix may be a remnant)? What is the best way to describe its meaning and use in Koine? What about the semantic overlap between subjunctives, volitionals, and the future tense? What happens typologically in language and how do the data in Koine Greek compare?
There are, of course, many other worthy topics that could have been included (e.g., verb types, the objective side of grammatical aspect, the interaction between a verb’s lexical semantics, its aspect, and the rest of the predication), though I think we achieved our goals with The Greek Verb Revisited
. I don’t feel as if it is incomplete. Besides, you cannot do everything in one book!
Your essay tackles a thorny topic: non-past aorists. I enjoyed reading this, even if I wasn’t entirely convinced (!), so could you summarize it briefly for us and explain the importance of your thesis?
I am glad you enjoyed it! To summarize, the essay tackles the issue of aorist indicative verbs that are non-past referring. Traditionally, the aorist indicative has been classified as a past perfective verb. Given this, why do we see instances in Koine of an aorist indicative referring to an event in the present or in the future? I approached this question with three linguistic perspectives in mind: typology, polysemy, and prototype theory. From a typological viewpoint, what we see in Koine is not odd at all. Across the world’s languages, particularly those with a Perfective:Imperfective aspectual split (like Koine), the perfective verb is a past-tense verb (sometimes morphologically marked for past time, sometimes not — but always regarded as a past tense). This alone was a significant realization, because it informs us that what we see in Koine lines up perfectly with similar languages across the world and thus strongly suggests that the aorist indicative, like perfective verbs in those other languages, is a past-tense verb. Also like Koine, other languages do allow their past perfective verb, in certain contexts and/or when used with certain verb types (like statives), to refer to non-past events. Despite this, the perfective verb form is still regarded as a past-tense verb. It simply has some exceptional (albeit often motivated) usages. When we look at these data, at all of these other languages whose perfective verbs behave the same way as each other and as the aorist indicative, the takeaway is that it is highly probable that the Greek verbal system is structured in the same way. While it is not impossible for Greek to be unique and have a temporally undefined perfective verb form in a language with a Perfective:Imperfective split, linguistic typology would answer that possibility is not sufficient without overwhelming evidence against the overwhelming cross-linguistic data.
With regard to polysemy, I argue that verb forms can be semantically encoded for more than one thing. This is a normal feature of language. Thus, the aorist can be semantically encoded both for perfective aspect and past tense. In addition, polysemy allows for encoded semantic meaning to be contextually overridden, particularly the less central meaning. Thus, it is not problematic that the aorist indicative sometimes only displays perfective aspect. Not only is its aspect the more central semantic component, but polysemy informs us that it can still be semantically encoded for past time even when the tense parameter is contextually overridden. I also argue against the notion of cancelability as it has been understood by proponents of the tenseless view. Within Gricean pragmatics, cancelability is an important test used to determine whether a given meaning is semantic or pragmatic. However, many who use cancelability to prove that the aorist is tenseless make two missteps. First, cancelability is meant to be applied only to a single context. Proponents of the tenseless view, however, use two contexts to prove their thesis. This is not cancelability. Second, even if the cancelability test were rightly applied, cancelability is one of a handful of related, dependent tests, all of which must be passed before a meaning can be declared pragmatic.
Finally, prototype theory informs us that humans structure grammatical categories around prototypes, that is, a central member of the category that exemplifies the category and from which other non-central usages may be extended. Given this, it is completely normal that the aorist indicative is regarded as the past perfective. The aorist indicative as a past perfective is the central category member. Other usages can all be explained as motivated by and extending from that central member. Cognitively, it would be terribly inefficient and unaware to create discrete boxes for every single possible usage of every grammatical category! Prototypes encourage natural, usage-based categories to form that allow for non-prototypical uses as well as fuzzy boundaries between various categories. We know that this is how humans tend to categorize, and we can even see it in the Stoic categorization of the Greek verbal system. They regarded the aorist indicative as the past perfective, but surely they, as native speakers, knew it could be used in non-past contexts! The structure of the verbal system as represented by the Stoic grammarians evinces a prototypical categorization.
I hope that very brief and distilled explanation makes some sense!
The importance of the thesis comes down to how we are conceiving of the Greek verbal system and whether we are conceiving of it rightly. Granted, I only deal with non-past aorists, but much of my argument extends into the broader discussion. Many of the arguments put forward for a tenseless Koine verbal system are predicated on ideas that I am pushing against in my chapter. What happens in languages typologically? (This is a massively important question in linguistics proper, yet it has not featured in most conversations on the Greek verb.) What is cancelability and how is it properly applied? Can verb tenses be polysemous? How do humans structure grammatical categories cognitively? The answers to these questions, in my estimation, require us to posit a tensed aorist in the indicative mood (and a tensed verb in the indicative more generally), and that directly effects how we read Koine Greek.
This book focused solely on the Greek verb. If you could collaborate for another book of this type, what would be the next most pressing topic in Greek linguistics on which you would like to convene a conference?
I think a book on prepositions would be excellent… in fact, there is a conference on this very topic happening in July at Tyndale House, Cambridge
! I am not involved in it, as much as I would love to be, but I cannot wait to see the book that comes out of it. I will be preordering it as soon as it is available. William Ross and Steven Runge are running it, and they have put together a superb lineup of speakers. I had the privilege of talking with Will and Steve about the conference back in its planning stages, and I can assure you it will produce something incredibly valuable.
Other than prepositions, I think a book on lexical semantics would be helpful. James Barr radically reoriented our understanding of meaning by ushering ideas from linguistics into discussions on the meanings of Greek (and Hebrew!) words. Unfortunately, many of our conversations have not developed any further than where Barr left them, despite the fact that the field of linguistics has moved well on from Barr’s structuralist semantics. Granted, I suppose this is not a pressing issue in Greek so much as it is a pressing issue in how we understand and analyze language.
I could keep going on pipe dream collaborative projects I would love to see come to fruition, but I will refrain for the benefit of the reader!
Help us get to know you a little bit. Tell us a bit about your past projects and what we can expect from you in the next 5-10 years.
My work thus far has largely been focused on Greek linguistics and Septuagint (with some Hebrew thrown in for good measure). My PhD dissertation at the University of Cambridge (2015) dealt with Greek discourse markers in the early Koine period (my data set was comprised of documentary papyri and the Greek Old Testament). I investigated a handful of discourse markers (δέ, ἐὰν/εἰ μή, ἀλλά, ἀλλ᾽ ἤ, μέν) and described their discourse-pragmatic functions in the early Koine period and how those functions fit with what has been observed in Classical Greek and later Koine. After determining their functions, I was able to compare what we see in the Greek Old Testament with the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Other than καί, discourse markers are rarely ever lexically motivated in the Greek Old Testament. So, when one shows up, it often either provides us insight into a translator’s knowledge of similarly functioning devices or constructions in Hebrew or it informs us how the translator understood the structure of the discourse even despite any overt markers in the underlying Hebrew!
For the past several years, I have had the opportunity to present a number of conference papers on discourse markers and Septuagint translation technique. I have also recently been published on the textual history of the Minor Prophets (in Textual History of the Bible), the use of οὖν in LXX Genesis and Exodus (in XV Congress of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies), and on whether μέν has an emphatic function in Koine (in NTS vol. 63 no. 2).
As far as what’s to come in the next 5-10 years, I have several projects lined up for the next few years in Greek linguistics, Septuagint studies, and Greek papyri. Following on from those, I have a long list of journal article ideas, particularly in Hebrew linguistics, that I am keen to start on (as well as blog posts for Old School Script!). At the farther away end of the 5-10 years, I am currently involved in some exciting conversations for collaborative projects that I cannot talk about just yet 🙂 Other than that, I just hope to continue to improve my Hebrew- and Greek-teaching pedagogy, as teaching the languages is my passion and the bulk of my job!
Thanks Chris for discussing the Greek verb with us, and especially your new co-edited volume, The Greek Verb Revisited.