Monday, October 04, 2004

RB15716- Rob #11: Narrow and Broad Definitions of the PPA 

(15716) Robert Bowman[Mon Oct 4, 2004 4:33 pm](John 8:58 - Rob #11: Narrow and Broad Definitions of the PPA)

I apologize for the delay in continuing our discussion. Thank you for your patience.


I had appealed for a “level playing field” with regard to both of us having the freedom to make whatever argument we choose, whether it has precedent in published Greek grammars or not. In response, you stated that you would drop all reference in the future to an “existential identity” function for the PPA, and that you expected me to drop all reference in the future to an “eternal present.” Well, this is not exactly what I had in mind; I had proposed we both feel free to make our case as we saw fit. Perhaps you see more polemical gain to be made by excluding from consideration the possibility of an “eternal present” even if you have to give up the “existential identity” function of the PPA. But as it turns out, I think I can accommodate you and make the same points using recognized categories of Greek grammar.

Rather than respond _ad seriatim_ to your recent posts, I would like to restate my position regarding the PPA in such a way as to put the matter in a broader context. At the same time, I will respond to specific comments from your posts of relevance. If what I say here is in any way different from what I have stated previously, feel free to consider it a corrective. However, I think the basic position I articulate here is essentially the same as the one I presented in my book _Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John_ fifteen years ago (though hopefully I have learned something in the meantime!).

At one point in your post #9, you criticized me for “skimming off the sample of grammars for one reason or another all those that go against [my] position,” and you then stated, “Whereas I don't dismiss any of them, but take all of them as part of the overall picture of the discussion of the PPA in the literature.” Yet you have agreed with me that at least some of the grammars occasionally misclassify a particular text (e.g., the Brooks/Winbery grammar’s citation of 2 Corinthians 12:9 as a PPA). You also feel free to criticize the grammars, as in your comments regarding Dana and Mantey’s “static present” classification of what others classify as PPAs: “It is interesting that Dana & Mantey is the culprit in all these cases, since it is one of the weaker grammars.” I don’t fault you for doing so (though I would appreciate a level playing field, as you know). The grammars are not all of the same quality, one grammar may be stronger in one area than in another, grammars contain mistakes, and recent grammars can perpetuate mistakes or improve on earlier analyses or both. There is nothing unreasonable about weighing what the grammars say rather than merely counting them—a point I should have made from the beginning. I fear that my statistical analysis of the grammars gave the misleading impression of basing an argument on consensus rather than evidence.

In your post #7, you observed that

what is involved in "contesting" classification of specific examples as PPAs is how many different subdivisions a grammarian trots out to categorize present tense verbs. In other words, it is not so much a matter of contesting as it is of how finely the grammarian is splitting hairs. Many of these subdivisions are questionable as distinct grammatical functions, and are multiplied somewhat arbitrarily. So the fact that some grammarians prefer to put forward categories such as "descriptive present" or "static present" only raises the question whether they have subdivided the PPA in a way that other grammarians don't see as valuable (and you yourself dismiss the "static present" as a separate category when it serves your purposes).

I responded (in my post #8):

***I did not dismiss the “static present” as a separate category, and certainly not because it “serves my purposes.” What Dana and Mantey call the “static present” is what grammarians today usually call the *gnomic* present (e.g., Moule, Wallace). My disagreement with Dana and Mantey was regarding their choices of examples for this usage, not their distinguishing it from the PPA.***

In your post #9, you replied:

If they are "gnomic," why did you include them among your count of PPAs? You always seem to bend the rules and categories to your own advantage, Rob. On the contrary, the three examples that Dana & Mantey cite as "static presents" are in every case passages that other grammarians take as PPAs. They are not in any obvious sense "gnomic," and I, in fact, supported your decision to set aside Dana & Mantey's silly classification of them as "static."

This question turns out to be of direct relevance to our discussion, and I will be offering some further thoughts on it below and in my next post. First, though, I wish to make a more general observation. You rightly note that the grammars offer a variety of divisions and subdivisions of classifications; this is true pretty much across the board and not just in their handling of the different uses of the present tense. You characterize some of these fine-grained subdivisions as hair-splitting, questionable, or somewhat arbitrary. (I cannot resist noting that here again you are not simply accepting at face value what all of the grammars say about the PPA or the use of the present tense. Nor do I think you should. But if anything, you are more critical of the grammars than I am in my posts.) Regardless of how we characterize these differences, clearly the grammars do not analyze the uses of the present tense in precisely the same way.

In light of these differences, I wish to propose a heuristic principle for consideration. The narrower the classification, the fewer texts to which it will be relevant, but the more definite one’s statements about those texts can be; while the broader the classification, the more texts to which it will be relevant, but the less definite one’s statements about those texts can be. I am here elaborating on a point that Wallace, for example, makes when he observes, “The problem in terminology is that the more descriptive we are, the more we exclude in our definition” (Wallace, _Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics_, 500). I think this is a very important observation of direct relevance to our disagreement.

Specifically, we could define the PPA more or less narrowly. As Wallace says, “Depending on how tightly one defines this category, it is either relatively rare or fairly common” (Wallace, 519). Wallace indicates in a footnote that a key issue in how narrowly one defines the PPA is how one relates the PPA to qualifying indications of past time (Wallace, 519 n. 17). Narrowly, we might define the PPA as a usage of the Greek present in which the sentence contains wording that directly qualifies the present-tense verb and indicates that the verb denotes a state or action that continued from the past up to the present. However, this definition will not include all instances in which a Greek present verb denotes a state or action that occurred in the past and that continues to occur in the present. If we want to define the PPA to cover *all* such occurrences of the Greek present, of course, we can do so. Such a definition would represent the broadest possible definition. This broad definition of the PPA would not refer to a past-time qualifying word, phrase, or clause of any sort, because none would be necessary to the “PPA” in this broad sense.

Now, if we define the PPA most broadly to include all occurrences of the Greek present denoting a state or action that occurred in the past and continues in the present, our definition would overlap some other standard classifications of the uses of the present. To use Wallace’s categories, such a broadly defined PPA category would overlap the “customary (habitual or general) present” (521-22) and the “gnomic present” (523-25).

For example, in the sentence, “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12), “fast” (NHSTEUW) denotes an action that occurred in the past and continues in the present. Yet Wallace classifies it as a “customary” present rather than a PPA (Wallace, 522). One might suppose that the difference is that in the customary present the action is discontinuous or interrupted, but if that is the case then the grammarians (including Wallace, 520) have misclassified Luke 13:7 as a PPA. When the owner in Jesus’ parable says, “Look, for three years I have been coming searching for fruit” (Luke 13:7), he clearly does not mean that the owner has been continuously coming in the past and is still coming at the time of speaking. What he means is that the owner periodically has come looking for fruit—presumably once a year. Yet 9 of the 17 grammars in my survey cite Luke 13:7 as an example of the PPA, and none of the 17 grammars classifies it as anything else (Burton, 10; Robertson, 879; BDF, 168; Turner, 62; Moule, 8; Dana & Mantey, 183; Brooks and Winbery, 77; Fanning, 217; McKay, 41). The grammars cite no text as an example of the PPA more often than Luke 13:7. What is the difference between Luke 13:7 and Luke 18:12? Apparently, the difference that these grammars recognize is that Luke 13:7 contains the temporal phrase “for three years” that explicitly qualifies the present-tense verb ERCOMAI (“I come”) to denote an action occurring during that period of time up to the present. You agree with this conclusion, since you wrote, “I do agree that customary, procedural, or iterative statements are not PPAs, since they lack any contextual modification that would indicate past time.” Other examples that Wallace gives of the customary present that could fit the “broad” definition of the PPA are John 1:38 (“Where are you staying?”) and 1 John 2:8 (“the true Light already is shining”).

The broad definition of the PPA would also include examples of the gnomic present as grammarians usually define that classification. Wallace distinguishes “two predominant semantic situations in which the gnomic present occurs”: texts in which the verb expresses something that is “true _all_ the time” and those in which the verb expresses something that “is true _any_ time” (Wallace, 523). The former subcategory of the gnomic present overlaps the broad definition of the PPA, since statements that are true at all times were true in the past and continue to be true up to the present. For example, the verb “loves” (AGAPA) in the statement, “God *loves* a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7), which Wallace classifies as a gnomic present, expresses an action that occurred in the past and continues up to the present. (God loved cheerful givers in the past, and has continued to love them right up to the present.) Yet the gnomic present-tense verb “loves” clearly says something MORE: it says that God *always* loves a cheerful giver—he always has and he always will. The problem with classifying “loves” in 2 Corinthians 9:7 as a PPA in the broad sense, then, is not that it doesn’t fit that broad definition, but that it doesn’t accurately pinpoint how the verb is being used in that text.

In your post #7, you wrote:

On Luke 2:48, you indicate that Robertson calls this a "descriptive present," which he defines as entailing "durative action" in "present time." Since several grammars define the PPA the same way, and two even call the PPA the "durative present," it should be obvious that Robertson has subdivided the broader PPA category recognized by other grammarians.

Please note that you defended the classification of Luke 2:48 as a PPA despite its lack of any reference whatsoever to past time (whether with an adverb, phrase, or clause). You did so by arguing that Robertson’s “descriptive present” should really be lumped in with the PPA, or seen as a subdivision of the PPA. Following the principle I have set forth here, I would say that Luke 2:48 may be classified as a PPA *if* one uses a broad definition of the PPA as applying to any and ever verb that denotes a state or action that occurred in the past and continued up to the present. If that is all one means by a PPA, then of course Luke 2:48 is an instance of it. Yet this is not the whole story. Recall my response to you regarding Luke 2:48 in post #8:

***What is obvious to one is not always obvious to another. You are confounding the term “durative present” as a designation for the PPA with Robertson’s description of the descriptive present as “durative.” As I have noted, the descriptive present is not a subdivision of the PPA. One does not translate the present-tense verbs with past-tense English forms in such instances as “we are perishing” (Mark 4:38), “our lamps are going out” (Matt. 25:8), “how can you be turning back” (Gal. 4:9), and “the light is already shining” (1 John 2:8). Robertson describes these as “durative” to contrast them to “aoristic” presents such as “I say to you” (John 3:3, etc.) or “Jesus Christ heals you” (Acts 9:34) or “your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). If you wish to maintain that the “durative present” category is a subdivision of the PPA, then you will have to give up your claim that we should not translate the PPA using the English present tense.***

That last sentence makes a key point. If you want to employ a broad definition of the PPA to include texts such as Luke 2:48, you can, but then you cannot consistently maintain that we *must* always translate the PPA using an English past tense. Clearly, on the broad definition that overlaps the customary, gnomic, and descriptive presents, the PPA need not and even *should not* always be rendered using a form of the past tense.


I now turn to the grammars again to illustrate or exhibit the heuristic principle I have set forth. For ease of reference, I will again quote from all 15 of the grammars that give some description of the PPA beyond a mere designation. In some cases, I have quoted the grammar more fully in order to make note of certain salient features. Instead of quoting them in chronological order, I will quote them from the broadest to the narrowest in their definitions and descriptions of the PPA. I will then explain the basis for this order. Keep in mind that I am attaching no value judgment to this order.

A. What the Grammars Say about the PPA

B. Analyzing the Descriptions of the PPA: From Broad to Narrow

I weigh five factors or considerations in determining how broad or narrow a description of the PPA is. In each of these factors, I assign a numerical “score” to assess narrowness or broadness of definition. These scores are not value judgments; a “high” score is neither good nor bad, but merely narrow.

1. Description of the past-time indicator.

The broadest definition is one that says nothing at all about a past-time expression, word, phrase, or clause as indicating or marking the verb as a PPA. The narrowest definition is one that specifies that this marker of the PPA is an adverb or adverbial phrase. Between these two extremes are less precise descriptions of the PPA marker. I assign 6 points if the grammar specifies that the marker is an adverb or phrase, 5 points if it so specifies but allows for other types of temporal expressions, 4 points if it describes the marker as an adverbial expression, 2 points if it simply refers to the marker as an expression, and 0 points if it does not mention the marker at all. Thus, a “high” score indicates narrowness and a “low” score indicates broadness. The result is that Goodwin, Greenlee, Dana/Mantey, and Brooks/Winbery score 6; Wallace, Jannaris, and Fanning score 5; Burton scores 4; BDF, Young, Smyth, and McKay score 2; and Winer and Turner score 0.

A few of these scores merit some comments. Greenlee calls the temporal marker “a specific phrase.” Arguably, Greenlee is *too* specific or narrow here, since clearly a one-word adverb like PALAI can also do the job. In any case, in this post I am surveying, not criticizing, the grammars.

Jannaris and Burton both use the term “adverbial expression,” and Burton adds that it denotes “duration.” Fanning describes the marker as “an _adverbial phrase_ or other time-indication.” The emphasis on “adverbial phrase” is Fanning’s, and indicates that such a phrase is the normal or most common marker. He adds, “or other time-indication,” though, so as to allow other sorts of adverbials. That Fanning is referring specifically to other kinds of adverbials is evident from a footnote to this sentence, in which Fanning takes issue with the suggestion of Brooks and Winbery “that an adverbial expression is not needed to constitute this sense” (Fanning, _Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek_, 217 n. 30). Fanning concludes that footnote by asserting that “the customary or gnomic categories serve quite well for any categories which, without adverbial addition, refer to actions which include a portion of past occurrence along with the present” (ibid.). So, Jannaris, Burton, and Fanning all explicitly use the term “adverbial expression” to refer to the past-time marker of the PPA. (As time permits, I will discuss in a separate post how Fanning’s description of the past-time marker as an adverbial relates to his example of Acts 27:33.)

We may infer (as you have argued) that BDF and McKay are treating the subordinate clause “before Abraham came to be” as performing that function in John 8:58. McKay’s description of the past-time marker is especially broad: “an expression of either past time or extent of time with past implications.”


This factor is partially independent of the first factor, because both those whose descriptions of the past-time marker are very specific and those whose descriptions are not may state that it occurs often, usually, or always. I assign 6 points if the grammar specifies that the marker always occurs or is required, 5 points if this is unstated but clearly implied, 4 points if it says that the marker usually occurs, 3 points if it says that it often occurs, and 2 points if no frequency is stated or implied. (I assign 2 points in that case, since a score of zero in category 2 assures the lowest score here as well.) The result is that Greenlee and Fanning score 6; Smyth, McKay, Goodwin, Jannaris, and Burton score 5; BDF, Robertson, Wallace, and Dana/Mantey score 4; Brooks/Winbery and Young score 3; and Winer and Turner score 2.

These scores do not reflect every nuance of the grammars. For example, Young’s statement that the past-time indicator “is often explicit” moves toward the broader definition by implying that such an indicator might not always appear in the sentence. However, all of Young’s examples (Luke 15:29; John 14:9; 15:27; 1 John 3:8) fit the narrow definition.


The broadest definition of the PPA will not specify how to translate it into English, since on a broad definition the PPA overlaps categories where the English present tense works fine. The narrowest definition will specify that the PPA should always be translated using a form of the English past tense. Since a third of the 15 grammars surveyed say nothing about this question, I do not put as much weight on it as the preceding two considerations. I assign 3 points if the grammar says the PPA should always be translated using the English perfect (or equivalent), 2 points if it says that is usually or normally the case, 1 point if it says that is often the case, and 0 points if it says nothing about it. The result is that Young, Jannaris, Dana/Mantey, Burton, and Fanning score 3 points; Brooks/Winbery and McKay score 2; Smyth and Robertson score 1; and Winer, Turner, BDF, Goodwin, and Greenlee score 0.


The broadest definition of the PPA would not limit it to actions but would include states of being as well. Since 8 grammars say “action” without even considering the use of the PPA with verbs expressing states, and 4 grammars say nothing about the matter at all, I think we should put little weight on this factor. As Daniel B. Wallace has observed, “grammars tend to speak of verbs as describing actions rather than states even when they mean to include both” (Daniel B. Wallace, “John 8:58, my Grammar, and my character,” B-Greek, 11 Jan. 1997, http://www.ibiblio.org/bgreek/archives/96-12/0624.html). Thus, I assign just 1 point to those grammars that specify “action” alone. The result is that Winer, Brooks/Winbery, Fanning, Goodwin, Greenlee, Jannaris, and Dana/Mantey score 0 points; Turner, BDF, Young, Smyth, McKay, Robertson, Wallace, and Burton score 1 point.


Nine of the 15 grammars in the survey state that the PPA expresses an action (or a state) that began in the past:

  1. Winer (334): “a state which commenced at an earlier period but still continues”
  2. Brooks/Winbery (77): “An action or a state of being which began in the past is described as continuing until the present”
  3. Young (111): “an action that began in the past and continues into the present”
  4. Smyth (422): “an action begun in the past and continued in the present”
  5. McKay (41): “an activity begun in the past and continuing to the present time”
  6. Wallace (519): “an action which, begun in the past, continues in the present”
  7. Dana/Mantey (183): “that which has begun in the past and continues into the present”
  8. Fanning (217): “a situation which began in the past and continues in the present”
  9. Burton (10): “an action which, beginning in past time, is still in progress at the time of speaking”

This is a crucial issue for the exegesis of John 8:58, because if one decides that any PPA verb denotes a state or action that had a beginning and then identifies EIMI in John 8:58 as a PPA, the conclusion is inescapable that Jesus’ existence had a beginning. I am not interested in prejudging that issue in this analysis, but only noting its importance for the larger discussion and its relevance in classifying a description of the PPA as narrow or broad. It is arguable that the grammars use the word “began” (or “commenced”) not because they are asserting that all PPA verbs must convey a beginning but simply because most states or actions do in fact have a beginning. (It also appears that the later grammars to a significant extent simply copied what the earlier ones said.) Again, without prejudging the issue, I wish to make note of this factor. I assign 1 point if the grammar specifically mentions a beginning and 0 points if it does not. The result is that all of the grammars receive 1 point for this category except Turner, BDF, Goodwin, Greenlee, Robertson, and Jannaris.

If we add up the points for each of the grammars, the totals are as follows:

I do not attach any importance to the precise numbers or order; there are different ways of weighing the various factors relating to the narrowness or broadness of the descriptions of the PPA. I am simply using these numerical comparisons as a way of graphically representing the spectrum of those descriptions from the very broad (Turner, Winer, BDF) to the very narrow (Wallace, Dana/Mantey, Burton, Fanning).


In general, the preceding survey of the grammars tends to support the heuristic principle proposed earlier in this post: the narrower the definition of the PPA, the more circumscribed or limited its application. Those grammars that offer the broadest definitions of the PPA (with no reference at all to past-time expressions as marking the PPA) say nothing about how to translate the PPA into English.

It is striking that three of the four grammars that list John 8:58 as an example of the PPA also happen to be the three grammars giving the broadest descriptions of the PPA. McKay’s grammar is the other work that cites John 8:58 as a PPA. His description of the PPA is somewhere in the middle range. Those grammars that specify adverbial past-time expressions as required markers of the PPA characteristically also state that the PPA verb is properly translated using an English past-tense form. These grammars do not cite John 8:58 as an example of the PPA. Of course, their not doing so is not a proof that it is not a PPA. There are different ways of defining the PPA, and these grammars do not claim to give an exhaustive list of all occurrences matching their narrow definition. What we can say is that their omission of John 8:58 is consistent with their narrow definition of the PPA as a present-tense verb that is accompanied by an adverbial expression that denotes duration or continuation from some past time and that must be translated into English using a past-tense form.

As one would expect, grammars that do not fit neatly into the “narrow” or “broad” categories exhibit considerable variety in their handling of the PPA. In a general way, they run a gamut from mostly narrow to mostly broad. For example, their descriptions of past-time expressions marking the PPA vary, some quite specific and some vague, and the grammars describe these past-time indicators as “usually,” “generally,” or “often” accompanying the PPA verb. Likewise, grammars that are neither simply narrow nor simply broad in their definitions of the PPA vary in their comments regarding how to translate a PPA verb into English. Those that say anything about it may say that the translation “normally,” “usually,” or “often” uses, or will use, an English past tense. In several instances, a particular grammar is narrow in one respect but broad in another. This should not be surprising, especially in the more recent grammars, since later grammars tend to draw from earlier ones and “mixed” treatments can be the result.

Overall, then, the grammars tend to reflect the heuristic principle I have proposed, that the more specific or narrow one’s description of the PPA the fewer texts to which it will apply, while the broader the description, the more texts to which it will apply but the less that can be said with certainty about the PPA. The more broadly we define the PPA, the more likely John 8:58 is to be seen as a PPA, but then the less we can say with certainty about how John 8:58 should be translated or interpreted. In particular, if we define the PPA broadly and then classify EIMI in John 8:58 as a PPA, evidently we cannot say with certainty that we should translate EIMI using the English perfect. Moreover, if we define the PPA broadly, to be consistent we should not assume that the state or action denoted by the PPA verb had a beginning at some point in the past.

In my next post, I will propose a way of classifying EIMI in John 8:58 using categories from the recognized Greek grammars.

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