Recently teaching through the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18.9-14), I noticed a feature there which most English translations efface. Consider briefly these two descriptions of the posture taken by each participant during their respective prayer:

11 ὁ Φαρισαῖος σταθεὶς πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ταῦτα προσηύχετο…

13 ὁ δὲ τελώνης μακρόθεν ἑστὼς οὐκ ἤθελεν οὐδὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ἐπᾶραι εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν…

Note that in v. 11 the participle is an aorist passive form of ἵστημι. In v. 13, it is a perfect active form of ἵστημι. Two different verbal aspect forms.

As a representative of common NT translation streams, consider how the NIV and ESV both handle these two sections.

Here is the NIV handling:

11. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed…

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance…

And now the ESV:

11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed…

13 But the tax collector, standing far off…

Whether “stood” or “standing,” these translations represent the general trend to treat both participles as though they convey the same basic meaning. The use of two different aspect forms of ἵστημι right next to each other makes highly unlikely that there is no difference in meaning. To be fair, it is not as though some huge and profound difference is evident between these two passages, but they are different and there is no pressing reason to not to at least try to translate them differently in English.

How different are they?

It is clear these two participles have a different verbal aspect. That much in itself indicates they (should) have a distinct meaning/function. But, with this verb, all is not as simple as that. In actuality, these two different forms of the participle appear to form a maximal aspectual contrast. That is, they are as different from each other as they can be. To highlight this, I am going to pull in a model of the Greek verbal network developed by Stephen H. Levinsohn in the book chapter: “Gnomic Aorists: No Problem! The Greek Indicative System as Four Ordered Pairs.”

As the title indicates, this paper is an explanation of so-called “gnomic aorist.” That is, an aorist indicative that refers to present, general reality—often a “timeless” reality—rather than the default past-time referring reference (more specifically, aorist indicatives default to past-time reference in narrative contexts). Consider the following example:

Mark 1.11 ἐν σοὶ εὐδόκησα “in you I am well-pleased”

This infamous example shows an aorist used to discuss a current state of affairs, rather than a past action. An important point to note, though, is that this is not an aorist used in narrative. Of course, it sits within a larger narrative. But Mark 1.11 represents spoken words. As we will see, spoken words and narrative often play by different patterns.

Speech vs. Narrative: Levinsohn’s point of departure

In this paper, Levinsohn sketches out a slightly different approach to aspect than has often been the case in NT studies, though building off the general foundation of Porter, Fanning, and Campbell, which all NT studies cite.[1] As a starting point, he argues that one of the problems with aspect study as carried out in NT Greek is that it starts with narrative texts and then tries to find a unifying explanation for all the different verbal aspects from those. In narrative texts, aorists indicatives are overwhelming past-referring. Thus, when we come to instances (chiefly in conversation and/or epistles) where an aorist indicative refers to the present, or a generic non-past time, we run into difficulties with the model. These uses of the aorist for non-past time actions have been instrumental in Porter and Campbell’s argument that the aorist indicative does not actually indicate past-time referring to tense. It is tenseless.

Levinsohn points out that this approach is backwards compared to how linguists approach discerning the tense-aspect functionality within a language. Linguists, as per Levinsohn, start with spoken conversation to find the basic aspectual distinctions in the language, and then move out from there.[2] From this approach, there is nothing odd with the aorist serving a so-called “gnomic use.” As he states:

“The point being made in this section is that these instances [that is, gnomic aorists, NJE] should be viewed not as extensions of the past nature of the aorist into the present, but as uses that are perfectly normal when the point of reference for the discourse is “now”, rather than a time in the past.”

“Gnomic Aorists,” 189.

“In summary the letter to Philemon contains eight aorists. Three are consistently translated into English with a past tense, three with a present tense, and two sound most natural in the present perfect. Linguists who are aware that New Testament Greek is an aspect-prominent language would conclude from such data that the aorist is used to portray both past and current events as perfective. They would then posit either that the tense of the aorist is non-future (+Perfective +Non-future) or that the aorist is unmarked for tense (simply +Perfective).”

“Gnomic Aorists,” 190.

The aorist, according to Levinsohn, “either is non-future, rather than inherently past, or is unmarked for tense” (184). The strength of this explanation is that the aorist is presented as a unified whole in aspectual terms. In non-narrative, it is available for writers and speakers to portray an event as a whole, either in past or present time (but not future).

One might think of it like this. The ‘present’ and ‘imperfect’ are both imperfective aspect and differ from each other in tense in narrative. Likewise, the perfect and pluperfect. The perfective aspect does not have the same pair where one refers to past-time and the other to non-past. The aorist covers both. And, if we accept the idea that the future is perfective aspect, it is marked specifically as non-past and is not available for use to describe the past and present.

Summary and Next steps

In Luke 18.9-14 there is an aspectual difference in the Greek between two different participle forms of ἵστημι which most English translations translate the same. That so many English versions translate them the same raises the question: how different (or similar) are they? I am arguing that these two participles form a maximal aspectual contrast. To make this argument, I am drawing on a way of thinking about the Greek verbal system as laid out by Stephen Levinsohn. In this post, I lay out some of the basic theoretical notions underlying this model. In the next post, we will shift to looking at how ἵστημι fits in a somewhat peculiar way within the verbal system of Greek. This odd fit of ἵστημι is the reason why it is misleading for English translations to treat the two different participle forms of ἵστημι in Luke 18.9-14 the same. On to Part 2.

[1] See the following main works: Stanley Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood, Studies in Biblical Greek (New York: Peter Lang, 1989); Buist M. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek, Oxford Theological Monographs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990); Constantine R. Campbell, Verbal Aspect, the Indicative Mood, and Narrative: Soundings in the Greek of the New Testament, Studies in Biblical Greek 13 (New York: Peter Lang, 2007).

[2] Stephen H. Levinsohn, “Gnomic Aorists: No Problem! The Greek Indicative Verb System as Four Ordered Pairs,” in In Mari Via Tua: Philological Studies in Honour of Antoio Piñero, ed. Israel M. Gallarte and Jesús Peláez, Estudios de Filología Neotestamentaria, II (Córdoba: Ediciones el Almendro, 2016), 188.

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