In part 1 of this 3-part post, I noted that in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18.9-14) there are two participles which are both translated the same in most English translations: either “stood” or “standing.” Here they are again:
- 11 ὁ Φαρισαῖος σταθεὶς πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ταῦτα προσηύχετο·…
- 13 ὁ δὲ τελώνης μακρόθεν ἑστὼς οὐκ ἤθελεν οὐδὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ἐπᾶραι εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν…
On the surface, it is obvious that these two are different: one is aorist and one is perfect. This alone suggests there should be a difference in meaning between the two which is often (mostly) neglected in English translations. I am arguing that the difference goes even deeper here.
In the verb ἵστημι, these two forms are a maximal aspectual contrast. The last post introduced a few key concepts and the model I am using from Stephen Levinsohn. In this post, I will show why it is that these two participles should be understood as in maximal aspectual contrast with each other (which argues in strong favor of not translating them the same).
Intransitive ἵστημι in the verbal network
Both of these participles are intransitive (they don’t have a [direct] object). This distinction is important in ἵστημι, because there is a distinction in meaning between transitive and intransitive, with transitive uses being causative “make to stand” and intransitive ones not, “to stand.”
Not only is there a distinction in meaning between transitive and intransitive, but the intransitive version of this verb appears to operate in a distinct manner within the verbal system. In an interesting paper entitled, “Gnomic Aorists: No Problem! The Greek Indicative System as Four Ordered Pairs,” Stephen Levinsohn points out that when ἵστημι is intransitive in the NT, it does not show the full range of aspectual contrasts within the verbal system: there is no present in this usage (that is, simple imperfective).
Note that first we are discussing the behavior of the verb in the indicative mood. In short order we will return to the participles which are in our text of interest. In the indicative mood, a normal verb shows the following contrasts:
For a robust explanation of this model of the indicative mood of the verbal system, go read Levinsohn’s paper. It is worth the perusing.
To get enough context for this post, Levinsohn presents the verbal system as four ordered pairs based on different features that a form marks. A speaker/writer logically ‘selects’ the appropriate form based on the necessary collocation of features—verbal aspect and tense (since this is the indicative mood, we can ignore selecting the appropriate mood).
The first ordered pair in the Greek verbal system is perfective or imperfective aspect. Perfective has two sub-choices in a second ordered pair: aorist and future.
Whether the future should be treated as a perfective aspect or something else has been an ongoing debate. I tend to think it is a non-past perfective aspect form, at least in its usage, and who knows how exactly the form came about. For the purpose of this post, making a decision on this point is not important.
If imperfective aspect is chosen, there are two subtypes to choose from in the next ordered pair: simple (the present and imperfect ‘tense’ forms) or perfect (the perfect and pluperfect ‘tense’ forms). While not all will agree that the perfect system is a subtype of imperfective aspect, there are some advantages to model it this way.
Finally, both the simple imperfective and the perfect imperfective have a past/present distinction in their own ordered pair.
The main point to grasp for this post is how the perfect is modeled as most basically contrasting first with the simple imperfective, and then at a higher level as part of the perfective/imperfective split. In a normal verb, a perfect is in contrast to a present indicative in that it marks a distinct subset of imperfective aspectual meaning (perfect/stative/resultative). It also contrasts with perfective aspect (the aorist).
Let’s zoom in to consider the imperfective system of order pairs.
The contrast in the imperfective system
On this understanding, a normal verb exhibits two two-way contrasts within the imperfective system. First, simple vs. perfect. Simple (the ‘present’ and ‘imperfect’) is simple in that it has the basic meaning of imperfective aspect. The perfect adds the complex nuance of including a notion of completed past action mixed in with the on-going present relevance. The notion of “present relevance” suggests that the perfect can helpfully be thought of as a sub-type of imperfective aspect in that it does not profile the end temporal boundary of the event. This differs from the perfective aspect, which does profile temporal boundary markers of events.
After the simple vs. perfect split, there is a further split within each branch, in a past vs. present form. These splits can be seen here:
In a normal verb, such as δίδωμι, all these slots are filled. First, the simple imperfective aspect:
- simple past (imperfect): Luke 9:16 καὶ ἐδίδου τοῖς μαθηταῖς παραθεῖναι τῷ ὄχλῳ. (“and he was giving [bread] to the disciples to set before the crowd”)
- simple present (present): John 10:28 κἀγὼ δίδωμι αὐτοῖς ζωὴν αἰώνιον (“and I am giving them eternal life”)
Next, the perfect side of the imperfective aspect:
- perfect past (pluperfect): John 11:57 δεδώκεισαν δὲ οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι ἐντολὰς ἵνα ἐάν τις γνῷ ποῦ ἐστιν μηνύσῃ (“now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given a command that anyone who knew where he was should reveal his whearabouts”)
- The command “has been given” in the past with reference to the narrative mainline, itself set in the past.
- perfect present (perfect): Luke 10:19 ἰδοὺ δέδωκα ὑμῖν τὴν ἐξουσίαν τοῦ πατεῖν ἐπάνω ὄφεων καὶ σκορπίων (“behold, I have given to you authority to tread upon snakes and scorpions”)
- Jesus having given them authority is relevant for the current thing he is saying (the perfect is common in speech)
In each set, we see the contrast in aspectual meaning and the past vs present contrast at the level (4) choice in the diagram. This is a normal verb.
ἵστημι, though, does not seem to work like a normal verb.
ἵστημι as a different system
Most verbs have four (potential) forms in the imperfective system. ἵστημι in its intransitive use only appears to have one: perfect. To put it differently, the present indicative of ἵστημι is not used in the NT, nor the imperfect.
There is one exception for the present: Rom. 3:31 νόμον οὖν καταργοῦμεν διὰ τῆς πίστεως; μὴ γένοιτο· ἀλλὰ νόμον ἱστάνομεν “therefore are we undoing the law through faith? By no means! Rather, we are establishing the law.” But note that here ἵστημι is transitive and is not referring to a body posture. The intransitive uses of the verb, by contrast, describe the body posture of standing.
John 8.44 is a partial imperfect exception: ἐκεῖνος ἀνθρωποκτόνος ἦν ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς καὶ ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ οὐκ ἔστηκεν “That one is a murderer from the beginning and he is not located (i.e., does not stand) in the truth.” Here note that this verb is a metaphorical extension of a body-posture usage, not actually referring to physical ‘standing.’ It locates Satan in metaphorical space, rather than physical space.
More robust searching throughout Koine Greek would be required to get a broader feel for whether the NT is unique in its verbal-aspect distribution of this verb or not. Levinsohn does note that this same usage pattern is observed in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities (pg. 193, ftn. 42). However, it has strong internal consistency in this widely used verb within the NT—there is an aorist and a perfect, but not a present or imperfect (especially when referring to standing as a body-posture).
This indicates that in the NT the body-posture intransitive usage of ἵστημι does not have a perfect/present aspectual distinction. This leaves an imperfective aspect system with just a pluperfect an a perfect which looks like this:
The only ordered pair which appears to exist for this verb in this usage is a past vs. present distinction with the perfect indicating present time and the pluperfect indicating past time. There are no “present” forms of the verb (simple imperfective, on the terms in this model).
An interesting side implication of this feature of ἵστημι (along with the similar οἶδα) is that these common perfect forms can’t be used for understanding how the perfect normally functions because they don’t behave like normal perfects. Normal verbs have three aspectual distinctions possible. These two verbs only have the perfect and perfective (aorist) distinction.
Levinsohn concludes, “the basic aspectual contrast for ἵστημι when used intransitively in a physical sense is between the aorist and the perfect/pluperfect; i.e., perfective versus imperfective.”
In this post, we have examined Levinsohn’s model of the Greek verbal system as four ordered pairs. While other models could be argued, this one has some strong points in its favor, including its elegant simplicity. With this model in hand, we can see with greater clarity that ἵστημι does not behave like a normal verb in its intransitive, physical sense. Rather than having three basic aspectual forms (perfective, imperfective-simple, and imperfective-perfect), it only has two: perfective and imperfective (which is held down entirely by the perfect and pluperfect). In the next post, we will take this insight from the indicative mood into the land of the participles and consider what implications it has for how we understand and translate the Parable of the Tax Collector and Pharisee in Luke 18.
 Levinsohn, “Gnomic Aorists,” 186.
 Levinsohn, “Gnomic Aorists,” 192.
 Levinsohn, “Gnomic Aorists,” 192–93.