In the last two posts, we have mainly focused on a model of the verbal network in Greek. The benefit of this exercise was to show that ἵστημι does not behave quite like a normal verb. In its intransitive usage with a body posture meaning, there are only an aorist and perfect form (this holds true for the NT and related writings; I have not looked more broadly). This sets us up for considering the implications of the different ways of standing that the Pharisee and Tax Collector do in this parable. Before that, we need to make a brief comment about ἵστημι as a participle.

Participles in the verbal network

The model of the verbal network outlined in post 2 is focused on the indicative mood. To apply it to the participles in question here, we have to make a slight adjustment. Really, we just have to remember that participles function at a different level of the verbal network. If the indicative mood involves four ordered pairs, participles only involve three. This is because participles do not have any tense distinction, so the final past/present level of the model falls away.

Verbal network in indicative mood

Instead of this full network, in the participles we only have levels (1)-(3). So we have three ordered pairs and a network that looks like this:

Verbal network for participles

Since the participles do not communicate tense, all we are left with is the aspectual distinction. There are four possible aspectual forms in Greek, though the future participle is quite rare in lower register Greek and has a more limited distribution of uses.

Note, one of the strengths of Levinsohn’s model, aside from its elegant simplicity, is that it correctly accounts for which forms drop out in different areas of the verbal system. When we remove tense, the pluperfect and imperfect no longer exist as they are redundant, since they convey the same aspect as the ‘present’ and ‘perfect’ forms. So, in the infinitive, participle, subjunctive, optative, and so forth, we have four forms available—with the future being far less common than the other three. On the assumption that the future is a form of perfective aspect (a debated assumption, of course), we may account for its continuation in the non-indicatives by appealing to its specialized syntactic roles (e.g., common use to indicate purpose and in indirect discourse).

As we are dealing with participles in our text, the above represents the level of the verbal network we are working with. ἵστημι as a participle shows the same pattern: an aorist and a perfect, but no present in the intransitive usage. By way of reminder, here are our verses:

  • 11 ὁ Φαρισαῖος σταθεὶς πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ταῦτα προσηύχετο·…
  • 13 ὁ δὲ τελώνης μακρόθεν ἑστὼς οὐκ ἤθελεν οὐδὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ἐπᾶραι εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν…

Since the aorist and perfect participle are the only two options, the implication is that these two participles are in maximal aspectual contrast with each other in immediate context. We should expect that there is meaning here in this variation and translating them both the same way—as most English translations do—is missing an actual difference in the Greek text without a compelling reason.

Greek aspectual distinction

Contrary to translations, rendering both these participles the same is misleading to the flow of the narrative in Greek. The difference between them colors the characterization of the characters in the parable. [1]

Given the aspectual nature of the perfective in profiling temporal boundaries of events, we should expect that the aorist participle describing the Pharisee indicates some sort of change of state which has occurred/been completed. By contrast, the perfect participle with the tax collector is the default way to say someone “is standing/stands” at the present point of time (with reference to the current deictic center).

This expected distinction in meaning from the aspectual forms is what we find when we go to the lexicons. See the following notes from BDAG:

  1. intransitive aorist: “to come up in the presence of others, come up, stand, appear”. The gloss provided for this passage is, “step up or stand to say something” (BDAG B.2)
  2. intransitive perfect: “to be in a standing position, I stand, I stood of bodily position.” (BDAG C.1)

The distinction in aspectual forms presents two distinct ways the two standers in the passage are standing. The tax collector merely continued on in the posture he was already in before he began to pray, whereas the Pharisee makes a postural adjustment of some sort in preparation for praying. If we follow the argument that πρὸς ἑαυτόν is best understood as indicating something to the effect of “by himself,” then it would follow that this characterization presents the Pharisee as assuming a conspicuous position in order to pray what he is about to pray. Even if we take the other possibility—that πρὸς ἑαυτόν belongs with the verb προσεύχομαι and means something like, “(he prays) concerning himself”—the participle still profiles a clear change in bodily posture before beginning to pray.

Either way we take the prepositional phrase, it is unusual. The easiest grammatical reading would be “prays to himself,” but this won’t do theologically. While the English “prays to himself” is ambiguous—it can mean “prays in his head” or “prays with himself as the intended recipient of the prayer”—the Greek expression here would only mean the latter. For as many conflicts as Jesus has with the Pharisees, that is not something he would charge them with. The main problem with the reading “stood by himself” is that πρὸς ἑαυτόν never means “by himself” anywhere else. The problem with reading it “prays concerning himself” is that this meaning is carried by the preposition περί, not πρός, which Luke uses in other places. Whichever way we take this prepositional phrase, it is not behaving in a way that seems normal.

This would fit well with the framing of the story. The Pharisee makes himself conspicuous in posture for his prayer (must refer to the position which he takes vis-à-vis some other group of understood bystanders as being in a standing posture for prayer in the temple would have been completely unremarkable and, if that were the intention, then Luke would have used the perfect form of the participle here as well). In this act of making himself positionally conspicuous and then likewise singling himself out as conspicuous in his prayer, he “exalts himself,” in the terms used in the closing logion (whether original or not, this is certainly the intent in Luke’s Gospel). The tax collector, by contrast, does not take on a conspicuous posture, but merely continues on in a posture of confessional humility.

How should we represent this distinction in English? There are a lot of ways we could do it with wordy work-arounds. Given the difference in rank between participles in English and Greek, it can get difficult if we are trying to maintain the same syntactic rank. Perhaps the most elegant way to bring out the difference in English is the route taken in the recent Lexham English Bible (which neither aims at nor regularly achieves elegance, but in this case it works well):

  • “The Pharisee stood [by himself] and prayed…”[2]
  • “The tax collector, standing far away…”

This at least represents the fundamental distinction: the pharisee makes a distinct action to stand, whereas the tax collector just continues on in his posture. The difference is one that is will be easier to emphasize in interpretation than translation.


In these last two posts, I have looked at a contrast in verbal aspect between two forms of ἵστημι. I have found Levinsohn’s model to be helpful in explaining how this contrast functions in NT Greek: the aorist and perfect participle are a maximal aspectual contrast for this verb (at least in its intransitive version). Given the choice to present the two postures of “standing” in the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee as distinct, there would ideally be some effort to present that within the translations. The difference in posture between the two is certainly part of the attempt to characterize the two prayers within the parable. That the pharisee is presented as assuming a conspicuous posture for the purpose of praying gives further credence to the idea that Luke, in his presentation of this parable, characterizes the pharisee’s prayer as a conspicuous example of self-aggrandizement. This is just a small feature in the Greek text—and only one of the many features to weigh in interpreting the parable—but the verbal aspect variation must be given its voice.

[1] Most English NT translations handle both participles the same, whether coverting both to a main verb like “stood” or treating both as a participle “standing.” The Jewish Orthodox Bible actually reverses the aspectual implication, turning the perfective (aorist) participle into a stative, “The Perush was standing by himself,” while treating the perfect participle as a simple past: “But the moches (tax collector) stood at a distance.” The latter can work if the former is handled differently.

[2] The LEB translates this portion of the verse as “The Pharisee stood and prayed these things with reference to himself.” This is a defensible translation. I personally think “stood by himself” has an edge because of the parallel attention to posture given to each prayer. In any case, as I mentioned above the prepositional phrase πρὸς ἑαυτόν in this text is odd.