[B-Greek] Can the Imperfect not be Continuous? (ELEGEN)

alexali at internode.on.net alexali at internode.on.net
Wed Dec 15 20:15:35 EST 2010

 Yesterday Carl brought to our attention Mounce's blog on the 
"instantaneous imperfect". I'd like to express agreement with Rich 
Lindeman's comment: 
 >Imperfect may not be communicating "ongoing" or "incomplete". At 
times I think that imperfect simply takes one up close and into the 
ongoing action... Or in the case of speech brings the reader up close 
and into the actual conversation. 
 In his blog, Mounce writes,  
 >Jesus “said (ελεγεν), ‘Depart, for the little girl is not 
dead, but sleeping’” (Matt 9:24). Does this mean that Jesus made 
this statement over and over? “He said (ελεγεν), ‘Who 
touched my garments?” (Mark 5:30). Did it take Jesus a while of 
asking to find the woman? 
 The questions are rhetorical, but there are two difficulties with 
them. The first is, they may be answered in a manner that contradicts 
the rhetorical expectation. 
 Take the first question, "Does this mean that Jesus made this 
statement over and over?" It may be helpful to look, not simply at the 
first part of Matthew 9:24, but at the whole verse: ἔλεγεν, 
Ἀναχωρεῖτε, οὐ γὰρ ἀπέθανεν τὸ 
κοράσιον ἀλλὰ καθεύδει. καὶ 
κατεγέλων αὐτοῦ. If we were to treat 
κατεγέλων in the way Mounce suggests we treat ἔλεγεν, 
we would understand this as "Jesus said 'x'. And they laughed at him." 
If, however, we give the imperfects continuative force we get a far 
more vivid picture, "Jesus was saying 'x', and they were laughing at 
him." They were so convinced that Jesus was wrong, that they were 
laughing; perhaps, then, Jesus did say again that the girl was alive. 
We cannot determine this, because the iterative potential of the 
imperfect is a feature that is cancelable. 
 Mounce's second rhetorical question is, "Did it take Jesus a while of 
asking to find the woman?" The rhetorical expectation is, "No". Again, 
context shows that the actual answer is otherwise. Here are verses 
30-33. Notice the repeated imperfects. καὶ εὐθὺς ὁ 
Ἰησοῦς ἐπιγνοὺς ἐν ἑαυτῷ τὴν ἐξ 
αὐτοῦ δύναμιν ἐξελθοῦσαν 
ἐπιστραφεὶς ἐν τῷ ὄχλῳ ἔλεγεν, Τίς 
μου ἥψατο τῶν ἱματίων; 31 καὶ  ἔλεγον 
αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ, Βλέπεις τὸν 
ὄχλον συνθλίβοντά σε καὶ λέγεις, 
Τίς μου ἥψατο; 32 καὶ περιεβλέπετο 
ἰδεῖν τὴν τοῦτο ποιήσασαν. 33 ἡ δὲ 
γυνὴ φοβηθεῖσα καὶ τρέμουσα, 
εἰδυῖα ὃ γέγονεν αὐτῇ, ἦλθεν καὶ 
προσέπεσεν αὐτῷ καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ 
πᾶσαν τὴν ἀλήθειαν. (Mark 5:30-33 GNT) Jesus was 
saying, ... His disciples were saying, ... , he was looking around. 
 Perhaps, again, Jesus did repeat the question, Τίς μου 
ἥψατο τῶν ἱματίων; Again, we cannot be sure, 
because the iterative feature is cancelable. 
 And this brings us to the second difficulty with the questions Mounce 
asks. They are the wrong questions. 
 They address the choice of the imperfect as a matter of Aktionsart, 
as if the determinant feature in its use is the nature of the action. 
This assumption that it is the nature of the action that is critical 
in the choice of tense leads Mounce to imply that there is something 
surprising about instances of the imperfect expressing actions he 
regards as "instantaneous". 
 But if we look at the choice of tense not as a matter of Aktionsart 
but as one of aspect, we ask different questions, holding that it lay 
with the writer to choose between the presentation of an action in its 
continuance, viewing it in process, or simply asserting the occurrence 
of an action which is viewed in its entirety, globally. 
 Although the iterative potential of the imperfect is cancelable, its 
presentation of an action in its continuance is not. So when we see 
ἔλεγεν, it is more productive to ask 'Why does the author want 
us to view this action in its process?' Even if it does not require an 
iterative understanding, in both instances Mounce cites, ἔλεγεν 
slows down the pace of the narration and focuses on what was being 
said. Nor has it been difficult to see why. In the first case, what 
Jesus was saying was so extraordinary, so contrary to what the 
onlookers 'knew', that they considered it risible. In the second case, 
it draws attention to an extraordinary scene where Jesus knows that 
power has gone out from him and is looking about for the person who 
had touched him.  
 The question as to whether Jesus was here acting in accordance with 
his humanity or otherwise might be asked, but is not one for the 
BGreek forum; I mention it simply to indicate that the distinctions 
between the tenses are no mere trifle but bear upon our understanding 
of matters more significant than Greek grammar, yet also give us 
reason to elucidate Greek grammar as carefully as we are able. Like 
flattening layers in a Photoshop document, flattening the distinction 
between the imperfect and aorist results in a loss of information. 
Rich, nuanced information that is significant for a vibrant 
understanding of the text. 
 I suppose this means that I'm adopting a different position from Mark 
L's when he writes, 
 >Mounce ... says you have to regularly review your grammar--your 
Wallace and others--or else you might forget that ελεγε (ELEGE) 
is not a continuous imperfect. But if you never learned any grammar in 
the first place, if, that is, you learned a language the way 99% of 
all humans have ever learned a language, you would not even know what 
an imperfect is. You would just read or hear or say ελεγε and you 
would get an intuitive feel that it pretty much means the same thing 
as ειπε and you would move on to the next word without even 
thinking about it and you would not have the problem that Mounce 
 I think 100% of us haven't learnt NT Greek the way humans have ever 
learnt their first language, so grammars are perhaps more significant 
light-bearers than Mark seems to imply, but these days that ought 
include grammars that tackle Aspect and not just Aktionsart. 
 Alex Hopkins 
 Melbourne, Australia 

More information about the B-Greek mailing list