by Andreas J. Köstenberger, Benjamin L. Merkle, and Robert L. Plummer
Because of the extraordinary revelations the apostle Paul received, he writes, “A thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself” (2 Cor 12:7).
The apostle here employs a ἵνα clause to introduce the purpose of the messenger of Satan, ἵνα με κολαφίζῃ (“to torment me”). The verb translated “torment” is the present active subjunctive third person singular of κολαφίζω. One noted commentator remarks on κολαφίζῃ, “The use of the present tense seems to imply that ‘the thorn in the flesh’ was a permanent affliction under which the apostle continued to suffer” (Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 285-86). Hodge seems to indicate that, conversely, if Paul had chosen the aorist tense (the only other real option for this subjunctive clause), then the “torment” Paul described would have been limited in duration or already past. In fact, while Hodge may be right in his conclusion (i.e., Paul suffered for the remainder of his life), the basis for his argument is invalid. By employing the present tense-form in 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul chooses to present his torment in progressive fashion, but does not indicate the time limit (or lack thereof) of that progressive depiction. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to find such unguarded statements about tense and time in biblical commentaries.
Anyone who has tried to learn at least one foreign language will readily recognize that any two languages will not be alike in every respect. At times the word order will vary; proverbs or common sayings may differ (e.g., the functional equivalent of the English expression, “It’s still Greek to me” is, in German, “Es kommt mir Spanisch vor” [“It’s still Spanish to me”]); the use of the article can create problems; the sentence structure may be more or less complex (e.g., Greek participles), and so on. While we expect foreign languages to play by our rules, more often than not, what is required when learning another language is a willingness to play by the rules of others.
The Greek verb is a case in point. When approaching the translation and interpretation of a given NT verb, most of us will naturally expect that the Greek verb functions according to the rules of English grammar. At a first glance, this seems to be a reasonable assumption. In keeping with the above-registered caution, however, this assumption is unwarranted. Specifically, native English speakers (and speakers of other similar languages) who are accustomed to verb tenses conveying primarily the time of a given action will naturally assume that the same equation, “Tense-form = Time,” holds true in NT Greek as well. Nevertheless, this is not the case. Other factors, especially the way in which a writer views a given action (called “aspect”), play a role in the choice of a particular tense-form in NT Greek as well. This, in turn, renders time proportionally less significant in the use of the Greek verb than the English one (or at least matters are different). In other words, while time plays the most prominent role in English verbs, the most prominent characteristic of Greek tense-forms is aspect.
When in Rome, therefore, do as the Romans do. Or, to adapt this adage, when in Athens, do as the Athenians do. That is, step into learning NT Greek in general, and into interpreting Greek verbs in particular, within the frame of reference of the Greek, rather than your native language, and be open to the evidence as it presents itself, whether morphological, lexical, grammatical, contextual, or otherwise. This is often easier said than done, and even Greek grammarians don’t always agree as to the reasons why a given NT writer chose, say, an aorist rather than a present-tense verb form to convey a certain action. In Going Deeper with New Testament Greek, you will find a simple framework for understanding how Greek verbs work. On the whole, we recommend that when you analyze NT Greek verbs, leave English mostly aside and put on a new pair of linguistic glasses. This will enable you to get closer to understanding NT verbs the way first-century Greek writers and readers would have done.
Editor’s note: This is an adapted excerpt from Going Deeper with New Testament Greek.
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