Constantine Campbell and Verbal Aspect in NT Greek

I have taken probably 15 courses in classical and NT Greek, and I have taught Greek about 6 times. There are few things more difficult to understand (let alone teach!) than the meaning and exegetical utility of ‘verbal aspect’. It was a no-brainer, then, that when I saw Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek (Constantine Campbell, Zondervan, 2008) I snatched up a copy right away.

NT Grammars, at least the most recent ones, treat this issue and flag up the unique quality of aspect contained in NT Greek that is unlike anything in English. Campbell argues that, according to NT linguistics and philologists, ‘Aspect holds the key to understanding the Greek verbal system’ (32). But, grammarians disagree as to what it is and what to do with it! The book I am using to teach Greek (Duff) does a wretched job communicating aspect. So where do we go from here?

Let’s allow Campbell to have his say.

The Basics: What is verbal aspect (VA)? Cambell defines it simply as ‘viewpoint’ where ‘An author or speaker views as action, event, or state either from the outside or from the inside‘ (19). When viewed from the outside, this is called perfective; the inside, then, is imperfective.

How does this relate to aktionsart? Campbell differentiates this because Aktionsart is more about ‘how an action actually takes place–what sort of action it is’ (22). On the other hand VA ‘refers to viewpoint-how the action is viewed’ (22).

This is not too controversial. The real issue is what we do with tense and time. Some people think the present tense, for instance, is inherently linked to present time (aorist and imperfect to past). How else do you know when an action occurred? Campbell disagrees. He argues that one can find clues in the text (deictic markers) that indicate time (‘now’, ‘already’, ‘then’). But, then, if tense does not mark time, why are there so many tenses!!?

Campbell explains: ‘[time] is not regarded as a semantic value [=always true, generic] of verbs in the indicative mood, even though each tense-form has a characteristic temporal reference on the pragmatic [=in context] level’ (32). The tendency for a tense to be found in a particular time can be explained another way through the tendency of the semantic value of the tense.

For example, aorist has the quality of ‘remoteness’. Sometimes that remoteness is a temporal one (past time, remote from present). But, ‘Remoteness also offers explanation for those fifteen percent of aorists that do not refer to the past’ (36). They still convey remoteness, but it may be ‘logical’, for example. The example he gives comes from Mark 1.11 where eudokesa is aorist. Here the remoteness involves viewing Jesus’ life from ‘afar’.

One thing that is particularly helpful is Campbell’s discussion of how tenses use their VA in narratives. Remoteness, for example, is helpful when portraying actions in summary: it is ‘often used to outline the skeletal structure of a narrative’ (38).

Imperfective VA and proximity: If the aorist perfective aspect has the value of remoteness, the present imperfective is proximate. This may be temporal (the near-time=now=present). From an aspectual angle, ‘we watch as the action unfolds’ (40). In narrative we get information that is ‘beyond the narratival mainline’; information that ‘describes, explains, and provides background; it puts flesh on the skeleton’ (44). This can explain the ‘historic present’ where proximity does not involve ‘time’.

Perfect: This tense Campbell also labels as proximate, but with intensity. It is ‘heightened proximity’ (51); or ‘super-present’ (54).

Conclusion – Tense in Greek offers a viewpoint through VA. This is understood in terms of proximity and remoteness. Sometimes that is temporally relevant, but sometimes it is not. Time should be determined or confirmed by contextual (deictic) markers and clues. Proximity and remoteness often tend towards certain temporal concepts.

Praises and Concerns: I have a few minor concerns with Campbell’s book.

1. I get tired of books called ‘basics of’ because this is a complex discussion and is advanced to many who will read it. I sometimes find it insulting and condescending, but Campbell probably did not choose the title of the book.

2. I like the language of proximity and remoteness. However, I am satified with saying that tense is associated with time, but there is great flexibility. For teaching purposes, trudging through this kind of linguistic tap-dance of avoiding temporal categories is daunting. Teach students to accept that the aorist often is past, but there are many exceptions and when past-time is not possible or logical, let’s look at ‘remoteness’ in some other way.

3. Though I think Campbell as done much to raise red flags when exegetes base arguments on tense, his own intepretation of ‘remoteness’ or ‘proximity’ opens its own bag of troubles. I am afraid when we speak of ‘logical’ remoteness (when it is not temporal) that people will make some wild guesses as to what the logic is. Should we get from Mark 1.11 that the use of the aorist for ‘I am well pleased’ means that God is looking at Jesus’ whole life? Isn’t that just as dangerous exegetically as using outdated categories for understanding VA in Greek? We need more tips for how to interpret remoteness and proximity.

4. Campbell pointed to how an author would use perfective and imperfective VAs in narratives to mark mainline features and offline features. This is helpful. What about the epistles? What is the significance of using aorist versus present or perfect in non-narrative texts? What gains are there rhetorically for Paul, 1 Peter, Hebrews? Campbell stuck to narratives in many of his examples, but many grammatico-exegetical battles are fought in the epistles. Give us more help!
Overall, I learned a lot from this book. I recommend it to those who want to go deeper in their understanding of NT Greek. One would expect in this series (Basics by Zondervan) that it would be non-controversial stuff (as it is meant to be a textbook). But when it comes to VA, there is always disagreement. Appreciate what Campbell says, but don’t assume this is the standard approach. There is no standard.

One thing I will take away from this conversation is this: be careful what conclusions you draw exegetically from a text based on a verbs aspect. We haven’t come to a place where we fully grasp its meaning and purpose. You can make some educated guesses, but don’t build an exegetical house on it.


5 thoughts on “Constantine Campbell and Verbal Aspect in NT Greek

  1. A couple notes:

    If the perfective aspect has the value of remoteness, the imperfective (present tense, for instance) is proximate.

    This isn’t exactly right. Perfectivity is just perfective, nothing else. Its the Aorist that has the value of +perfective, +remote. There isn’t anything remote about perfective aspect by itself:

    -σα marks perfective
    ἐ- marks remoteness/past tense.

    They’re completely separate morphemes.

    As for Aspect in the epistles, well, its surprisingly simple, though Campbell doesn’t address directly/officially. He does make a distinction between direct speech and narrative proper and how aspect functions in each of those. Generally speaking, Aspect in the epistles functions the same way it does in direct speech – which makes sense, considering the content, style, and oral function of letters in the culture.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on my book, Nijay.

    I think you make some good points. I could offer a few thoughts in reply, but will just make one comment. You’re right to acknowledge that there is still a lot of disagreement among scholars about verbal aspect, but I think that needs to be more balanced by the fact that we agree on more than we disagree.

    While some things still need to be worked out, we are certain that several of the ‘old’ ways of doing things are seriously flawed (or just plain wrong). We agree that aspect provides a much more robust approach, based on coherent linguistic principles and careful research.

    Thus, while VA may open a new ‘cans of worms’, they are better worms than the old ones! (if I can put it like that).


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