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Aktionsart and Ask, Seek, Knock (Matt 7:7-8)
In first year Greek, we teachers need to make a bigger deal of Aktionsart. Meaning isn’t conveyed just by the meaning of the word, or its tense, or its aspect. Language gives us many tools to nuance what we want to say, and our students need to know that meaning can also help convey aspect.
For example, Mark 5:2. “And he opened his mouth and taught (ἐδίδασκεν) them” (ESV, also NRSV). ἐδίδασκεν is imperfective, but the ESV thinks that the meaning of “to teach” is sufficiently continuous that the verb doesn’t need to be expressly continuous. Most translations treat it as an inceptive imperfect: “he began to teach” (NASB, CSB, NIV, NLT), pointing forward to the Sermon on the Mount.
But what about Matt 7:7-8. A normal translation reads, “Ask (αἰτεῖτε) and it will be given to you, seek (ζητεῖτε) and you will find, knock (κρούετε) and it will be opened for you. For everyone who asks (ὁ αἰτῶν) receives, and everyone who seeks (ὁ ζητῶν) finds, and for everyone who knocks (τῷ κρούοντι) it will be opened.”
The first three verbal forms are imperfective imperatives (built on the present tense stem); since they are outside the indicative, they only indicate aspect. The substantival participles are likewise imperfective, but aspect is less significant in a substantival construction. So what is Jesus saying?
The problem is that a normal reading of the English suggests Jesus is talking about a single ask, a single attempt at seeking, a single knock on the door. Of the three, the meaning of “seek” is most likely to be heard as continuous (hence my addition of “a single attempt”), but “ask” and “knock” sound punctilear.
So this is one of the passages where the meaning of the word isn’t contributing much toward helping us understand the aspect of the verb, and most translations don’t express the explicitly continuous nature of the imperatives. Only the NLT with its periphrastic translation philosophy is able to convey the fuller meaning of the Greek. “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.”
The repetition of “keep on” may sound a little laborious to our ears, but at least the NLT is translating the Greek, and not under-translating as everyone else does. And this is a significant point. Jesus is talking about persistence in prayer. He is not a Coke machine where you put in your dollar (“ask … seek … knock”) and he magically answers. No, this is part of the challenge of persistent prayer within the context of an almighty God who always hears us, but answers in ways that he knows best and most glorifies himself. And in the process we receive his answer, find what we are truly seeking, and have the right doors opened for us.
As the Italian proverb has it: “Translators are traitors.”