Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Can the Imperfect Not be Continuous?

One of the dangers of learning Greek is that after a while you feel like you have a handle on things and don’t need to keep reviewing grammar. Then over time you lose some of the nuances of the language and start letting a broad, general understanding govern everything you read.

Take for example the imperfect. It always designates a continuous action, usually in the past. Right? We learn that in first year Greek, and then in second year we are introduced to the concepts of narrow-band and broad-band imperfects. In other words, the imperfect is always continuous albeit for shorter or longer periods of time.

In the narrow-band, Daniel Wallace lists uses such as progressive (the default) and ingressive (beginning to do something), and then broad-band such as iterative (repeated action), customary (habitual action not necessarily tied to one point in time), conative (desiring or attempting to do something), and then the weird use of the retained imperfect in indirect discourse.

But the point is that all of these indicate a continuous action in one way or another.

But what about ελεγεν? 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?

It is easy to forget that there is an ”instantaneous imperfect.” It is easy to forget because it is pretty much limited to ελεγεν in narrative material (see Wallace, page 542). It is just a special use of the imperfect of λεγω.

So the moral of the story is: “Review!” I find that regular reviews in Wallace (for Greek grammar) and Wayne Grudem (for Systematic Theology) — you can fill in the name of the core reference books of your own studies — always bear enough fruit to make the work worthwhile. There are always nuances and nuggets that I come away with.