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The Imperfect and Aktionsart
I am beginning to think that the imperfect is perhaps one of the more subtle tenses, and one whose full significance is most often overlooked.
Sunday school last week was on Mark 8:14-21. Jesus just finished the Feeding of the 4,000, and as they are traveling across the lake he says, “’Be careful,’ Jesus warned (διεστέλλετο) them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod’” (NIV; cf. also NLT).
διεστέλλετο is imperfect, but there is no way someone would understand this from “warned,” which sounds more like an aorist. Other translations include “cautioned” (ESV, NRSV), “commanded” (HCSB), “ordered” (NET), and “charged” (KJV).
France comments, “The imperfect tense of διεστέλλετο suggests that Jesus’ warning against the Pharisees and Herod is not an isolated and unprovoked exclamation, as might at first appear, but rather a summary of a more extended discourse” (315).
I haven’t discussed the concept of “Aktionsart” in previous blogs, but maybe here is a good opportunity to say something. Wallace comments, “aspect and time constitute the ‘ontological meaning’ or unaffected meaning of a given tense in the indicative” (514). It is a meaning that never actually occurs but is only theoretical.
Meaning is communicated in more ways than time and aspect, and when we see a verb in a certain tense with a certain aspect, there are other factors that determine its meaning. This is Aktionsart.
Aktionsart is the meaning of a particular verb in context, taking into consideration tense (in the indicative), aspect, lexical meaning of the verb, grammatical constructions, and other pieces of information gleaned from the context (e.g., genre).
So coming back to the imperfect διεστέλλετο, does the simple “warned” convey the fuller sense of διεστέλλετο in its context. Perhaps. The lexical meaning insists that the discussion was more than an instantaneous outburst from Jesus; you can’t “warn” in an instance other than perhaps yelling, “Watch out.” But then you would expect an aorist and a car speeding down the road past your kids.
I still think that “warn” is too under-translated. It could be an inceptive, “began to warn.” But I think France is right on this one (as he is on most), and the reason is that it explains Jesus’ incredibly strong rebuttal in vv 17-18. “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Do you have hardened hearts? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember?”
This is incredibly strong language, drawing on Jesus’ previous stated in 4:12 as to why he speaks in parables. He is using language reserved for those who are “outside” in reference to those who are “inside” (a dominate theme in Mark that France regularly discusses). It is his inner circle of 12 that he is accusing of having “hard hearts.” Ouch!
I think that Jesus warned the disciples for some period of time to beware of the consequences of unrepentant hearts, of hearts that don’t and eventually can’t look past the obvious (e.g., feeding 4,000 from 7 loaves), that insist on a sign when they had just seen one (vv 11-12), that get so preoccupied with their physical needs that they can’t see Jesus’ obvious care for them (v 16) and the spiritual realities that should be perceived in Jesus’ actions.
Only an ongoing warning explains the imperfect and the strength of Jesus’ rebuke of their lack of faith (Matt 16:8).
So the question we must ask is, “Are we truly looking through the events in our lives, superintended by God, that are meant to teach us the deeper things of Christ?” Or are we who are in the “inside” still living with hard hearts?