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Monday, September 18

Translating the Greek Aorist as the English Past can Miscommunicate (James 2:7)

All interpretations are interpretive; anyone who says differently is selling something. (A slight takeoff of the man in black who said, “Life is Pain! Anyone who says differently is selling something.”)

The question is, “How interpretive should a translation be?” All translation committees struggle with this. When translating words doesn’t convey sufficient meaning, how far should we go to communicate? I just posted a YouTube on this issue in general (

James 2:7 gives a small example that shows how subtle this issue can be. James is asking a rhetorical question about the rich in this church; “Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the honorable name (τὸ καλὸν ὄνομα) by which you were called? (τὸ ἐπικληθὲν ἐφ᾿ ὑμᾶς).”

Some people say this is a reference to baptism and the invoking of the name of Jesus over the person being baptized. This would read the aorist ἐπικληθὲν as punctilear, but I am generally not persuaded by the approach that sees baptismal allusions under ever bush, as it were. However, this does explain some of the translations. The HCSB writes, “Don’t they blaspheme the noble name that was pronounced over you at your baptism?” which was change in the CSB to, “Don’t they blaspheme the good name that was invoked over you?” The NRSV has, “the excellent name that was invoked over you.”

I suspect that the “honorable name” is that of “Jesus,” and the point is that the rich were blaspheming not so much the name but the very character of our God. This reads the aorist as constative, describing the ongoing state of the believer. (Note that the verb is ἐπικαλέω, not the simple καλέω. BDAG gives its second meaning as, “to address or characterize someone by a special term, call, give a surname.” The issue is more our identity in Christ.)

This illustrates the problem of using the English past for the Greek constative. In English, constative and gnomic thoughts are generally expressed with the present tense. So when we read “by which you have been called” (NASB) or “by which you were called” (ESV, NKJV), we hear a past condition and not a present, onging condition. Certainly an example of the problem of slavishly following the Greek aorist and the English past. It miscommunicates, if in fact ἐπικληθὲν is constative.

This explains the NIV (“the noble name of him to whom you belong”) and the NET (“the good name of the one you belong to?”). The point is that the rich are constantly attacking the very name, the very character, of Jesus, the very “name” that identifies the believers. It is not just a past condition but a present, ongoing condition that requires the English present.

All interpretations are interpretive. All are required to take exegetical positions. Those claiming an unbiased literalism are most certainly selling something.


Bill All understanding of phonetics - word sounds - is interpretative - and reflects huge intra-personal grids. However, there is huge commonality - and huge distinction from commonality that we find available so that we should be pretty close. In contrast, there are those "interpretative" efforts were seem to run far afield of such commonality. Take an example from the NIV - Phil 2:6 - "the morphe of God" vs the "the morphe of a servant". While I am not especially comfortable with anyone's rendtion of "morphe" (since in its basal sense it does not seem to really fit here - which thus seems to indicate an extended sense) - the NIV's translation "nature" especially inlight of the traditional Christological language, seems massively at odds with any sense of the passage and really a dishonest interjection of a theolgical formulation of the text by completely wresting even the most remote meaning of the word (cf "the form of godliness" as contrasted with the "nature" of godliness".). NOW maybe they mean something completely different than what would automatically be construed by any reader in light of traditional Christology.... in which case the onus would remain on them for considering the reader's understanding in their translation. Bottom LIne - The NIV appears to be selling something.

I would be very cautious at questions people's motives. The CBT doesn't sell anything.

Bill, I would appreciate your comments on this essay, and about how it intersects with Stanley E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood (New York: Peter Lang, 1993). Porter is pretty heavy going, but part of what I retained from him was that in English, "tense" encodes for time. Without knowing anything else, if you see the sentence "John ran" it tells you that John did an action in the past. In Greek, he said, verb "tenses" exist, but they don't really encode for time. You look to the *context* for clues about time. It is now 25 years after Porter wrote. Is he considered passe already, that we are still *mostly* treating "aorist" as a statement about time? In your comments, you point out that aorist MAY refer to present time. Indeed, if the present tense in Greek refers to present time, and the aorist to past time, then it would seem like 40% of verbs in the NT are exceptions to the rule. Porter seemed like a breath of fresh air to me, as he presented a way of thinking about NT verb tenses that seemed to fit the data better...much as Copernicus/Kepler presented a hypothesis about how the solar system was constructed that fit the data better than the Ptolemaic hypothesis. But still, in your essay, as with other places on the web (e.g. Daily Dose of Greek with Rob Plummer), I don't get the feeling that anybody is paying much attention to Stanley Porter. I would value any comments you could make on this whole area of verbs, as it is an area of lively interest for me. Thanks, Bob

This is a huge topic, but I can say that scholarship is not going Porter's route. While he (and others) do bring a good corrective to the time-dominated understanding of Greek tenses in the past, and aspect is more prevalent, most still agree that time is part of the Greek tense system.

As I listen to you I hear your reasoning as an interpreter and not as a linguist. I would only humbly suggest that as a linguist you come to a decided conclusion about the aorist. If it is punctilious and past then it seems to me you should bring your interpretation in line with your linguistics conclusion. If it does allow for a present continuous then feel free.