Aorists and Imperfects (John 3:22) – Mondays with Mounce 322

Bill Mounce on June 4th, 2018. Tagged under ,.

Bill Mounce

Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at BillMounce.com.

Greek scholarship is doing a better job these days at reading larger units of text and looking for more macro patterns rather than just looking at individual words or phrases.

One of the patterns that has emerged in reading historical narrative material is that the aorist is the default tense, used to begin the narrative. Then, the imperfect is inserted in appropriate places to move the story along. This means that there is something explicitly significant about the tense change, and that emphasis should (I think) be explicit in translations.

“After this, Jesus and his disciples went (ἦλθεν) to the Judean countryside, where he spent (διέτριβεν) time with them and baptized (ἐβάπτιζεν)” (CSB, see also NIV). The narrative begins with an aorist and is followed by two imperfects, although the later two verbs are not translated as imperfective in aspect by the CSB and NIV. (I know, the “imperfect tense” and “imperfective aspect” can be confusing terminology, but these are the terms linguists are settling on.)

διέτριβεν is imperfect, but the simple “spent” is imperfective in meaning, so probably “was spending” is unnecessary (although I would vote for the latter).

However, ἐβάπτιζεν is also imperfective, and it is not clear to me why the CSB and NIV do not translate it as such. They may have felt that the simple “baptized” was sufficiently imperfective (just like “spent”), or they may have preferred the simple form on literary grounds.

The problem is that it is under-translating, not getting all of the information out of the Greek (which is common and often necessary), but it also misses the larger contrast the text is creating. Vv 22-23 are contrasting the activities of Jesus and John. Jesus went (aorist) out into the country side, spending time (imperfective) with his disciples and baptizing (imperfective). “John also was baptizing (ἦν … βαπτίζων) in Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water there. People were coming (παρεγίνοντο) and being baptized (ἐβαπτίζοντο)” (CSB). It is not clear to me why you would translate the imperfects in v 23 but not in v 22. The NIV has the same oddity.

The larger question could be to ask how English tells narrative material. I don’t think it is as important to us to start with the simple past and use the continuous past in the midst of the story. But here we are translating Greek, and I think it is important to reflect how the Greeks constructed narrative material.

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Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.

  • Coburn Ingram 5 months ago

    Sometimes it is just one of the peculiarities of grammar. In Spanish we use the preterite for an action that took place at a discrete point in time and is now complete. We use the imperfect for an action that took place over a distinguishable span of time. And so the normal pattern is to begin a narrative with the preterite and then switch to the imperfect, just as you describe in this example. “Después de esto, vino Jesús con sus discípulos a la tierra de Judea, y estuvo allí con ellos, y bautizaba.” Interestingly the RVR1960 here uses the preterite “estuvo allí” for διέτριβεν, when it should probably use “estaba allí,” the imperfect, to, as you say, “get all the information out of the Greek.” But you see that the Spanish is following its own rules of compartmentalizing the thought process, dealing with the differences in time, subordinate action, and duration. I feel that cleaving to the natural rules of the target language is often more important, because one of the hallmarks of a good translation is that it is natural-sounding.

    This is one place you could feel OK about getting rid of that pesky Greek “and,” with the excuse that you are incorporating it in the overall sense of what you are saying. “After this, Jesus and his disciples went over into Judean territory. He spent time with them there and baptized.” The lack of an “and” in English is actually semantic information. It subordinates the events “spent time” and “baptized” to “went” in the same way that the imperfect is subordinate to the preterite in Spanish. Although I’ve been reading to my kiddo a lot lately from the NIrV, maybe that’s where I picked up that habit. You could also say “And while he was there, he spent time (etc.).” The “while” is a sort of a verbal crowbar to forcibly bring out the aorist-imperfective contrast, while remaining natural-sounding.

    Fun discussion, thanks. While we are in John 3 territory, let me ask. Why does every version put the red-letter break at the end of verse 20? It seems to me that on all available grounds it should come at the end of verse 12, that is, John is making a commentary on the words of Jesus from 3:13 to 3:20, just as he does from 3:31-3:36. We find it easier to attribute the first section to Jesus, supposing some sort of incarnate omniscience, but we can’t possibly attribute the second section to John the Baptist, because, as he said, “I am not the Messiah,” so we don’t put that section in quotes. Why? Have you blogged about this? Could you please?