Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek

Since there is a deluge of reviews of Constantine Campbell’s Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek in the biblioblogger world, just take a look at this list compiled by Koinonia, I will not post a full review of the book. Instead, I want to hit some of the high points.

The first thing I appreciated about Campbell’s basics of verbal aspect is the brief history of the study. The primary value of this chapter (chapter 2) is in identifying and understanding the basic contours of the major players in today’s debate over verbal aspect. Campbell points out the similarities and differences between Porter, Decker, Fanning, and himself. Upfront the reader is cued into those facets of the study he can trust across the board, and those specific to Campbell.

Second, Campbell’s presentation of verbal aspect is exceptional. For many years I struggled with the distinction between Aktionsart and Verbal Aspect. The technical linguistic jargon, necessary as it might be, muddled the waters in my thinking. Campbell provides an entry point for the uninitiated.

My confusion was based on a misunderstanding of semantics and pragmatics. Semantics, as it relates to this discussion, describes elements that are encoded in the verbal form. The encoded value of the verb almost always hold true throughout the language. Pragmatics, however, is a discussion of how a verb is used in a specific context. According to Campbell, verbal aspect belongs in the category of semantics, while Aktionsart is a matter for pragmatics. Below are some of the various elements that belong in each of these categories:

  • Semantics of Greek Verbs
    • Verbal Aspect: Viewpoint of action
      • Imperfective Aspect -> Proximity (spatial remoteness)
      • Perfective Aspect ->  Remoteness (spatial remoteness)
  • Pragmatic functions of Greek Verbs
      • Aktionsart: Type of action
      • Progressive: action in progress
      • Stative: state of being
      • Punctiliar: an action not performed with duration (though repeatable, i.e. to kick)
      • Ingressive: beginning of an action
      • Iterative: punctiliar requiring repeated action
      • etc

Campbell argues that temporality, time, is not encoded semantically. That is to say, there are far too many instances where aorist tense verbs are used in present contexts, and present tense verbs are used in past time contexts. Instead, an author encodes her perspective of the event she describes. Does she view herself as a part of the action or at a distance. The imperfective aspect (present and imperfect tenses) is used to describe action from within (a reporter viewing a parade from the street). The perfective aspect (aorist and future) is used to describe action remotely (a reporter viewing a parade from a helicopter). The pragmatic use of the verb and adds the value of type of action. Does the action continue over a certain period, does it happen like a machine gun, has it use begun, or does it describe a state of being?

Finally, I loved the inclusion of exercises. Without practice, it becomes less likely that new concepts will stick or that the reader will understand the proper application of those concepts. Campbell also provides an answer key. And let’s face it, we all love an answer key!

If you have ever struggled with the concept of verbal aspect, would like to get your feet wet in the continuing debate over verbal aspect, or would like to refresh and reinforce some of the concepts you previously learned, I highly recommend this book. You may not ultimately agree with Campbell on everything, but you will certainly develop firmer footing for further study.

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