Review of Campbell’s Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek - Introduction

Written by Michael Hanel on November 8th, 2008

Through one of their free give-a-ways, I received a review copy from Zondervan of Constantine R. Campbell’s new book Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek in exchange for a brief review. Well Zondervan upheld its portion of the deal, now it’s my turn to show my goodwill. This post primarily is intended as an introduction and shows that this book is indeed a necessary and, therefore, valuable publication. The second post talks more about the contents of the book.

For starters, I should give my background. I am primarily a Classicist, but virtually the only reason I am primarily a Classicist is because I wanted to become better informed and educated about the Greek language specifically and the ancient Roman and Greek cultures in general. Although I have an M.A. in Classics and am currently in school for a Ph.D. in the same, I am not a cold academic. In addition to my Classicist life, I am also a trained (M.Div.) pastor of the Lutheran variety. When I work with the Greek NT text, it is largely in the context, not of writing articles for journals or the like, but for writing sermons and preparing Bible studies in a church-setting. I learned Greek initially from A.K.M. Adam’s beginning Greek grammar and used David Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics as an intermediate grammar. Beyond that I have tutored students who learned Greek through David Alan Black’s Learn to Read New Testament Greek (which I prefer over Adam’s grammar) and TAed a Classical Greek class which used the Athenaze series. I also have passing experience with Mastronarde’s Introduction to Attic Greek, Hansen and Quinn’s Greek: An Intensive Course, Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek, Voelz’ Fundamental Greek Grammar, Porter’s Idioms of the Greek New Testament, and some of the older classical grammars that you can now find on Google Books. In other words, I’m pretty familiar with introductory grammars.

Also as someone who has done a lot of Greek tutoring for others and now in teaching undergraduate students Latin, I’ve seen the problem both language students have from learning forms to learning to read. Although introductory grammar books teach tense and aspect very differently, most books either do not do sufficient justice to the problem of aspect or teach it rather poorly.

Examples)

A). Athenaze: A section on aspect comes in page 216 of the first book in this series with this introduction (there is a brief section on the aorist 40 pages earlier), “The imperfect or past progressive indicative usually looks on the action of the verb as an ongoing process in past time, just as the present tense looks on the action as an ongoing process in present time…. The aorist, indicative, on the other hand, usually looks on the action as a simple action or event in past time.” And then different translations of the imperfect are given (continuous action, customary action, incipient action, conative action). When the present tense is first introduced on page 13, the present indicative active paradigm is given with the following translations, “I loosen, am loosening, do loosen” with no further explanation as to what “present tense” means or why those three translations are possible (nor is there any mention of more problematic uses of the present). In other words, aspect is not a highly regarded topic in this particular grammar. Students are simply left to their own devices to work out different translations on their own.

B). Voelz’ Fundamental Greek Grammar (it’s in its 3rd edition, but I only have the 2nd): When the present tense is introduced in the third chapter of his book, he gives a simple translation “I loose” and says that he will speak more on Tense further in the book. When he gets back to the topic, he describes aspect as “the focus the speaker/writer has when considering an activity” and uses the terms “focus on the action” and “focus upon connection” to describe relationships of present, imperfect and aorist verbs and “focus upon the result (or state) for the perfect stem verbs. The strength here is that there is more talk earlier about aspect, but the weakness is that the terminology is rather foreign to most other discussions about aspect.

C). Black’s Learn to Read New Testament Greek: The second chapter of Black’s book is a chapter called “The Greek Verb System: A Bird’s Eye View” which discusses important topics like inflection, mood, voice and tense (aspect) [his use of parentheses]. This book has a lot to commend in that it introduces all this foreign terminology even before students have had a chance to get lost in the paradigms, but of course when the material comes this early, many students might not fully grasp the significance of everything here. Indeed his definition of aspect is “the view of the action that the speaker chooses to present to the hearer” and divides the aspects into 3 (imperfective, perfective and aoristic) and notes that tense and aspect can overlap, but that “the imperfect tense is always imperfective; the aoristic tense is always aoristic; and the pluperfect, perfect and future perfect tenses are always perfective.” (He notes the present can be either imperfective or aoristic and that the future can be imperfective or aoristic with context alone being the key). He also points out that the most significant feature of tense in Greek is kind of action, and this then becomes the significance of “tense (aspect)” for reading Greek. Like I said, I commend Black’s way of introducing this concept early, but even by my brief snippets, you might be able to see that there is a lot of tension (confusion?) between whether to call a given verb according to its “tense”, “aspect” or both. It seems Black is almost out the door when it comes to calling a verb by its aspect rather than tense, but still not quite there (when he introduces the perfect system he says “The perfect is the tense of completed action”, which to me almost sounds non-sensical). Still, compared to other grammars, he has done a fair job of introducing things a beginning grammar is usually ill-equipped to cover in any great depth.

D). Mastronarde’s Introduction to Attic Greek: You have to wait until about half-way through the book until you get to a chapter that covers aspect in any great depth. When he does cover it he notes that “the fundamental distinction conveyed by Greek tense stems is one of aspect, that is, of the type of action or state being denoted in terms of completion vs. non completion, customary action vs. single occurrence, general truth vs. specific occurrence, or some similar distinction.” Mastronarde, more than the other grammars even, focuses more on how morphological/stem distinctions are the carriers of aspect differences. Thus there are three aspects based on the stems “present-stem aspect”, “aorist-stem aspect”, and “perfect-stem aspect” (Mastronarde says the future stem conveys no distinction of aspect). In this same discussion he notes in passing that the historical present can be “used without its usual aspect to convey historical fact, as a stylistic variation on the aorist of historical narrative.” Wow. Lots of stuff for people to argue about there I am sure!

E). Crosby and Schaeffer’s classic An Introduction to Greek: This is mainly just to show what has or hasn’t changed. When they introduce the aorist, they say “The aorist indicative in Greek expresses a single act (that is, not continued or repeated) in past time. It gives, as it were, a snapshot of past action, while the imperfect gives a motion picture.” Well, it’s not all wrong, is it? But clearly, these authors are not entirely speaking to the same debate as today.

F). (and now for something completely different) Porter’s Idioms of the Greek New Testament: Now granted before I read this grammar I had not read Porter’s tome on the subject at hand, but I knew he wrote about it. Is it any surprise that the first subject of the first chapter of his grammar book is on tense and aspect? When Porter talks about verbal aspect, you will immediately note a sharp change in terminology. He says, “In Greek, verbal aspect is defined as a semantic (meaning) category by which a speaker or writer grammaticalizes (i.e. represents a meaning by choice of a word-form) a perspective on an action by the selection of a particular tense-form in the verbal system.” But his three aspects differ from what has been said before. He lists the “perfective aspect” (aorist), the “imperfective aspect” (present, imperfect) and the “stative aspect” (perfect and plu-perfect). He also includes his notion that temporal values do not coincide with verbal aspect alone, but depend on other elements in the language. Just to prove the point, he then lists examples where the different “tenses” representing past, present, timeless and future action to show that aspect is key and temporal notions are not. Now obviously, this book completely blows the other grammars out of the water in regard to this discussion, but the comparison wasn’t really meant to be even. (1) This is more a “reference” or better an intermediate grammar than an introductory one, and so one can and should expect a more thorough discussion. (2) Furthermore, this book is written by one of the names in the verbal aspect discussion, so you would expect a lot on the subject. But also, it retails for over $60 which is at least $30 too much.

Conclusion)

Campbell’s book seeks to fill a huge void, and I believe I have indicated that there is truly a huge void. His book is intended as an accessible textbook, both in terms of level and price and is also intended “as a supplemental text in both beginning and advanced Greek courses”. I believe it is wrong to fault beginning grammars too strongly for not giving adequate treatment to the verbal aspect debate (though giving no treatment at all would definitely deserve dismissal). When the focus of the book is on introducing morphological forms and basic grammatical features of the language, there simply isn’t time to get into all the nitty-gritty. Intermediate grammars should help fill this gap, but especially until Wallace’s book, there was a major lack of quantity and quality in that department. (Most students end up picking up the nuances of the language by reading commentaries (or their English translation) and the like rather than reading a textbook.)

Now this is not to say that Campbell’s book is without difficulties or that Campbell presents the final (and correct) view on verbal aspect. That is definitely not his goal and his work should not be judged by that criterion. The intention of this book is to be a primer on verbal aspect for non-specialists. In that respect, it is a success. Campbell knows his book is written in a changing sea of academia. He knows his views are not undisputed. Often he alerts the reader to the fact that he is either speaking from his own unique hypothesis about the language or else informs you that another is doing the same. His references to others who are taking part in the discussion on verbal aspect are occasionally present in the footnotes, but what is noticeably absent (and sorely missing!) is a (brief) bibliography on the topic. To his credit, however, he does give an introduction to the literature and figures who have played a role in the conversation of the history of verbal aspect, which almost makes up for the lack of bibliography, but not quite.

Well that’s more than enough for this post. The goal was merely to further underscore the fact that a book on verbal aspect is a great resource because it fills a gap that needed to be filled. I give a strong thumbs up for the book on this regard alone. This book won’t be the final word on the subject, but for many, this will be their first introduction to the world of verbal aspect. Hopefully it will lead to more development and other authors to offer similar types of books or, at the very least, bring the verbal aspect debate into the mainstream so that it is not such a foreign topic when authors of introductory grammars write about it.

Spruce up your comments with
<a href="" title=""><abbr title=""><acronym title=""><b><blockquote cite=""><cite><code><del datetime=""><em><i><q cite=""><strike><strong>
All comments are moderated before being shown * = required field

Leave a Comment