Present or past verb tenses?

by K.W. Leslie, 15 August

So, somebody finally noticed.

Whenever I study the bible, I don’t study an English translation; I look at an original-text version, like the Biblia Hebraica or Masoretic Text; the Novum Testamentum Graece or Textus Receptus or Tyndale House GNT or Codex Sinaiticus. (Yeah, I own a lot of Accordance modules.) And in order to best understand the original, and best convey what I think it’s saying, I translate it myself. I’ve written before about why I do this—and for those people who get paranoid about anyone other than “official” translators, why it’s okay for me to do so.

A correspondent recently noticed in my translations, I use the present tense most of the time. It’s not “Jesus went to synagogue and sat up front,” but “Jesus goes to synagogue and sits up front.” He wanted to know: Why’d I choose to “alter the text” this way? Was I trying to create an artificial sense of urgency, or remind us Jesus’s actions and teachings still apply to the present? Well, whatever my reasoning, he didn’t figure it was at all appropriate to rejigger the bible so I could make my points.

I wasn’t actually trying to make a point by my choice of verb tenses. I use present tense because the writers of the gospels used present tense. Wasn’t my idea.

So why do most bibles not use the present tense? Because for the longest time, English-speakers didn’t understand how to translate the aorist tense. It’s not a verb tense we have in English, and most Greek translators simply make it past tense.

English verbs always indicate when the action takes place. Past tense indicates it happened before now (“I drank my coffee”), present indicates it’s happening right now (“I drink my coffee”), future indicates after now (“I will drink my coffee”), and all our other verb tenses are just nuances of past, present, and future. Time is always, always, a part of English verbs. Can’t get away from it.

In today’s Greek, the aorist tense is a past perfect tense: “I have drank my coffee.” But in ancient Greek it was time-neutral. The word ἀόριστος/aóristos means “no boundary”—not determined, not defined, not certain; it indicates nothing. The action takes place… but when it takes place is not inherent in the verb. Could be past. Could also be present. Or future.

It’s a timeless verb tense. No that doesn’t mean it exists outside of time, like ancient philosophers imagined God exists. Everything in creation exists inside time. Aorist simply is, like I said, time-neutral. Ancient Greek-speakers didn’t care to indicate when something happened or happens or will happen. They were only speaking or writing about something which exists. Came in handy when the Greeks shared myths about “long long ago and far far away.”

So if you have a writing which is full of aorist-tense verbs, how do you know when it took place? Well if it’s history, like the gospels, obviously it’s stuff which happened in the past. And that’s why nearly all translators tend to turn Greek aorist-tense verbs into English past-tense verbs. The life and teachings of Jesus did happen in the past, so it’s not wrong to turn the verbs which describe ’em into past tense.

But is it accurate? And there, I’d disagree with these other translators. Aorist tense doesn’t automatically mean past tense. It’s neutral.

How then do we un-neutralize it? Context: We look at the other verbs in the writing which do indicate time, and we apply those verbs’ tenses to all the aorist verbs in the sentence or paragraph. And as you can probably guess by now, most of the non-aorist verbs in the gospels are (drumroll, please)… present tense.

“Watch out. Don’t be misled.”

by K.W. Leslie, 14 August

Mark 13.3-6, Matthew 24.3-5, Luke 21.7-8.

Previously:
  • “The Olivet Discourse: The temple’s destruction, and preterism.” Mk 13.1-2, Mt 24.1-2, Lk 21.5-6
  • Nope, not talking about Christian nationalism today. Although good gracious, it surely feels like American Christianity has been utterly misled by power-hungry Sadducees who don’t know the Holy Spirit, and don’t know how to do anything with bible other than misquote and mangle it. But I suspect it mostly feels this way because of the company I keep.

    Anyway, enough ranting about that. Today’s passage isn’t about our present-day drama anyway. The Olivet Discourse is almost entirely about the first century, and very little touches upon the second coming. Primarily it’s about what that generation of Christians would experience within four decades of Jesus saying this.

    It began during Holy Week in the year 33, when Jesus was in temple and people commented on how nicely the fourth temple’s construction was coming along. Jesus’s reply was there “won’t be stone upon stone which won’t be pulled down.” Lk 21.6 KWL

    Which stunned Jesus’s hearers. This isn’t at all part of the popular first-century Pharisee teachings about the End Times. In most of the rabbis’ timelines, Messiah came to Jerusalem, worshiped God at temple, then turn round and conquer the world. (Most Darbyists have pretty much duplicated the general Pharisee scenario—but swapped out Messiah for the Beast, who they claim will pettily desecrate a still-has-yet-to-be-built sixth temple instead of worshiping there. Where’s this warped idea come from? Well, we’ll get to that.)

    Okay. So pulling the temple down is a big, big deal. It’s as if someone blew up the world trade center of a Mammonist country. You wanna cut the heart out of every devout Judean, no matter their denomination? This’d be how.

    Understandably Jesus’s students wanted to know where on earth this falls within the End Times timeline. ’Cause they unthinkingly expected things to play out the way Pharisees taught. Since Messiah himself says it’s not gonna be the way, okay; how does it work? Luke makes it sound like they questioned Jesus right there, but Mark and Matthew say it was on Olivet Hill east of the temple. Mark also says only four of ’em asked, while the other eight were… I dunno, off playing soccer or something.

    Mark 13.3-6 KWL
    3 While sitting himself at Olivet Hill opposite the temple,
    Simon Peter, James, John, and Andrew
    are asking Jesus privately,
    4 “Tell us when these things will be.
    What’s the sign when all these things should end?”
    5 Jesus begins to tell them,
    “Watch out lest someone mislead you all:
    6 Many will come in my name saying, ‘I’m Messiah,’
    and will mislead many.”
     
    Matthew 24.3-5 KWL
    3 While sitting himself upon Olivet Hill,
    the students came to Jesus on their own,
    saying, “Tell us when these things will be.
    What’s the sign of your second coming,
    and the end of this age?
    4 In reply, Jesus tells them,
    “Watch out lest someone mislead you all:
    5 Many will come in my name saying, ‘I’m Messiah,’
    and will mislead many.”
     
    Luke 21.7-8 KWL
    7 They inquired of Jesus, saying, “Teacher,
    so when will these things be?
    What’s the sign when all these things should happen?”
    8 Jesus says,
    “Watch out. Don’t be misled:
    People will come in my name saying, ‘I’m Messiah,’
    and ‘The time has come.’
    You ought not follow them.”

    Okay. The most obvious sign the Olivet Discourse is about the first century, and neither our present nor the time before a future great tribulation, is right here in Jesus’s first warning of the discourse. “Don’t be misled; people are gonna come in my name and claim they’re Messiah.”

    “Only an ‘evil, adulterous generation’ seeks God-experiences.”

    by K.W. Leslie, 11 August

    Let’s start with the Jesus quotes.

    Matthew 12.38-40 KJV
    38 Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. 39 But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: 40 for as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
     
    Matthew 16.1-4 KJV
    1 The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. 3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? 4 A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed.

    These are among various bible passages Christians will trot out as evidence we should never, ever seek God-experiences. Only an “evil, wicked, adulterous generation” demands such a sign.

    I’ve heard many a cessationist similarly insist only faithless, cowardly, glory-seeking egomaniacs or mysticism-seeking occultists would dare insist on actually seeing God in action. These people need to stop looking for miracles, crack open a bible, and trust God’s word. You want miracles? Read about those miracles. Stop trying to experience God, and be satisfied with miracle-tales from God’s book. Stop asking for personal revelation, and be satisfied with the logical conclusions of our very best Christian apologists.

    After you die, or after the rapture, you’ll get to see miracles. Not before!

    Now, is this really what Jesus means by his statements to the Pharisees? Does he really expect us to no longer have any real interaction with him anymore? Is the only reason he placed his Holy Spirit within us because we need that warm inner glow whenever we read bible?

    If you’ve read enough of this blog, you’ve already guessed I’m gonna say no.

    Finding the pony.

    by K.W. Leslie, 10 August

    One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite jokes was about two little boys. One was an extreme optimist; everything was just wonderful! The other an extreme pessimist; everything was just the worst.

    A psychiatrist was asked to tone ’em down a little—not make ’em not optimistic nor pessimistic, but just less extreme. So he put the pessimist a room full of toys, and put the optimist in a room full of horse manure.

    He came back in a few hours to see how the boys were doing. He found the pessimist sitting in the middle of the room, playing with nothing, crying because he was afraid he’d break the toys if he even touched them. As for the optimist, he found the boy up to his armpits, furiously digging away at it: “With all this poop, there’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!”

    I use the term “finding the pony” to describe the process of looking for something, anything, good and valuable in a bad sermon. ’Cause sometimes I gotta do it.

    When I go church-shopping, the first thing I look for is friendly people. After that, I want leadership who knows what they’re doing. The music pastor has to know how to sing, maybe play an instrument, and knows more than 10 songs—or at least has us worship to more than 10. The board has to know how to handle charitable works, the church’s ministries, and the infrastructure—and remember charity comes first, not expenses. The pastor has to know how to counsel people, and if the pastor also preaches (and they almost always do) has to do their homework: Don’t just wing it through a sermon, but study that bible.

    First church I visited when I moved to town: Pastor didn’t do his homework. It was obvious. I later found out he was going through a heavy family crisis, so I can understand not having the time to do homework—but man, if that’s happening to you, have someone else in your church preach! If there’s nobody else in your church you can trust with the preaching, borrow the pastor of another church. But don’t preach when you’re not ready.

    My church’s usual preachers are really good about doing their homework. I rarely have to dig for the pony. But every once in a great while, we’ll have a guest speaker who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about. Or I’ll visit another church, go to a conference, or some other circumstance will obligate me to sit through a badly-researched sermon full of dross instead of silver.

    “Why pray?”—a common question of those who don’t listen to God.

    by K.W. Leslie, 09 August

    When you’re dealing with children or newbies, at some point they’re gonna have this question. (If they never do… well I’ll get to that in a moment.)

    CHILD. “Got a question.”
    ADULT. “Fire away.”
    CHILD. “God can read my mind, right?”
    ADULT. “Yep.”
    CHILD. “Like everything in my mind? Everything I want? Everything I think I want, and everything I really, deep down, won’t even admit to myself I really want?”
    ADULT. “Wow, that’s really astute of you to recognize you have secret inner desires.”
    CHILD. “I’m young, not stupid. So he knows all that?”
    ADULT. “Yep.”
    CHILD. “So why do I need to tell him that?”

    There’s also the related question of, “Why should I ask God for things to happen when he’s already set the future?” In general, the question is, “Why pray at all?”

    Christians have come up with a number of answers to these questions. I’ve heard ’em all my life. We actually think they’re good answers. But all of them utterly miss something: Why is this child or newbie asking this question?

    Does a child ever ask, “What’s the point in asking Mom for things?” Rarely. They might, if Mom is mentally ill and her only responses to requests are toxic and terrifying. If they gotta defend themselves every time they make the mistake of reaching out to their mother, they’re quickly gonna learn this is a bad idea. But clearly that’s not what’s happening with God! He doesn’t respond to our prayers by smiting us.

    So… how is he responding to their prayers, if they’re now coming to us with the question, “Why pray at all?”

    To me, the only reasonable explanation is they don’t think he is responding. That’s why they have questions about the purpose of prayer: They can’t hear God.

    The Olivet Discourse: The temple’s destruction, and preterism.

    by K.W. Leslie, 07 August

    Mark 13.1-2, Matthew 24.1-2, Luke 21.5-6.

    In the synoptic gospels there’s a narrative we Christians have historically called the Olivet Discourse, named for Olivet Hill (KJV “the mount of Olives”) where Jesus told his students about the near future and his second coming.

    Christians spend a lot of time analyzing and discussing it. For good reason; we wanna know about the second coming! (And want it to happen sooner rather than later.) We wanna know the future. We wanna know our futures. Should we make grand plans for our lives, or is the great tribulation gonna get in the way?

    I grew up in churches which had adopted the Darbyist view of the End Times. It’s a futurist interpretation of the scriptures: It insists everything in the bible about the End Times takes place in our future, and none of it has yet happened. Yeah okay, there might be historical events which look like they fulfilled it, but they didn’t really. Darbyists have a timeline of the seven years before Jesus returns, and End Times prophecies are only to fit within that timeline. Anybody who claims otherwise is, depending on the zeal of the individual Darbyist, either naïve, seriously wrong, heretic, or secretly working for the Beast and intentionally trying to lead us astray. Feels like it’s usually that last one.

    Thing is, when I grew up and studied history, I quickly came to the conclusion the historical events which look like they fulfilled it… in a ludicrously obvious way, do fulfill it. Everything Jesus said would happen, did. (Except his actual second coming. ’Cause come on.) That’s why the Holy Spirit inspired the gospel authors to include this lesson in their books: The gospels were written, and widely circulated, less than a decade before these events happened. Which meant Christians were ready for these events to happen, got out of the way, and could point out to every pagan around this proves Jesus knows the future. It’s a mighty useful evangelistic tool.

    Of course people of our day don’t know ancient history, so of course this goes right over our heads.

    We Christians who believe the Olivet Discourse was fulfilled in the first century, and that most of the stuff in Revelation was also fulfilled by the second century, are called preterist 'prɛd.ər.ɪst —a word that’s related to the grammar word preterite, “past tense.” Some nitpickers call us “partial preterists,” because we don’t claim the second coming has also already happened. Yeah, on very rare occasion you’re gonna find a “full preterist” who does believe it—who claims Jesus appearing to John in Revelation somehow counts as his second coming. It doesn’t. Nor does “pretrist” automatically mean “full preterist”: It only means we believe the bulk of the bible’s End Times prophecies were fulfilled, so the only things yet to come are Jesus’s return, probably the millennium, and New Earth. Contrary to Darbyist fearmongers, there are no seven years of mayhem delaying his return.

    If you wanna know about the events Jesus predicts in his Olivet Discourse, I refer you to the very useful Bellum Judaicum/“The Judean War,” written by Flavius Josephus in the years 75 to 79. He’s an eyewitness to when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70, and tells of it in gory detail. William Whiston’s translation is in the public domain, and is a bit of a slog to get through; there are better ones. I’m partial to G.A. Williamson’s The Jewish War for Penguin Classics.

    Abraham’s faith.

    by K.W. Leslie, 04 August
    Galatians 3.5-6 KWL
    5 The one who provides the Spirit to all of you,
    who works acts of power among you—
    does he do this out of you working the Law,
    or out of hearing and trusting?
    6 Likewise Abraham “trusted God,
    and God credited him with righteousness.” Ge 15.6
    Previously:
  • “By Law we’re good as dead—so live for Jesus!” Ga 2.17-21
  • “How’d you get from grace to legalism?” Ga 3.1-4
  • Figured I should also throw in the relevant passage Paul quoted. It’s specifically about the LORD promising Avram ben Terah a land and descendants. Thing is, Avram was more than 75 years old, his wife was only a year younger than he, and though he was quite wealthy by ancient standards, he had no biological nor adoptive children. His patriarchy would have to pass down to one of his slaves.

    Genesis 15.1-8 KWL
    1 After these words,
    the LORD’s Word was given to Avram in a vision,
    to say, “No fear, Avram. I’m your shield.
    Your compensation will be great.”
    2 Avram said, “Master LORD, what did you give me?
    I’ve gone childless.
    The ‘son’ who will someday possess my house
    is this Damascene, Eliezer.”
    3 Avram said, “Look at me!
    You don’t give seed, and look:
    The ‘son’ of my house is my heir.”
    4 Look, the LORD’s Word to Abram said,
    “This is not your heir.
    For one who comes out of your own guts—
    he is your heir.”
    5 The LORD brought Abram outside,
    and said, “Now look at the skies.
    Tally the stars—if you are able to tally them.
    The LORD told him, “Your seed is like this.”
    6 Avram trusted in the LORD,
    and the LORD credited him with righteousness.

    The apostles point to this proof text more than once. Because they knew—because everybody in ancient Israel knew—it’s foundational to the LORD’s covenantal relationship with Avram. As you likely know, this man was later renamed Abraham, and is the ancestor of pretty much the entire middle east. And of course the Abrahamic religions of Hebraism/Pharisaism/Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    How’d you get from grace to legalism?

    by K.W. Leslie, 03 August
    Galatians 3.1-4 KWL
    1 Oh you unthinking Galatians.
    Who mixed up your heads [to not believe truth]?
    It was written Christ Jesus had been crucified.
    Didn’t you read this with your own eyes?
    2 I want to learn only this from you:
    Do you receive the Spirit by working the Law,
    or by hearing and trusting?
    3 So you’re not thinking:
    Beginning with the Spirit,
    do you now perfect yourselves by the flesh?
    4 Have you suffered so much for nothing?
    —if it really is nothing.
    Previously:
  • “By Law we’re good as dead—so live for Jesus!” Ga 2.17-21
  • This passage is notorious for beginning, “O foolish Galatians,” Ga 3.1 KJV as if Paul has had it with them; these stupid whites are totally botching the gospel! But let’s not project our own impatient attitudes upon Paul. The word Paul used is ἀνόητοι/anóhiti, “not [using one’s] mind” or “not thinking.” Yeah, it regularly gets translated as “foolish” or “stupid,” since those things are obvious opposites of wisdom. But Paul didn’t use the usual words for stupidity because he’s emphasizing how they’ve not thought things through. There’s a step missing in their thought process, and it’s the usual step missing in all legalistic thinking.

    When the LORD first made contact with Abraham or saved the Hebrews from Egypt, or when Jesus first chose students by the Galilee or stopped Paul enroute to Damascus, did he do any of these things because these were such good people? Had they achieved a certain level of righteousness through carefully observing the Law?—one which our Lord was obligated to respond to, because they had so many heavenly Brownie points? Is good karma how God determines worthiness?

    Nope; the entry point into God’s kingdom begins by God doing something incredibly gracious, and us seeing or hearing the good news of it, and trusting him to save us the rest of the way. Salvation comes by God, not our own righteousness. And this righteousness comes by faith, not works—it’s only faith.

    So how on earth could such people become Christian by grace through faith… and then backslide into the pagan belief we retain our standing with God through good works?

    Same way everybody else backslides into legalism: Karma-based thinking is everywhere. Simply everywhere. Humanity’s collectively got it into our heads that we’re saved by doing more good deeds than bad, and made this a central teaching of just about all our religions and philosophies. It’s a belief we’re very comfortable with—and regularly judge other people by. And even though Christianity teaches otherwise, it’s so easy to fall back on that core belief: I’m a good person because I do good deeds, and good people go to heaven.

    And we insert that idea right back into the gospel. Where it absolutely doesn’t belong.

    Let the church not say amen.

    by K.W. Leslie, 02 August

    Ever been in this situation? You’re at some Christian function, somebody’s leading the group in prayer, and whatever they’re praying is something you don’t agree with. Might be something you’re not all that sure about; might be something you really can’t abide.

    No I don’t just mean they’re committing one of those annoying prayer practices, like praying too long, or preaching a big ol’ sermon disguised as a prayer, or saying “like” way too many times, or getting repetitive. You disagree with the content of the prayer. They’re praying for what they shouldn’t.

    Sometimes it’s stuff which’ll rub our politics the wrong way. “Oh Lord, re-elect our mayor! She’s a good woman, and that other guy is an idiot.” Heck, it might even rub our politics the right way—that other guy is an idiot—but we know better than to turn our group prayers into political endorsements, because God’s church must promote God’s kingdom, not earthly kingdoms. So we gotta reject the political stuff, whether it’s candidates, party platforms, political pundits’ talking points, and anything which might unnecessarily alienate the opposition party. (If you’re not sure about the difference between an issue we really should pray about, or something intentionally divisive, talk with the Holy Spirit and other Christians about it beforehand.)

    Sometimes it’s bad theology. Or ideas based on misinterpreted, out-of-context scriptures. “Lord, I know you’ll give us what we ask because your word won’t return void,” even though none of what they prayed was his word (and it doesn’t even mean that). Or assumptions about how some evil we’re praying against was part of God’s plan all along, or name-it-and-claim-it demands, or statements about God’s character which actually go against his character.

    Or it’s bad fruit. Anger, hatred, separatism, envy, justification for evil behavior, self-righteousness. Sometimes they think an authentic God-experience needs to be an emotional one, so they’re unnecessarily whipping up people’s emotions into a lather. Sometimes they’re babbling like pagans. Stuff the prayer leader should clamp down on… except sometimes this is the prayer leader.

    So at the end of this rant prayer, they’ll say “Amen.” Custom in most churches for everybody else to repeat the amen, ’cause their prayer is our prayer. Or we agree with what they prayed for. Amen, you might recall, means “true; we agree; let it be so; so say we all; let their prayer be ours.” We’re at least okay with them praying that.

    But you’re not okay with it.

    And y’know, that’s fine. If you object to the prayer, you don’t have to say amen. Say nothing.

    Those who fear deconstruction. Or really any scrutiny.

    by K.W. Leslie, 01 August

    I wrote about deconstruction last month; it’s the practice of taking apart one’s beliefs so as to understand them better. It’s something Christians oughta do all the time… though it feels to me like most of us only ever do it when we’re in the middle of a faith crisis.

    More than likely that’s the reason for the pushback I’ve received about that article. I keep hearing from people who insist I should never, ever, EVER encourage Christians to dabble in deconstruction. EVER.

    You’d think I told them to read the Harry Potter novels. What’s with the freakouts? Why are so many Christians terrified of deconstruction? Why do so many of you worry Christianity can’t hold up to serious scrutiny? Do you think deep down it’s a house of cards? Do you believe deep down it might not be true?—that the bible’s fiction, the apostles were liars, Jesus never existed, every miracle you’ve ever seen was self-delusion, every conversation you’ve had with God was just you and your mental sock puppet? Have you been faking your faith in God all along?

    ’Cause I’m pretty sure that’s at the core of all the worries over deconstruction: Y’all are only playing at Christianity, because you find the playacting to be convenient. But deep down, you’re already fully aware you’ve got it wrong, or are doing it wrong. You don’t wanna expose to yourself your beliefs are all hypocrisy; it’d mean you have to follow Jesus for real, and you’d much rather play ignorant on Judgment Day. The ignorance defense oughta work, right? “But Lord, I had no idea I got it wrong! But you do grace, right?”

    Matthew 7.22-23 Message
    22 “I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ 23 And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’ ”

    Jesus absolutely does grace—for those who are making an effort, not dodging reality. For those who take him seriously, not those who don’t, and hope to be saved anyway. For those who truly don’t know any better, not those who feign ignorance, and fear deconstruction because it’ll expose their dark deeds and ideas to the light.

    Christianity, and Christ Jesus especially, can easily withstand scrutiny, and hold up to analysis. Individual Christians, wayward churches, problematic theologies, and popular teachings, not so much—if at all. They have everything to fear from deconstruction. God doesn’t… and a lot of times he’s the one prompting Christians to doubt some of the foolishness we’ve been taught, and replace it with wisdom. Which we really should’ve been doing all along.