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.

The missing present tense.

Do something long enough, and people will believe it’s how you’re supposed to do it. It’s how traditions get started. It’s how bible translators got into the practice of translating every aorist verb as past tense. It’s why we find that verb tense all over our English-language bibles.

It’s why, if you have the sort of bible software which also shows you the original language’s grammar, you’ll occasionally notice a past-tense English word comes from a present-tense Greek word. Why’d the translators change it to past tense? Well, all the other verbs in the passage are aorist tense—which they translated, as is their custom, as past tense. So it’d make for awkward English if they dropped a present-tense verb in the middle of all that. Best to make that pesky present-tense verb conform.

Heck, there might be no aorist verbs in the passage. It might be all present tense or imperfect tense verbs, all of which indicate current or continuous action—stuff that’s happening now. But because custom dictates we put bible in the past tense, into the past tense it must go.

John 1.1-5 ESV
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Here’s the thing about this John passage I just quoted: Some of those verbs are past tense. The rest aren’t. Want me to adjust the verb tenses so you see what’s actually going on? Okay then.

1 In the beginning [is being] the Word, and the Word [is being] with God, and the Word [is being] God. 2 He [is being] in the beginning with God. 3 All things [are being*] made through him, and without him [is*] not any thing [being made*] that [had been] made. 4 In him [is being] life, and the life [is being] the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness [does*] not overcome it.

The asterisks indicate aorist verbs—which are neutral, so they gotta adopt the verb tenses of the other verbs around them. Hence I made the aorist verbs in verse 3 take on the imperfect verb tenses of verses 1-2, and the aorist verb in verse 5 takes on the present-tense verb which precedes it.

So… y’notice how this rather well-known passage of the bible is a lot more present-tense than it’s been traditionally translated? In fact we’d all agree it’s a lot more accurate to say “the Word is God,” rather than “the Word was God.” But, y’know, custom.

Me, I care more about accuracy than custom. So if the scriptures are best translated in the present tense, it’s what I’m gonna do. If this offends you, I don’t mean to, but I’m still gonna prioritize accuracy.