Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek

By Constantine R. Campbell
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2008). 160 Pages.

Reviewed by
21.1 (Spring 2010) : 108-111

A work such as this has been greatly needed for some time. Verbal aspect has become increasingly prominent in the study of Greek grammar and NT interpretation over the last twenty years. The two works most responsible for bringing this field of study to the attention of exegetes were the monographs of Stanley Porter and Buist Fanning (Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood [Peter Lang, 1989] and Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek [Clarendon, 1990], respectively). Many Greek teachers were trained before these books were published, so their teaching may not reflect the new understanding of Greek verbs found in the two works. Most of the remaining teachers were trained by such teachers, so they may have had only minimal (if any) exposure to verbal aspect. Thus, the exegetes trained by any of these have had a corresponding lack of exposure to aspect theory. However, discussions of verbal aspect will be found in an increasing number of theological books, commentaries, and journal articles. Therefore, Greek teachers, students, and pastors need a bridge between their traditional education and the modern approaches.

Campbell wrote his book to provide such a bridge. Both Porter’s and Fanning’s monographs are slight revisions of their doctoral dissertations, whose technical nature and high prices make them inaccessible to most students of the NT. Campbell’s work, however, is affordable and readable. He has simplified the material enough so that a newcomer can grasp the concepts, but in doing so, he has not sacrificed accuracy. Moreover, Campbell is a gifted writer, which greatly facilitates the reader’s understanding of the material.

Campbell, who is lecturer in Greek and New Testament at Moore Theological College in Australia, is well-qualified to produce such a work. His doctoral dissertation at Macquarie University dealt with verbal aspect, a revision of which has been published as Verbal Aspect, the Indicative Mood, and Narrative: Soundings in the Greek of the New Testament (Peter Lang, 2007). This monograph is also surprisingly easy to read. Campbell accepts Porter’s theory (contra Fanning) that Greek verbs do not grammaticalize time, even in the indicative (that is, the aorist indicative does not convey past time, the present indicative does not convey present time, etc.). But Campbell is no mere disciple of Porter; he has many unique ideas that contradict both Porter and Fanning at points. Campbell also wrote a second technical monograph dealing with aspect, Verbal Aspect and Non-Indicative Verbs: Further Soundings in the Greek of the New Testament (Peter Lang, 2008). In Basics of Verbal Aspect Campbell is able to avoid technical arguments by referring the reader to his other works. This is an advantage for the reader who wants to understand the issues, but it is a disadvantage for the reader who is looking for reasons to accept Campbell’s approach.

This book divides into two parts. The first five chapters deal with verbal aspect theory in general. Verbal aspect is defined as “viewpoint” (19). An author may view an action from the outside (perfective aspect), or he may view it from the inside (imperfective aspect). Traditional grammars classified the so-called verb tenses (aorist, imperfect, etc.) according to Aktionsart or “kind of action.” However, Campbell claims that Aktionsart is a function of context, while a verb’s form conveys only aspect. Traditional grammars also saw temporal reference as a secondary feature in the indicative, but as mentioned above, Campbell rejects this.

Chapter two offers a brief history of verbal aspect’s rise among Greek scholars, while the next three chapters classify the Greek verb forms. Campbell sees the aorist and future forms as perfective, while the present and imperfect forms are imperfective. The perfect and pluperfect receive a chapter of their own, since their aspectual nature is hotly contested. Porter says that the perfect has a third aspect, which he calls stative. Fanning sees the perfect as perfective, with some additional features as well. Campbell argues that the perfect is actually imperfective.

The second part of the book deals with the exegetical impact of aspect. Campbell examines how the root idea of a verb form (i.e., aspect) interacts with various contextual features to produce different kinds of action. A unique feature of these chapters is the inclusion of exercises (with answers at the back of the book). These are very helpful for understanding how aspect interacts with contextual and lexical features to produce meaning. Thus, this work could serve as a supplemental textbook for a course in Greek exegesis. Of course, if one does not accept Campbell’s approach to verbal aspect, he may find some of the exercises less than helpful.

This reviewer was not fully convinced by Campbell’s approach, especially as it relates to time in the indicative. Even traditional grammarians understood that the tenses did not always convey the same temporal reference. For example, although the aorist indicative was viewed as a past tense, it was recognized that an aorist indicative could refer to the future. In this case, the past tense verb used of a future event conveyed an added level of certainty that the event would indeed occur. Similarly, the present tense could be used of a past event (the historical present). This was understood as a more vivid way to communicate the narrative. Aspect theorists have devised a theory without such exceptions to the general rules of tense usage. However, a theory of language with no exceptions is probably flawed. Any language, Greek in particular, is a complex system which develops over time and depends heavily on the inclinations of the individuals who speak the language. Exceptions are to be expected, and may actually provide insight into an author’s intended meaning. Campbell’s own admission that the future tense actually conveys future time is further evidence of the temporal nature of the other Greek indicative verb forms.

Moreover, if the verb forms convey aspect and there are two aspects, why are there more than two verb forms? Campbell’s answer is the concept of “remoteness.” Thus the present is imperfective with proximity, the imperfect is imperfective with remoteness, the perfect is imperfective with heightened proximity, and the pluperfect is imperfective with heightened remoteness. On the other hand, the aorist is perfective and remote. In this scheme, there is an abundance of imperfective forms, but there is no perfective form indicating proximity or heightened remoteness. Furthermore, if the ideas of proximity and remoteness are so important, why are there fewer verb forms found outside the indicative? It is possible that remoteness was originally part of the Greek verbal system rather than temporal reference. However, Campbell acknowledges that temporal reference is a part of the verbal system of Modern Greek. The question is, When did the verbal system change from remoteness to past time reference? (Campbell asks the same question himself on page 132.) The evidence demonstrates that this process was well under way by the time the NT was written.

On the other hand, an aspectual approach does have some advantages over the traditional Aktionsart approach. The aspectual emphasis on the author’s subjective viewpoint as opposed to the more objective presentation of the action suggested by Aktionsart, is helpful. Aspect theory may also avoid some of the abuses of the traditional approach (such as the fallacy that the aorist always means “once-for- all” action). Anyone interested in the study of the NT should familiarize himself with verbal aspect, and Campbell’s book is an excellent place to start.