Constantine R. Campbell. Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008. 159pp. $16.99. Reviewed by Matthew Carroll.
Constantine R. Campbell’s Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek, released just this month by Zondervan, is an accessible, affordable, and I believe, invaluable, introduction to the topic of verbal aspect.
I entered seminary with an undergraduate degree in engineering, and no knowledge of Greek aside from the letters of the alphabet my former vocation had appropriated to represent all manner of variables. At seminary, I took an intensive summer introduction to Greek grammar, followed by two semesters of Greek Exegesis. Looking back though, I can’t recall if I learned anything about aspect. So among Campbell’s readers, I consider myself among of the uninitiated.
For my benefit, Campbell responds first to the “So what?” question. Knowledge of verbal aspect is important because it enables one to correct exegetical falacies, not uncommon in commentaries. Positively, it allows one to understand why a particular verb may have been employed in Scripture over against another, opening up rich exegetical insights (11-16).
Campbell defines verbal aspect as the speaker’s or author’s viewpoint on the action of the verb, and holds that there are only two aspects, perfective and imperfective. In the perfective aspect, the speaker views the verb as a whole, in summary, from a distance, with no regard for the details. In the imperfective aspect, the speaker views the verb as if unfolding before his very eyes, with no regard for the beginning or end of the action. The classic example is that of a journalist reporting on a parade. Sitting in a helicopter far above the parade, the reporter would describe the event in the perfective aspect as a whole. Standing on the curb with the parade passing before his eyes, the same reporter would speak in the imperfective aspect of the details of the parade, with no reference to the beginning or end of the parade (19).
Campbell’s book is a necessary addition to our resources on Greek grammar because many of the most trusted works on biblical Greek confound aspect and Aktionart. Aspect is a semantic value built in to the tense-form of the verb, it does not change from one context to another. Aktionart, the “kind of action,” is a pragmatic value that arises from the aspect, the lexeme (the particular word) and the context, so the same verb, in the same tense, may involve a different Aktionart from one context to another (21-25).
Greek tense, Campbell argues, is not primarily a temporal quality as it is in English, but a spatial quality. In other words, speaking in summary of a remote event, the subject would use a verb with the aorist tense-form. The aorist tends therefore to be translated as a past tense in English, but since time is not the most important factor in tense, sometimes context requires us to translate an aorist verb in the present or the future.
The theory of verbal aspect, Campbell explains in Part 1 of his book, and in Part 2, he shows how this plays out in the New Testament text. Both parts of the book yielded a number of good “ah-ha!” moments for me. Campbell uses Luke 9:42-45 to give an example of how perfective and imperfective aspect are employed in narrative. In this case, aorist verbs are employed to provide the main structure of the narrative. The main events described are remote to the narrator, and are presented in summary; Jesus rebuked the demon and healed the boy. But the supplemental information is provided via the imperfect tense, which is similarly remote, but is able to convey unfolding events, in this passage, the people’s reaction to the healing and subsequent fear (44-5).
Campbell deals with each of the tense-forms according to an understanding of aspect in chapters 7 through 9, and then in chapter 10, he deals with participles. I have heard sermons (in fact, I have taught) on Matthew 28:19 that the imperative verb is make disciples, and that go is actually a participle that may be understood “as you are going.” Regarding this verse, Campbell explains how knowledge of aspect requires us to treat this participle as taking on the same imperative mood of make disciples.
“It would be a mistake to render this aorist participle ‘as you go,’ communicating an action that frames the context in which the command ‘make disciples’ is to take place. Instead, as a participle of attendant circumstance, the aorist takes on the full force of the imperative with which it is coordinate. The command is to go and make disciples” (127).
After finishing Constantine R. Campbell’s Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek, I returned and reread Part 1 on Verbal Aspect Theory, and found I filled in a number of remaining gaps in my understanding of aspect. I recommend this book to any student of the Greek Testament, whether you already know the importance of aspect, whether you are looking for a way to freshen up a knowledge of Greek grammar that has grown rusty, or whether, like me, you don’t recall if you ever heard of this before. Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek is an invaluable tool in your Greek study.
Campbell is blogging this week over at Koinonia. Read the blog to sample the content of his book:
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