On Porter’s View of the Greek Verb, Part III

This is Part III of a four part series discussing my view of Stanley Port’er work on Verbal Aspect in Greek. The following are my four posts. The focus on this discussion will be point three. The following are my four points (which are also here with a little more information):

  1. His thesis that Greek verbs are not temporal is far from being as extreme and as revolutionary as many think (probably including Porter).
  2. If Porter had formed and articulated his thesis in a different manner, more people would have accepted it.
  3. I think Porter’s major monograph is incredibly inconsistent in its use of terminology such as Aspect and Aktionsart.
  4. I think that he’s wrong about the aspectaul vagueness of the “Future tense-form.” It should be viewed as Perfective.

What does this mean? It basically means that 1) while there is more to be said for old grammars than Porter appears to suggest, 2) there is also still much to do and 3) Koine Greek linguistic studies still must get past Comparative Philology as its linguistic model while also recognizing its important contributions. Porter and Moulton have much in common, particularly that they are/were both linguists. 100 years ago, nearly everyone who wrote Greek grammar had studied linguistics we need to get back to that point today. Not all the questions have been answered and some of them need to be asked again.

What follows is an elaboration of point #3 (my discussion of points 1-2 is HERE and Part IV’s discussion of point #4, see HERE).

Point #3

I discussed this a bit already in my discussion of verbal aspect from my review of MHT, but I thought I should say something more and actually document exactly what I’m talking about. I argued previously that what Porter missed was that Aktionsart for the the early twentieth century linguistics (including Moulton) was the very same thing as Aspect. Often times its difficult to see whether he’s aware of this or not. He writes,

Determining Aktionsart is an attempt to define objectively the kind of action conveyed by the verb. Therefore such terms as punctual iterative, terminative, cursive, perfective, linear, are used (Porter, 33).

But other than this assertion, he gives no evidence that this was actually the case for the old grammarians. And when we read the actual grammars, its hard to see how it could be the case. I’d like to show you the discussions of two other Greek scholars and Porter’s comments about them.

Robertson’s Big Grammar

Since we already discussed Moulton back in my review of his grammar, we’ll first examine A. T. Robertson instead. Regarding aktionsart, he writes:

There were originally two verb-types, the one denoting durative or linear action, the other momentary or punctiliar action. Hence some verbs have two roots, one linear (durative), like φέρω (fero), the other punctiliar (momentary), like ἤνεγκον (tuli). So ὁράω, εἶδον; τολμάω, ἔτλην. With other verbs the distinction was not drawn sharply, the root could be used either way (cf. φη-μί, ἔ-φη-ν; λέγ-ω, ἔ-λεγ-ο-ν) (Robertson, 823).

On the one hand Robertson’s use of language such as “denote” when discussing aktionsart might suggestion that he is definitely thinking only of “objective action.” But what suggests to me otherwise is that in the very same paragraph he writes, “the root could be used either way.” There are a couple key words in that little clause. One of them is “could,” which definitely denotes potentiality rather than objective reality. The other key word is “used” “The root could be used” in either a punctiliar/perfective or a linear/imperfective manner. Now that sounds a whole lot like its the author’s choice as to how a give root is used, which is exactly what Porter’s definition of aspect says:

Greek verbal aspect is a synthetic semantic category … used …  grammaticalize the author’s reasoned subjective choice (Porter 88; my italics).

But going back to Robertson, if its the author’s choice about how a root can be used, then its not a matter of objective “kind of action.” I might suggest that much of the problem (and much of the “abuse of the aorist,” to borrow Stagg’s phrase) is a direct result of interpreting literally technical terminology. That is to say, the German word aktionsart, while it does mean “kind of action,” was a technical term in 1900’s grammar and linguistics. And thus, the fact that the literal definition suggests a sort of “objective action” does not require it to be used in such a way – even when a grammarian provides the literal translation as both Moulton and Robertson did.

But that is also not to say that they didn’t use it that way, in the same quotation from Robertson above, it is clear that Robertson uses the term aktionsart to refer to lexical aspect as well. This is where Silva’s perspective referenced in my review of MHT come into play. Thus, rather clearly in my opinion, the older early twentieth century grammarians got it right on verbal aspect in a number of ways. They aren’t perfect, but they’re not as wrong as Porter appears to suggest.

C. F. D. Moule & his Idiom Book of New Testament Greek:

This leads me to C. F. D. Moule. Porter is relatively favorable in discussing him because of Moule’s definitions are much more obviously in line with his own perspective. But even still Porter misses what is probably the clearest evidence that aktionsart and aspect have been used to refer to the same thing–Or more precisely, that aktionsart has been used both in the way Porter usese it (lexical aspect) and also in the way he uses the term aspect. Porter writes,

Moule defines “kind of action” as a morphologically-based category wihch captures the writer’s conception of the action…. Unfortunately, he labels this Aktionsart (not aspect) and lists three Aktionsarten: linear, punctiliar, and perfect (Porter, 58).

And if we actually pick up and read Moule’s discussion, we see that Porter either missed or did not consider it as necessary to mention Moule’s additional notes (added in the back of the second edition) to Moule’s discussion where he says,

“See the valuable criticism of this term [Aktionsart], in favor of aspect, by J. P. Smith in Verbum Domini, XXXIII (1955), 54f” (Moule, 202).

Simply put, if Moule had writtn the first edition of his grammar after 1955, he more than likely would have used the term aspect rather than aktionsart.

But Moule’s extended discussion also deserves some discussion, a discussion that put the nail in the coffin in my opinion. This is because Moule used the word “Aktionsart” with a clearly aspectual definition, more clearly than Robertson did.

… [A]nother consideration appears to have presented itself first–namely the nature of the event, or … the Aktionsart. Generally speaking, the first question that the Greek writer seems to ask himself is not ‘When did (or will) this happen?’ but ‘Am I conceiving of it as protracted or as virtually instantaneous?’ (Moule, 5 my emphasis in bold).

Moule’s perspective is essential and significant, especially because he began his study of Greek at a very early age. Anyone whose uncle was the Bishop of Durham, H.C.G Moule, would be expected to study the Greek rather early. He won a classical scholarship to Cambridge in 1927 (at the age of 19) and then “securing Firsts in both parts of the Classical Tripos and winning the Jeremie Septuagint and Evans prizes and the Crosse scholarship.” Because his study of Greek goes back to the peak of the comparative philology that formed a basis for both Moulton and Robertson’s grammars, the fact that he defines aktionsart in essentially the same way Porter defines aspect is highly important.

But could it simply be that Moule’s view of aktionsart developed and changed between the 1920’s and when his Idiom Book was first published in in 1953? This is highly unlikely for a couple reasons. For one,  if his view of the verb changed from an objective expression of action to the subjective choice of the author in the intervening years, it must then be asked why he continued to use the term aktionsart. Using the same term would only confuse his readers. But even more important is the fact that in the same paragraph and very next sentence after he gives his definition of aktionsart as the author’s conception of action, he quotes Moulton’s Prolegomena approvingly.

Moulton has represented this pictorially by popularizing the terms ‘linear’ and ‘punctiliar’ to denote the two chief contrasted types of action–protracted like a line and focused into a point.

These words suggests that Moule believed that Moulton considered aktionsart to be the that same author’s subjective choice. And on the basis of my discussions above of Robertson and Moulton in my review, it seems only right that we should give Moulton that same reading Moule did.


I have attempted in the above paragraphs, by means of textual and historical evidence, to show that at the beginning of the twentieth century, the term aktionsart was used to refer to both lexical and morphological aspect. This fact is Porter’s chief failing in his historical discussion of aktionsart and aspect studies as he surveys the grammars of past centuries. But it is not only Porter’s failing. Its everyone’s. I mentioned in pasing Stagg’s article on the Aorist and its abuse by many exegetes. The aorist’s abuse was also a result of this failing. As NT students and scholars of NT Greek lost connection with the rest of the Linguistic world because of the false assumption by many that there was nothing else to be done missunderstanding of terminology and description arose.

The main point to take away from all of this discussion is that the old grammars should still be used and read. They are still incredibly valuable with many years of language study behind them. But they should also be read in their own historical context, especially when it comes to special and technical terminology. Only then will we understand them as they intended.

13 thoughts on “On Porter’s View of the Greek Verb, Part III

  1. Yes, when I was writing this I went back and read your post about him and also that of Dan Wallace.

    And just to let know you ahead of time, I have a Russian question that I’m going to e-mail you about…

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