Occasional Surveys in the History of Greek Grammar: G. B. Winer (1825)

Georg Benedikt Winer was a German grammarian and theologian from Leipzig, best known for his work, Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Sprachidioms.[1] This grammar was then translated in 1825 under the title, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament.[2] The first edition would quickly grow from just under two under two hundred pages to nearly 900 pages by 1882 with the translation and revision by William F. Moulton. Winer’s work functions as the frame for the majority of our discussion. He stands at both ends of the history of New Testament Greek grammar in English for the 19th century, being the first major grammar translated into the language and an important reference point for the only two reference grammars that originated in English: A. T. Robertson’s A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research and James H. Moulton’s Grammar of New Testament Greek.

The brief length of Winer’s first edition (both in German and English) arises from Winer’s view that New Testament Greek should be treated as merely a subset of Ancient Greek generally.

“A grammar of the New Testament presupposes a general grammar of the Greek language. Consequently the fundamental laws of the Greek language, with the philosophical and historical proof of them, are here omitted. Hence this grammar limits itself, first to the nice and more uncommon grammatical phenomena; particularly to such as are usually regarded as exceptions to the common rules: and secondly to the peculiarities of the New Testament diction, and of the several writers in particular.”[3]

It appears that over time, the value of combining the general rules of Greek with those specifically related to the New Testament was seen viewed as being of high value. And thus each successive edition of Winer was larger than the last. This expansion begins even with the translating into English—though Stuart and Robinson put in significant effort to distinguish their own additions from those of Winer by including smaller type-faced notes in brackets throughout the grammar. These comments sometimes are extensions of statements of Winer, but also are used to voice disagreement on particular issues, which we will see appears a number of times in discussing tense.

The section on tense, as a result of these limits, is rather short, only eight pages. Winer’s discussion of the tenses in relation to each other is representative of this brevity.

“In general, the tenses are used in the same manner as in the Greek writers; vis. the aorist marks simply past time, and is the usual tense of narration; the imperfect and pluperfect are always used in reference to a secondary or subsidiary action or event, which is past, but which stands connected in respect to time with the main action or event; while the perfect expresses past time in connexion with the present.”[4]

From this brief section, we can relate a couple point to contemporary research into tense. First, the general descriptions of the tenses tend to correlate rather well with modern claims about discourse and aspect: the aorist carries the narrative and the imperfect expresses “secondary or subsidiary action[s] or event[s],” which in modern terminology could be stated as Levinsohn does, “[I]n narrative, the imperfect tends to correlate with background information and the aorist with foreground events, because of their inherent nature.”[5] The other point is the relationship between the perfect and the present, which is quite close to the contemporary description of the perfect expressing a past even with ongoing relevance[6] or as a “state or condition resulting from a completed action.”[7]

The rest of Winer’s discussion focuses on specific usages, where it appears that tense are used in the place of others. At this point, it is important to understand statements such as, “The present is sometimes used … for the future”[8] in light of his previous words, “None of these tenses, properly and strictly take, can be substituted for another … but where an exchange of this kind appears to have taken place it is either merely appearance; or else there may generally be discovered … a sufficient reason.”[9] And consistently, what we find in his examples is that this holds true. For example, his discussion of the present being used for the future involves two classes of example citations. The first are those where the propositional content could be expressed in English (and presumably German) with either an English present or an English future. The following texts are representative of this (examples 1-2).

(1) ὁ πιστεύων εἰς τὸν υἱὸν ἔχει ζωὴν αἰώνιον
the one who believes in me has/will have eternal life (John 3:36).

(2) πᾶν οὖν δένδρον μὴ ποιοῦν καρπὸν καλὸν ἐκκόπτεται καὶ εἰς πῦρ βάλλεται
Therefore, every tree that does not produce good fruit is/will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt 3:10).

The second category involves a specific Greek construction common to virtually all languages.[10]: In English this is instantiated with an auxiliary, the participle form of go and the infinitive: The weather is going to be dreary on Tuesday. In Greek, we see a parallel phenomenon with the verb ἔρχομαι ‘I come,’ to express future reference.[11] Winer does not provide any examples, but merely refers to this usage of ἔρχομαι. John 4:35 is representative.

(3) οὐχ ὑμεῖς λέγετε ὅτι ἔτι τετράμηνός ἐστιν καὶ ὁ θερισμὸς ἔρχεται;
Do you not say, “Four months more and then comes the harvest”?

The fact that we can make these distinctions within Winer’s descriptions of the tenses is important in light of future developments. A. T. Robertson, in his introduction, fails to recognize this and criticizes Winer accordingly: “It must be said, however, that great as was the service of Winer to this science, he did not at all points carry out consistently his own principles, for he often explained one tense as used for another.”[12] Robertson clearly does not approve of the “stands for” language of Winer, particularly when Winer criticizes others of doing the same. Perhaps Robertson is justified, but at the very least, we must recognize that Winer’s descriptions are motivated within the language and often imply rather important insights into tense semantics.

Consider one more example of just such an insight. In contemporary research, the view that the perfect is in some way stative has been quickly gaining ground for some time.[13] And the traditional view of a past event with present relevance is becoming more and more rare.[14] But is the traditional perspective as traditional as it initially appears? At this point, Winer’s discussion of the present standing for the perfect is of great interest. “Sometimes the present includes in itself the idea of the perfect or imperfect, viz. when the verb is used to express a continued state or condition, uninterrupted duration, etc.”[15] It is difficult to distinguish how Winer conceives of the perfect, but it more likely involves the first phrase, “a continued state or condition” than the second, “uninterrupted duration.” One of his examples is interesting here.

(4) πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί.
Before Abraham was, I am (John 8:58).

Εἰμί and its status as an inherently stative verb is what should guide the analysis of Winer.[16] Equally important is the fact that when Winer moves to uses of the Perfect, we fine him saying, “The perfect sometimes stands for … the present, when an action or state is designated, which commenced in past time, but extends into the present.”[17] At this point, the basis of Robertson’s criticism becomes rather clear. The circularity of stative presents standing for perfects and stative perfects standing for presents is perplexing. But, despite that, we can definitely see that Winer viewed stativity as being a central piece of the nature of the perfect—thus suggesting that the traditional view isn’t quite as traditional is we initially had thought.[18] At this point in history, it appears that while the concepts are already in place, there are plenty descriptive terminological issues needing to be worked out in order to move from the rather convoluted explanation here to something more precise.


[1] Georg B. Winer, Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Sprachidioms (Leipzig: Vogel: 1822).

[2] Georg B. Winer, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament, trans. Moses Stuart and Edward Robinson (Andover, Massachusetts: Codman Press, 1825).

[3] Winer, Greek Grammar, 10.

[4] Ibid., 102. The inconsistent italics of the names of the verb-form are his. The odd thing about this quote is that the translators add their own initialed comment here stating that the precise opposite. They disagree that the tenses are used in the same manner as the “Greek writers.” However, the translators’ disagreement here does not actually challenge anything in the contents of Winer’s claim. That is to paraphrase Winer: the tenses are used in the same manner as the Greek writers “viz. [i.e. as follows”: the aorist is a simple past used for narration just as it is the in the Greek writers, the imperfect and pluperfect are always used for secondary state of affairs in the past, and the perfect is marks past time in connection or relationship with the present.

[5] Stephen H. Levinsohn, Discourse Features of New Testament Greek: A Coursebook on the Information Structure of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (Dallas, Tex.: SIL International, 2000), 174.

[6] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics and Exegetical Syntax of New Testament Greek (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997), 573.

[7] Fanning, Verbal Aspect, 103.

[8] Winer, Greek Grammar, 104.

[9] Ibid., 102.

[10] Martin Haspelmath, From Space to Time: Temporal Adverbials in the World’s Languages (München: Lincom Europa, 1997), 6.

[11] The relationship between space and time is thoroughly discussed in Haspelmath, cited above, but for discussion of the metaphoric extension from space to time, see Joseph E. Grady, “Metaphor,” in Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, ed. Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 188-213, and the literature cited there.

[12] Robertson, Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 4.

[13] C. M. J Sicking and P. Stork, Two Studies in the Semantics of the Verb in Classical Greek (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 168-70; Porter, Verbal Aspect, 256-259; K. L McKay, A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek (New York: Peter Lang, 1994), 49-50; Martin Haspelmath, “From Resultative to Perfect in Ancient Greek,” in Nuevos Estudios Sobre Construcciones Resultativos, ed. Leza Iturrioz and Luis José (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara, 1992), 187-224; Fanning, Verbal Aspect, 103.

[14] Wallace, Greek Grammar, 573.

[15] Winer, Greek Grammar, 104.

[16] See BDAG, loc. cit.

[17] Winer, Greek Grammar, 105. In this category are clauses like John 20:29, “where the origin of present belief is indicated” (Ibid.): ἑώρακάς με πεπίστευκας; (Have you believed because you have seen me?)

[18] It may be useful here to make a distinction between Winer’s intuitive sense of the meaning of the perfect and his ability to describe it. This is an important distinction that plays a key role in the evaluation of the linguistic claims of native speakers, but is also relevant to those who have attained a high level non-native fluency—something that many of the grammar writers of this era likely achieved.

5 thoughts on “Occasional Surveys in the History of Greek Grammar: G. B. Winer (1825)

  1. Thanks for an interesting post, as usual. This time you have mistaken Wallace’s view if I understood you correctly. He definitely doesn’t accept εἰμί in John 8:58 as a historical present – on the contrary. He doesn’t accept it as an EFPP (extending-from-past present) either, even though that is the most common explanation amongst those who understand John 8:58 as “normal” grammar. You can read even more of his views in http://www.ibiblio.org/bgreek/archives/96-12/0624.html. His understanding of historical present is now outdated (naturally) and I don’t agree with all his points regarding the EFPP construction – about which I would have quite much to say – but in general I think he’s correct.

  2. Yes, you are correct and actually, that little tid-bit is a remainder from an earlier draft that shouldn’t be here. I’ll update the post so that its inline with the most recent version–this post is part of a larger article I’m writing for publication.

    Sorry that fixing it kind of takes the context away from your comment. In the draft I have offline that statement is entirely removed both because I realized I made a mistake in my reading (see page 515 of Wallace, where if you skim you end up reading, “εἰμί, in John 8:58 is a historical present.”) and also because its really not at all relevant to what I’m focusing on here in these historiographical sketches.

    With that said, I do wonder whether the fact that Winer talks about this clause as a “present for a perfect” combined with the misinterpreting the Greek perfect in light of the English perfect eventually led to the proposal by Dennis Light that Wallace talks about on page 530 of his grammar, that argues for the New World Translation’s view of the text as, “I have been.”

    1. Correctness is more important than my context…🙂

      I know nothing more about Light, but Wallace tells Light says it’s historical present, not “present for a perfect”. I don’t think the perfect tense has anything else to do with this than that in this case/context the present tense could be translated with English perfect. Of course presuming that Light is correct about historical present, which he isn’t.

      Turner and McKay take John 8:58 as an EFPP, and as far as I know they are cited by JW’s nowadays.

      1. I don’t know anything else about Light either and JW debates aren’t ones that I follow much either. I just know that Winer has been an influence for them on other fronts (such as the validity of Granville Sharp’s rule).

  3. Great post, Mike. I have only read the later edition of Winer, not being so thorough to trace things back to their origin. Thanks for the summary of his contributions. My epiphany about the importance of reading earlier editions came in reading Thackeray’s translation of Blass after reading BDF ’61. The latter cut out our changed much of his discussion. I was looking for a point that Robertson cited in Blass that was no longer extant in BDF. Looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

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