The Mythology of the “Historical Present”

by David Bentley Hart

I should not take exception, I suppose, if critics occasionally question my choice to render all Greek present tense verbs as English present tense verbs in my recent translation of the New Testament. The same choice was made, as it happens, by Tyndale and by his successors on the committee of scholars who produced the King James Version, but most modern readers are so distracted by the older, non-sibilant form of third person singular constructions that they generally fail to notice that when “Jesus saith” something or “goeth” somewhere he is doing so in a kind of temporally abstract narrative now. As far as I am concerned, this is the only way in which the texts should be rendered. Even so, while I am convinced that those who think otherwise are quite mistaken, I have to admit that they have at least come by their prejudice honestly, since they have been systematically misinformed on the issue all through the years of their theological education. For better than half a century, seminarians and divinity school students and teachers of the New Testament, all of whom typically began their study of Greek some time in their twenties (and then only the Greek of the New Testament texts, as filtered through defective traditions of translation and interpretation), have been indoctrinated with a remarkable quantity of nonsense regarding the use of tenses in Greek historical narratives from late antiquity.

In particular, they have been taught to think that the constant but irregular use of present tense verbs in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John (it occurs very rarely in Luke) is in fact both regular and internally cogent, and merely reflects a system of tenses different from that of modern European languages. They have been instructed as well to believe that, in context, these verbs would not have struck the ears of first-century auditors of the texts as shifts from past to present, incongruous or otherwise. They have also been told that this is a consequence of the way tenses developed in Indo-European tongues: that is, as indices not of the temporal locations of actions, so to speak, but rather of their temporal quality or “action types” (Aktionsarten). Thus, when reading the gospels, we will (or, in theory, should) find that the aorist is used strictly to indicate a punctiliar action, the perfect to indicate (obviously) an action in a perfected state, and the present to indicate an iterative or durative action. That means that the present tense, when used in a narrative of past events, supposedly sometimes has an imperfect force, sometimes is used of actions that continue into the real present, sometimes refers to repeated actions, sometimes describes a “gnomic” activity that is timelessly the case…).

All of which sounds convincing so long as one does not actually attempt to apply this Aktionsart theory to the words on the page, where one will find nothing like a systematic employment of the present tense that fits the alleged pattern. “They crucify him” clearly describes neither a durative nor an iterative action (except, perhaps, in the mystical “Origenian” sense that Christ will be on the cross till the end of all things). In fact, the actual use of tenses in the gospel texts is so haphazard that one and the same action is often related in a confusion of tenses, the present alongside the aorist or the perfect. And so, as one last desperate attempt at rationalizing the indiscriminate, those same poor seminarians and divinity students and New Testament teachers have been taught that the historical present is in fact used to indicate “Aspekt,” temporal aspect, which is to say, the way an action appears from the point of view of the agents in the story. This, at least, has the advantage of being an unfalsifiable assertion, since of course all actions in a historical narrative are (or were) present events from the perspective of those who were there at the time. But, of course, that is why it is a meaningless claim. By that logic, everything and anything can be written in the present tense. Moreover, the texts prove every bit as resistant to this theory as to that of Aktionsarten, for the simple reason that, as I have just noted, the various tenses are typically combined utterly unsystematically in the narratives’ various individual episodes, and even in one and the same sentence, clause, or phrase.

The truth is that all of these approaches are deeply misleading. They combine anachronism with bad reasoning, with the occasional banal truism tossed in. Especially hopeless is the Aspekt argument; one need only think about it for more than a brief moment to recognize its illogic. Yes, one can successfully apply it to certain verses (Matthew 20:30, for example: καὶ ἰδοὺ δύο τυφλοὶ καθήμενοι παρὰ τὴν ὁδὸν ἀκούσαντες ὅτι Ἰησοῦς παράγει, ἔκραξαν λέγοντες· ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς, [κύριε,] υἱὸς Δαυίδ), but of a great many more it makes no particular sense at all. Moreover, while gnomic uses of the present tense are fairly common to all languages—if I say, “I write for a living,” I do not mean to suggest that I am writing in the very moment of the utterance—this has no bearing on the issue of how to render descriptions of past actions. As for the invocation of Aktionsart theory, this merely betrays a surprisingly meager knowledge of Greek’s various epochs. I am not perfectly certain about this, but I suspect that it was originally an influential article by Kurt von Fritz (“The So-Called Historical Present in Early Greek,” Word 5, 1949, pp. 186-201) that alerted many New Testament teachers to the interesting truth that early Indo-European languages employed tenses as indices of the types rather than the times of actions and events. It must have seemed a blessed discovery. Ever eager to exculpate the evangelists as much as possible of any charge of literary infelicity or grammatical laxity, they saw at once a way of convincing themselves that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John are not at all slapdash in their use of tenses, but rather in fact unfold in rigorously precise accord with a method of historical exposition that was standard in the first century. Again, so long as one did not attempt to make the scheme fit the texts too closely, it seemed a good way of disentangling all those temporally heterogenous sentences in the gospels.

Sadly, what those hopeful Christian scholars were overlooking was that von Fritz was a philologist and was describing a Greek far older and grammatically far more complex than the simplified koinē of the first century. They might have noticed, at the very least, that von Fritz states in his article that the systematic use of tenses to indicate Aktionsarten in written Greek was already in decay before the time of Xenophon. By the time of the New Testament, Greek verbs were more or less invariably bound to temporal designations, as in modern European tongues. If anything remains of the older historical present in the New Testament, it is in the attenuated form of the occasional use of a present tense as something like a durative imperfect (such as Matthew 2:22: Ἀκούσας δὲ ὅτι Ἀρχέλαος βασιλεύει τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἀντὶ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ Ἡρῴδου ἐφοβήθη ἐκεῖ ἀπελθεῖν), where we today would generally use a preterit or atemporal infinitive construction (at least, when writing). Even then, such verses are emblematic not of any large and consistent narrative practice, or of some standard method for capturing the Aspekt position of some supposed agent in the tale, or of an Aktionsart function of tenses of the kind that obtained in the Indo-European dawn of the Greek tongue, but rather just of a few random idiomatic habits of speech, and nothing more.

All these theories, to be honest, serve only to obscure the correct and much simpler explanation of the historical present as employed in late antique Greek literature—which is that it is an example of a perfectly ordinary practice in just about any language that possesses tenses at all, including ours. One of the odder critiques that floated my way in regard to my version of the New Testament was the curious suggestion of one indignant seminary teacher that I had rendered the “historical present” of the text into the English “literal present.” Literal, forsooth. I am not sure what that could possibly mean, since I am quite certain that my translation does nothing to give the impression that the events of the gospel are occurring in the very moment that the texts are being read. In point of fact, I have merely rendered the Greek historical present as the English historical present. Here is what, for me, is the most bewildering aspect of the now standard claims made for and by seminarians and divinity students and teachers of the New Testament: the failure to notice that there is nothing at all in the texts’ use of the historical present that is particularly alien to our own habits of historical narrative. In one notable respect, of course, the standard view is correct: in late antiquity, the effect of the use of the historical present on listeners to a text (and most persons received texts through the ear) would not have been jarring; but this is not because the shift in tense would have been grammatically inconspicuous. Rather, the present would have been heard as the present in the temporal sense, but would nevertheless have seemed perfectly natural in the context of a tale told about the past.

We today do the same thing; the difference is that we tend to limit the practice to spoken stories.  Thus:

I went to my girlfriend’s house, because she wasn’t answering her phone. When I got there, I see that her lights are on. Good. So I went to the door and knocked, just wanting to see if she’s all right. I thought everything was fine between us. But suddenly the door opens like it’s being blasted off its hinges and she’s standing there staring at me furiously and holding a hammer in her hand. She doesn’t say anything. She just gazes at me with a look of pure hatred in her eyes. And now I’m beginning to think something might be wrong. I attempt a cheerful smile and say, ‘Can I come in?’ Maybe that was the wrong way to start, because after several seconds had passed in silence…

As we tell our tales, we move effortlessly and intuitively between temporal perspectives, wholly unsystematically but perfectly coherently, sensing—without needing any clear rule for doing so—when the action spontaneously invites a more immediate descriptive language, and when the action should drift back into its more remote temporal frame. It is true that, in the late antique world, this fluidity of tense is characteristic of a great many written texts, as is not the case for us; but we should recall that, in that age, even a written text was also an oral text, both in the sense that it had been dictated by the author to an amanuensis and in the sense that it was heard by most of its “readers” as read aloud by a lector. So, the more colloquial the narration, and the less refined the author, the more the text reflects the cadences and qualities of natural speech. The reason that Luke almost never uses the historical present is that he is the most educated and literarily accomplished of the evangelists, and has undertaken not merely to tell a story, but rather to indite a formally impeccable and intellectually respectable treatise. The other three evangelists simply lack his refinement as a writer or his ambition for his text, even if they possess considerable natural gifts as storytellers. Their style might be denominated as “phrastic” and his as “syngrammatic.”

And, indeed, this is what I should like, humbly, to submit to New Testament scholarship as my contribution to its philological terminology—and, God knows, the academy can never have enough obscure jargon. Rather than continuing to propound an elaborate but empirically false account of the historical past, in order to make the texts of the New Testament seem more polished than they are, we should learn simply to appreciate the difference between phrastic and syngrammatic textual types. And, when translating texts from the former category, we should render all the verbs in the Greek originals into their true English equivalents—past as past, present as present—because we recognize that this constant shifting of tenses is an essential and even precious element of each text’s rhythm, imaginative atmosphere, and narrative voice, the suppression of which is an incalculable impoverishment.

David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox theologian and author of a dozen books. His translation of the New Testament was published by Yale University Press in 2017.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.