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Perfect Tense Fallacies
In New Testament Greek, the perfect tense is notoriously disputed and all sorts of semantic functions are attributed to it.
For many, the perfect tense refers to a past event with on-going significance (e.g., William Mounce), for others it denotes a more intense proximity to the action described (e.g., Con Campbell), and for others it signifies the particular state of something (e.g., Stan Porter).
Now, I won’t bore you with the details of Greek nerdiness, but the first option, a past event with on-going significance leads to some over-done exegesis. Let me give you a couple of examples from the commentaries of James D. G. Dunn.
Crucified with Christ
Consider this verse in Galatians:
I have been crucified with Christ (χριστῷ συνεσταύρωμαι), and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:19b-20)
Here, Dunn comments about the perfect tense of “crucified with Christ”:
Here particularly striking is the tense used – not aorist (my crucifixion was an event which was over and done some time in the past), but perfect (I have been nailed to the cross with Christ, and am still hanging with him); so also in Gal. iii.1, vi.14 and Rom. vi.5.
Paul probably uses the perfect tense to highlight something, but I doubt it’s the duration of co-crucifixion with Christ, it’s more like the state or quality of being co-crucified with Christ. An accent is placed not on the time but on the reality or gravity of the event.
Christ a Servant of the Jews
Paul wrote to the Romans:
For I tell you that Christ has become a servant (χριστὸν διάκονον γεγενῆσθαι) of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the ancestors. (Rom 15:8).
Dunn, similar to other commentators, says this about the perfect tense of “become”:
The use of the perfect tense (γεγενῆσθαι) must mean that Paul intends to describe Jesus as “servant of the circumcised” not merely during his earthly ministry (cf. particularly Gal 4:4), but as still so … referring not simply to the continuing result of his time on earth.
Once more, does the perfect tense imply an extended duration for some action or simply highlight the action itself? Christ became a servant of the circumcision (i.e., Jews) and it is perhaps the fact or quality of the service that is highlighted, not the enduring chronology of that service.
I have to add, in this verse in Rom 15:8, some manuscripts switch the perfect tense for the aorist tense. To which at least one commentator - I can’t remember which one - attributes an anti-Jewish ethos to the scribe who made the switch, i.e. rather than say that Jesus continues to be a servant of the Jews via the perfect tense some nasty scribe changed it to the aorist tense to imply that it is done and dusted in the past. Besides the fact that the aorist gradually replaced the perfect tense in developing usage of Greek, that’s a massive over-freighting of significance to the tense form of Greek verbs!
In sum, always be a little bit skeptical when somebody makes a big, big deal about the deployment of the perfect tense form.
Find some basic and intermediate Greek resources over at Logos, I recommend Stan Porter’s Idioms of the Greek New Testament , Rob Plummer and Ben Merkle’s Going Deeper with New Testament Greek, and Con Campbell’s Basics of Verbal Aspect.
James D. G. Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians (BNTC; London: A&C Black, 1993), 144.
James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 (WBC; Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 847.
D.A. Carson (ed) with Constantine R. Campbell Buist M. Fanning, Stanley E. Porter The Perfect Storm: Critical Discussion of the Semantics of the Greek Perfect Tense Under Aspect Theory (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2021).