The absence of the historical present in translations of John 13

In the samples below I’ve colored the verbs in order to show how different verb tenses are being used by John.

I’m only focusing on three verb tenses:


This opening section contains background information, so most of the verbs are PERFECT and AORIST. One thing I notice here is that there seems to be a pattern of PURPLE – RED – RED … I would expect this in a background section where the PERFECT sets the time with relation to the main event, and the AORIST continues within the timeframe of the PERFECT.

john13 1-3

In this next section, the action proper begins. The narrative begins with PRESENT and then AORIST. The pattern here is GREEN – GREEN – RED – RED … This pattern seems to reflect the narrative structure in which event complexes are being grouped together using PRESENT and AORIST. This PRESENT should strike you as slightly strange. If you have a look at the English glosses you can see that it looks like the narrator is talking about something in the present moment. But we know that this is referring to something in the past. This is a marked usage of the present tense, usually referred to as “historical present.” Historical present is often said to add vividness or immediacy to a narrative. I’m not sure that’s the case. It seems that if you didn’t know these verbs were in “present” tense you would think they were just in another form of past tense.

john13 4-7

There’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on here. The interaction between “says” and “answered” is more complex than it seems on the surface.  Verse six is especially interesting. Jesus “comes” and then Peter “says.” After that Peter is PRESENT and Jesus is AORIST. What’s going on there? I suspect it has something to do with activation of participants. In verse six, the major participant switches from Jesus to Peter. Only in verse ten does Jesus take control of the conversation again, signaled by the historical present. That’s just my theory. I welcome any more reasonable explanations.

john13 9'10

Now, my question is, “How do English translations handle the historical present?” You’ll have to go back to the King James to find evidence of the historical present although the translators missed one of the historical presents:

He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself.

To be consistent, “laid aside” should be “lays aside.”

Here are several other translations of verse four:

1 2 3 4 5

rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.

So he got up from the supper table, set aside his robe, and put on an apron.

rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.

As you can see, none of the other translations seems to reflect the historical present. In fact, with the exception of “taking a towel” in translation 1, all the translations just use a flat narrative past tense. I suspect there is no error here, only a reflection of common English usage. Still I’d be curious if anyone could argue for a more complex narrative structure in English in order to bring out something of the drama of this text in Greek.

I’ve looked at historical present for John 4, 9 and 13 and the results seem to generally line up with what I’ve shown here.

What do you think about the historical present? Are we missing something in our English translations by not reflecting this feature of the source text?

Note 1: If you are color blind or reading this in black and white you should be able to pick out the different verb tenses based on the English glosses.

Note 2: For the purpose of our discussion I have ignored the verb tenses within speech.

Note 3: The Greek texts were produced using BART. A helpful online site for Greek analysis is Greek & Hebrew Reader’s Bible (although it doesn’t let you color individual verb tenses).

Note 4: The English translations cited were: 1=ESV, 2=Message, 3=RSV, 4=NLT, 5=NIV

21 thoughts on “The absence of the historical present in translations of John 13

  1. Richie says:


    Thanks for the very interesting blog on this subject. I will not venture to answer your question, being a non-specialist; however, the subject of verb tenses is surely one of the most confusing for translators whether of modern languages or ancient languages. It is amazing the differences that exist in English translations such as ESV, NIV, TNIV, or NLT. Though I’m sure this has much to do with not only grammar but also idioms, context, etc., this is a difficult problem for the average Bible reader/comparer and can make a big difference in the understanding of various scriptural sections.

  2. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    Given its focus on overlaying a dramatic apparatus on the text, I’d be very curious to see what The Voice does here. This seems like it could be presented as stage directions rather than narrative, in which case a present tense would be appropriate with respect to “common English usage”.

  3. codepoke says:

    Ha! I blog in the historical present ALL THE TIME. And then I go back and edit whatever I wrote into the past tense so my readers won’t run away screaming. I think I learned a lot of my style from the KJV. (I’ve required regular ruler slaps to quit using “that” 3 times per sentence like the KJV does.)

    I think there are very few modern English readers who can comfortably follow the historical present.

    Great observation and explanation, David.

  4. David Ker says:

    Historical present is certainly not a thing of the past:

    You wouldn’t believe what happened to me last night. I meet this guy in a bar, and he says, “You look familiar.” I look him over and he’s nobody I know. “What’s your name,” I say…

  5. Milton Stanley says:

    I agree with David Ker. Aren’t most native English-speakers used to hearing stories recounted in the historical present? I think we are indeed missing something important with English translations that change all the presents to past. Thanks for the post.

  6. Mike Sangrey says:

    Thank you David for posting this. I find that postings like this drive one to really search out what translation is. Greek and English work differently and we think in English. And by think I’m actually describing the fact that we try to describe what is going on in the Greek by using the English conceptual linguistic framework. Thus we use expressions like historical present. This framework doesn’t fit and therefore makes explanations convoluted and more complex than they need to be.

    And that leads me to ask a question.

    What if the tenseness of the verbs is simply not that important to John? That is, the time element is irrelevant.

    Let me take the first section (13:1-3) and describe what I see. I see a motion picture. The choreographer shows us a meal taking place. The meal is in motion, dishes and cups are being passed, people are putting food to their mouths, etc (this is a present “tense”). The meal is in motion.

    But he has also fixated two foci that stand immovable, like conceptual statues: Jesus knows he’s leaving, and, two, Satan has placed the betrayal concept in Judas (the perfect “tense”). The concepts stand stolid.

    The various other verbal features form the “color” upon which this motion picture is presented. These are non-salient features of the text, but without these, we would be viewing nothing more than a stick drawing. It would get the point across, but it would not be very memorable, and it would be very dry. It would not be entertaining. And I mean that in a very positive sense such that the when the reader enjoys the text, he or she more fully participates in the text. (This is the aorist “tense”.)

    The last present tells us this whole scene is, in fact, about Jesus moving from here to there–to being with God. It is the motion of the entire scene as if the whole stage–upon which the two foci face each other in apparent contrast–was rising. So, the apparent effort of betrayal is not sufficient to slow the progress heavenward. In this particular scene, Jesus going to God is an ongoing reality.

    How does one translate that? Good question!!! Certainly not by a mechanical translation of tense.

  7. David Ker says:

    This is a case where the distinction between default and marked usage is helpful. “Present” tense by default refers to things temporally in the now. But it can be used aspectually to organize information internally within a narrative time.

    I had a hard time getting my head around this when learning Nyungwe. “Present” and “Perfect” tenses in Nyungwe are much more aspect than tense.

    Mike, I think I would interpret the opening section as being “past” in relation to the narrative as a whole. The use of perfect and aorist suggests to me that these events are backgrounded to the main events of verse 4 and following. Switching to the present/aorist then highlights these events as being the focus of the narrative.

    Originally I thought that historical present was used thematically to highlight the climax or crisis moment. But the data didn’t bear that out. What I did see was the contrastive OUV in verse 6 together with the switch from Jesus to Peter as evidence of a major plot twist. Also the repetition of the DIEZOMENOS (in perfect) suggests that this is the big story within the larger story. Because of that the devil/judas story seems less prominent at this point in the narrative. It would be interesting to make a case for devil/judas being contrasted with jesus/peter.

  8. John Radcliffe says:


    When I started to read your post I thought it was going to be all about the “new insights” offered by recent Verbal Aspect theory. Indeed, I’d hoped that I might gain some “insight” myself, as I’m currently struggling to get my head round these (new-to-me) concepts, as I work through Con Campbell’s recent introductory book on the subject (which he talks about here: ).

    I admit that I’m confused that you do refer to “aspect” in some places, but to “tense” in a temporal sense in others. E.g. in your last comment you say “‘Present’ tense by default refers to things temporally in the now. But it can be used aspectually to organize information internally within a narrative time.”

    Now as I understand it (and please correct me if I’m wrong), the new “VA school” would reverse that, and say aspectual visualisation is the default (what the “tense-forms” actually encode), and temporal reference is at most a pragmatic use governed by the context. So (it would be said) we’re only confused by present “tense-forms” being used to refer to past time because we’ve come to believe that they do consistently refer to (what to the speaker or writer is) the present. On the other hand, if in fact what they do is give us the “inside view” (they “take us up close, and let us smell the action”), then the perceived problem disappears.

    So I’m puzzled as to just where you stand in on-going debate on Verbal Aspect. I’m no linguist (as you can probably tell from my garbled use of terminology), but I had thought that linguistics was your area of expertise. (Or am I just being naïve: is it just that you’re not THAT TYPE of linguist?)

    * * * * * *

    One comment on your colouring: I think it’s important to distinguish between indicative verb forms and participles and infinitives, as I suspect it will be the aorist indicatives that carry the mainline of the narrative (although in some cases aorist participle plus aorist indicative may simply be a stylistic alternative to two aorists joined by “and”).

    Perhaps in English we could try using simple pasts for the narrative mainline (the aorist indicatives) and “ing”-forms where the writer uses present tense forms. E.g. (lightly revised from your interlinear):

    “4 Rising from the supper and putting aside his garments, he took a towel and girded himself. 5 Then, putting water into the basin, he began washing the disciple’s feet and wiping them with the towel he was girded with. 6 Then, on coming to Simon Peter, [Peter] says to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 In answer Jesus said to him, “What I am doing now you do not understand, but after these things you will understand”. 8 Peter says to him, “You will never, ever wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I don’t wash you, you have no share with me.”

    So, for verses 4 and 5, the “mainline” is shown to be: “… he took a towel and girded himself. 5 Then … he began washing the disciple’s feet …”. And for the reminder perhaps just “… 7 Jesus said ‘…’ [to Peter] … 8 … Jesus answered ‘…’.”, while Peter’s responses are off the mainline (Jesus being the main character).

    But this is all new to me, so I may well be “barking up the wrong tree”.

  9. David Ker says:

    John, That’s a great comment. I’m definitely not using VAT, although I suspect my analysis overlaps with that theory. I’ll write more later but I expect others are in a better position to comment on VAT.

  10. Mike Sangrey says:

    David wrote, “I’m definitely not using VAT”

    And my description is very much VAT. The description pretty much flows from my understanding of Porter’s view. I haven’t read Fanning, yet, though I suspect his view is similar.

    For those who might like a quick (paragraph or two) description, a very good lite overview is here.

  11. David Ker says:

    John, one thing about your use of gerunds for the historical present (HP) is that it seems to background the information in relation to main story line info. But I detect that the HP is signaling a switch of the major participant, i.e. the one who is carrying the storyline forward.

    You should understand that my terminology and background on this is more Bantu linguistics and Stephen Levinsohn’s analysis of Greek discourse. Looking at Mike’s suggested link I see much there that makes sense but I would expect it to be difficult to come up with a consistent model that works across different authors and genres.

    I’ll have another look at some examples from John (esp 4 and 9) and see if what I’m noticing is as consistent as I remember.

  12. David Ker says:

    exegete77, I’m not sure why your comment didn’t show up. Please try again. As long as you’re following comment guidelines it shouldn’t be moderated. 🙂

  13. Wayne Leman says:

    Guess my comment got deleted.

    Not deleted by me. It’s difficult for me to imagine one of your comments not passing the comment guidelines, Rich. We appreciate the comments from you and many others which add positively to this blog.

  14. John Radcliffe says:

    ElShaddai wondered how the Voice handled this passage. Well rather matter-of-factly it would seem:

    “3Jesus, knowing that He had come from God and was going away to God, 4stood up from dinner and removed His outer garments. He then wrapped Himself in a towel, 5poured water in a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with His towel.”

    The following dialogue captions the speakers, but there’s not a single “stage direction” to be seen throughout.

  15. John Radcliffe says:


    Thank you for your responses. My gerunds weren’t a considered approach, just a spur-of-the-moment attempt to find some way other than English tense to distinguish the Greek aspects. As I said, this whole VA business is new to me (and the same goes for “Discourse Analysis”, or whatever it’s called), so I’m still feeling my way.

    FWIW this is what Con Campbell has to say on Historical Presents in his “Basics of Verbal Aspect” (p66):

    “… There are two basic types of historical presents: those that introduce discourse and those that employ lexemes of propulsion.

    “First, the historical presents that introduce discourse utilize the present tense-form because they are leading into a proximate-imperfective context (discourse). In such cases, the proximate-imperfective nature of discourse ‘spills over’ to the verb that introduces it.

    “Second, lexemes of propulsion are verbs that convey transition – the movement from one point to another. These include verbs of coming and going, lifting, taking, giving, and so on. The proximate-imperfective nature of the present tense-form combines with these lexemes in order to highlight the transition that is conveyed. There is no obvious way to convey this in translation.”

    After my failed attempt, I’d guess he’s probably right that there’s “no obvious way to convey this in translation”. I’m not at all sure that using the English present tense has the same effect, and although there are precedents for its use I’d suspect they’re found in informal contexts.

  16. David Ker says:

    John, I hope you didn’t interpret my response as a rebuke. I’m writing speculatively in wondering about the role of gerunds in narrative. I appreciate your translation exercise and am glad you are commenting on this blog.

  17. John Radcliffe says:

    Not at all, David. As I said, I was simply trying them for size, but on reflection I doubt they’re an ideal fit.

    I’m off on Saturday to North Wales for a week’s holiday, so if it rains as much as is forecast I may at least have the opportunity to finish Con Campbell’s book. I’m particularly interested in seeing how he will deal with the Perfect, as he doesn’t consider it envisages a “state” (i.e. he rejects the idea of a “Stative aspect”).

    Thanks for an interesting thread.

  18. Joel says:

    As you correctly point out, the issue of tenses in translation is complicated, and it’s easy to (a) misunderstand the original; and (b) misrepresent the correct understanding of the original.

    I do think it’s a mistake, though, to mimic tenses, rather than try to understand their implications.

    For example, in English we have a progression of present->conditional->past that represents increasing formality: “Do you want some coffee?” is a question a waitress in a diner might ask. “Would you like some coffee?” is a little more polite. “Did you want some coffee?” is deferentially polite. (And the wrong answer is, “Yes, I did, but it’s too late now.”)

    Just think what a mistake it would be to translate the past tense verbs in English as past tense verbs in any of the many languages that don’t work this way.

    Similarly, I think we have to be careful looking at the formal grammar of the Greek and mimicking it in English translation.


  19. Eskil says:

    You write “Historical present is often said to add vividness or immediacy to a narrative. I’m not sure that’s the case. It seems that if you didn’t know these verbs were in “present” tense you would think they were just in another form of past tense.”

    Could this be because English is your native language and English do not use “historical present”? In my mother tongue (Norwegian) we do use historical present – and it does indeed give a more vivid “feel” to a narrative. So, it is not hard for me to understand how the same thing happens in Greek.

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