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:
- PERFECT – PURPLE
- AORIST – RED
- PRESENT – GREEN
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.
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.
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.
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:
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