I have asked one of my doctoral students, Brad Johnson to give a good concise review of a new title provided by Zondervan on the issue of some of the aspects of how verbs work in Greek, and how they differ from the way verbs work in English. The review, offered below, speaks for itself.
The thing most often mishandled in the translation of Greek into English is the proper way to deal with Greek verbs. Greek verbs tend to give us a sense of what the Germans call Aktionsart--- that is, a kind of action (complete, incomplete, in progress, finished etc.) rather than primarily giving us a sense of the timing of an action. For example, an action can be past in its inception but still ongoing now (often expressed by an imperfect tense verb). An action can begin in the present and continue on into the future (which can be expressed either in a present or an imperfect tense verb). An action can be punctiliar, completed in a moment in the past or the present or even the future (e.g. the aorist does not always refer to something in the past). And even when one is referring to a future action, one must ask, is it punctiliar or progressive, and more importantly how do the forms of the Greek verbs help us to make such distinctions? It is thus always useful to have more and better tools to help us with Greek verbs. See what you think of Brad's review.
Constantine R. Campbell, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008)
I arrived at my office one day last week to discover a "hot off the press" copy of Constantine Campbell’s Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek, graciously provided to me by Dr. Ben with a request that I draft a short review of the work. As a biblical languages teaching fellow at Asbury seminary, I often have the opportunity to see such new releases. This one in particular struck my attention because of its treatment of verbal aspect: an ongoing conundrum for Greek grammarians. With great enthusiasm I quickly began skimming through its pages at the expense of pressing matters already piling up on my desk. The concept of verbal aspect continues to be a daunting matter from an instructional standpoint, so it was with anticipation that I engaged the work.
A slim volume of 133 pages (excluding the glossary of terms, a Scripture Index, and answers to exercises), the text immediately evinces itself as a member of the larger Zondervan family of Greek resources, the flagship of which is William Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek. Zondervan has developed a veritable armada around this very standard introductory Greek grammar, and the title of Campbell’s volume -- along with its cover artwork -- clearly place it in the family portrait.
The text is broadly arranged around two primary parts: the first dealing with verbal aspect theory, and the second with verbal aspect in the New Testament text. The chapters are short (five in each larger division), the prose is conversational without being either patronizing or obtuse, and the pages are replete with copious examples and visual illustrations. The book begins with an initial overview of traditional understandings of verbal aspect, then segues into a short history of the treatment of verbal aspect, highlighting recent contributions to the field of study. From there, the text dives into a discussion of aspect in the various tenses, moods, and alternate constructions (i.e., participles and infinitives). Much of the second part of the book involves practical applications of the skills and concepts developed in the earlier part.
In assessing the book, three primary descriptors come to mind. First, the book is helpful in terms of painting in broad strokes a picture of the landscape of the issue. Campbell's treatment of the constituent elements of verbal forms and meanings in Greek is a useful introduction to the discussion. Moreover, his explanation of aspect as consisting of a variety of elements (both pragmatic and semantic in variety) offers the reader a useful guide to engaging the concept. In an effort to demystify verbal aspect, Campbell is bold in critiquing previous attempts, innovating at times his own conceptual formulations and terminologies to buttress his presentation. It is in this innovating that I come to my next descriptor
Whereas the book certainly is helpful in some regards, it also has a tendency to be confusing. Campbell's approach deviates in a significant way from that of Mounce and Daniel Wallace (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, the syntactical counterpart to Mounce’s grammatical text) in terms of understanding and treating verbal aspect. The traditional approach to verbal aspect as taken by the likes of Mounce and Wallace has been to understand it as occurring in one of three varieties: progressive, summary, and resultative (or, in more traditional terminology, imperfective, aoristic, and perfective respectively). Campbell opts instead for a dual understanding of aspect that virtually eliminates traditional understandings of summary/aoristic aspect. The break from the Mounce/Wallace model can be clearly seen by a conspicuous absence of footnotes referencing either of them. In fact, only two footnotes are attributed to either, and both of those are to Wallace. (Mounce’s description of the text as “an excellent place to start investigating this important issue" perhaps reveals an underlying hesitation to fully embrace it.)
Confusion grows as one encounters curious statements that Campbell makes consistently throughout, only a few of which will be addressed here. Consider, for example, "The present tense-form is universally regarded as being imperfective in aspect” (40). This is a fundamentally different perspective than is found in Basics of Biblical Greek, where Mounce says, “The present tense indicates either a continuous or undefined action. You can translate either ‘I am studying’ or ‘I study.’ Choose the aspect which best fits the context" (BBG, 135). To make his point concerning the imperfective nature of the present tense, Campbell cites an example from Mark 4:14-20 where not only are the verbal examples in Greek clearly to be understood aoristically, but he also translates them for the reader using aoristic aspect. Further, he repeatedly cites various forms of the verb oida to indicate how traditional renderings of perfective aspect fail to work. The confusion comes in the fact that the forms he uses as representing the perfect tense are not perfect tense forms: oida, although it bears minor resemblance to perfect tense formation, is a present tense form. In addition, many of the examples he uses of the perfect tense--errors regarding oida notwithstanding--actually disprove his premise (see his treatment on p. 48 of the verb dedwken as it occurs in John 7:22). And finally, Campbell's attempt to assign semantic value to verbs with respect to transitivity is a hazardous enterprise. On the one hand, he states that "If a lexeme is not transitive, it must be intransitive" (56). At the bottom of the same page, he then reverses himself by saying "there are certain lexemes that can be either transitive or intransitive." He then takes a more centrist and tenable position where he states, "for the sake of specific analysis in the following chapters, [some] lexemes will be described as either transitive or intransitive depending on whether or not they act upon an object in specific contexts" (58-59).
A third descriptor that characterizes his work is misleading. Although I very much appreciate Campbell's attempt to demystify the entire verbal aspect conundrum, his approach has a tendency to be mechanical and programmatic. The exercises he offers the reader indicate his propensity to seek “right” answers. In his introduction, he states that his aim is in fact "to get verbal aspect right" (16). This is indeed an ambitious position, and one that may deceive a student of the Greek New Testament into thinking that there are in reality "right answers" that can be attained simply by means of the "right methodology". One of the real disappointments of his book is his lack of consideration of matters of genre, especially as genre relates to and informs one's understanding of verbal aspect. Specifically, should one's understanding of, for example, imperfective aspect in narrative material be treated in the same standardized way as imperfective aspect in epistolary discourse?
When distilled down to its essence, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek is a less-than substantial work. White space between chapters, diagrams, New Testament examples in both Greek and English, and in-text exercises consume an enormous portion of this already very slight work. When also considering the fact that much of the second part of the book is a restatement (at times verbatim) of the material from the first part, one begins to realize that the work is little more than an introduction to the concept, and perhaps not an entirely helpful one at that. Although Campbell's performance certainly has some memorable moments, it in large measure disappoints when considered alongside the enormous contributions of its siblings; and for that reason, this is not a text I will recommend for use by my students.