The Perfect Storm

Critical Discussion of the Semantics of the Greek Perfect Tense Under Aspect Theory

by Constantine R. Campbell (Author) Buist M. Fanning (Author) Stanley E. Porter (Author) D.A. Carson (Introduction)
©2021 Monographs X, 176 Pages
Series: Studies in Biblical Greek, Volume 21


Nowhere are the chaotic debates surrounding contemporary aspect theory more heated than in discussions of the theory’s application to Hellenistic Greek, and especially its understanding of the semantics of the Greek perfect tense. This book is a distilled academic debate among three of the best-known scholars on the subject, each defending his own unique interpretation while engaging the other two. The Perfect Storm will prove an indispensable resource for any scholar seeking to write convincingly on the Greek perfect in the future.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Series Editor’s Preface
  • 1. An Introduction to the Debate: D. A. CARSON
  • 2. The Greek Perfect: Why It Isn’t: CONSTANTINE R. CAMPBELL
  • 3. Response to Campbell’s Imperfective View of the Greek Perfect: BUIST M. FANNING
  • 4. Why the Greek Perfect Tense-Form Is Stative: A Response to Constantine R. Campbell: STANLEY E. PORTER
  • 5. Defining the Ancient Greek Perfect: Interacting with Recent Alternatives to the Traditional View of the Perfect: BUIST M. FANNING
  • 6. Response to Fanning: CONSTANTINE R. CAMPBELL
  • 7. Defining the Greek Perfect Tense-Form as Stative: A Response to Buist M. Fanning: STANLEY E. PORTER
  • 8. The Perfect Isn’t Perfect—It’s Stative: The Meaning of the Greek Perfect Tense-Form in the Greek Verbal System: STANLEY E. PORTER
  • 9. Response to Porter: CONSTANTINE R. CAMPBELL
  • 10. Response to Porter’s Stative View of the Greek Perfect: BUIST M. FANNING
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Scripture


Series Editor’s Preface

Studies in Biblical Greek is an occasional series of monographs designed to promote and publish the latest research into the Greek of both Testaments. The Series does not assume that biblical Greek is a distinct dialect within the larger world of koinē: on the contrary, the assumption is that biblical Greek is part and parcel of the Hellenistic Greek that dominated the Mediterranean world from about 300 B.C. to A.D. 300. If the Series focuses on the corpora of the Old and New Testaments, it is because these writings generate major interest around the world, not only for religious but also for historical and academic reasons.

Research into the broader evidence of the period, including epigraphical and inscriptional materials as well as literary works, is welcome in the Series, provided the results are cast in terms of their bearing on biblical Greek. In the same way, the Series is devoted to fresh philological, syntactical and linguistic study of the Greek of the biblical books, with the subsidiary aim of displaying the contribution of such to accurate exegesis.

The present volume is an unusual entry in the SBG series. In the controversial world of aspect theory, nothing is more controversial than the semantics of the Greek perfect tense-form. Here three prominent scholars argue for their respective understandings of the Greek perfect, and seek also to rebut the other two. The introductory chapter sets out the origin and shape of the chapters. Few will be the readers who are not almost convinced by one protagonist or another, only to be similarly almost convinced by the next protagonist.

Let the debate begin!

D. A. Carson
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

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1. An Introduction to the Debate


In November 2010, Constantine R. Campbell, Buist M. Fanning, and Stanley

E. Porter engaged each other in a spirited debate on the Greek perfect. The setting was the Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics section of SBL. The section is normally well attended, but that day something over 600 scholars were packed into the room. (I know; from where I was standing at the back of the room, I had a good view as I counted them.) The time constraints being what they are on these occasions, there was little time for detailed interaction among the three presenters, and still less for questions from the floor. There was just enough time for interaction that all of us who attended could glimpse the sparks among the three presenters and the interest of the audience.

After that session, I suggested that the three might consider collecting their respective contributions into a book for the Studies in Biblical Greek series, and they readily concurred. Discussion yielded two further decisions: (1) Instead of briefly revising the material they had just presented, they would engage in extensive revision, including reflections prompted by what they had heard from the other two participants. In other words, the core papers would be ratcheted up to a higher level. And then each scholar would respond to the other two. The aim was to make the level of interaction more detailed and more penetrating than what was possible in one SBL session. (2) Although there are views of the semantics of the Greek perfect tense-form other than the three articulated here, it was decided to restrict this book to a discussion of the findings of the three scholars represented here.

That second point requires further elucidation.

First, this book focuses on the views of these three scholars, and only accidentally on the way their respective views are sometimes adopted, defended, and critiqued elsewhere. For instance, Mathewson and Emig1 largely align ←1 | 2→with Porter; Kenneth L. McKay, a classicist by training, developed aspect theory in his study of the Greek verb in classical Greek2 before turning his attention to the New Testament3; and, although there are of course idiosyncratic preferences in his work, his theory belongs to the same species of aspect theory represented in these pages4—not least his treatment of the Greek perfect.5 Similarly, there are studies of verbal aspect in, say, Mark’s Gospel6 that operate under one or more of the same theories that constrain this book. Our focus here, however, is on the work of Campbell, Fanning, and Porter.

Second, aspect theory is currently in a state of flux and uncertainty. We have returned to the time of the Judges: everyone does as they see fit (Judg. 21:25). Even at the level of terminology, there is little consistency. For example, a scholar as eminent as Geoffrey Horrocks asserts that certain “verbs, whose lexical aspectual character (or Aktionsart) might … be described as [such and such]”7—thereby identifying lexical aspectual character and Aktionsart, an identification that could not be approved by any of the participants in this volume. In some ways, the most comprehensive treatment of the current debate is The Greek Verb Revisited, to which I have just referred,8 but its subtitle, A Fresh Approach for Biblical Exegesis, is wildly optimistic if the words “fresh approach” are meant to signal unity of both method and result. The book includes numerous outstanding and thought-provoking essays, but that doesn’t mean they cohere very well. If there are commonalities in the essays in Fresh Approach, one of the more striking is this: Greek tense-forms commonly grammaticalize both time and kind of action (or the ←2 | 3→author’s choice of how to present an event or kind of action). What is usually missing is rigorous discussion as to how one decides between, on the one hand, the inference that the entire semantic freight of a verb in a particular context is encoded in its morphology, and, on the other, the inference that the tense-form encodes part of the total semantic freight (e.g., verbal aspect; or, under a more traditional theory, time relationships), while other parts are conveyed by lexis, deictic markers, syntactical peculiarities, discourse considerations, and so forth.

A third reason for restricting the number and focus of the participants in this volume is that not only are there many competing positions surfacing in academic aspect theory, but the sub-disciplines that have a bearing on how to understand the perfect keep multiplying like rabbits. Debates that affect one’s grasp of the perfect include the interplay between tense-form and discourse analysis,9 verbal forms and grounding status (the relationship between tense-form and theme line or support line), diachronic and synchronic analyses,10 markedness, prominence (including backgrounding and foregrounding, and word order), systemic linguistics, the underlying morphological structure of the Greek verbal system, and much more. Another way of exposing the conceptual hurdles that must be surmounted even to get a conversation going on the semantics of the Greek perfect tense-form is to consider briefly the most recent comprehensive theory of the perfect, that of Robert Crellin.11 Leaning on the work of Wolfgang Klein’s semantic framework as a reference point,12 which provides a description of tense and aspect predicates in terms of Situation Time, Topic Time, and Utterance Time, Crellin assesses and finds inadequate other proposals before proposing that “the perfect derives ←3 | 4→a homogeneous atelic eventuality from the predicate and includes [Topic Time] within the [Situation Time] of this eventuality,”13 and then applies his rubrics to the well-known diversity of functions of the perfect tense-form. It remains to be seen whether Crellin will win a wide following; what is certain is that his understanding of the semantics of the Greek perfect tense-form inhabits another continent than where Campbell, Fanning, and Porter live.

So if in this book we have narrowed the field of inquiry, we have nevertheless increased its depth.

The nine-year delay between the original presentation of (an abbreviated form of) the core papers and the publication of this book sprang from several factors, including my own indolence. Nevertheless our hope is that the detailed argumentation in these papers will be consulted for many years to come.

Our warm thanks to the careful labor of Desmond Teo, who helped with the indexes.

1 David L. Mathewson and Elodie Ballantine Emig, Intermediate Greek Grammar: Syntax for Students of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016).

2 Greek Grammar for Students: A Concise Grammar of Classical Attic with Special Reference to Aspect in the Verb (Canberra: Australian National University, 1974).

3 Ibid., A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek: An Aspectual Approach (Studies in Biblical Greek 5; New York: Peter Lang, 1994).

4 This is not to say that Campbell, Fanning, and Porter always agree with him, any more than they always agree with each other: see, for example, Stanley E. Porter, “Time and Aspect in New Testament Greek: A Response to K. L. McKay,” in Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament: Studies in Tools, Methods, and Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), 159–74.

5 Ibid., “The Use of the Ancient Greek Perfect Down to the End of the Second Century Century AD,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 12 (1965): 1–21; idem, “On the Perfect and Other Aspects in the Greek Non-Literary Papyri,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 27 (1980): 23–49; idem, “On the Perfect and Other Aspects in New Testament Greek,” Novum Testamentum 23 (1981): 289–329.

6 Rodney J. Decker, Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark with Reference to Verbal Aspect (Studies in Biblical Greek 10; New York: Peter Lang, 2001).

7 “Envoi,” in The Greek Verb Revisited: A Fresh Approach for Biblical Exegesis, ed. Steven E. Runge & Christopher J. Fresch (Bellingham: Lexham, 2016), 629.

8 See n.7.

9 See, for example, Elizabeth Robar, “The Historical Present in NT Greek: An Exercise in Interpreting Matthew,” in The Greek Verb Revisited, 329–52. At one level, her work is admirably careful; at another, seems wedded, without defense, to the view that the present tense-form, outside locations in Matthew where the historical present occurs, encodes present time. Otherwise put, unless I have misunderstood her, she seems to address semantic questions by appealing to pragmatic considerations.


X, 176
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. X, 176 pp., 3 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Constantine R. Campbell (Author) Buist M. Fanning (Author) Stanley E. Porter (Author) D.A. Carson (Introduction)

Constantine R. Campbell is Senior Vice-President for Global Content and Bible Teaching for Our Daily Bread. He is formerly Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Buist M. Fanning is Senior Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.  Stanley E. Porter is President and Dean, Professor of New Testament, and Roy A. Hope Chair of Christian Worldview at McMaster Divinity College. D. A. Carson is Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.


Title: The Perfect Storm
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