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Verbal Aspect Theory and the Prohibitions in the Greek New Testament


Douglas S. Huffman

The end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries have involved much discussion on overhauling and refining a scholarly understanding of the verbal system for first-century Greek. These discussions have included advances in verbal aspect theory and other linguistic approaches to describing the grammatical phenomena of ancient languages. This volume seeks to apply some of that learning to the narrow realm of how prohibitions were constructed in the first-century Greek of the New Testament.
Part 1 «The Great Prohibition Debate» seeks to demonstrate that verbal aspect theory has a better explanation than traditional Aktionsart theory for authorial choices between the negated present imperative and the negated aorist subjunctive in expressing prohibitions in the Greek New Testament.
Part 2 «All the Prohibitions in the Greek NT» continues to examine prohibitions, but is more of an exercise in functional linguistics. That is, rather than apply verbal aspect theory to the grammar of prohibition constructions, Part 2 seeks only to survey the (initially surprising) wide variety of ways prohibitions can be expressed in koine Greek: more than a dozen different constructions. To do this, the NT prohibitions are grouped in their varying grammatical-syntactical and/or pragmatic constructions, all of which function – in varying degrees – in a prohibitory fashion. This taxonomy may prove to be the beginnings of further investigations into how biblical Greek communicates commands.
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Chapter 3—Verbal Aspect Theory & Greek Prohibitions: “Do not be doing that.” vs. “Do not do that.”


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Verbal Aspect Theory & Greek Prohibitions: “Do not be doing that.” vs. “Do not do that.”

Even before cataloging the failures of an Aktionsart approach to the prohibitions of the Greek New Testament, we noted that, throughout the relatively short history of Aktionsart theory, many scholars saw the need to offer exceptions and caveats about the prohibition rule. Moulton’s own caveat about the Aktionsart approach he introduced to NT Greek studies— e.g., his admission “that rather strong external pressure is needed to force the rule upon Paul”—inadvertently hints that a better approach to understanding Greek prohibitions might be one that considers the author and not the kind of action.1 Similarly, in comparing the aorist imperative and present imperative as used in the New Testament, Dana and Mantey offer this insightful caveat (even as they note the caveat of Winer before them):

The distinction between the present and aorist imperative sometimes seems to be ignored. But we are safest when we assume that the author had a reason in his mind for using one rather than the other. Indeed, Winer says that ‘in many cases it depends on the writer whether or not he will represent the action as occurring, in a point of time and momentary, or as only commencing, or likewise continuing’ (W. 314). Why does it not in every case depend upon the writer? As a matter of fact, it does.2

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