Tuesday, July 27, 2010

More on "It Is Written"

When you read "it is written" in the New Testament, what tense of verb does that sound like to you? Does it sound past? No. Does it sound present? Yes. But is it present? No. It's actually a perfect tense verb. It's also passive. If it were translated how a Greek student is taught in first year Greek class, it would be "it has been written." Why? Well, the action of the perfect tense is past, and actually completed in the past. The perfect tense speaks of completed action. So why does the action sound like it isn't completed in the translation "it is written"? It sounds like the translator is attempting to make the action sound present and continuous, not past and finished. Well, there is one more aspect to the perfect tense, that is, the action is complete, yes, but the results of that action continue into the present from the perspective of the speaker and, therefore, his original audience. Those hearing the speaker use the perfect tense would know that the results had continued from that past action up until their day. So why do the translators translate "it is written" with a sense of the present? They wanted the readers to understand that the results of what had been written were still around in the present. Those letters and words weren't written in the present, but they sound like it by the way the verb is translated. All that is still around, however, are the results of the writing, that is, the letters and the words. The writing isn't continuing. The results of the writing are.

James Hope Moulton in his 1906 grammar wrote that the perfect tense is "the most important, exegetically, of all the Greek Tenses." Since it is used far less frequently than the other verb tenses---the present, the aorist, the imperfect, or the future---the writer makes a deliberate choice when choosing it. He has a particular point in using the perfect, selecting its unique purpose to communicate a specific meaning. At least one Greek grammarian explains that the perfect tense is used to "describe an act that has abiding results." But he isn't alone, others have shared this same thought (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and more). Others use the terminology "ongoing results" (here, here, here, here, here, and more). Others have used the terminology "permanent state" (here, here, here, and more) or "permanent result" (here, here, here, and more). Donald J. Mastronarde in his Introduction to Attic Greek (1993) (p. 280) writes: "The perfect stem of a Greek verb conveys the aspect of completed action with a continuing or permanent result." Peter Bullions in his The Principles of Greek Grammar (1866) writes: "Hence the perfect is generally used to denote a lasting or permanent state or an action finished in itself, and therefore often occurs in Greek, where, in English, we use the present." In Syntax of New Testament Greek (University Press of America, 1988), James A. Brooks and Carlton L. Winbery write (pp. 104-5): "The perfect tense expresses perfective action. Perfective action involves a present state which has resulted from a past action. The present state is a continuing state; the past action is a completed action." Eugene Van Ness Goetchius in The Language of the New Testament writes (p. 293): "The Greek perfect differs from the Greek aorist in that it emphasizes the continuing result of the action which was completed in past time." Spiros Zodiates in his Reference Bible says that the perfect tense “looks at an action as having been completed in the past but as having existing results.”

Concerning "it is written" having ongoing or permanent results, others have made this same point. Alfred Plummer in his commentary on John writes this (p. 210):

Hath spoken, i. e. that Moses received a revelation which still remains. This is a frequent meaning of the perfect tense— to express the permanent result of a past action. Thus the frequent formula gegraptai is strictly 'it has been written,'or 'it stands written:' i.e. it once was written, and the writing still remains.

Kenneth Wuest, longtime Greek professor at Moody, writes in his Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, Volume Two (p. 12):

It is written, gegraptai; the perfect tense, speaking of an act completed in past time having present results, is used here to emphasize the fact that the Old Testament records were not only carefully preserved and handed down from generation to generation to the first century, but that they are a permanent record of what God said.

Later on p. 120, Wuest writes:

In Matthew 4:4, our Lord answers Satan, "It is written." The perfect tense is used. He quoted from Deuteronomy. The words had been written by Moses 1500 years before, but are still on record. . . . A good translation reads, "It stands written." It is the eternal word of God.

Many others agree with this point on gegraptai (hereand very strongly here). All of these following men see "it stands written" as a good translation: Broadus, Weymouth NT, Henry Morris, John A. Witmer in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, and MacArthur (see 1 Cor 1:19) among others.

An indication of the importance of the perfect tense can be seen in Romans 4 in two different uses of the Greek verb grapho. First in v. 17:

(As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.

Verse 17 refers to Scripture, Genesis 17:5. In that verse, the perfect passive, gegraptai is used. Then look at v. 23.

Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him.

Here we read "it was not written," and since that is not referring to Scripture, we have the aorist passive of grapho used. D. B. Ford in the American Commentary on the New Testament writes concerning verse 23:

We have here one of those instances of the niceties of Greek syntax, which cannot easily be fully exhibited in a translation. The formula "as it is written" occurs very often in the New Testament, in introducing passages from the Old. In such cases the verb is in the perfect tense, while here it is in what is called the aorist. The perfect always has a reference to the present time, describing the action as past indeed, but also as abiding in its permanent consequences; while the aorist simply describes the action as finished in some past time. The difference may be sufficiently represented in English by the expressions: "It stands written," and "it was written." Hence the propriety of the use of the perfect in the ordinary cases of quotation from the Old Testament, where the Scripture quoted is conceived of as a permanent record.

Recently I quoted Daniel Wallace from his note on Romans 3:10 in the section on the perfect tense in his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Wallace is clear to say that the perfect tense has results that continue to the present from the point of view of the author. Even if we hold ourselves to that position, we can agree with Wallace on this grammatical point that he writes:

This common introductory formula to OT quotations seems to be used to emphasize that the written word still exists.

So why that use of the perfect? According to Wallace "to emphasize that the written word still exists." Then he begins making exegetical or theological points about authority, but he starts that section by saying, "Although just beyond the reach of grammar." He's more sure about the point of the perfect being about the continued existence of what was written more than he is the other. What Wallace writes about the perfect passive of gegraptai reminds me of what I read in J. A. Alexander's commentary on Matthew:

It is written, more exactly, has been written, the perfect tense suggesting the additional idea of its having been not only uttered long ago, but ever since on record and awaiting its fulfilment.

So does "it is written" indicate something about the preservation of what God inspired, what was originally written? The perfect tense is more rare than the other tenses, and, therefore, more important, because when it is used, it is making some point that differentiates its usage from the other tenses. I believe that in addition to the other arguments on preservation, it should be paid attention to. Others think the same. Not until recently has anyone said that gegraptai doesn't make this point of preservation, and those simply to undermine the idea of the perfect preservation of the text. The arguments read like people who are desperate to keep alive the prospects of an imperfect Bible. They can't even have gegraptai mean what men have already said it means, because it would hurt the cause of the eclectic or critical text. Here are some of the comments that were written to me about this gegraptai argument:

It reads too much into Jesus’ choice of tense. I sincerely doubt any of Jesus’ hearers thought that His use of the perfect meant that the quotation would continue to exist in its quoted form ad infinitum. In fact, I sincerely doubt that Christ’s hearers thought about his use of the perfect at all.

You could call that the "historic mind reading" argument. He just knows that Jesus hearers wouldn't have thought anything about a choice of tense. And he's sincere. He needs not produce anything but sincerity and you've got to just believe that.

Here was someone elses argument in its entirety:

This is an excellent example of the type of grammatical error that Carson points out in his Exegetial Fallacies book (which I am currently reading for class right now).

Uh-huh. The strong and very scary "Don Carson argument." He doesn't produce a parallel for the so-called "exegetical fallacy," but he invokes the name of Don Carson. That's all he needed to do. Same guy who made the first comment, came back with this:

How can you argue for a position with a known bogus argument and expect it to convince people? At best that’s dishonest.

There haven't been people, again, until just recently that didn't see preservation in gegraptai. No one argued against that. Did they see more than preservation? Have they seen authority, for instance? Sure. Did they understand "it is written" to be a "introduction formula"? Yes. But it is written in the Greek in the perfect tense. It's certainly not a "known bogus argument." The argument against it is what appears to be bogus to me. I'm not ready to call people liars, like the other side so easily is wont to do, however. I think labeling it dishonest shows the desperation on the other side.

If the results of the perfect extend only to the present, there is still a strong argument for preservation here. The New Testament authors were guaranteeing that the results of the original writing of their referred texts were still in existence 400 to 3000 years after their completion. The writers accepted Scriptural preservation from the past to the present time of the writing. It is reasonable to assume that if preservation was active from the past into the present that there was also ample reason to suppose that it would continue into the future.

This perfect passive argument is not a centerpiece of a defense of perfect preservation. One person characterized it that way in a recent discussion. I think that he knows that perfect passive of grapho does not buttress the perfect preservation position. However, it supplements it. It's worth mentioning and bringing to attention. It is another argument. In many ways, it is an argument that would not itself be very strong if it weren't for statements already made about perfect preservation in Scripture. However, the 67 New Testament usages of gegraptai testify to God' s perfect preservation of His Words.


Jeff Voegtlin said...

Seems fairly simple to follow to me. Thanks for writing this.

Don Johnson said...

Hey, Kent. I'm getting to you, eh?

I don't think it was me that said the perfect tense argument was a centerpiece of your argument, did I? If so, I didn't mean to say so. I see it as a secondary argument, but a weak one.

If the perfect means what you say it means (and I think you are misreading what your sources are saying), then we would still have the originals.

The action being described, 'it is written', was the writing of the originals, correct? Not the copying, the writing.

So if it means that the action described has a permanent result, then the originals would at least have been still around in Jesus' day. And if the verb promises what you want it to promise (i.e., perfect preservation), then we would still have the originals today.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Gary Webb said...

Brother Brandenburg,
I looked up all the links to the different commentaries. They all said the same thing, which is the same argument that brother Sutton made in the book, & is the same thing that I was taught in my Greek classes. Aaron is the ONLY person I have ever read in any place who has made the argument that he made against the indication of the perfect tense.
I hope that Aaron will read your post, become "sharper", admit his error as an honest Christian, & post a link with his article so that other Christians might see the error of his argument. He might not change his position on the text, but at least he would demonstrate his willingness to learn & his honesty in dealing with facts. What do you think?

Kent Brandenburg said...

Jeff, Thanks. In a lot of ways, I think I'm just reporting here, not coming up with anything new.


It's tough for me in a comment section to say what I want to say, and your article also interested me in looking further into what others had said. Unless someone reads both our blogs, they wouldn't know I was responding to something there. Andy's last comment was the "centerpiece" comment. I could tell it wasn't appropriate to comment to him there, and I felt like he was still being allowed to get away with that.

The product of the writing were the letters and words, the original letters and words. I believe those were still existent in Jesus' day, not likely the physical originals, but copies that preserved what was written. What was written was still written. No one has made your "must be the original parchment" point that I know of. I've never read it.

I'd be glad to see some book that makes the point that there is no preservation point in gegraptai, that hasn't been written recently in response to something perfect preservationists have written.

Here is the greatest merit of the argument---it harmonizes with the statements about preservation.


I agree. When I read brand new arguments, like Aaron's, I'm open to believing them, but brand new ones should have some kind of convincing biblical data to overturn old ones, the only ones people have already been making. His reads like a reach. They read like someone who has a point already. Their acceptance seems to me to be related more to their political correctness than their strength.

I think when people made their original points about gegraptai, they weren't thinking about issues and what was the politically correct side to come down upon, so they just wrote them.

d4v34x said...

On the other hand, in order for anyone to be able to say, barring omniscience, "it is written" about anything, a copy of the writing must be extant. I don't think that necessitates the copy is perfect. Especially when Brother Sutton concedes that the language spoken to Satan in Matt. 4 may not have been strictly the original Hebrew.

Gary Webb said...

Do you believe that the original writings of Moses were still around in Jesus' day? That is a new one to me.

Don Johnson said...

Hi Gary,

No, I don't believe the originals were around in the first century. But it seems to me that for Kent's argument regarding gegraptai to be correct, they would have to be.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Thomas Ross said...

Saying that the words God gave to Moses, etc. as a one time action continued to exist based on the perfect tense does not by any means mean that the original copies must be around. Such a conclusion is by no means a valid inference from Pastor Brandenburg's "it is written" argument.