Imperfect Indicative: The Imperfect Of Repeated Action


The Imperfect is used of customary or repeated action in past time.

Acts 3:2; ὃν ἐτίθουν καθ’ ἡμέραν πρὸς τὴν θύραν τοῦ ἱεροῦ, whom they used to lay daily at the gate of the temple.

(1) For the use of the Imperfect, Aorist, or Pluperfect in a condition contrary to fact, or its apodosis, see B. Supposition contrary to Fact.

(2) The Imperfect and Aorist with a;n are used in classical Greek to denote a customary past action taking place under certain circumstances. In the New Testament this usage never occurs in principal clauses. The use of the Imperfect and Aorist with a;n in conditional relative clauses is possibly a remnant of the usage. Cf. F. Past General Supposition.

(3) The Imperfect and Aorist are used in a clause expressing an unattained wish having reference to the present or past. The Imperfect denotes action in progress. The Aorist represents the action indefinitely as a simple event. Either tense may refer to either present or past time. All the New Testament instances seem to refer to present time.

Rev. 3:15; ὄφελον ψυχρὸς ἦς ἢ ζεστός, I would that thou wert cold or hot. See also 1 Cor. 4:8 (Aor.); 2 Cor. 11:1 (Imperf.).

REMARK 1. In classical Greek unattainable wishes are expressed by εἶθε  or  εἰ γὰρ with the Indicative or ῶφελον with the Infinitive. In Callimachus, 260 B.C., ῶφελον is found with the Indicative (L. & S., ὸφεἱλω ovfei,lw II. 3. fin.). In the New Testament εἰ γὰρ (in this sense) and ei;qe do not occur, but ὄφελον, shortened form of ῶφελον, is used (as an uninflected particle) with the Imperfect and Aorist Indicative.

REMARK 2. In Gal. 5:12 ὄφελον is followed by the Future, but the wish is probably not conceived of as unattainable.

(4) When an Imperfect refers to an action not separated from the time of speaking by a recognized interval, it is best translated into English by the Perfect, using preferably the progressive form, unless the verb itself suggests action in progress.

1 John 2:7; ἣν εἴχετε ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς, which ye have had from the beginning. See also Luke 2:49; Rom. 15:22; Rev. 3:2 (cited by Weymouth in Theological Monthly, iv. 42, who also quotes examples from classical authors). Cf. ENGLISH EQUIVALENTS OF THE GREEK AORIST INDICATIVE.

(5) When an action denoted by an Imperfect evidently preceded an event already mentioned, such Imperfect is sometimes best translated into English by the Pluperfect. From the point of view of Greek, however, this, like the preceding usage, is an ordinary Progressive Imperfect or Imperfect of Repeated Action. Cf. ENGLISH EQUIVALENTS OF THE GREEK AORIST INDICATIVE.

Matt. 14:4; ἔλεγεν γὰρ αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰωάννης Οὐκ ἔξεστίν σοι ἔχειν αὐτήν, for John had been saying to him, It is not lawful for you to have her. See also Luke 8:27; Acts 9:39.

(6) The Imperfect of verbs denoting obligation or possibility, when used to affirm that a certain thing should or could have been done, i.e. was required or possible under the circumstances related, is a true affirmative Imperfect. It is incorrect in this case to speak of an omitted a;n, since though it is frequently the case that the necessary or possible deed did not take place, the past necessity or possibility was actual, not hypothetical or “contrary to fact.” Here belong Matt. 18:33; 23:23; 25:27; Acts 24:19; 26:32; 27:21; 2 Cor. 2:3, etc.

The Imperfect is also used of a past necessity or obligation when the necessary deed did take place. Here also, of course, the Imperfect has its usual force. Luke 13:16; 24:26; John 4:4; Acts 1:16; 17:3.

(7) Buttmann, pp. 216 f., 225 f., describes correctly the class of cases in which the past obligation or possibility was actual, but in which the required or possible deed did not take place, but wrongly includes in his list several passages in which not only the fact but the obligation or ability is hypothetical. Such are John 9:33; 1 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:26, which are to be explained in accordance with 249. The distinction between these two classes of cases is not always easily marked in English translation, since the English forms could, should, etc., are used both for actual and for hypothetical obligation or ability. Cf. He could have gone, if he had been well, and He could have gone, but did not wish to go.

(8) Through a dimming of the distinction between the ideas of present and past obligation (which has occurred also in English in the case of the word ought), the Imperfect without a;n is sometimes used to express a present obligation. The Infinitive after such an Imperfect is always in the Present tense. In accordance with this usage we are probably to explain Acts 22:22; Eph. 5:4; Col. 3:18.

On these several uses of the Imperfect of verbs of obligation, etc., see G.MT. 413-423.

(9) The Imperfect of verbs of wishing, without a;n, is best explained as a true Progressive Imperfect, describing a desire which the speaker for a time felt, without affirming that he actually cherishes it at the time of his present utterance. This is especially clear in Philem. 13, 14, where the apostle states in one clause what his desire — his personal preference — was (ἐβουλόμην), and in the next his actual decision ( ἠθέλησα), as over against his preference. The reason for describing the desire as past is not always, however, that it has been put aside. Failure to realize the desire, or the perception that it cannot be realized, or reluctance to express a positive and deliberate choice may lead the speaker to use the Imperfect rather than the Present. Similarly we sometimes say in colloquial English, I was wishing that such a thing might happen, or even more commonly, I have sometimes wished. Nearly the same meaning may be conveyed in English by the more usual potential form, I should like, I would that, or I could wish. In Acts 25:22 the use of the Imperfect evboulo,men rather than a Present softens the request for politeness sake, and may well be rendered I should like. In Gal. 4:20 it is probably the impossibility of realizing the wish that leads to the use of the Imperfect, and h;qelon de. parei/nai may be rendered, I would that I were present. In Rom. 9:3 huvco,mhn may have been chosen because the apostle shrank from expressing a deliberate choice in regard to so solemn a matter, or because he thought of it as beyond the control or influence of his wish. I could pray expresses the meaning with approximate accuracy. In all these cases, however, what is strictly stated in the Greek is merely the past existence of a state of desire; the context alone implies what the present state of mind is. Cf. G.MT. 425.

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