Don’t Bet on the Rule of the Barking Dog: Tense in Volitives -- By: John H. Niemelä

Journal: Chafer Theological Seminary Journal
Volume: CTSJ 11:1 (Spring 2005)
Article: Don’t Bet on the Rule of the Barking Dog: Tense in Volitives
Author: John H. Niemelä

Don’t Bet on the Rule of the Barking Dog:
Tense in Volitives1

John H. Niemelä

Dr. John H. Niemelä is Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Chafer Theological Seminary. He received a B.A. from University of Minnesota and a Th.M. and Ph.D. degrees in New Testament Literature and Exegesis from Dallas Theological Seminary. He has defended the Two-Gospel Hypothesis in Three Views on the Origin of the Synoptic Gospels, ed. Robert Thomas (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002). His e-mail address is [email protected].


For about a century Greek students have heard that prohibitions that use the present tense mean “stop. .. .” and prohibitions with the aorist tense mean “do not start. .. .” The result of professors canonizing what has been nicknamed the barking-dog rule is that many interpreters of Scripture automatically appeal to the following model to explain commands and prohibitions:

Positive Command



Keep on. .. .

Start. .. .


Stop. .. .

Do not start. .. .

This article will sketch the humorous story of a rule that derived from someone yelling at a dog. Then it will consider a number of New Testament passages where imposition of the rule creates nonsense.2

The History of the Barking-Dog Rule

It was classicist Walter Headlam who first acquainted English readers with the rule:

The aorist subjunctive. .. is in effect a future perfect; and just as hotan touto poiss [“whenever you might do this”] is hoc cum feceris, so m touto poiss is hoc ne feceris (like hops m poiss) is ‘see that you do not do this’ at whatever future time, next moment or a hundred years hence. Whereas m touto poiei is ‘do not continue doing so’, ‘cease to do so’.3

Headlam supported this contention by mentioning some scholars who, he believed, had argued similarly.

This I had from Dr. Henry Jackson many years ago, who had it as he told me from [Richard] Shilleto, who derived it p...

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