The Narrative Function And Verbal Aspect Of The Historical Present In The Fourth Gospel -- By: Mavis M. Leung

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 051:4 (Dec 2008)
Article: The Narrative Function And Verbal Aspect Of The Historical Present In The Fourth Gospel
Author: Mavis M. Leung


The Narrative Function And Verbal Aspect Of The Historical Present In The Fourth Gospel

Mavis M. Leung*

* Mavis M. Leung is a Ph.D. student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2065 Half Day Road, Deerfield, IL 60015

I. Introduction

Scholars have long recognized the frequent occurrence of the historical present in classical and first-century Greek narratives.1 In the NT, the historical present occurs most often in the Gospels of Mark and John.2 While this verbal feature of the Gospel of Mark has drawn considerable scholarly attention,3 the way in which it functions within the Fourth Gospel remains

a subject that has not yet been fully explored.4 This paper does not attempt to create a comprehensive model to explain the raison d’etre of all the occurrences of the historical present in the Fourth Gospel. Rather, it gleans insight from recent discussions of verbal aspect and discourse analysis in order to explore the modest possibility that the historical present in this Gospel serves a narrative function. After identifying 165 occurrences of the historical present from the 980 present forms catalogued, this paper focuses on the Gospel’s use of the historical presents that are non-λέγω verbs.5 Present forms of λέγω were excluded from the analysis because the verb’s historical present, as a number of grammarians have observed, has likely become a “stereotyped idiom” that no longer carries rhetorical force.6

The second section will briefly discuss four major theories about the significance of the historical present. An overview of the verbal phenomenon of the historical present in the Fourth Gospel follows. The remainder of the essay centers upon the selected texts—particularly those containing a series of historical presents—in order to closely analyze the operation of the historical present within its immediate narrative context. This essay will demonstrate that, in many but not all cases, the use of the historical present in the Fourth Gospel serves the narrative function of introducing a new participant into the scene or introducing a participant’s speech. These two functions help explain the peculiar distribution of the historical present within the Fourth Gospel, specifically, its concentration in some pericopae and absence from the ...

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