According to an article on Greek verbal aspect by Ellis, et al. (henceforth, authors),[1] a question arises from the Greek text of Matthew 2:20, where the angel, upon appearing to Joseph in a dream, says to him regarding the infant Jesus:

ἐγερθεὶς παράλαβε τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ καἰ πορεύου εἰς γῆν Ἰσραήλ· τεθνήκασιν γὰρ οἱ ζητοῦντες τὴν ψυχὴν τοῦ παιδίου.

“Arise, and take the child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life have died.” (authors’ translation and emphasis)

The question has to do with the present participle ζητοῦντες “(those) seeking.” Specifically, the authors contend that “[L]ogically, those who ‘have died’ (τεθνήκασιν) cannot now be ‘searching’ (ζητοῦντες) for the child at the time of the speech act. … Moreover, neither can there be ‘contemporaneous time,’ as would typically be taught, given the fact that the searching necessarily occurred prior to dying” (34).

In other words, what the authors of said article are saying is that the use of a “present participle,” which connotes “present time,” applied to a past action, i.e., to people already dead, cannot be semantically justified. The authors essentially conclude that the traditional nomenclature of the Greek tense system is “fundamentally flawed” (34).

At the end of their article, and following a discussion on tense prominence versus aspect prominence ideas in connection with the Greek verbal system, the authors return to Mat. 2:20, saying, “We asked previously whether the participle ζητοῦντες is better described by a tense-prominent system, with tense-prominent labels, or by an aspect-prominent system, with aspect-prominent labels”; whereupon, the authors basically suggest that the label “imperfective participle,” rather than the traditional label “present participle,” is the preferred nomenclature, since “imperfective” can also “stand in place of either a past or non-past imperfective event” (61).

Let us now consider the key parts of what the authors are saying and assess the weight of their claim. But first, a “minor” observation before we get into the authors’ “nomenclature” ideas. Thus, looking at the Greek text more closely, particularly the part that reads, τεθνήκασιν γὰρ οἱ ζητοῦντες, “for (those) seeking . . . have died,” we see that the emphasis in the angel’s message is on what happened to the would-be murderers, rather than on their act of seeking to find the child. This is deduced, in part, from the position of the verb τεθνήκασιν “(they) have died” at the very beginning of the angel’s announcement. When the authors therefore say that “logically those who have died cannot now be searching,” the focus shifts from “have died” to “searching/seeking.” Had that been the emphasis in the angel’s announcement, his message would have most likely been, ζητοῦσιν γὰρ οἱ τεθνηκότες “those who have died are seeking.” Obviously, no angel would make that error.

Let us now focus on a weightier matter: the authors’ idea of doing away with the traditional name “present participle” and adopting the aspectual label “imperfective participle.” The authors’ reasoning behind the suggested change is that an imperfective participle “could stand in place of either a past or non-past event” (61). That is fine. But that is true of the Greek present participle as well[2]—and, in fact, of the English. Taking a closer look at the text of Mat. 2:20 as an example, it can be shown that “present participle” is not an inappropriate name.

One way to show this is to form a plausible Chomskyan-based Deep Structure (DS) scenario that reflects what the angel related to Joseph in a dream, and its Surface Structure (SS), that is, what the angel actually said, and which eventually reached Matthew’s quill. To that end, we will form a DS “dialogue” between the angel and Joseph and see if the use of the “present participle” in reference to those already dead is semantically viable.

Deep Structure

Joseph: (Sleeping, in a state of anxiety, unaware that those seeking to kill the infant Jesus are dead.)

Angel:   (Appearing in Joseph’s dream.) “Joseph, do not be afraid, for I am bringing good news to you.”

Joseph:  (Thinking.) “Oh? What must I do to protect the child from those who are seeking to destroy him?”

Angel:   “Get ready right away, take the child and his mother, and return to the land of Israel, for those (who you think are still) seeking to kill the child are no longer around because they are all dead.”

Surface Structure

Angel:   “Arise, take the child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those seeking the child’s life have died.”

This imaginary scenario is meant to portray the fact that at the moment the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, the threat of those ζητοῦντες to destroy the child was, in Joseph’s mind, strongly present. The angel assured Joseph that those whom Joseph still viewed as a present threat were those who now were dead. Simply put, as long as Joseph remained uninformed about the death of those seeking to find the child, to him the imminent threat was ever so real. This shows that the “present participle” ζητοῦντες is also in harmony with the aspect of the speaker’s (and hearer’s) present.

Incidentally, as far as names go, there is no reason a present participle in Greek cannot be labeled aspectually imperfective, i.e., “imperfective present participle.” And if this sounds somewhat redundant, “imperfective” could be used in an aspectually explanatory sense. For it seems to me that when rightly applied, aspectual terminology regarding perfective or imperfective action, in conjunction with traditional terminology, should in actuality enhance exegesis.

[1]     Nicholas J. Ellis, et al., “The Greek Verbal System and Aspectual Prominence: Revising Our Taxonomy and Nomenclature,” JETS 59/1 (2016): 33–62.

_Greek_Verbal_System_and_Aspect_Promi.pdf (accessed April 2022).

[2]   Note, for example, the present participle κηρύσσων “preaching” (Rom. 2:21) in reference to a non-past situation, and again in (Mat 2:1) in reference to a past event. Copyright 2020. All rights reserved.