Historical Present Tense

Historical Present Tense in the Bible

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Origin of the Bible

Historical Present Tense

The past tense verbs in color were in historical present tense in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was originally written (see Bible origin).

What is “historical present tense”?

It is the use of verbs in the present tense to indicate an action that took place in the past.

What is the purpose of using historical present tense?

In some cases, it is to emphasize a memorable past event and make it more vivid. For example, John wrote that the disciples “see” (instead of “saw”) Jesus walking on water (see Do not be afraid); to identify Judas Iscariot as His betrayer, Jesus “gives” (instead of “gave”) him a piece of bread (see One of you will betray me); the women who came to the tomb “see” (instead of “saw”) the stone door rolled away (see Stone rolled away) and then “run” (instead of “ran”) to alert Jesus’ disciples after finding the tomb empty (see He is risen).

In other cases, historical present tense is just part of a free-flowing narration, as it can be also in English. Consider this example:

As I was entering the restaurant last night, a homeless man came up to me. He looks at me and says, “Do you have any coins?” When I replied, “If I gave you coins, what were you going to do with them,” he says, “Well, when I have enough, I was going to buy something to eat at that gas station across the street.” So I said, “Actually, I think my boss wants you to join my family for dinner tonight. May I invite you to dine with us in this restaurant?” His eyes open a bit wider and he says, “Really? Who’s your boss?” So I told him, “His name is Jesus Christ.”

Did you catch the five historical present tense verbs in the narration above? If not, here it is again with the historical present tense verbs in color:

As I was entering the restaurant last night, a homeless man came up to me. He looks at me and says, “Do you have any coins?” When I replied, “If I gave you coins, what were you going to do with them,” he says, “Well, when I have enough, I was going to buy something to eat at that gas station across the street.” So I said, “Actually, I think my boss wants you to join my family for dinner tonight. May I invite you to dine with us in this restaurant?” His eyes open a bit wider and he says, “Really? Who’s your boss?” So I told him, “His name is Jesus Christ.”

Then why not retain historical present tense in the translation?

While historical present tense can be used in both English and Greek, it was used, if desired by the author, much more liberally in ancient Greek, to the extent that retaining ancient Greek’s historical present tense in a modern English translation would make such a translation awkward to read.

So most English translations translate as past tense the historical present tense found in ancient Greek. While that is reasonable, each such translation should be identified so that the intended emphasis or the free-flowing nature of the narration can be appreciated.

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