Historical Present Tense

Historical Present Tense in the Bible

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Historical Present Tense

Historical Present Tense

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

What is the “historical present tense”?

Historical present tense uses verbs in the present tense to indicate an action that took place in the past.

What is the purpose of using the historical present tense?

In some cases, it's 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 Jesus King); 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, the historical present tense is just part of a free-flowing narration, as it can be also in English. Consider this example:

As we were entering the diner, a homeless man came up to us. He looks around at us and says, “Do you have any coins?” When John replied, “If we 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.” Then John replied, “You know what, I think our boss wants you to join us. Could we invite you to come in and dine with us?” His eyes open a bit wider and he says, “Really? Who’s your boss?” So John 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 we were entering the diner, a homeless man came up to us. He looks around at us and says, “Do you have any coins?” When John replied, “If we 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.” Then John replied, “You know what, I think our boss wants you to join us. Could we invite you to come in and dine with us?” His eyes open a bit wider and he says, “Really? Who’s your boss?” So John 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 it 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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