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1892 Club Housh Talk — Discourse Features and the Historical Present

1892 Logo Yesterday marked the last 1892 Club meeting of the Spring 2014 semester. This gathering of PhD students, across academic disciplines, is a vital component to the PhD community at Southern Seminary. It’s one of my most anticipated times all week. It's so anticipated that I pick my classes, rearrange writing blocks, and move my work schedule so that I can participate in this club.

The 1892 Club is a time devoted to cultivating the mind and virtue of PhD students. Professors and students are able to enjoy a wonderful cup of coffee with exquisite cheese, and have a designated space to converse over ideas. It is here where my relationships with peers and professors turn into a “think-tank”, a time for mentoring, and a cherished time for intellectual thinking. It has been through the relationships and opportunities at the 1892 Club where I have flourished in dialectical thinking, publishing ideas, and a respite of good relationships.

According to the 1892 Club homepage, it is focuses on both peer relationship and mentorship across multiple disciplines.

The 1892 Club provides a dedicated space and time to develop relationships and mentoring within our PhD community through a formal program and open times for fellowship. It is open to all current PhD students at SBTS, across all schools, departments, and stages of the program, in addition to all professors. If you are in one of these groups, you’re already a member of The 1892 Club!

Over the past semester, we’ve had conversations with Ben Mast on writing (see here), how to participate in academic conferences (SBL and ETS), lectures on human flourishing, and a conversation on hermeneutics.

By far, Heath Thomas led the best session. In this gathering, Thomas led the discussion on topics of virtue ethics, OT scholarship, educational pedagogy, the Paideia Centre, and many others. Two items that particularly stood out from this session was his exhortative questions: “Can you tell the story of your discipline?” and “What is the global conversation?” as it relates to your discipline.

1892 Housh TalkEach semester, the final two sessions are set-aside for “Housh Talks”. A “Housh Talk” is a six-minute presentation from students on an idea, topic, paper, etc. related to their studies and personal research. The idea is taken from TED Talks (which are worth listening too on a regular basis!). It allows them to present a thesis and an intense eight-minute response by those present. This dialogical experience is a great way to test ideas, publically entertain nuanced thoughts, and hear immediate critical feedback from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

This semester’s line up was:

April 23

  1. Miguel Echevarria: The Inheritance Promise in Paul
  2. John Morrisson: Human Embodiment in the Puritan Pastoral Practice of Richard Greenham
  3. Shawn Wilhite: Discourse Features and the Historical Present
  4. Matt Emadi: The Role of Psalm 110 in Hebrews

April 30

  1. Andrew Ballitch: Development in Reformed Exposition: John Calvin and William Perkins on Galatians 2:20, 3:7-14, and 4:21-26
  2. Jonathan Kiel: Verbal Valency of Hebrew
  3. Matt Pierce: Who am I? Ethnic Identity Among Diaspora Groups in Louisville, Kentucky

Here is my Housh Talk lecture notes: Discourse Features and the Historical Present (PDF)

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When attempting to tell a story, one will find great difficulty when trying to progress a narrative only using imperfective aspect. Try it some time and you will catch yourself needing to insert a perfective verb.

When analyzing Greek narrative, the Aorist is typically the verb of choice when progressing a narrative.

So, why do Greek authors use a Present Verb that seems to progress the narrative, when an Aorist will do?

A past tense Present verb in narrative genre is a HP.[1]


In light of the multiple theories of the HP, I demonstrate how the HP is a marked verb, different than the default, proto-typical Present verb form.

The HP will either help readers (1) process the discourse by introducing new characters, serve as a marker of speech-speech couplets, and cataphorically highlight subsequent speech material or events.

Or, the HP will note (2) pragmatic features in the discourse, whereby they don’t help the readers process or organize the discourse, but will create suspense and crescendo events.

For the purposes of this Housh Talk, I will only use portions of John 13 as a test case to demonstrate how the HP is best described utilizing a DA framework because it will show the prominence of discourse features with aspectual nuances in the background.

Multiple Views

Prior to examining John 13, I will briefly highlight the views on the HP. Five theories of the HP have appeared within the past 50 years of Greek and linguistic research.

(1) Traditional Position: Portrayal of Vividness

Under this framework, the Present verb form is believed to portray past time and does not neutralize its imperfective aspect.

So, when the HP appears, it is typically used to “describe a past event”[2] in terms of vividness so as to bring the reader into the event.

As Daniel Wallace states, “The reason for the use of the historical present is normally to portray an event vividly, as though the reader were in the midst of the scene as it unfolds.”[3]

(2) Aspectual Reduction: Zero Aspect

Advocates, such as Paul Kiparsky and Stephen Reynolds, argue that the HP reduces the imperfective aspect to nil and is indistinguishable with the Aorist verb.[4]

When the HP is found within a chain of Aorists, it is believed to assume aoristic qualities and are some-what interchangeable.[5]

Therefore, moving away from semantic imperfectivity, the HP is reduced to a zero aspect because of syntactical connections to an Aorist.

(3) Aspect Only Positions

Stanley Porter, Rodney Decker, and Constantine Campbell are representative of aspect-only positions.

Here, I make a distinction between Porter-Decker’s position and Campbell’s position. The reason in doing so is their descriptions of the HP are nuanced enough to make a distinction.

(3.1) Porter—Non-Remote Imperfectivity

Porter’s description of the HP is multi-layered.

First, the HP maintains imperfectivity and portrays a vivid narration of a past event.[6]

Second, the HP provides some discourse features.[7]

Third, a narrative Present is an authorial choice to portray a non-remote imperfective action; distinct from the Imperfect (+remote).[8]

So, an HP maintains imperfective semantics while demonstrating spatial relationship with some discourse features.

(3.2) Campbell—Imperfective-Proximity Spill-Over

Campbell is more confusing than that of the Porter-Decker model.

According to Campbell’s position, the semantic features of the Present verb form share categories of spatial proximity and imperfective aspect.[9]

So, there are two semantic qualities.

The Present is marked for proximity.

However, as Campbell states, “It is therefore prudent to regard these uses as not having significance, but merely exemplifying the imperfective-proximate spill from discourse.”[10]

(4) Discourse Grammar

According to Steven Runge, the HP does not follow the default use of the Present. Therefore, it is an authorial choice to use a HP in narrative when an aorist will do.

A specific hierarchy assists readers and hearers of discourse to interpret and understand the use of each HP. This is not an either/or paradigm; the HP will simultaneously do multiple things.

Runge provides a framework to help structure what is happening with the HP. The semantics of a Present verb are imperfective aspect.

If the semantic meaning is not immediately found, as is the case with the aoristic-like HPs, then it has a Processing Function.[11] This Processing Function assists the readers to process the discourse by highlighting discontinuity in the discourse, developing a new scene, introducing characters, etc.

If the HP is overly used and does not assist to process the discourse, it will have a discourse-pragmatic function to build crescendo in a scene.[12] The HP may utilize the prominence of one feature while encompassing the preceding elements (i.e., Discourse-Pragmatic Function which entails Processing Function which entails Semantic Function).[13]

John 13 and the Historical Present

In John 13, there are 18 (potentially 21) HP. Levinsohn argues it is normal to divide HPs into speech (hereafter, speech HPs) and non-speech (non-speech HPs) categories.[14]

11 (potentially 14) are speech HPs and 7 are non-speech HPs.

Seeing some value in the previous four of five positions on the HP, the Discourse Grammar position has more explanatory power in light of the evidence in John 13.

As I will explain, the HP has processing and pragmatic functions in the discourse.

They help the reader process the discourse by introducing characters, cataphorically highlighting speech content, and coupling dialogue.

They also help the reader to notice pragmatic-features of building crescendos to actions and creating suspense.

Speech Historical Presents

We will begin with speech Historical Presents.

(1) Speech Historical Presents will couple together dialogue

In John 13:6–11, Four HPs couplet together three speech dialogues.

Person A begins the dialogue marked by a HP. Person B answers but by marked by an Aorist. Person A, again, continues the dialogue marked by another HP. Person B answers marked by an Aorist. And so forth.

This speech couplets happens one more time in John 13:36–38.

(2) Speech Historical Presents mark the beginning of a longer speech discourse

At the end of the first groupings of speech-couplets, the final response in the dialogue is marked by a Present, instead of an aorist. This breaks the pattern of a Present-Aorist couplet. According to Levinsohn, this is purposeful and is a cataphoric highlighter pointing to the speech or event.[15]

This cataphoric HP at the end of a speech-speech couplet also happens in John 13:38.

Conc: Speech HPs function to couplet speeches together or serve to cataphorically highlight a subsequent event or speech.

Non-Speech Historical Presents

(1) Non-Speech Historical Presents Introduce new Characters into the scene

Only one non-speech HP has a processing function, the remaining 6 have a pragmatic function. In John 13:6, a HP is used to introduce a new character into the scene.

According to Levinsohn, non-speech HPs involve three elements: (1) the participant has had previous interaction with participants; (2) the verb moves activated participants to the location of significant events; and (3) other factors leading to the highlighted event.[16]

(2) Non-Speech Historical Presents create suspense when used in rapid succession

Two scenes in John 13 (vv. 4–5 and v. 26) use HP in rapid succession. Here, the staccato use does not help process the discourse but has a pragmatic function.

The close clustering of HPs help create suspense and crescendo to climax the event.

As Runge comments, “The repeated use of the HP here has the effect of building to a dramatic peak, yet this should not be construed as the semantic meaning of the HP. The net effect is to slow the discourse flow and build anticipation.”[17]

So, these two HPs in 13.26 have a pragmatic function in the narrative to create tension, suspense, and ultimately, climax with the final HP.

Conc: Non-speech HPs function to introduce new characters or are used in rapid succession to create suspense in the narrative.


The HP is a marked form of the present verb. All five views of the HP have validity. At times, the HP is more vivid and other times it appears to have its aspect reduced.

However, the Discourse Grammar position has the most explanatory power.

Runge provides a convincing framework: Semantic --> Processing --> Pragmatic.

The HP in John 13 helps to process the discourse by introducing new characters into the scene, couples together speech-speech dialogues, and cataphorically highlights a speech or an event.

The HP also has a pragmatic function, whereby they will appear in rapid succession so as to create suspense and crescendo an event.


[1]Constantine R. Campbell, Verbal Aspect, the Indicative Mood, and Narrative: Soundings in the Greek of the New Testament, Studies in Biblical Greek 13 (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), 57.

[2]Wallace, Greek Grammar, 526.

[3]Wallace, Greek Grammar, 526.

[4]Paul Kiparsky, “Tense and Mood in Indo-European Syntax,” Foundations of Language 4, no. 1 (February 1968): 33.

[5]Kiparsky, “Tense and Mood,” 35.

[6]Porter, Verbal Aspect, 196; Decker, Temporal Deixis, 40–41.

[7]Porter, Verbal Aspect, 196.

[8]Porter, Verbal Aspect, 207.

[9]Campbell, Verbal Aspect, 37; Campbell’s verbal presuppositions are not tense-based but spatially related. He has distanced himself from Porter’s background-foreground-frontground schema because of the non-uniformity of their use. Therefore, Campbell has chosen to vie for an aspectual base with spatial rather than temporal categories. Campbell, Verbal Aspect, 13–16.

[10]Campbell, Verbal Aspect, 67 (emphasis added).

[11]Runge, Discourse Grammar, 132.

[12]Runge, Discourse Grammar, 133; Steven E. Runge, “The Verbal Aspect of the Historical Present Indicative in Narrative,” in Discourse Studies & Biblical Interpretation: A Festschrift in Honor of Stephen H. Levinsohn, ed. Steven E. Runge (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2011), 204.

[13]Runge has provided a “processing hierarchy” which works from the ground-up. Runge, Discourse Grammar, 132.

[14]Levinsohn, Discourse Features, 201.

[15]Levinsohn, Discourse Features, 252 (emphasis in original).

[16]Levinsohn, Discourse Features, 208.

[17]Runge, Discourse Grammar, 141.

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