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Continuous Greek Verbs

Continuous, Greek, participle, past imperfect, imperatives, infinitives, continual

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It seems fundamental that the Greeks had no need to communicate to each other anything that we don’t also need to communicate.  We both live on the same planet and do the same things to maintain life and pursue liberty and happiness.  So the need to communicate a continuous or repeated aspect of some verbs is likely still with us, if indeed they needed to do this.  It should be no surprise if we do it differently than they did. 


Actually, if one thinks about it, there are few actions humans can do continuously.  Breathing is one that could be described as continuous, but even that can be interrupted.  In going through examples, it is apparent that ‘continuous’ is a very loose, general and possibly misleading description of the characteristic of these verbs.  In many cases the action continues for a very short time.  In some cases it can be understood to be of unspecified duration.  In other cases the action may apply at any future time not necessarily ‘continuously’.  In still other cases it is recognized as already completed.  The context usually comes through in the English sufficiently to allow the reader to understand the intent.


I have chosen examples of NKJV translated Greek verses.  Some are very typical, others chosen to bring the verb form intently into focus.  I have marked the ‘continuous’ verb with an ‘*’.  Keep in mind Webster’s (1972) definition of ‘continuous’.  It consists of two parts.  The first certainly fits with my perception.  “1. going on or extending without interruption or break; unbroken; connected.”  The second definition describes a technical mathematic function.  It has no relevance to this subject.


Present imperatives are considered to be ‘continuous’. Mat 5:44  "But I say to you, love* your enemies, bless* those who curse you, do* good to those who hate you, and pray* for those who spitefully use you and persecute you”.  Would a simple reading of this leave the reader with the perception that any one of these actions is sufficient?  Would he think all must be done, but only once?  Commands in English are no different than Greek.  They are assumed to apply continually unless there is something in the context that limits them.  All these imperatives are considered in English to be continuous even though we may not highlight that aspect of them.  A better way to describe ‘continuous’ would probably be ‘open-ended’.  There are no restrictions on duration or frequency.  ‘Continual’ might also be more appropriate.  Continual differs from ‘continuous’ in that it allows for varying voids or breaks between episodes of an action.


Were all those imperatives in Matthew 5:44 exhorting the Greeks to do them all continuously?  It doesn’t take anyone with a doctorate in time management to understand that a human is incapable of doing all these actions continuously, especially if one is also supposed to be doing the imperatives in I Thessalonians 5:14 at the same time.  It is easy to understand that Messiah is expecting that whenever the opportunity presents itself the believers conduct should reflect this approach.  When we are around an enemy we show concern for him.  If someone curses us we don’t curse back, but bless.  If someone hates us, we should do good to them, etc.  Messiah is not exhorting continuous, ‘without interruption’ conduct, but an open-ended, whenever-the-occasion-presents-itself, conduct.  It is apparent there is some repetition involved, but the overall thrust is to continue this conduct although not exclusively.  This is easily understood as free of time constraints in English.  English teachers just don’t make a big deal of it the way some Greek teachers do.  One doesn’t need to know these Greek verbs are ‘continuous’ to understand the intent of the author. 


Php 3:17 “Brethren, join* in following my example, and note* those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.”  Paul is exhorting people to focus their attention on the things of Messiah, not on earthly things.  He is striving to set the example and they are to join in and make note of others who are doing so.  There is no time constraint in the English.  Are they ‘continuously’ joining?  Perhaps as long as they live they are.  I suppose it depends on how finely one breaks down their time.  Paul is exhorting them to have a particular mentality and approach to life.  One could continue in this mentality while actually occupied in very physical tasks.  It doesn’t necessarily mean they are hard at work ‘pressing toward the goal’ every minute, but like the instruction of Mathew 5:44, they rise to the occasion whenever it is presented.  Sleeping at night does not mean they have abandon a higher level of conduct.


‘Noting’ those who so walk is another matter.  How long did that take?  Was there a written register or a mental one?  It seems apparent this consumed very little of their time.  They were not making notes continuously, but whenever they happened across someone to whom it applied.  I don’t think we would call this ‘noting’ repetitive.  It was probably not expected to be limited to a certain time period.  In any case, the English doesn’t limit how long the believers have to continue joining or how long or often they were to make notes. 


Another of these supposedly ‘continuous’ verbs is the present infinitive.  An example is in Philippians 4:12 “I know how to be abased*, and I know how to abound*. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full* and to be hungry*, both to abound* and to suffer need*.”  ‘Abased, abound, full, hungry & suffer’ are all present infinitives.  Do we think Paul experienced these sensations only once instantaneously?  Certainly not.  It is also certain they weren’t all occurring to him at the same time ‘continuously’.  None of them was actually ‘continuous’, but in the course of life one would prevail, then the other.  Which prevailed was open-ended.  The nature of the words includes an assumed although undefined duration.  They talk really of a condition, not an action.  The condition is assumed to continue until something changes.  Certainly that is the way it worked with Paul too.


A second example is Acts 24:23.  “So he commanded the centurion to keep* Paul and to let him have* liberty(relaxed confinement), and told him not to forbid* any of his friends to provide* for or visit him.”  Do we think this only lasted for an instant?  That’s silly.  Was it continuous?  Not entirely.  He was brought up to testify on a number of occasions, which would have brought him out of even his relaxed confinement.  Is it still continuing?  No, the story indicates he was sent to Italy sometime later.  We assume he remained on and off in the above condition until then.  There seems to be nothing we are missing if we don’t understand that these infinitives are ‘continuing’ in the Greek.  The English does not assume a narrow point in time for any of these infinitives.  The context clearly shows how these things were continuous. 


Another ‘continuous’ verb form is the past indefinite.  Mat 8:8 ‘The centurion answered and said*, "Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed.”’


It is fairly obvious there is little continuum involved in this example.  The speaking continued until the centurion was done speaking.  This is typical with the vast majority of this verb form.  Generally the duration is evident from the context or simply remains unspecified rather than continuous.  It is ridiculous to think that the Greeks considered that the breath used to say these words continued reverberating around the world and is making waves to this day. 


The Greeks expressed themselves differently than English speakers.  To more closely mimic Greek speech we could translate ‘and said’ as ‘saying’.  It makes the account into a more lively story and also highlights a bit the continuing aspect of the Greek.  ‘Saying’ continues until the speaker is finished.  There is no clouding of what is happening with ‘and said’.  The story may not seem quite as animated in normal English.


Mt 1:25 “and did not know* her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.”  If we attach ‘continuous’ to this ‘continuous’ verb this would tell us Joseph did not ‘know continuously’ Mary until after Messiah was born.  With this addition we are told that Joseph and Mary were not involved in continuous sex.  That is obviously not the author’s intention.  It is obvious they did not ever engage in sex.  How long this continued is clarified by the context.  If one wants to highlight the intention of this ‘continuous’ verb, the way to do it would be ‘…did not ever know her till…’  However, the original translation is not confusing.


This highlights the difference between the continuous nature or quality of the verb and a verb that defines a repeated action.  ‘Strike’ and ‘beat’ can illustrate the relationship.  Suppose striking a ball will pop it.  If we want to clearly show a ‘continuous’ condition we say: ‘Anyone ever striking the ball will pop it’.  If we say ‘Anyone striking the ball continuously will pop it.’  We have changed the meaning of the author.  We are saying: ‘Anyone beating the ball will pop it.’


Were all the previous examples misleading because of the use of ‘continuous’?  The previous examples used the word to apply to the ongoing application of the verb, not the repeating of the action.  This is a subtle distinction and shows how easy it is to confuse the two.  In some cases there is no difference.


Mt 13:34 “All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak* to them”.  This example is similar to the previous.  It is not telling us that he did not speak continuously unless He had a parable to put forward, but that if He ever spoke, he spoke in parables.  The duration of time covered is unspecified, i.e., not limited.  Again, if one wanted to highlight the ‘continuous’ condition it would be best done with: ‘without a parable He did not ever speak to them


Lu 2:38 “And coming in that instant she gave thanks* to the Lord, and spoke* of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem.”  If Anna gave thanks continually she would not have been able to speak about anything else.  Humans can only say one thing at a time.  It is apparent that after voicing her appreciation to the Creator she took opportunity to promote His plan of redemption through Messiah to ‘all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem’.  Were those people all in that spot continuously to listen to Anna?  Again, the intent is obviously that if ever one of these people showed up at the temple she took the opportunity to promote the Creator’s plan of redemption through Messiah.  This is fully understood with the English.  The action is really open-ended not continuous.  The appropriate use of ‘ever’ could reflect or make evident the Greek ‘continuous’ verb.  It is not really necessary.


Mt 18:28  "But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed* him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat*, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’  It is automatically understood that these actions involved more than an instant of time, but were not ‘continuous’ either.  The fellow servant owed the money for a while.  There is no way to know how long.  It doesn’t matter.  Certainly the throat grabbing didn’t take long, nor likely was either action repetitive.


This example is typical of these supposedly ‘continuous’ verbs.  The duration is either obvious or simply left unspecified.  The action continued until it stopped.  Little or nothing is lost in the English.


The last verb tense considered ‘continuous’ is the present participle.  Even in English we connect a continuing action to participles.  We look to the context to determine duration.  Translators often don’t carry the participle into the English because the Greeks used them to animate their stories where we would not.  Sometimes emphasis or subtle meanings are lost, but not often.  In some cases to clarify I have noted a more literal translation to highlight the participle in the original Greek. 


Luke 18:7 "And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry (are crying) out* day and night to Him, though He bears (is being patient) long* with them?”  If the meaning is ‘continuous’ crying out day and night they will have no time for anything else.  Repeatedly crying out makes more sense.  The English crying out, day and night, automatically carries the sense of an open ended situation without the absolute continuum that ‘without interruption’ requires.  Doing this “day and night” instantly alerts an English reader to the repetitive nature with no duration specified.  One day-night is not assumed.


The ‘continuous’ nature of patience is also understood.  In fact we would assume an extended time is involved.  The use of ‘long’ is somewhat redundant, which may indicate the Greeks didn’t depend heavily on this ‘continuous’ aspect of this verb in this record.  The same is true of crying out.  If the Greek text is relying on the ‘continuous’ nature of the verb, including ‘day and night’ would be unnecessary.  The English loses nothing of the duration or repetition intended by the author.  Of course the redundancy could also be because of a Hebrew mindset in the author.


1Tim 5:13 “And besides they learn to be idle, wandering* about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying* things which they ought* not.”  Here we have people who are idle, wondering continuously, saying continuously things which they ought continuously not say.  Do they never sleep?  We all know what a busybody and a gossip is.  They do not spread their slander continuously, but it is continued irregularly whenever they have the opportunity.  The English loses nothing without highlighting the ‘continuous’ Greek verb.


John 10:2 "But he who enters* (is entering) by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.”  If one is entering continuously by the door he will never actually get through it.  Whenever the shepherd enters, he enters by the door.  Ancient Greek barn doorways were not significantly different than our own.  The duration is self evident in English.  There could be a repetitive aspect in entering, i.e., he consistently uses the door.  It is apparent from the surrounding context this is not the concern of the author.


Mt 7:11  "If you then, being* evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask* (are asking) Him!” 


Was Messiah’s audience more evil than people are today?  Since they took the time to listen to Him, it seems doubtful.  Likely there was some repetitive evil in their conduct, but Messiah acknowledged there was also good.  Paul acknowledged that certainly before conversion there was no good thing in him (Rom 7:18).  Since there is “none good but one” (Mat 19:17) Messiah was not inaccurate to label them evil.  Were they continuously evil?  Their evil was mixed with good.  It was not continuous.  Sometimes they were being evil, sometimes not.  Scripture generally divides humanity into two groups, the righteous and sinners.  Messiah evidently assumed the vast majority were in the latter category.  ‘Continuous’ verbs are usually not absolutely continuous, but highlight a regular or even irregular condition or activity.  The matter is open-ended.


Does one need to ask ‘continuously’ in order for the Father give them good things?  When are they supposed to work so they have something to share with the needy (Eph 4:28)?  Rather than continuous, it is certainly more practical to understand this asking as ‘regular’.  The English does not clearly indicate more than just a single request may be necessary.  If things are important typically there are two witnesses in scripture that touch on the subject.  This holds true for this scripture considering the next scripture we will examine.  Clarification can be sought elsewhere if there is a question.


To include the thought that one may need to ask multiple times, a translation of: “to those who are ever asking Him” may be desirable.  With this translation one may lose the concept that a single request may be sufficient.  ‘Ever’ carries meanings that are not absolutely continuous, so might not be considered so rigid as ‘continuously’.  If the petitioner finds that one request was sufficient he will probably not be disappointed.  If one didn’t mind being wordy, ‘asking and ever asking’ could be used.  If the action is repetitive within that duration extra verbiage may be necessary to make absolutely certain the whole intention of the author is carried forward. 


Are we missing something in the English if we don’t understand the ‘continuous’ nature of these Greek verbs?  We found one example involving possibly both a single and repetitive action that was not easily duplicated in English.  The vast majority of the time, understanding the duration is not a problem.  Unfortunately, the Greek text is full of these ‘continuous’ verbs.  This study has not carefully examined each case.  Enough have been that statistically it is unlikely any other significant problems will appear.  If someone tries to foist off corrupt understanding by baffling with strange and esoteric principles of Greek grammar it can be easy to be deceived.   ‘Continuous’ verbs are not a reason to be baffled.  The duration of the activity is usually apparent from the context.  ‘Continuous’ verbs may be applicable both initially and then repetitively.  Average English translations may not make this absolutely clear.  However, being ‘continuous’ refers to duration of applicability, not frequency of repetition or duration of repetition.


If one leans on the ‘continuous’ nature of certain Greek verbs to make their point, keep in mind that the activity is not likely continuous, but to be continued whenever appropriate.  If one wants to highlight the ‘continuous’ nature of a verb, the appropriate use of ‘whenever’ or ‘ever’ immediately before the verb or negation will consistently accomplish that purpose. ‘Ever’ can carry a meaning of ‘at any time’ or ‘at all times’.  The context will determine which.  Usually at any time will apply to things to be done.  At all times will apply to things to be avoided.


In cases where ‘continually’ will work, ‘ever’ will work as well.  If they do not produce the same meaning the use of ‘continually’ is probably being misapplied.  There is not much that humans can do continually.  They can avoid doing things and continue life supporting functions like breathing.  The only other truly continuous activity humans can probably do is to directly honor their Creator.  The Creator can do continuous activity, but not everything He does is continuous.  The context is typically adequate to inform us about duration.


Care should especially be taken not to try to show the ‘continuous’ nature of the verb by adding ‘continuously’ or ‘continually’ after the verb. Typically this modifies the meaning of the verb rather than setting the duration to be ‘continuous’.


For instance:  If ‘not swearing’ came from a Greek present participle the best translation might be ‘not ever swearing’ or ‘not swearing ever’.  ‘Continually not swearing’ would work too, but ‘continually’ changes the meaning of the verb unless it comes before negation.  ‘Not swearing continually’, although possibly ambiguous, would usually be taken to mean the swearing was not always being done rather than never done.  The meaning of the verb was changed from ‘swearing’ to ‘swearing continually’ or repeatedly.  Sometimes this is not critical, but sometimes, as in the above case, it is if one wants to understand the intention of the author.