R. Zimmermann, the Aorist Imperative, and the Greek Gurus of the Facebook- and Blogosphere

In my recent blog review of Ruben Zimmermann‘s newly translated book The Logic of Love: Discovering Paul’s “Implicit Ethics” Through 1 Corinthians (trans. Dieter T. Roth; Fortress Academic, 2019; cf. German Version), I focused on tracing some key lines of thought in this work and engaging critically with his treatment of the topic of freedom.

In this post, my goal is to flag up his treatment of present and aorist imperatives, with the goal of learning from others. For my part, while I found Zimmermann’s discussion of the wide range of imperatival forms in 1 Corinthians and his inclusion of them in the appendix to be both helpful and illuminating (111-119, 267-275), I remain uncertain with regard to the validity of his treatment of the present and aorist imperatives. Here are the two key quotations:

“The present imperative is progressive or durative and refers to an action that is ongoing whereas the aorist imperative is definitive or ingressive and usually refers to a single act. A few examples can help illustrate the difference. In 1 Cor 14:1, Διώκετε τὴν ἀγάπην (“Pursue love!”) thus means “keep pursuing love!” or, in a paraphrase, “keep love in view as the goal!” Similarly, the present imperative in 1 Cor 7:2 (ἐχέτω) means that each man or wife should have an ongoing, durative sexual relationship with his own wife or her own husband, respectively. The injunction to clean out the old yeast in 1 Cor 5:7, expressed with an aorist imperative (ἐκκαθάρατε), highlights the ingressive aspect of the command” (35).

“That Paul is aware of the usual Greek distinction between imperatival forms (present imperatives are durative and aorist imperatives are ingressive) is particularly evident in the occurrences of the aorist imperative. For instance, cleaning out the old leaven (1 Cor 5:7) or marrying (1 Cor 7:9) are formulated with an aorist in order to express the desired entrance into an action. The change of aspect in 1 Cor 7:11 is also significant in the application of the divorce prohibition: ἐὰν δὲ καὶ χωρισθῇμενέτω (present imperative) ἄγαμος  τῷ ἀνδρὶ καταλλαγήτω (aorist imperative) but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried (progressive/durative) or else be reconciled to her husband (ingressive). (1 Cor 7:11).” (111)

In short, it is unclear to me whether one can assume that the aorist imperative has an ingressive force commonly or in these specific cases, though Zimmermann’s reading does seem possible to me, at least for the texts that he cites. Hence, I would be very interested to know whether the Greek Grammar Gurus of the facebook- and blogosphere would affirm or criticize Zimmermann with respect to this point, i.e. with a view to general usage or to the specific texts that he references. For example, Mike Aubrey’s recent post on aspect and imperatives, which was posted after I had completed this post, seems to frame the issues in a rather different way from Zimmermann, which leads me to believe that he might not be satisfied with Zimmermann’s presentation of the matter. Am I understanding Aubrey correctly here? And whether or not I am getting him right, what do others think about Zimmermann’s (and Aubrey’s) presentation of this issue?

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5 thoughts on “R. Zimmermann, the Aorist Imperative, and the Greek Gurus of the Facebook- and Blogosphere

  1. Confession: I actually wrote that post a few years ago. I had just re-shared it on social media yesterday.

    But yes, exegetes/commentary writers have a long history of trying to find a formula for what things mean. Aspect isn’t a rigid category in the way that Zimmerman talks here. Sometimes it results in a grammatical/ungrammatical contrast, sometimes its a propositional difference, and sometimes it’s just a nuance of construal. My experience is that everyone seems to want to make an aspect choice somehow propositional or truth-conditional.

    Mary is sleeping in the room next door (English progressive present)
    Mary sleeps in the room next door (English simple present)

    One of these means that Mary sleeps in a location on a regular basis without any assertion about whether she’s sleeping there right now. The other means that Mary is currently asleep in a location right now, but whether or not she sleeps there regularly is another thing entirely. Maybe she does. Maybe she doesn’t.

    That’s a propositional difference. They necessarily denote

    I was talking to Tom the other day and he mentioned that he knew you.
    I talked to Tom the other day and he mentioned that he knew you.

    Here the change in aspect does not affect the larger propositions involved. They’re different, certainly and the difference is still a semantic difference, but there’s no obligation that the two sentences must refer to different situations in the world. Rather they’re more affected by salience and discourse priorities of the speaker.

    • Thanks for your original post and for reposting it. I found your discussion helpful, though I still have a tough time knowing how best to describe the texts that Zimmermann is discussing. Still, despite that problem, I think you have helped me to better understand what is going on grammatically.

  2. I think the actually problematic issue in this quote is the statement “[t]hat Paul is aware of the usual Greek distinction between” durative and aorist stem imperatival forms. I am not sure whether he had any more “awareness” about this issue than a modern-day English or German speaker is aware of such issues in our languages.

    I think one critical observation by Mike that can be applied to this comment by Zimmermann is, in any case, that it’s problematic to evoke the impression that aspectual choice results in two different “kinds” of imperatives. Aspectual distinctions remain the same, regardless of whether the verb is imperative or indicative, etc. So if we talk about aspect and imperatives we should (if I understand Mike correctly) use the same language as when we talk about aspect and indicative … or – if we want to focus on the “result” of the combination of aspectual choice and imperative form/function – we can of course use language that focuses on the action in question (is it a singular event or not, etc.) but we should then avoid the impression that we are commenting on aspect (alone).

    But Mike, perhaps it would be most helpful for ignorant NT scholars like us if you could comment on aspect in 1 Cor 7:11 and Zimmermann’s summary of the matter?

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