Armenian Bible Church            

Հայ Աստուածաշունչի Եկեղեցի

Mailing Address:  P.O. Box 40322  Pasadena, CA 91114 USA

Home Who We Are Food Corner Events Statement of Faith Contact, Feedback



By Mike Lawyer

This short paper is meant to do two things. First, it will attempt to explain the historical present: what it is, how it is used, and when it is used. Second, it will try to show that Romans 7:14-25 does in-deed use the historical present and that understanding this may change the way most Christians view this passage.

Throughout classical Greek literature the historical present has been used to emphasize certain points and events. The Greek author used this tool to help the reader "see" what was happening by using present tense verbs, in order to transport the reader into the past. In certain instances where the context has the events taking place in the past, the author would insert a present tense verb to intensify and make more real the action taking place. This practice of using a present tense verb in a past tense context is what is known as the historical present.

An example where this construction can be seen in the New Testa­ment is Matthew 8:20. The Greek has the verb of "Jesus said to him,.,.', in the present tense. The historical present is used again in vs. 22, and in both cases we can see that Matthew is using it to increase the importance of what Jesus is saying. Some might think the historical present is used infrequently, but it is used at least five times in Mat­thew 8 alone.

The historical present presents some problems to the translator. Does he leave his English rendering in the present tense, making the English rather abrupt? Or does he change the tense to past in order to make the English more readable, consequently losing some of the literalness of the passage? In the Explanation of General Form (p. x) the New American Standard Bible (NASB) says this about the histor­ical present:  

In regard to the use in Greek of the historical present, the Board recognized that in some contexts the present tense seems more unexpected and unjustified to the En­glish reader than a past tense would have been. But Greek authors frequently used the present tense for the sake of heightened vividness by transporting their readers in im­agination to the actual scene at the time of occurrence.  

However, the Board felt that it would be wise to change these historical presents into English past tenses. There­fore verbs marked with an asterisk (*) represent historical presents in the Greek which have been translated with an English past tense in order to conform to modern usage.

 The major thing we notice when we read this concerns the use of the historical present. Whether or not to change to the past tense is up to the individual translator. Based on current English, the transla­tor decides whether or not to change the verb tenses. An example from the New Testament where one group (NASB) decided to change, and another group (New International Version) decided not to change is in John 1:15. The NASB renders the verse as, "John bore witness of Him, and cried out,..." whereas the NIV translated it, "John testi­fies concerning him. He cries out,..." We can clearly see here that the NASB chose to change the historical present to past tense a~d that the NIV chose to leave it in the present tense.

At this point a question arises as to whether the translator always chooses to leave the verb in the present tense, or whether there are times when he simply misses the historical present. That is, does a translator always recognize a historical present?

Generally speaking, a translator uses the context of a verse to dic­tate whether or not a verb is being used in the historical present. We can see, in our earlier example in John 1:15, that the context of John chapter one is in the past tense. John is clearly describing an event that took place in the past. Therefore, when we see a past tense verb in a past tense context, we assume that it is the historical present.

This general rule of context for the historical present Is a good one. However, it is possible still to miss a historical present because of preconceived ideas about certain passages which sometimes cloud the vision of translators. These ideas, or doctrines, cause the translators to translate certain passages in such a way that the passages fit their personal biases, rather than accurately depicting the actual meaning of the author. The seventh chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans (vv. 14-25) is a good example of this kind of improper translating due to pre-conceived doctrine. Most Christians bring to this passage the idea that it is describing the struggle that goes on in the life of the believer

-     that his "old sin nature" is waging war with his new Christ-like na­ture. This also is usually the mindset of a translator when he gets to

this passage. He forgets the rule about context for the historical present and translates the passage leaving the verses in the present tense; even though the context is clearly in the past tense.

The problem of missing the historical present in Romans chapter seven is an important one to note, because accurately translating the verbs here is important for right thinking with regard to our obedience to God. If verbs are left in the present tense, with no though to the context, a reader might (and usually does) use this section as a proof-text that a Christian has a nature to sin, and at the same time, a na­ture not to sin. The problem could be avoided by looking at the con­text. Still, it could be more easily avoided if the translators had recognized the historical present and changed the verbs to past tense. Had this been done the reader would more easily recognize that Paul was describing himself as a non- Christian held in the bondage of sin.

Since most of the verbs are in the historical present, let's look at Ro­mans 7:13-8:2 and change some of them Into past tense to match the surrounding context. Note that verse thirteen is already in the past tense, also that verses 8:1-2 are as they are in the NIV. When reading this passage we are looking for three things. First, we should want unchanging context (that is, no abrupt changes). Second, does the pas­sage fit the context of the surrounding chapters? And third, after read­ing the passage what do we think about what Paul was trying to say. Was he referring to himself as a Christian or a non- Christian?

Except for the altered verb tenses this passage is from the NIV:

Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through was was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sin­ful. We know that the law Is spiritual; but I was unspiritu­al, sold as a slave to sin. I didn't understand what I was doing. For what I wanted to do I did not do, but what I hated I did. And if I did was I didn't want to do, I agreed that the law was good. As it was, it was no longer I myself who was doing it, but it was sin living in me. I know that nothing good lived in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I had the desire to do what was good, but I could not carry it out. For what I did was not the good I wanted to; no, the evil I did not want to do - this I kept on doing. Now if I did what I did not want to do, it was no longer I who did it, but it was sin living in me that was doing it. So I found this law at work: When I wanted to do good, evil was right there with me. For in my inner being I delighted in Gods law; but I saw another law at work in the mem­bers of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I was Who would rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God -through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself In my mind was a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. Therefore, there is now no condemna­tion for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death...

   After reading this passage with the verbs changed, we see that Paul is obviously referring to himself as a non-Christian. When we read the passage in context with the preceding and following chapters, it makes it even clearer that there is no struggle between two opposing natures in the believer. Chapter six tells us the sin nature is dead (vv. 1-14) and chapter eight says that now, as Christians, we are being controlled by the Spirit of God. Chapter seven fits between the two only when the verbs in vv. 14-25 are understood to be historical presents.

When understood to be historical presents, we can also appreciate that the author was using them to "heighten the vividness, thereby transporting their (his) readers in imagination to the actual scene at the time of the occurrence". We can all understand (the Jewish read­ers, to whom the book was written, more so) how he felt because as non-Christians we couldn't do what was right however much we wanted to Paul's use of the historical present here is a good example of how it was supposed to be used.

A question may arise concerning an extended, continuous use of the historical present. Except for the fact that no historical presents are used in Homer, there are no limits on its use in any other Greek literature as described by various Greek grammars. The fact seems to be that the historical present is often used with no restriction. This would include an extended use of it such as we find in Romans 7.