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The Perfect Tense-Form and the Son of Man in John 3.13: Developments in Greek Grammar as a Viable Solution to the Timing of the Ascent and Descent*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2013

Madison N. Pierce
Durham University, Abbey House, Palace Green, Durham, DH1 3RS, UK. email:
Benjamin E. Reynolds
Tyndale University College, 25 Ballyconnor Court, Toronto, ON M2M 4B3, Canada. email:


The perfect tense-form verb ἀναβέβηκεν in John 3.13 is usually interpreted in light of traditional verb theory, as a ‘past action with present results’. This interpretation introduces an apparent problematic chronology in that the Son of Man ascends before descending; however, recent developments in Greek grammar, particularly verbal aspect theory, provide a viable solution to this grammatical ‘problem’ and indicate that the Son of Man's descent precedes his ascent.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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We are grateful to Joseph R. Dodson for commenting on an earlier draft of this note and for, in a certain sense, instigating its genesis.


1 Meeks, W., ‘The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism’, JBL 91 (1972) 4472Google Scholar.

2 Ashton, J., ‘The Johannine Son of Man: A New Proposal’, NTS 57 (2011) 508–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 The use of the term ‘tense-form’ (in place of ‘tense’) is common among grammarians. This language is considered more accurate because tense, as we will argue, is more likely located in the context than the verb's form. Additionally, we will avoid the use of ‘tense’ when dealing with the time value of the verb in order to eliminate any possible confusion.

4 See Bultmann, R., The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971) 150Google Scholar n. 2. Cf. von Wahlde, U. C., Commentary on the Gospel of John (Gospel and Letters of John, vol. 2; Grand Rapids, Mich. and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2010) 143.Google Scholar

5 Blass, F. and Debrunner, A., A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (trans. Funk, R. W.; Cambridge University Press, 1961) 175Google Scholar (§340): ‘The perfect combines in itself, so to speak, the present and the aorist in that it denotes the continuance of completed action…’ (emphasis original).

6 Borgen, P., ‘Some Jewish Exegetical Traditions as Background for Son of Man Sayings in John's Gospel (Jn 3, 13–14 and context)’, in L’Évangile de Jean: sources, rédaction, théologie (ed. de Jonge, M.; Gembloux, Belgium: Duculot, 1977) 243–58Google Scholar, at 248. Cf. also Barrett, C. K., The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (2nd edn; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978) 213Google Scholar.

7 Burkett, D., The Son of the Man in the Gospel of John (JSNT Suppl. 56; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1991) 82Google Scholar.

8 Michaels, J. Ramsey, The Gospel of John (NICNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010) 195Google Scholar (emphasis original).

9 Ashton, ‘A New Proposal’, 513–14. Cf. Ashton's earlier view in Understanding the Fourth Gospel (2nd edn; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) 257–9.Google Scholar

10 Frey, J., Die johanneische Eschatologie (3 vols.;WUNT 96, 110, 117; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997–2000) 2.130–1Google Scholar, notes the possibility of a proleptic perfect for 3.13, yet he does not take this view.

11 Bultmann, Gospel, 150–1. Note that Brown, R. E., The Gospel According to John (2 vols.; AB 29, 29A; New York: Doubleday, 1966–70) 1.132Google Scholar, in discussing the perfect of 3.13, speaks of a Johannine ‘indifference to normal time sequences’.

12 Ridderbos, H. N., The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997) 136Google Scholar; Reynolds, B. E., The Apocalyptic Son of Man in Gospel of John (WUNT ii/249; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008) 115–16Google Scholar.

13 Bernard, J. H., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, (2 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark) 1.111Google Scholar; Moloney, F. J., The Johannine Son of Man (Biblioteca di Scienze Religiose 14; 2nd edn; Rome: LAS, 1978) 55Google Scholar.

14 Barrett, Gospel, 213; Schnackenburg, R., The Gospel According to St. John (3 vols.; Tunbridge Wells: Burns & Oates, 1967) 1.393Google Scholar; Frey, Eschatologie, 2.133, 254; Schnelle, U., Das Evangelium nach Johannes (THKNT 4; Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1998) 73Google Scholar.

15 Borgen, ‘Exegetical Traditions’, 250–2; Roth, W., ‘Jesus as the Son of Man: The Scriptural Identity of a Johannine Image’, in The Living Text: Essays in Honor of Ernest W. Saunders (ed. Groh, D.E. and Jewett, R.; Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985) 1126Google Scholar; Burkett, Son of the Man, 85–6; followed by Thyen, H., Das Johannesevangelium (HNT 6; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005) 203Google Scholar.

16 Borsch, F. H., The Son of Man in Myth and History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967) 273Google Scholar; Bühner, J.-A., Der Gesandte und sein Weg im 4. Evangelium: Die kultur- und religionsgeschichtlichen Grundlagen der johanneischen Sendungschristologie sowie ihre traditionsgeschichtliche Entwicklung (WUNT ii/2; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1977) 374–99Google Scholar; Ashton, ‘A New Proposal’, 519–20.

17 Aktionsart is usually translated ‘type of action’. While Aktionsarten were previously thought to be encoded in the verbal form, recent grammatical discussions suggest that Aktionsart is a helpful category of pragmatic values (see n. 18).

18 This misconception about the verbal form demonstrates a confusion of semantics (‘values that are encoded in the verbal form’) versus pragmatics (values that are encoded by combining the semantic value of a form with the context and other factors). Campbell, C. R., Basics of Verbal Aspect (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2008) 22–3Google Scholar.

19 Buist Fanning argues that the traditional view is deficient and that the aspectual value of the verb is more important than the time value; however, Fanning in contrast to Porter and Campbell (below) contends that time is still encoded in the verbal form and that the aspect of the perfect tense-form is ‘condition resulting from an anterior occurrence’ (Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002) 1220, 291Google Scholar).

20 Blass and Debrunner, A Greek Grammar, §175; Wallace, D. B., Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996) 573Google Scholar. See also Moule, C. F. D., An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959) 6Google Scholar; Moulton, J. H., A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1908) 3.81Google Scholar; Wenham, J. W., The Elements of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973) 34Google Scholar. The majority of these grammarians referred to this meaning of the perfect tense-form as the Aktionsart, but more recently Wallace (Greek Grammar, 263) has called this the aspect.

21 Many grammars, after providing this as the basic meaning, also provide several exceptions (e.g. Blass and Debrunner, A Greek Grammar, §§341–6: the present perfect, the extensive perfect, the perfect for the aorist, the perfect in general assertions or imaginary examples, the perfect used to express relative time; Wallace (Greek Grammar, 582) adds ‘perfect of allegory’).

22 See Campbell, Basics, 134.

23 Porter, S. E., Reed, J. and O'Donnell, M. Brook, Fundamentals of New Testament Greek (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010) 315Google Scholar. Also, Young, R. A., Intermediate New Testament Greek: Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1994) 126Google Scholar.

24 Campbell argues that each tense-form encodes an aspect, but then each also has a distinguishing feature. In the case of the perfect tense-form, it is ‘heightened proximity’ – the author invites readers to view the action from a closer perspective spatially and also implies that the action is spatially on-going (i.e. that it might extend beyond what is in view). See Campbell, C. R., Verbal Aspect, the Indicative Mood, and Narrative (SBG 10; New York: Peter Lang) 210–11Google Scholar.

25 While Porter's is the more popular view, Campbell and other grammarians, who insist that stative is an Aktionsart, argue that perfective or imperfective aspects are more likely values for the perfect tense-form. This debate was the topic of the Greek Language and Linguistics section at the Society of Biblical Literature 2013 Annual Meeting in Baltimore.

26 Porter, Fundamentals, 319. Young (Intermediate Greek, 126) also notes the flexibility of the perfect tense-form's time value and adds the possibility of an ‘omnitemporal’ or ‘timeless’ reference.

27 Campbell, Verbal Aspect, 193–5.

28 See nn. 11–12 above and Blass and Debrunner, A Greek Grammar, §344.

29 Further evidence for a present time perfect is noticeable in the thirteen other perfect tense-form verbs in John 3.1–21. Of these, the NRSV translates seven with a present time value (γεννάω: 3.6 (x2), 8; κρίνω: 3.18; and, obviously, οἶδα: 3.2, 8, 11), and two more examples (ὁράω: 3.11; πιστεύω: 3.18) may arguably refer to a present action (or a gnomic or timeless reference).

30 Porter, Fundamentals, 108: ‘[The participle] conveys verbal aspect, giving it a dynamic verbal force not found with the normal noun or other substantive.’

31 Porter, Fundamentals, 110 (emphasis original).

32 Robertson, A. T., A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman, 1934) 1111Google Scholar; Boyer, J. L., ‘The Classification of Participles: A Statistical Study’, Grace Theological Journal 5, no. 2 (1984) 166Google Scholar; Porter, S. E., Idioms of the Greek New Testament (London: Sheffield Academic, 1994) 187–8Google Scholar; Campbell, C. R., Verbal Aspect and Non-Indicative Verbs (SBG 15; New York: Peter Lang, 2008) 41–3Google Scholar; cf. Wallace (Greek Grammar, 614), who cautions that this is mainly with adverbial participles.

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