And we also teach that there are different kinds of imperfects. “Descriptive” is the catchall. “Ingressive” focuses attention on the beginning of the action. “Iterative” is repeated action. “Customary” leaves a sense of time behind. But in all these, the action is continuous, ongoing.
So when you come to the account of Jesus trial and crucifixion, you can see the imperfect in action. The Jewish leaders kept yelling, “Crucify him” (επεφωνουν, Luke 23:21). The soldiers were striking (ετυπον) him and were spitting (ενεπτυον) on him (Mark 15:19). And finally we read that Jesus was saying (ελεγεν) to his Father, “Forgive them” (Luke 23:34).
A wonderful picture of their ongoing attack on Christ, and his repeated acts of forgiveness, asking the Father over and over to forgive them.
Except for one small fact; it is not right.
If you check Wallace (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 452), you will see that there is what Dan calls the “Instantaneous Imperfect” (also called aoristic or punctiliar imperfect). He comments, “The imperfect tense is rarely used just like an aorist indicative, to indicate simple past. This usage is virtually restricted to ελεγεν in narrative literature.” For example, “And he said, ‘Let the one who has ears to hear listen!’” (Mark 4:9).
Too bad. I like the idea of repeatedly driving the point home for all to hear, that Jesus really did want the Father to forgive his executioners (or was it the Jewish leadership?). But that isn’t what the text says.
So the moral of the story is, well, what is it? A couple things. Review Wallace on a regular basis. But also pay attention to the translations. None of them that I know translate the ελεγεν in Luke 23:34 as a continuous. There must be a reason.
Regardless, Jesus really did want God to forgive them. He only had to say it once.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.