The fallacy of "prophetic perfect"

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R.J. Furuli
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The fallacy of "prophetic perfect"

Postby R.J. Furuli » Thu May 16, 2019 9:53 am

Dear List-members,



Are there list-members who really are interested in Hebrew grammar? Please let me hear your opinion of my points below.

The astronomer Clausius Ptolemy lived in the 2nd century CE. In his days, the belief was that the earth was the center of the universe, and the sun and the moon and the planets revolved around the earth. It was also believed by religious people that because God is perfect, the heavenly bodies must move in perfect circles. When observations were made showing that the orbits of the heavenly bodies could not be perfectly circular, an ad hoc theory was coined in order to save the view of perfect circles: The heavenly bodies move both in perfect circles around the earth and in perfect circles perpendicularly on their own orbits. Thus, the theory was saved, but without any evidence!

In the first part of the 19th century, the belief was that Hebrew perfect represented past tense or completed action (some still believe this). As the Bible study progressed, it was discovered that many perfects had future reference (I refer to 965 perfects with future reference in my doctoral dissertation). In order to save the theory, the “prophetic perfect” was introduced. The perfects really were past/completed, but that was in the mind of the prophet—he was so certain that the prophecy would be fulfilled, that he used past tense/completed action for future events.

A great number of grammars present “prophetic perfect” as a fact. However, the late H.S. Nyberg was a Swedish grammarian who rejected the “prophetic perfect.” In his view, “the so-called prophetic perfect that has been of such importance in the exegesis and in the grammars does not exist.” (His italics.) He says that such a view is “pure mystification” and in order to accept it one has to “seek recourse in psychological or parapsychological explanations.” (Nyberg, Hebreisk Grammatik (Hebrew Grammar), 280.) In my view, Nyberg is right.

The practical problem with the “prophetic perfect” view is that all Bible translations (or, at least all that I know—all-propositions are dangerous) translate many perfects with future reference in prophetic texts with English simple past or perfect. By this the readers are misled, because they fail to understand to which time the prophecy refer.

What is your opinion on "prophetic perfect"?


Best regards,


Rolf J. Furuli
Stavern
Norway

kwrandolph
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Re: The fallacy of "prophetic perfect"

Postby kwrandolph » Fri May 17, 2019 12:38 am

R.J. Furuli wrote:Dear List-members,

Are there list-members who really are interested in Hebrew grammar? Please let me hear your opinion of my points below.


Yes, belatedly so, after realizing that many of the definitions given in standard dictionaries are not accurate to usage.

R.J. Furuli wrote:In the first part of the 19th century, the belief was that Hebrew perfect represented past tense or completed action (some still believe this).


That’s what I was taught when I studied Hebrew. But already at that time some were suggesting that the conjugations were for linguistic aspect (time duration), not tense (point time in relation to the subject). When I read Tanakh, I realized that neither the tense model nor the aspect model fit the text that I read.

Biblical Hebrew doesn’t have a perfect (a word referring to past tense) nor a perfective (a word referring to completed time or one time event). Use of these terms in relation to Biblical Hebrew language causes confusion, particularly among those who are just beginning their studies in Biblical Hebrew. Therefore, those terms shouldn’t be used.

R.J. Furuli wrote:As the Bible study progressed, it was discovered that many perfects had future reference (I refer to 965 perfects with future reference in my doctoral dissertation). In order to save the theory, the “prophetic perfect” was introduced. The perfects really were past/completed, but that was in the mind of the prophet—he was so certain that the prophecy would be fulfilled, that he used past tense/completed action for future events.

A great number of grammars present “prophetic perfect” as a fact.


That’s what I was taught.

R.J. Furuli wrote:The practical problem with the “prophetic perfect” view is that all Bible translations (or, at least all that I know—all-propositions are dangerous) translate many perfects with future reference in prophetic texts with English simple past or perfect. By this the readers are misled, because they fail to understand to which time the prophecy refer.


I think most translators do ad hoc translations, instead of strictly following any theory of Biblical Hebrew grammar. That puts the reader of translations at the mercy of how a translator understood each text.

R.J. Furuli wrote:What is your opinion on "prophetic perfect"?


It doesn’t exist. The “perfect” doesn’t exist, therefore, the “prophetic perfect” can’t exist.

R.J. Furuli wrote:Best regards,


Rolf J. Furuli
Stavern
Norway


Thanks for the question

Karl W. Randolph.

R.J. Furuli
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Re: The fallacy of "prophetic perfect"

Postby R.J. Furuli » Sun May 19, 2019 2:37 am

Jason Hare wrote:

I imagine that a discussion of any feature of biblical Hebrew that can be exhibited in the text should be useful.

The book of Amos was written before the fall of Israel, we can assume (I believe), yet it uses perfect forms to describe Israel's fall:

Amos 5:2
נָֽפְלָה֙ לֹֽא־תוֹסִ֣יף ק֔וּם בְּתוּלַ֖ת יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל נִטְּשָׁ֥ה עַל־אַדְמָתָ֖הּ אֵ֥ין מְקִימָֽהּ׃

The prophetic perfect (perfectum propheticum) was mentioned by Waltke & O'Connor, Gesenius, David Kimḥi (דוד קמחי), and others, so it has support form a wide variety of grammarians and Hebrew commentators.

Why do I get the feeling that this question is a distraction from the point we're engaging, though?


Dear Jason,

As for your last clause, I do not know the origin of your feeling. But such a feeling is strange for a Hebrew scholar, because the issue of “prophetic perfect” has to do with how Hebrew should be translated. And translation is not a distraction.

Please look at Isaiah Isaiah 10:27:28

NJB: 27 When that day comes (perf c ), his burden will fall (impf) from your shoulder, and his yoke from your neck, and the yoke will be destroyed (perf) … 28 He has reached (perf) Aiath, he has moved (perf) on to Migron, he has left (impf) his baggage train at Michmash.

NIV: 27 In that day (perf c ) their burden will be lifted (impf) from your shoulders, their yoke from your neck; the yoke will be broken (perf) because you have grown so fat. 28 They enter Aiath (perf); they pass through (perf) Migron; they store (impf) supplies at Micmash.

RJF: 27 And it must occur (perf c ) in that day that his burden will be lifted (impf) from your shoulder, and his yoke from your neck, and the yoke will be broken (perf) from the oil. He will indeed come (perf) against Aiath, and he will pass through (perf) Migron, and at Mikmash he will be storing (impf) his supplies.

In all three translations the three verbs in v. 27 are translated with English futures, including the third verb, which is a perfect. But the rendering of the two perfects and the imperfect in verse 28 is different in all three translations. The NJB implies that the actions, including the imperfect, are completed. NIV does what in German is called “Die flucht ins Präsens” (The flight to Present)—present is used when the translators are uncertain. My translation renders all three verbs with English future. But I mark the difference bryerrn the imperfective and the perfective aspects. The perfect stands at the beginning of the clause without a prefixed waw. This is unusual and suggest that the verb is stressed. This is marked by the adverbial “indeed.”

Will not readers who see all three translations be confused? They will wonder: What is the time reference of verse 28? So, “prophetic perfect” may lead to confusion.

Let us look at Amos 5:2, that you refer to:


NJB: She has fallen down (perf), never (impf) to rise (infin) again, the virgin Israel. There she lies (perf) on her own soil, with no one to lift (part) her up.

NIV: “Fallen (perf) is Virgin Israel, never (impf) to rise (infin) again, deserted (perf). in her own land, with no one to lift (part) her up.”

RJF: She will certainly fall (perf). The virgin of Israel will not again (impf) rise up (inf). She will indeed be deserted (perf) in her land with no one restoring (part) her.

A reader of these three translations will again be confused. The words of Amos are presented as a prophecy about the future. But this is hidden by NJB and NIV. So a discussion of “prophetic perfect” is not a distraction, it is a core issue of Classical Hebrew.

A note on my translation: I again mark stress by the use of "certainly," because the first perfect is sentence initial without a prefixed waw. In most cases, the differences between the imperfective and the perfective aspects can be shown in translations with future reference. But sometimes the Aktionsart and lexical meaning of a verb prevents this, as in the case with the imperfect in 5:2.

I have considered all the perfects in the books of the prophets, and I have made new translations of practically all the perfects with future reference. without using "prophetic perfect." The result is that 697 perfects from 110 chapters in the prophets have been translated by English future. I would also like to mention that 84 consecutive imperfects in these texts have been translated by English future.

Best regards,

Rolf J. Furuli
Stavern
Noeway

R.J. Furuli
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Re: The fallacy of "prophetic perfect"

Postby R.J. Furuli » Sun May 19, 2019 3:29 am

Dear Karl,

Thank you very much for your comments. You have made several important observations.

You wrote:

R.J. Furuli wrote:In the first part of the 19th century, the belief was that Hebrew perfect represented past tense or completed action (some still believe this).


That’s what I was taught when I studied Hebrew. But already at that time some were suggesting that the conjugations were for linguistic aspect (time duration), not tense (point time in relation to the subject). When I read Tanakh, I realized that neither the tense model nor the aspect model fit the text that I read.

Biblical Hebrew doesn’t have a perfect (a word referring to past tense) nor a perfective (a word referring to completed time or one time event). Use of these terms in relation to Biblical Hebrew language causes confusion, particularly among those who are just beginning their studies in Biblical Hebrew. Therefore, those terms shouldn’t be used.


Your observations are correct, Hebrew neither has tenses nor aspects referring to completed time. But the issues need some elucidation. Tense is defined as “grammaticalization of location in time,” and words marked for tense will always show the same tense. For example, the words “went” and “thought” have an intrinsic past tense that never change. Tense is an objective property that is the same in all languages.

The reason why we can say that Hebrew does not have tenses is that no verb form always refers to the future or to the past. The only form that could have been viewed as a tense, is imperfect consecutive. However, in my analysis of the 49,384 verbs in the Tanakh, I found that 997 imperfect consecutives have non-past reference. Therefore, imperfect consecutive is not a tense (there is a rather simple explanation why 13,539 imperfct consecutives have past reference).

While tense is the same in all tense-languages (a few languages are tenseless), aspect is language specific. A failure to realize this is a cardinal error in Hebrew studies. In English, perfect represents the perfective aspect, and present participle represents the imperfective aspect. English perfect is an objective property. It always shows that an action is completed. The English participle is a subjective property. It shows progressive action after the beginning and before the end of an event. But it does not show that an event is not completed. The participle in example 1) makes visible progressive action, but the event is completed, as "yesterday" and "was" indicate..

1) Yesterday, Rita was walking in the garden.

One problem with the definition of Hebrew verbs is that the aspectual properties of the English aspects have been projected to the Hebrew verbal system. So, as you suggest, no Hebrew verb form signals completed action. as does the English perfective aspect. Hebrew imperfect, imperfect conjunctive, imperfect consecutive, perfect, and perfect consecutive all can refer to the past, present, and future, as well as to completed and uncompleted events.

The mentioned facts show that Hebrew does not have aspects like the English aspects. But they do not show that Hebrew does not have aspects. Hebrew does have aspects! But the definition of these aspects are different from the definition of English aspects.

You wrote:

I think most translators do ad hoc translations, instead of strictly following any theory of Biblical Hebrew grammar. That puts the reader of translations at the mercy of how a translator understood each text.


You are absolutely correct! For many years, while I taught Semitic languages at the University of Oslo, I had a close contact with some of the translators at the Norwegian Bible Society, who were making a revision of the English Church Bible. And as you say, Bible translators are not thinking in grammatical categories when the translate a verse. And they do not follow rules that distinguish between the Hebrew aspects. Thus, the expression “ad hoc” translation is an accurate expression.

However, “prophetic perfect” is always lurking in the background when the prophets are translated. And all translations of which I know, including the Norwegian Church Bible of 2011, have a great number of past and perfect renderings of verbs with future reference. Thus, the readers are confused.


Best regards,


Rolf J. Furuli
Stavern
Norway

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Jason Hare
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Re: The fallacy of "prophetic perfect"

Postby Jason Hare » Mon May 20, 2019 4:58 am

Rolf J. Furuli wrote:As for your last clause, I do not know the origin of your feeling. But such a feeling is strange for a Hebrew scholar, because the issue of “prophetic perfect” has to do with how Hebrew should be translated. And translation is not a distraction.

(1) I am not a Hebrew scholar. Never made that claim. I am a Hebrew teacher. I tend to focus on spoken Hebrew with the goal of helping people acclimate to Israeli culture, though I have taught basic biblical Hebrew on occasion.

(2) Translation isn't a distraction from discussions about Hebrew language, but we weren't talking about Hebrew language at that point – but rather about how we can streamline this forum to encourage more variety (and activity) in the discussions.

Rolf J. Furuli wrote:Please look at Isaiah Isaiah 10:27:28 [sic, 10:27-28]

With pleasure, but I'd much prefer that we look at the Hebrew text than at translations.

וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא יָס֤וּר סֻבֳּלוֹ֙ מֵעַ֣ל שִׁכְמֶ֔ךָ וְעֻלּ֖וֹ מֵעַ֣ל צַוָּארֶ֑ךָ וְחֻבַּ֥ל עֹ֖ל מִפְּנֵי־שָֽׁמֶן׃
בָּ֥א עַל־עַיַּ֖ת עָבַ֣ר בְּמִגְר֑וֹן לְמִכְמָ֖שׂ יַפְקִ֥יד כֵּלָֽיו׃


והיה is a vav-conversive. It is common for והיה to refer to the future in the way that ויהי refers to the past and is part of narrative. This moves the "deictic center" (as people are like to call it) into the future and has all the verbs in the passage depend on it for their reference. All of the perfect forms that follow vavs in these verses are of future references (vav-conversives). The main verbs here are imperfects (יסור and יפקיד), taking the perfect forms (בא and עבר) as coincidental and taking place prior to the final main verb. That is, he came and passed before he deposited.

I don't see anything out of the ordinary in these verses, nor do I see any instance of the prophetic perfect.

Rolf J. Furuli wrote:Let us look at Amos 5:2...

When you propose that we "look at" a text, why do you not immediately provide the Hebrew text? This isn't B-Translations; it's B-Hebrew. We can handle it.

נָֽפְלָה֙ לֹֽא־תוֹסִ֣יף ק֔וּם בְּתוּלַ֖ת יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל נִטְּשָׁ֥ה עַל־אַדְמָתָ֖הּ אֵ֥ין מְקִימָֽהּ׃

I don't disagree with how you label the verbs, of course. I don't understand how you can label them as perfects and yet translate them with the future while claiming that the prophetic perfect is nothing. Are these forms perfects (נפלה? yes... נִטְּשָׁה? yes...)? They are perfects. They are predicting the future from the perspective of the speaker. It is a perfect used to give prophecy. Isn't that the very definition of prophetic perfect?

Rolf J. Furuli wrote:I have considered all the perfects in the books of the prophets, and I have made new translations of practically all the perfects with future reference. without using "prophetic perfect."

I struggle to even know what you mean by saying that you translate them with future reference and deny that they are prophetic perfects. I fear we may be talking past one another (as we did not the thread about סביב a while back).

Jason
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Re: The fallacy of "prophetic perfect"

Postby Jason Hare » Mon May 20, 2019 6:20 am

I don't understand your position, Rolf. It seems that you think "prophetic perfect" deals with translations. It has to do with the HEBREW text. It is a perfect that is predicting the future. By rendering it with the future tense, you are confirming its reality.
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R.J. Furuli
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Re: The fallacy of "prophetic perfect"

Postby R.J. Furuli » Mon May 20, 2019 8:08 am

Jason Hare wrote:

I don't understand your position, Rolf. It seems that you think "prophetic perfect" deals with translations. It has to do with the HEBREW text. It is a perfect that is predicting the future. By rendering it with the future tense, you are confirming its reality.


Dear Jason,

Yes, we are clearly talking past each other. The term "prophetic perfect" is a technical term related to Bible translation.

I give two definitions of “prophetic perfect" from Hebrew Grammars:

Davidson, Hebrew Syntax, 58–63:
The simple perf. is used to express an action completed either in reality or in the thought of the speaker.

Gesenius Hebrew Grammar (312, 313): “The prophet so transports himself in imagination into the future that he describes the future event as if it had been already seen or heard by him.

So, “prophetic perfect” is not a perfect used by a prophet to tell about the future, as you suggest. “Prophetic perfect” is based on the view that Hebrew perfect represents completed action. When Hebrew perfect is used by a prophet to describe the future, it is by definition, still completed—but that is in the mind of the prophet. I have claimed that this is pure nonsense. It is a psychological or parapsychological explanation that is not based on linguistics. When a Bible writer speaks about the future, his words are never completed, except in the few cases where the context show that the Hebrew perfect has the force of future perfect.

The issue of prophetic perfect is primarily a translation issue. My translation of 697 Hebrew perfects in the prophets with English future is unprecedented! It flies in the face of all Bible translations I am aware of. A great number of these perfects are in the extant Bible translations translated by English past or perfect, and sometimes by present. My claim is that the Bible translations in these cases misuse the Hebrew text, they use the technical term "prophetic perfect," which is fiction. The result is that the readers are confused, because they have difficulties in understanding to which time particular words refer.

Best regards,


Rolf J. Furuli
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Schubert
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Re: The fallacy of "prophetic perfect"

Postby Schubert » Mon May 20, 2019 3:28 pm

Jason Hare wrote:I don't understand your position, Rolf. It seems that you think "prophetic perfect" deals with translations. It has to do with the HEBREW text. It is a perfect that is predicting the future. By rendering it with the future tense, you are confirming its reality.


For what it's worth, I agree.
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Re: The fallacy of "prophetic perfect"

Postby talmid56 » Mon May 20, 2019 4:19 pm

As Jason noted, Rolf, this isn't B-Translation. While translation can be helpful, first and formost we should focus on comprehending the Hebrew. How do these perfects, prophetic or whatever, function in the context of the Hebrew sentences, paragraphs, and chapters where they appear? What information do they add? What nuances does the speaker offer by use of a perfect? Would another verb form have served as well to get the intended point across? These are all legitimate sorts of grammatical and linguistic questions (I'm sure there may be others) that we could look at in this discussion. The problem with focusing on translations for purposes of comprehension and analysis is that it feeds into or validates the old flawed assumptions about BH and ancient languages in general. That is, that they are dead fossils that need to be analyzed and decoded and that the most value of studying them comes from putting them into English or another modern language translation. This view fails to appreciate the richness and beauty and power of the ancient tongues. Rather than always focusing first on translating, we should seek to comprehend and analyze the texts as Hebrew, accepting them on their own terms. And the truth is, valid and accurate translation depends on deep comprehension and appreciation by the translator of both the source language and the target language. This not only has to be so on the lexical or word level, both with denotation and connotation. It has to be so on the level of grammar, idiom, metaphor and simile, and culture. A tall order, no doubt. Now, Rolf, please don't misunderstand me. I am not saying your noting of the translation issue is a sign that you do not appreciate Hebrew as Hebrew. But, some people who focus on translations do make that mistake. I just want to encourage appreciation of the wider picture.
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כִּ֤י שֶׁ֨מֶשׁ׀ וּמָגֵן֮ יְהוָ֪ה אֱלֹ֫הִ֥ים חֵ֣ן וְ֭כָבוֹד יִתֵּ֣ן יְהוָ֑ה לֹ֥א יִמְנַע־ט֝֗וֹב לַֽהֹלְכִ֥ים בְּתָמִֽים׃
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Re: The fallacy of "prophetic perfect"

Postby Kenneth Greifer » Mon May 20, 2019 7:59 pm

Rolf,
I don't fully understand the grammar of this discussion, but I think that you are analyzing future prophecies given in a poetic form as if they were prose. Since the prophecies include poetry, they are not really that literal and you are analyzing the verbs as if they were supposed to strictly follow the rules in prose. Maybe it is different when you analyze future prophecies given without poetry, but you only quoted poetic prophecies.
Kenneth Greifer


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