Scholarly Consensus and John 3
Most Hebraists today, including those who believe in the inerrant word of God and the existence of prophecy, do not believe that there is such a thing as the prophetic tense. I asked about this on the b-Hebrew (Biblical Hebrew) list, and received the following responses. The first is from Rolf Furuli, an accredited scholar from the University of Oslo. From his doctoral dissertation:
The concept “Prophetic Perfect” is used by most grammars and textbooks, both old and recent, and it turns out to be an ad hoc-concept without grammatical or syntactical support, coined in order to explain why qatal is used with future reference. [p. 371]
"We can conclude that the “prophetic perfect” is a fiction. It was constructed on the basis of the wrong understanding that the qatal signifies completed action, and there are no data justifying the view. Modern grammarians just repeat what grammarians before them have written, without discussing the real basis for the viewpoint. A modern grammarian who rejects the prophetic perfect is the Swede,H.!S. Nyberg (1952:280). In his view, “the so-called prophetic perfect that has been of such importance in the exegesis and in the grammars does not exist.” (p. 373)
I include this not only because it makes the statement, but because Furuli discusses and gives good grammatical reasons for his assertions.
George Athas, an OT scholar at Moore Theological College in Australia, wrote in email to the b-Hebrew list:
I'm with you. I don't think there is such a thing as a prophetic perfect. However, I think this because I do not believe that the Qatal is encoded for perfective aspect. I would instead argue for it encoding a 'definite' (as opposed to indefinite) aspect. Its functional usage usually refers to the past, but this is not intrinsic to the verb form itself. Rather, it has to do with its syntax and context. The Qatal breaks momentum in a narrative, and this is usually caused by a break in the narrative to give some significant information (usually something in the past). However, the Qatal in and of itself doesn't preclude the possibility of the verb referring to the future. However, given its functional usage, this would be highly irregular.
You should check out the new book on the Hebrew verb by John Cook published by Eisenbrauns (though I disagree with John's perfective–imperfective aspect polarity), as well as articles by Alexander Andrason.…
James Spinti, an editor for Eisenbrauns trained in classics and biblical studies, wrote on the same list:
In addition to John Cook's book, you might want to check out Joosten's new book on the Hebrew verb: The Verbal System of Biblical Hebrew: A New Synthesis Elaborated on the Basis of Classical Prose by Jan Joosten Jerusalem Biblical Studies - JBS 10 Simor, Ltd., 2012
The Hebrew verbal system is the subject of a large amount of disagreement right now, so finding a consensus will be difficult…but I would say that most/all would agree with you that there is no "prophetic perfect" encoding. The context is what determines the interpretation.
All three scholars above are biblical inerrantists with a strong prejudice toward believing in prophecy. Dr. Furuli is actually Jehovah’s Witness, Athas and Spinti are evangelical Christians.
Now let’s turn our attention once again to the NT, and particularly John 3:5-8. I have included through v. 21 for a more complete context:
Joh 3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Joh 3:2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him." Joh 3:3 Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." Joh 3:4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Joh 3:5 Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Joh 3:6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Joh 3:7 Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' Joh 3:8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Joh 3:9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Joh 3:10 Jesus answered him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Joh 3:11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. Joh 3:12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? Joh 3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. Joh 3:14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, Joh 3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Joh 3:16 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Joh 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Joh 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. Joh 3:19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. Joh 3:20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. Joh 3:21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
As pointed in our earlier discussion, the majority of discussion regarding the prophetic tense comes from discussion on the OT and Hebrew. Does Greek have anything resembling “the prophetic perfect?” As mentioned, Greek is a language with a highly developed tense and aspect structure which shows not only the time frame that the writer sees the action taking place, but also the relationship between verbs in their respective clauses with regard to the sequence of the action. While Hebrew is highly context dependent in order properly to render tense and aspect into other languages, the relationship in Greek of grammatical form and syntax to context is reversed. What the author or speaker wants to say is encoded in the form of the verb, and leaves us in little doubt as to the author’s intent.
What this means with regard to John 3 is that if the writer has in mind a prophetic intent as he reports the words of Jesus and comments on them then he has very clear ways to express that prophetic intent. How does a NT writer do this unambiguously? Very simply, he uses the future tense and includes certain markers, both semantic (content oriented) and syntactic (adverbs, prepositional phrases and so forth) which clearly indicate a future time reference. There are several examples of prophecy in the NT which illustrate this. Jesus, in Matt 24:
Mat 24:4 And Jesus answered them, "See that no one leads you astray. Mat 24:5 For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and they will lead many astray. Mat 24:6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. Mat 24:7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.
Simple future tenses here and throughout the passage. Another example from Second Peter:
2Pe 3:8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 2Pe 3:9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 2Pe 3:10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
Again, clear, simple and unambiguous future tenses inform us that the author is speaking of a future event.
In John 3 we see none of this, and not context markers such as “in those days” or “at that time” which might indicate a futurity to the text. Notice the sequence of tenses in John 3:3:
Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."
There is no futurity here. The first verb, “”is born again” (one word in Greek, γεννήθη, gennēthē) is actually aorist passive subjunctive. The writer uses the aorist here to show that the action of being born again must precede the result in the main clause. What is that result? That he “cannot see the kingdom of God.” The main verb here “cannot” (δύναται, dunatai) is present tense. This in itself indicates that the writer is talking about the here and now, not the “there and then.”
Now, this is the case throughout the passage. What is the flip side of John 3:3? That most famous Bible verse, John 3:16:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Again, we have not future encoding to indicate that this is in any sense prophetic. What we do have is a participial phrase correctly above translated as a general conditional (whoever believes) and the result of believing, that instead of perishing that person possess eternal life. In fact, “have,” (ἔχῃ, echē) is a present subjunctive, suggesting the immediacy the possession once the condition (believing) is fulfilled.
As I pointed out earlier on this list, two different writers, Peter and Paul, speak of the believers to whom they are writing as currently born again, Peter 1 in First Peter 1:23, and Paul in Titus 3:5-6.
Now, is there a future aspect or a future fulfillment to our salvation? That is clear from a number of Scriptures, but neither John 3 nor Rom 4 (discussed in part 1) indicate that being born again or being saved is anything else other than a present reality.