Daniel Wallace, in his text Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, devotes 14 pages
to the imperfect tense in Greek -- and the imperfect is undeniably one of the simpler tenses! As you can imagine, we
will not attempt a complete explanation of the tense. However, we can offer the first few ideas that a student should
have in mind when he or she is trying to interpret a verb in the imperfect tense.
The basic idea
of the imperfect tense is continued action in past time. While the aorist tense
gives you a snapshot of an event, the imperfect tense points a video camera at it. You see the event in process.
most common translation uses the pattern "was/were ____ing." I was reading; they were being pursued.
closer look at the imperfect tense reveals several potential shades of meaning. Here are a few of the most useful:
Progressive imperfect -- The most basic usage, the progressive imperfect describes a process happening in the past.
It catches the process in mid-act, without giving any information about the beginning of the end of the process. You
can compare it to stepping into a church service while the choir is singing an anthem: you can tell that they are in
the process of performing the song, but you don't know when they began or when they will end.
Mark 12:41 -- "Many rich were casting
large sums of money" [into the treasury]. When Jesus arrived at the temple, people were already lined up to present
their offerings; they had begun before his arrival, and they would continue afterwards.
imperfect -- An imperfect verb can sometimes refer to an action that usually or regularly happened in the past. This
action normally happened at regular intervals, and it continued over a significant period of time. You might translate
it with the phrase "used to."
Luke 2:41 -- "his parents used to go to Jerusalem each year."
3. Iterative imperfect -- This usage is similar to the customary
imperfect, in that it describes repeated action in the past, but the action did not occur on a regular schedule.
Matthew 3:6 -- "They were being baptized in the Jordan River by him."
Ingressive or inceptive imperfect -- An imperfect tense can be used to indicate the beginning of an action, with the suggestion
that the action will continue for a while. Translators often add the words "began to" in order to make the
Mark 1:31 -- "Her fever left, and she began
to wait on Him."
5. Tendential imperfect -- This use of the imperfect describes an action that someone
was attempting to do, but had not yet been able to complete.
Matthew 3:14 -- "And John
tried to hinder him" [from being baptized]. John was in the process of trying
to keep Jesus from being baptized, but he was obviously unsuccessful in carrying out his intention.
How can you tell
which of these uses appears in a particular verse? It comes down to our usual formula: context and common sense.
When you encounter an imperfect, try out each of these ideas and ask yourself which one makes the best sense in this context.
You may not do it perfectly, but that's OK -- after all, you too are imperfect!