Present, Past, and Purpose: The Historical Present in the New Testament

by | Jan 29, 2020 | Greek

My TV stopped working. Or my TV remote stopped working. I couldn’t tell which because I could get the TV to do some things, but not others. Thankfully, there’s a simple test to see if your remote is working. Remotes emit infrared light. And although the naked eye can’t see infrared light, you can with the help of a digital camera. Looking at the end of my remote through a camera, I could see a purple light whenever I pushed a few, but not all, of the buttons. It was a problem with the remote. 

We can draw this analogy to the Bible. There are features in Scripture that you can’t see without access to the biblical languages. Many elements and nuances of the Greek New Testament simply cannot be efficiently expressed in an English text. For example, Greek writers used a device known as the historical present. It’s where the author uses a present tense verb where you would expect them to use a past tense verb. Frequently it involves a verb of speech (e.g., ‘he says’), but not always. Historical presents occur in narrative texts, and they serve a purpose. Typically, they’re there to highlight or give prominence to the speech or event that follows (197, 130). 

How often does this occur in Scripture? According to one set of statistics, here is how frequently this device occurs in the Gospels and Acts (201). 

  • Matthew: 93
  • Mark: 151
  • Luke and Acts: 22
  • John: 162

But the typical English reader has no way to access this information through a Bible translation. You will not see them marked in your Bible. There will be no mention in a footnote. To my knowledge, your only means would be Steve Runge’s Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament Datasets from Logos Bible Software. 

So below, I’ve listed all the historical presents found in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke, there are much fewer historical presents than in Matthew, Mark, and John. Each of Luke’s eleven historical presents involves a verb of speaking except for two (Luke 8:49; 24:12). The remaining nine occur at the beginning or major transition of a speech (141).1Scripture quotations come from the ESV except for several where the translation did not lend itself to identifying the verb formed using the historical present. For those, quotations are taken from the Lexham English Bible (LEB).  

Luk 7:40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

Luk 8:49 While he was still speaking, someone from the ruler’s house came and said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more.”

Luk 9:33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.

Luk 11:37 While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table.

Luk 11:45 (LEB)  And one of the legal experts answered and said to him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also!”

Luk 13:8 (LEB)  But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, leave it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put manure on it.

Luk 16:7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’

Luk 16:29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’

Luk 17:37 And they answered and said to him, “Where, Lord?” So he said to them, “Where the dead body is, there also the vultures will be gathered.”

Luk 19:22 He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow?

Luk 24:12 (LEB) But Peter got up and ran to the tomb, and bending over to look, he saw only the strips of linen cloth, and he went away to his home wondering what had happened.


Knowing where the historical presents are can help you see what the author wanted to make prominent. They’re there for a reason. The speech or event that comes next is meant to stand out. Maybe there’s a market for a Historic Present Study Bible that identifies everywhere these occur. I doubt it. But you might like to know where they show up as you study the Bible, even if you can’t read Greek. All Scripture is profitable. Passages marked with a historical present are not necessarily the most important parts of Scripture. This was just one of the ways an author could signal they wanted something to stand out and grab the reader’s attention.

Brent Niedergall

Pastor, Grammarian, Runner

Brent Niedergall, MDiv, is Chief Editor at Positive Action for Christ in Whitakers, North Carolina. He’s gone to war in Afghanistan, felled towering trees, and parsed Greek verbs.


Brent Niedergall