Mainline, Background and Historical Present in Mark 1

David M. Miller
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Mainline, Background and Historical Present in Mark 1

Post by David M. Miller » September 17th, 2015, 12:23 pm

I am trying to make sense of Mark 1:12-13 in light of the discussions of foreground, background and historical present in Runge, Levinsohn, etc.:
12 Καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει εἰς τὴν ἔρημον.
13 καὶ ἦν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τεσσεράκοντα ἡμέρας πειραζόμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ σατανᾶ, καὶ ἦν μετὰ τῶν θηρίων, καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν αὐτῷ.
ἐκβάλλει is a great example of how historical presents are supposed to behave: It occurs at a transition in the discourse, it is a verb of movement, and it introduces a new participant (τὸ πνεῦμα). After the historical present, however, I expect an especially important "event or speech that follows" (Runge 130). Instead, the rest of the paragraph consists of a series of imperfect verbs that signal background information. I am not used to viewing verse 13 as a background picture rather than a movement forward in the narrative, but a consistent application of the theory would lead me to conclude that ἐκβάλλει is the only mainline event in the paragraph, and that the next mainline event comes with ἦλθεν in v. 14. Any thoughts here?

The pattern of historical present followed by a series of imperfect verbs recurs in vv. 21-23a, but here it is easier to see the series as setting the framework for the story that follows in vv. 23b-28:
22 Καὶ εἰσπορεύονται εἰς Καφαρναούμ· καὶ εὐθὺς τοῖς σάββασιν εἰσελθὼν εἰς τὴν συναγωγὴν ἐδίδασκεν. 22 καὶ ἐξεπλήσσοντο ἐπὶ τῇ διδαχῇ αὐτοῦ· ἦν γὰρ διδάσκων αὐτοὺς ὡς ἐξουσίαν ἔχων καὶ οὐχ ὡς οἱ γραμματεῖς. καὶ εὐθὺς ἦν ἐν τῇ συναγωγῇ αὐτῶν ἄνθρωπος ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ καὶ ἀνέκραξεν (Mark 1:21-23)
εἰσπορεύονται = Mainline event at a transition in paragraphs with the introduction of a new participant (Jesus).
ἐδίδασκεν καὶ ἐξεπλήσσοντο ... καὶ εὐθὺς ἦν ... ἄνθρωπος = background events setting the scene for the action that follows
ἀνέκραξεν = Mainline event moving the storyline along.
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David M. Miller
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Stirling Bartholomew
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Re: Mainline, Background and Historical Present in Mark 1

Post by Stirling Bartholomew » September 17th, 2015, 5:58 pm

Mark 1:12-13
12 Καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει εἰς τὴν ἔρημον.
13 καὶ ἦν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τεσσεράκοντα ἡμέρας πειραζόμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ σατανᾶ, καὶ ἦν μετὰ τῶν θηρίων, καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν αὐτῷ.
David M. Miller wrote:ἐκβάλλει is a great example of how historical presents are supposed to behave: It occurs at a transition in the discourse, it is a verb of movement, and it introduces a new participant (τὸ πνεῦμα). After the historical present, however, I expect an especially important "event or speech that follows" (Runge 130). Instead, the rest of the paragraph consists of a series of imperfect verbs that signal background information.
You don't think the temptation (testing … Jeffrey Gibson) of Jesus was an important event? I think the key to your problem is an overly mechanical view of how this all works, e.g., the notion that: imperfect verbs signal background information. See Levinsohn 2000, p174 bottom "Nevertheless … .
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Re: Mainline, Background and Historical Present in Mark 1

Post by serunge » September 18th, 2015, 9:04 am

Hi David,

You are asking good questions. My description of the HP is of prototypical usage, so every bit of the description will not be found in every context. As you say, these two instances in Mark 1 are indeed transitions. But the one in vv. 11–12 is to the denouement, the epilogue, so there's not much excitement that's going to follow since things are winding down. Nevertheless, it still draws your attention to the boundary. The second example is a bit more prototypical, in that it draws attention to the beginning of a pericope rather than the end.

In both cases the imperfective verbs that follow convey offline info, but in your second example the offline info is the scene setting for the pericope that follows, a more common use of offline info. And Stirling raises an important point: imperfects don't signal offline info; the nature of imperfective aspect and the requirements of narrative make the imperfect (and pluperfect) the most natural tense forms to convey offline information. There are instances where imperfects are found on the mainline, but it is uncommon.

So regarding the HP, I'd pay more attention to the processing hierarchy chart than to the prose definition. The HP draws attention to something surprising or important, but that may simply be a boundary in the discourse (processing function) rather than cataphoric highlighting (discourse-pragmatic function). Sorry for the lack of clarity on my part, I have learned a lot since 2008 when I submitted the manuscript.

Hope that helps,

Steve
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Re: Mainline, Background and Historical Present in Mark 1

Post by Eeli Kaikkonen » September 18th, 2015, 10:40 am

Thanks for commenting, Steve. I would love to read a new, enhanced edition of your book!

This is how I would have answered:

I'm not a linguist so this is my current not very exact understanding. I agree with Stirling. The imperfect doesn't necessarily mean offline. The semantic meaning of it here in v. 13 is that it views the situation as one continuous span of time (contra Con Campbell who would say this is pragmatic meaning). The normal, expected function of the imperfect in narrative is background/offline material. But we automatically feel it's not the case here, as you have noticed. Therefore another explanation and more cognitive processing is needed and at the same time the imperfect form is still free to fulfill another function. Because the imperfect, after reading the whole relevant context, isn't typical here, it draws extra attention to what is said. I suggest it's the 40 days span of time as continuous ongoing situation. The reason is probably that it reminds the readers (or actually hearers in that time and culture) of the 40 years of Israel and 40 days of Moses. The unexpected imperfects highlight that. Instead of giving background they require us to dwell in the situation.

Comments, please.
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Re: Mainline, Background and Historical Present in Mark 1

Post by David M. Miller » September 18th, 2015, 4:15 pm

I appreciate the push back on wording from Stirling and Steven, although it still seems to me that 'signaling' (drawn from p. 130 in Steven's Discourse Grammar) can serve as shorthand for the way in which "the nature of imperfective aspect and the requirements of narrative" combine "to convey offline information" in specific contexts.

On further reflection, I am more confident that vv. 12-13 in Mark 1 are presented as backgrounded or offline information. Offline doesn't mean unimportant, of course, but the way in which Mark presents the episode--using imperfects and introducing the temptation itself by a mere adverbial participle (contrast Matt 4:1)---indicates that it functions differently in Mark than it does in Matthew and Luke. In Mark, I would suggest, the wilderness scene functions more as a framework for the Gospel as a whole than as a movement in the plot. I found France's comment on the passage helpful (even though he doesn't argue from the imperfects):
[T]emptation is not the main focus of Mk. 1:12–13. … The only active verbs have as their subjects not Jesus or Satan, but the Spirit (ἐκβάλλει) and the angels….The whole pericope is not one of movement (after the initial ‘expulsion’ by the Spirit) or of event, but rather a wilderness tableau (cf. the similar comment on 1:11 above). ...The reader who remembers this scene when the story begins will be able to see Jesus’ conflicts and triumphs in their true light, for behind the earthly scenes in Galilee and Jerusalem lies a supernatural conflict. (Mark, NIGTC, 2002, p. 83-4)
And Stirling, with all due respect to you and Levinsohn, I disagree with Levinsohn's "Nevertheless"*--or at least with his example: In Luke 2:36-38 we need to take the imperfects seriously: Luke closes the temple episode with a picture of Anna, but Anna, whose speech is merely summarized, plays a background role to Simeon, whose conversation with Mary and Joseph is the main focus of the story.

*"Nevertheless, the presence of the imperfect in a narrative in Greek is not a signal that the information concerned is necessarily of a background nature." (Stephen Levinsohn, Discourse Features, 2000, p. 174)
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Re: Mainline, Background and Historical Present in Mark 1

Post by Stirling Bartholomew » September 18th, 2015, 4:35 pm

Eeli Kaikkonen wrote: The imperfect doesn't necessarily mean offline. The semantic meaning of it here in v. 13 is that it views the situation as one continuous span of time (contra Con Campbell who would say this is pragmatic meaning). The normal, expected function of the imperfect in narrative is background/offline material. But we automatically feel it's not the case here, as you have noticed. Therefore another explanation and more cognitive processing is needed and at the same time the imperfect form is still free to fulfill another function. Because the imperfect, after reading the whole relevant context, isn't typical here, it draws extra attention to what is said. I suggest it's the 40 days span of time as continuous ongoing situation. The reason is probably that it reminds the readers (or actually hearers in that time and culture) of the 40 years of Israel and 40 days of Moses. The unexpected imperfects highlight that. Instead of giving background they require us to dwell in the situation.

Comments, please.
Eeli,

13 καὶ ἦν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τεσσεράκοντα ἡμέρας πειραζόμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ σατανᾶ, καὶ ἦν μετὰ τῶν θηρίων, καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν αὐτῷ.

I agree with certain aspects of your analysis of the imperfect in verse 13. I don't think that it is background. I don't have any strong views on the imperfect in narrative in regard to background/offline material. Having read R. E . Longacre, S. E. Porter, Jeffrey T. Reed, etc. ... prior to Levinsohn, I have lingering doubts about linking foreground/background to verb aspect. I think is a bad policy to give students rules that they will just need to unlearn later on when they become better informed on the topic. R. Buth gave me a word on this 15 years ago in regard to the same issue with Hebrew. I was reading some works on Biblical Hebrew Narrative which assigned discourse layers in a mechanical manner to verb forms.
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Re: Mainline, Background and Historical Present in Mark 1

Post by serunge » September 18th, 2015, 5:33 pm

Just to clarify, I view the distinction between mainline and offline as between that which advances the discourse in a given genre and that which does not. I illustrate this teaching by asking a student to tell a story using only past imperfective verbs. It ends up sounding like a long preamble, a story that never really gets started. It is very difficult to get a past imperfective to advance a narrative. The information conveyed is salient, otherwise it wouldn't have been included, but it rarely advances the narrative.

For example, there are some imperfects that do serve as mainline events, such as Mark 14:31 (SBLGNT) ὁ δὲ ἐκπερισσῶς ἐλάλει· Ἐὰν δέῃ με συναποθανεῖν σοι, οὐ μή σε ἀπαρνήσομαι. ὡσαύτως δὲ καὶ πάντες ἔλεγον. The imperfects are describing what I would consider mainline events (bolded above), but the aspect portrays them as though they went on for some time, stretching it out compared to a simple perfective report. For an alternate explanation, Fanning views these as marked uses of the imperfect, hence highlighting the actions. I'd rather stick with simple semantics to account for the usage, but it's possible they would have stood out a bit as well.

Asking students to do things like telling a story using past imperfectives, or trying to do most *anything* with simple presents, illustrates how certain forms really lend themselves to certain discourse functions over others. There has indeed been a tendency to treat these principles as rules, but they simply don't work.

Anyhow, David, it sounds like things are making more sense now, which is a good thing. I'm still trying to sort it all out myself; there's no magic bullet. I am currently charting the discourse flow in Hebrews, hoping the strategy I'm using will lead to a methodology of sorts to move from discourse grammar to discourse analysis. Lots to figure out first, though.
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Re: Mainline, Background and Historical Present in Mark 1

Post by Stirling Bartholomew » September 18th, 2015, 6:30 pm

Eeli Kaikkonen wrote:Thanks for commenting, Steve. I would love to read a new, enhanced edition of your book!

This is how I would have answered:

I'm not a linguist so this is my current not very exact understanding. I agree with Stirling. The imperfect doesn't necessarily mean offline. The semantic meaning of it here in v. 13 is that it views the situation as one continuous span of time (contra Con Campbell who would say this is pragmatic meaning). The normal, expected function of the imperfect in narrative is background/offline material. But we automatically feel it's not the case here, as you have noticed. Therefore another explanation and more cognitive processing is needed and at the same time the imperfect form is still free to fulfill another function. Because the imperfect, after reading the whole relevant context, isn't typical here, it draws extra attention to what is said. I suggest it's the 40 days span of time as continuous ongoing situation. The reason is probably that it reminds the readers (or actually hearers in that time and culture) of the 40 years of Israel and 40 days of Moses. The unexpected imperfects highlight that. Instead of giving background they require us to dwell in the situation.

Comments, please.
Eeli,

Is it safe to say that you are not on same page with Porter on this?
5. Aspect and prominence. One of the important implications of Porter's
verbal aspect theory grows out of that which has just been mentioned.
Given the network of oppositional choices and their relative significance,
Porter finds in those choices a key to degrees of salience or prominence in
the text, reflecting what the linguists call "markedness." He sees in this an
additional role for the tenses: the aorist, being the least marked, is the "background"
tense (carrying the narrative along); the present and imperfect are
"foreground" tenses (introducing significant characters or noteworthy descriptions);
and the perfect, being the most heavily marked tense, is the "frontground"
tense (for well-defined points of special interest).46

46 See Decker, Temporal Deixis 22; Porter, Idioms 23; Verbal Aspect 92-93; though this appears
to focus on the indicative in narrative, Porter does not limit the phenomenon to this mood or
genre.


THE MEANING OF THE TENSES IN NEW TESTAMENT GREEK: WHERE ARE WE?
ROBERT E. PICIRILLI, JETS 48/3 (September 2005), p. 539
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Re: Mainline, Background and Historical Present in Mark 1

Post by David M. Miller » September 18th, 2015, 6:41 pm

serunge wrote:Asking students to do things like telling a story using past imperfectives, or trying to do most *anything* with simple presents, illustrates how certain forms really lend themselves to certain discourse functions over others. There has indeed been a tendency to treat these principles as rules, but they simply don't work.
Perhaps I should add that this is all pretty new to me. As I try the theory on for size, I find it helps to treat the principles as rules. Otherwise, I am liable to continue reading as I always have. Assuming that each occurrence of the imperfect, for instance, fits the pattern, forces me to pay attention. In Mark 1:12-13, 21-23, and Luke 2:36-38, it seems to me not only that the discourse explanation works, but that it sheds fresh light on familiar texts.

That said, I do take your caution about formulating hard and fast rules, and I am not sure how to account for Mark 14:29-31.
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Re: Mainline, Background and Historical Present in Mark 1

Post by Eeli Kaikkonen » September 19th, 2015, 8:54 am

Stirling Bartholomew wrote: Is it safe to say that you are not on same page with Porter on this?
It's safe. Porter is certainly a genius and has many things right but is also wrong in some things. This isn't just my opinion; you can read Steve Runge's kind and gentle critique of Porter in his blog and papers and harsher critique by Randall Buth in this forum. Having also read some linguistic literature - way too little but enough to grow some linguistic instinct - I believe they're right and Porter is wrong in those things. Maybe the biggest obstacle for me is the (over)rigorous SFL framework (Porter and his followers) vs. relaxed eclectic functional-cognitive framework (Runge et. al.). It makes me dislike the whole Porterite school. But this framework thing is actually beyond my competence, so it's my weakness.
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