In English, it seems that the aspect of the word “could” is understood differently depending on the context. If I say, “people could not understand Jesus’ parable,” the aspect of “could” changes depending on how I frame it. If I say, “the people were listening to Jesus and were trying to understand him, but some people could not understand Jesus’ parable,” I am speaking of could in a sort of imperfect sense: it can be understood to say, “some people were not being able to understand Jesus’ parable.” If, however, I frame this scenario by saying, “some people could not understand Jesus’ parable and so they voiced opposition to his teaching,” then the word “could” is understood in a perfect sense that paints “could” as a completed action with the effect that such people opposed Jesus.
This difference is referred to by English speaking linguists as “aspect.” A simplified way to view the imperfective aspect (e.g. “some people were not being able to understand”) is to view the imperfective aspect as a scene in a movie: you can see it happening, even if you understand it to be something from the past or in the future, and you aren’t quite sure what will happen next. Likewise, a simplified way to view the perfective aspect (e.g. “some people were not able to understand”) is to view the perfective aspect as a photograph of an action that has been completed: you have a sense of the action being done, but all you see is a still shot of it with a clear picture of what happened (or happens or will happen) as a result of the action; CSI-type murder mystery shows often show these sort of snapshot scenes that depict a sort of perfective aspect of an action.
Sadly, in English, even my explanation of this may seem muddy because there is no way, other than context, for me to distinguish between which way I want you to look at the scenario described. Perhaps this is why Americans have a well-funded movie industry today: movies allow us to place still-shot perfective aspect views of an action in sequence with active imperfective aspect views of an action, all without the need for a single word. Many early biblical languages were well-equipped to use words to express the aspect of the action being described. Early Hebrew, Greek, and Latin spelled verbs differently depending on how the reader was supposed to view them. I believe some modern languages such as Russian & German also do this.
When reading the Bible, try considering how different views of events are portrayed by what you are reading. This does not lead to salvation, but it’s entertaining and it may help you to develop a clearer & more meaningful understanding of what God is revealing to you about Jesus through his Word. If you’re feeling really ambitious, begin studying a biblical language today. As mentioned above, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin are the most accessible languages because they have been used for thousands of years now to preserve the most comprehensive & original translations of the Bible.
For those of you interested in studying Latin, I would recommend Wheelock’s resources (just google it); this is the grammar used, for instance, in the University of Iowa’s classical languages program. For those of you interested in studying biblical Greek, I would recommend William D. Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek; this is the grammar used in many introductory courses in seminaries & undergraduate biblical studies. For those of you interested in learning biblical Hebrew, I would recommend buying a copy of JoAnne Hackett’s biblical Hebrew grammar; she is a leading scholar in Akkadian (another very early biblical language) & both her & her husband are biblical Hebrew professors who taught for many years at Harvard.
A word to the weary, don’t waste your time studying biblical languages if it will interfere with your devotional time with Jesus. God desires our heartfelt & selfless love more than our sacrifice.
For those of you who have found rest in the LORD & who are looking for a way to draw your gaze ever deeper into God’s Word, try studying a biblical language starting today.
In brotherly love,