Foreground and background in the narrative discourse of Luke's Gospel: Some remarks on the function of the Greek imperfect and pluperfect indicative tense-forms

Herman Carel Du Toit


The distinction between foreground and background in narrative discourse is a pervasive phenomenon in the literatures of the world, and languages have a variety of devices to indicate   this distinction. These include, amongst others, the use of specific tense-forms of the verb, morphosyntactic features, the distinction between events and non-events, lexical verb types (achievement, accomplishment, activity, state, etc.), voice, and word order.


The use of the tense-forms of the verb to indicate foreground and background has been studied in depth in a variety of languages. In the last three decades there have been a number of studies on the Greek of the New Testament, following the upsurge of interest in the aspect and time characteristics of Greek in the early nineties of the previous century.


This study focused on the function of the Greek imperfect and pluperfect indicative tense-forms (henceforth, imperfect and pluperfect) to indicate foreground and background in the Gospel of Luke’s narrative discourse. The study also included embedded narratives, such as the parables of Jesus. It did not include direct and indirect discourse, and comments by the author.


The findings are that the major function of the imperfect in the Gospel of Luke’s narrative discourse is to provide background information, and particularly to set the scene for events in the main storyline. In this function the link between the imperfect and background information is very strong. The imperfect also typically occurs in the introduction of participants in a scene by means of presentational articulation, in situations where background details are provided, and in epilogues. The imperfect appears in explanatory clauses too, but the aorist indicative is also used. In a few instances the imperfect is used to express foreground information.


Although occurences of the pluperfect are rare in Luke’s Gospel, it is used a few times to express background information, especially to set the scene and to provide background details. It is rarely used to indicate foreground information, and occurences are restricted to verbs like oἶδα, ἵστημι, εἴωθα, etc., where the pluperfect has the force of an aorist indicative. In a number of instances the function of the pluperfect is purely descriptive, for example, as part of a restrictive relative clause.


The functions of the imperfect and pluperfect in narrative discourse are congruent with their inherent time and aspectual properties, but there are exceptions.


narrative discourse; imperfect indicative; pluperfect indicative; Greek; New Testament

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ISSN 2224-3380 (online); 1726-541X (print)

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