I'm looking at the Greek of John 1 and the first words spoken by Jesus in that Gospel. I am trying to understand what the author is conveying, theologically, in these opening words. First impressions are important and just as the last words of Jesus on the cross were important, so are the first words.

John 1:38 (interlinear) has, "he says to them, 'what do y'all seek?' ... They said to him, 'Rabbi,..., Where are you staying?'"

  • I use y'all to indicate 2nd person plural instead of confusing that with 2nd singular
  • "he says" is λέγει in present tense, "seek" is also present tense
  • "you staying" is present tense. from (μένω). You could also translate this as "where do you abide?"
  • Note: this verb "to abide" appears 40x in John, just like the word Logos does (these are the only two words that appear 40x). Fourty is a jewish number of ritual purity and we know that numerology is important to John (see 7s throughout the text). μένω seems to be a technical term in John as it appears only 3x/2x/7x in Matthew/Mark/Luke respectively

That's all fine. It's the response and the narrator's tenses that are confusing (exciting) me.

John 1:39 (interlinear) has, "he [Jesus] says, 'Come (root: ἔρχομαι) and y'all will see (ὁράω).' They went (ἔρχομαι) therefore, and saw (ὁράω) where he abides (μένω)."

  • Here "says" is present tense. "Come" is present tense command form (imperative).
  • "y'all will see" is future tense indicative.

Here's the question: "they went" uses the aorist (past possibly incomplete) tense, "saw" uses aorist but "he abides" uses present (ongoing) tense. Why the different tenses? Is Jesus still staying in the place they went to?

The aorist tense is something that happened in the past but may still be happening. It's clear that they completed their tasks of "went" and "saw"?? Or is it that this "going and seeing" is metaphorically an ongoing process to the present?

Does this match some other patterns of greek I am not aware of? The NRSV just translates this as "They came and saw where he was staying"... KJV has, "They came and saw where he dwelt" But this uses "he was staying" or "he dwelt" as if it were in a past completed conjugation as well.. But it is in present tense! My translation was "they came and saw where he abides [to this day]."

Why does the NRSV/KJV translate this present tense verb to past complete tense? Are they trying to avoid a metaphorical interpretation and keep this grounded in the past tense? Is this a part of greek grammar that I just don't understand (it is not my specialty, I'm just seminary trained).

Does this imply that the first two disciples had a privileged vision of where Jesus abides? When these disciples "stayed with him that day" in 1:39, this is in the past complete (aorist) tense indicating that their abode with him was temporary.

This greek word for abiding is used to describe how God's word abides in people (Jn 5:38). The first time it is used to speak about how the spirit abides in Jesus (Jn 1:32). In Jn 6:56, we have the eucharist formula of eating body and blood.. Such a person "abides in/with me and I in/with him."

Also we have Jn 8:31 where Jesus says, "If you abide in/with the word, you are truly my disciples." Is this what the text is speaking of in John 1? These two (anonymous disciple, conceivably the Beloved Disciple, and Andrew) are truly the disciples of Jesus because they abide with Jesus that first day?

In Jn 8:36, we get that "the son abides in the house forever" (assuming this is god's house mentioned in the beginning of John 14).


  • I have read this through twice and still am not able to grasp exactly what is being asked and why. Here is Young's strictly literal rendering of the Greek tenses : He saith to them, `Come and see;' they came, and saw where he doth remain, and with him they remained that day and the hour was about the tenth. If Jesus abides, then that is where he always is. If they come to see him, that is a completed action.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 18:02
  • Yeah, so they went and saw "where is is today?" Like is this some metaphorical reference to where Jesus "abides" forever?
    – Gus L.
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 18:13
  • Well, that is a matter of interpretation. We can examine grammar and lexical meaning and syntax and just arrive at the meaning of the words on the page. Spiritual interpretation is another thing.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 18:21

2 Answers 2


You are quite correct about the historical present. It is especially common in speech introducers. If you are interested, you may want to read this article. You find λέγει - he says to them in v. 38. It also occurs in v. 39 - he says to them. The function of the historical present in speech introducers is to give a hint to the reader: Sit up and listen! It is used often by John when Jesus is speaking.

However, one cannot translate Greek tenses into English tenses and do exegesis from English grammar. The aorist has a perfective aspect, meaning that the event is regarded as completed, while the present and imperfect tenses both have an imperfective aspect.

The English translation of "where he was staying" is correct, since this form shows the imperfective aspect. At the time of speaking, Jesus was still staying there, but it does not imply "unto today". You may want to compare with the present tense in John 15:57: "If anyone might know where he is, he should reveal it". In proper English this would be: If anyone knew where he was. Even the very literal KJV says here "if any man knew where he were."


After some digging, This may be the case:

The ‘historical present’ describes the use of a present tense indicative form in a narrative where the aorist would be expected. The effect of its discontinuity with the other, preterite, verbs in the story usually marks out the main action of the event.

From: https://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-ancient-greek-language-and-linguistics/historical-present-SIM_00000480

  • I am glad that you have found your answer. However, I have no idea how this answer connects with the question which is tricky to understand in the first place.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 0:47
  • The sentence says "they came" and "they saw" and "where he was staying"... But the first two verbs are aorist and the third is present tense... But "where he was staying" is an aorist representation in english (even though the greek is in the present tense for that last verb). I thought perhaps the evangelist was making a theological point about where it is that Jesus dwelt. There is a lot of that in John.
    – Gus L.
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 3:41

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