1 John 1:1 – We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—

The above translation of 1 John 1:1 comes from the NRSV and is fairly typical of modern translations (the NIV, NASB, NET, ESV, NKJV, TNIV, and KJV all reflect the same translational technique). My issue here is the translation of the four Greek Verbs: ακουω, οραω, θεαομαι  and, ψηλαφω.What the vast majority of modern translations miss is the difference in form between the first two verbs, ακουω (‘to hear’) and οραω (‘to see’) and the second two verbs, θεαομαι (‘to see’) and ψηλαφω (‘to touch’). 

The complete Greek text is as follows:

Ο ἦν ἀπ᾿ ἀρχῆς, ὃ ἀκηκόαμεν, ὃ ἑωράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν, ὃ ἐθεασάμεθα καὶ αἱ χεῖρες ἡμῶν ἐψηλάφησαν περὶ τοῦ λόγου τῆς ζωῆς _

The first two verbs (ακουω, οραω) are in the perfect verb form. The perfect verb form in Greek is typically described as ‘a past action with present significance.’ Prefective verb forms are rare and very often emphatic or at least a “deliberate choice on the part of the writer” (Wallace 573). Moulton goes so far as to call the perfect “the most important, exegetically of all the Greek tenses (Moulton, 140). The second two verbs (θεαομαι, ψηλαφω) are aorist verbs. An aorist verb form is typically described as a ‘past action.’ It is a ‘snap-shot’ kind of verb describing an action that happened in past time without reference to present significance (see Wallace, 554-65). Contra to perfect verb forms, aorist verb forms do not emphasize any present significance of the past action. 

While many commentators claim that the shift in verbs from perfect to aorist in 1 John 1:1 is of no significance (cf. Marshall, 101, n.8 and Brown 160 and the literature cited there) I am inclined to see significance here. The elder seems to be very aware of his varied use of Greek tenses. For example in v. 2 he goes from the aorist fact ‘the life was revealed’ (ἐφανερώθη) to the perfect ‘we have seen it’ (ἑωράκαμεν) to the present ‘we are witnesses and testify to it’ (μαρτυροῦμεν and ἀπαγγέλλομεν). 

Now, in 1 John 1:1 I propose the following significance in the shift from perfect to aorist. The two verbs in the perfect (ακουω and οραω) are very important words in this opening section of 1 John. In v. 3 they are the content of what the elder is announcing to his audience: “we declare to you what we have seen (οραω) and heard (ακουω).” The present significance of these realities is affirmed by v. 3. They are the apostolic message that the elder is conveying to his audience.

The other two verbs (θεαομαι and ψηλαφω), however, are different. In the aorist, these verbs denote something that is not repeatable. We cannot see Jesus or touch him in the way that the apostles did. Jesus, as a historical figure, is not accessible to us the way he was to his apostles in the first century. In putting these verbs in the aorist, the elder has emphasized his authority as an apostolic witness. This is appropriate given the nature of the letter as a defense of the true faith. 

Now, even if I am off in my interpretation of the significance of the change of verbs from perfect to aorist, and I don’t think I am, it still does not allow for the vast majority of modern translations. In the modern English translations there is no noticeable differentiation between the first two perfect verbs and the second two aorist verbs. The English reader does not even have the option to decide for themselves if there is a difference in verb form between the two sets of verbs. The potential emphasis on the apostolic witness of the elder is lost in translation. One of the great ironies of this, in my thinking, is that the one translation I could find that accurately translated the tense change was the NLT a translation not known for its literal accuracy:

We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. (1 John 1:1, NLT)

Bibliography

Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, AB (Garden City, NY: DoubleDay & Co., 1982); I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1978); J.H. Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, Vol. 1: Prolegomena (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1908); Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997).

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