It Is What It … Was?: A Reappraisal of John’s Present Tense Verbs in John 5:2

The consensus view of the composition date of John’s Gospel—roughly between AD 85 and 95—is well established in the scholarly conversation. Those who maintain this composition date employ several arguments in favor of their view. However, there are at least two places in the gospel where proponents of the consensus view have to employ a defensive strategy. One of these locations is in John 5:2.

In chapter 5, John describes the setting of his narrative, beginning in 5:1with his customary μετὰ ταῦτα and describes a festival that ἦν; which Jesus ἀνέβη into Jerusalem. These are in the expected tense forms for narrative sequencing. Then, unexpectedly, 5:2 opens with ἔστιν δὲ ἐν τοῖς Ἱεροσολύμοις, switching the tense form from the expected to an unexpected series of present-tense forms. Following the contours of what John is saying, then, would seemingly indicate that he is making a statement in the present tense, describing something present or contemporaneous in reference to himself, thus: “Now there is in Jerusalem.” Seemingly, this is significant as John is claiming that present to the situation in which he is writing, both a προβατικῇ and a κολυμβήθρα … πέντε στοὰς ἔχουσα exist in that form. If this is the appropriate reading of this text, it would indicate that a portion of the wall and an architectural structure near that wall still stood at the time of composition and suggest a pre-AD 70 date of composition.
There are two ways in which commentators have sought to explain the unexpected use of the present-tense forms in 5:2. They either: (1) categorize ἐστίν as a historical present, or (2) affirm the present force but argue that the structures referenced stood post AD 70. In this paper, I will address the first of these two arguments and I will argue that it is inappropriate to classify the ἐστίν as a historical present. I will present evidence along three lines: (1) the use of ἔστιν in 5:2 does not align with several vital elements of the historical present; (2) εἰμί resists use as a historical present (see Wallace, Greek Grammar and “John 5,2 and the Date of the Fourth Gospel”); and (3) John uses ἔστιν elsewhere in similar contexts where commentators do not also view as historical presents (e.g., 10:8 and 19:40).

If the instance if ἔστιν cannot be understood as a historical present, this opens up further questions regarding what it would mean for the use of the present-tense forms in John 5:2 and the implications that would have on important historical data pertaining to the composition date of John’s Gospel. I would agree with the commentators that argue a present-tense verb in 5:2 is insufficient to argue for an early date (pre-AD 70) of John’s Gospel; but it does shift the burden of proof to those who would argue for a later date of composition to articulate how the present tense verbs fit within their understanding of the composition date.

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