I am currently reading the Gospel According to John in a King James Version of the Bible, and I cannot understand the use of the third person singular in some of the verses:

1:38 Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them, What seek ye? They said unto him, Rabbi (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwellest thou?

1:42 And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone.

I read online that saith is used in present tense, but it doesn't seem to fit in the first verse. Translating to modern English, we would read:

Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and says unto them, (...)

Is saith really the present tense, and said the past tense, or I'm confusing things up?

  • Note that like Shakespeare, the KJV is written in (Early) Modern English, not in Middle English. For Middle English see Chaucer or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
    – tchrist
    Jan 25, 2018 at 14:57

1 Answer 1


The seemingly out-of-place present tense in the KJV was not original to the English translation, but was found in the Greek original. John 1:38; the bolded word is in present tense.

στραφεις δε ὁ Ἰησοῦς, και θεασάμενος αὐτους ἀκολουθοῦντας, λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τί ζητεῖτε?

strapheis de ho Iesous, kai theasamenos autous akolouthountas, legei autois, Ti zeteite?

Having turned1, however2, Jesus3,4, and5 having beheld6 them7 following8, says9 to them10, What11 seek you12?

This use of the present tense for past time can be found in many places in the Greek bible. This was evidently a story-telling device used by the Greeks to emphasize certain actions, as explained here:

Greek writers used the historical present tense to add emphasis to important past actions. The historical present tense has the effect of making past narratives more vivid. Modern translations unfortunately blur this effect by translating the historical present tense in the simple past tense.

  • 7
    I wonder if the people who say "So this bloke says to me, right..." realise they are mirroring an ancient Greek literary device. Jan 25, 2018 at 15:39

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