Thursday, October 29, 2009
Aorist - The Tense without Limits
2:09 pm est
Preachers who talk about New Testament Greek don't go long without referring to the aorist tense. English
has no such tense, so it's natural to wonder what the term means.
The aorist tense is the Greek grammarian's
term for a simple past tense. Greek has two other past tenses: the imperfect tense, which is used to show continued
or repeated action; and the perfect tense, which is used to describe an action which has been completed in the past and produced
results which are still in effect at the present. Aorist, however, simply states the fact that an action happened.
It gives no information about how long it took, or whether the results are still operational today.
The aorist tense
is a great tense to use when you are talking about an action that happened at a particular point in time. That's
why some grammar books describe it as "punctiliar." Aorist verbs describe the entire action as a single whole.
This does not mean that aorist tense always describes actions that were over in an instant, however. John 2:20
says, "This temple was built (aorist) in forty-six years." Forty-six years is a big
When you find the aorist tense in the indicative mood, it is supposed to communicate two ideas:
(1) past tense and (2) simple type of action.
When you encounter an aorist participle, it still
shows a simple action, but it may not refer to past tense. Most often, an aorist participle describes an action that
takes place before the main verb of the sentence. (There are exceptions to this rule.)
When you see an
aorist anywhere other than indicative and participle, there is no time frame involved. You should focus exclusively
on the type of action: simply the fact that an event happened, with no extra information about continuing action
or completed action.
Aorist is the default tense, especially when a writer is describing the past. If in doubt,
Greeks would use aorist. If you see some other tense, you may suspect that it was used deliberately to make a point.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Imperfect - The Novice's Favorite Tense
11:07 am est
What's so great about the imperfect tense?
It's simple! Other tenses force you to figure out the variations
for participles, infinitives, subjunctives, imperatives and more. But not imperfect - it occurs only in the indicative
mood, the form used for plain statements of fact.
There is no such thing as an imperfect participle.
No such thing as an imperfect infinitive. No imperfect imperatives, no imperfect subjunctives, no imperfect optatives.
If you are not trying to learn Greek, this fact may not set your heart pounding with excitement. But anyone who is seriously
trying to master the language is always grateful for something that they don't have to learn!
meaning of Greek verbs in the imperfect tense is straightforward:
Past time - Imperfect
always describes something that happens in the past.
Continued action - Imperfect
always describes action that is continued, repeated or habitual. There are some minor refinements of this explanation,
but it is almost always safe to view an imperfect verb as continued action, not the simple action of the aorist or the completed
action of the perfect tense.
When you encounter an imperfect verb in Greek, imagine that you have been
zapped in a time machine and dumped into a scene in the past. You look around and ask, "What's going on?"
Maybe you're standing in a French village in the Dark Ages, and all you see are peasants chopping down trees. You
don't know when they started work, and you don't know how long they'll keep it up. You just know that the
work is in process when you are viewing it.
That's when Greek uses the imperfect tense. When you return
to the 21st century and give your report, you say, "The peasants were chopping down trees." The imperfect
tense is the perfect way to describe an action that was in the process of happening at some time in the past.
more detailed explanation of the tense, refer to H. E. Dana and Julius Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament,
Friday, October 16, 2009
Back to the Future
12:51 pm est
Hindsight is a wonderful thing! We can always speak more precisely about the past than the future, because we know
how events turned out in the past.
Perhaps that is the reason that Greek has at least three tenses that describe the
past, but only one that deals with the future. The Greek language has the capability of describing three different types
of action: simple, continued, and completed. When a Greek wrote about events in the past, he could choose from
three tenses, one for each type of action:
Simple action - Aorist tense
Continued action - Imperfect tense
Completed action - Perfect (or pluperfect)
But there is only one future tense, and the Greeks had to use it to cover all the possible types of action.
It is probably best to assume that most future tense verbs are describing simple actions, without specifying extra concepts
like continued action. This is not an area where you would want to build elaborate sermon points on the grammar.
What can you say about a future tense verb?
Grammarians have rightly pointed out that there are at
least two ways in which future tense verbs might be used:
1. Prediction - Most future
verbs are simple predictions of what will happen.
Example: "It will rain tomorrow."
Biblical example: Matthew 1:21 - "And she will bear a Son."
Command - Occasionally a future verb is actually a command or instruction.
Example: "You will clean your room!"
Biblical example: Matthew 19:18 - "You shall not commit
Like several of the Ten Commandments, this takes the form of
a future tense, but it is really a commandment.
How can you tell
whether a future tense is a command or merely a prediction?
There is no difference in the spelling or forms of
the word; you are really trying to determine the tone of voice in which the statement was made. So . . .
at the context and use your common sense.
The future tense never occurs in the New Testament in the imperfect, subjunctive, or optative moods.
It occurs 1623 times.
12 times as a participle
5 times as an infinitive
rest as indicative verbs.
Source: Daniel Wallace, Greek Beyond the Basics, p. 567
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
No Tense Like the Present!
3:35 pm est
Few facets of Greek grammar show up in sermons more often than the verb tenses, and few parts of the language are botched
more often! Today's entry begins a short series introducing each of the six verb tenses in Greek -- and there's
no better place to start than with the present tense.
In English, we know that the present tense describes something
happening right now. It informs us of the time when an action takes place.
In Greek, however, the present
tense primarily tells us the type of action, not the time of the action. The Greek present tense indicates
continued action, something that happens continuously or repeatedly. If you say, for instance, "The
sun is rising," you are talking about a process happening over a period of time, not an instantaneous event. The
Greeks use the present tense to express this kind of continued action.
In contrast, Greek uses the aorist tense to show
simple action. An aorist verb simply tells you that something happened, with no indication of how long
it took. Aorist is like a snapshot; present is like a video.
When you are looking at a verb in the imperative,
subjunctive, or optative mood, or an infinitive, present tense says nothing at all about the time of an action. It doesn't
mean that something is happening right now. Its only significance is to show that the action happens continually
or repeatedly. For example, Paul uses a present tense command in Ephesians 5:18 when he tells the believers to "be
filled with the Spirit." The present tense makes it clear that this is a regular experience, something that they
are supposed to maintain regularly.
We face a slightly different situation when we deal with verbs in the indicative
mood, the verb form used for statements of fact. Indicative verbs bear a double burden: they must reveal the time
of an action as well as the type of action. Present tense indicatives describe actions taking place at the present time;
normally, they are also describing continued actions taking place now.
However, that's not always the case.
Suppose a Greek writer wants to describe a balloon exploding right now! He will have to use the present tense, even
though it only takes an instant for the balloon to pop. There's no process; it doesn't happen gradually or in
stages. You almost wish you could use an aorist tense to describe it; it would be a perfect match for the normal usage
of the aorist. But you can't use an aorist here in the indicative, because the balloon didn't pop yesterday.
It pops in the present, so you have to use present tense for it.
You find a similar situation in the New Testament in
Acts 9:34. Peter has been called to the bedside of Aeneas, who has been paralyzed for eight years. The apostle
says, "Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you." And the word "heals" is present tense. Is Peter describing
a long process of healing that has gradually begun to happen? Not this time. Healing happens instantaneously;
the next clause says, "And immediately he arose."
Summary: Most of the time, the Greek present tense
means that a verb is describing action that is in the process of happening, or action continued over a period of time.
However, present tense in the indicative mode could refer to something other type of action.