Aorist Tense: A Closer Look
An Expanded Discussion of the Aorist Tense
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One grammarian describes the aorist tense as one that presents an event in summary, “viewed as a whole from the outside, without regard for the internal make-up of the occurrence” (Fanning, Verbal Aspect, quoted in Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics).
What does that mean in normal English? Simply that a verb in the aorist tense describes an action without analyzing it further. When John 3:16 says God loved the world, the aorist tense merely reports what God did. It doesn’t tell us when he started or when he finished (or whether he ever stopped). It reports the bare fact.
You might compare it to the way I would describe a piece of fruit: “This is an orange.” That’s about all I can tell from an outside view. But if I peeled the orange and pulled the sections apart, I could tell you more. I might be able to tell whether it was starting to get moldy, and make a guess about how long it had been sitting in the refrigerator.
It’s in this way that the aorist tense gives an “outside,” unanalyzed view of an action. It happened, and that’s all you can prove on the basis of the aorist tense.
Even though the aorist tense doesn’t tear apart an action and analyze the details, Greek professors have been perfectly happy to analyze the aorist verb! By looking at the context of the verb and thinking logically about its meaning, you can often fine-tune your understanding and come to more detailed conclusions about the action.
Here are some of the ideas that might lie under the surface of an aorist verb:
1. Constative aorist
This is the official description for an aorist that describes an action in its entirety. It is the most foundational meaning of the aorist tense.
John 2:20 — “This temple was built in forty-six years.” The verb takes a 46-year process and wraps it up in a single package. The emphasis is on the fact that it happened, not on how long it took.
2. Ingressive aorist
An aorist that focuses on the beginning of an action.
Something similar happens in the imperfect tense as well: the inceptive imperfect. What’s the difference between the two? Usually the ingressive aorist describes the entry into a new status (something that you are) while the inceptive imperfect describes the start of a new action (something that you do).
2 Corinthians 8:9 — “For your sake he became poor.” Jesus entered into a state of poverty.
3. cumulative aorist
An aorist that emphasizes the completion of an action, especially the results that flow from it.
Philippians 4:11 – “I have learned to be content.” Paul had gone through a learning process and had come to the point where he could claim to have learned the lesson. A culminative aorist is often translated like a perfect tense (“has learned” instead of the usual “learned”).
4. Epistolary aorist
Sometimes the writer of a letter would put himself in the place of those who would eventually read his letter, and he would use the aorist tense to describe something that had not yet happened. At least it hadn’t happened when he was writing the letter. By the time the letter arrived at its destination, however, the act would be an accomplished fact — so he would use the aorist tense to describe it.
Philippians 2:28 — “I sent him then more quickly.” Paul was talking about Epaphroditus, whom he was sending back home to Philippi. When Paul write the letter, Epaphroditus was still with him in Rome; he hadn’t sent him anywhere. But by the time the Philippians got the epistle, Epaphroditus would be there among them. In fact, he probably carried the letter!
5. Dramatic aorist
An aorist used to describe an action happening in the present, usually to emphasize its certainty.
John 13:31 — “Now is [literally, was] the Son of man glorified.” Jesus makes this statement at the Last Supper the night before His arrest and crucifixion. The events culminating in His death were just beginning, yet John uses the aorist tense to describe the idea. Most translations render “is glorified” in the present tense because the rules of English grammar demand that rendering.
6. prophetic aorist
An aorist used to describe a future event, usually to show that it is so certain that you can view it as already completed.
Romans 8:30 — “Them he also glorified.” This phrase occurs in a series of verbs describing the steps in salvation, from predestination to calling to justification. The first three have already been accomplished in the life of a believer; the glorification is yet in the future. But once God has begun the process, he will certainly finish it. Thus the aorist tense is appropriate.