Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, February 26, 2024

Is the Aorist Tense Really Vanilla? (Matt 22:7)

I would guess that most Greek students think of the aorist tense as a general, nondescript tense. In one sense, this might be somewhat accurate. The aorist is certainly the default tense. If you want to describe an action occurring normally in the past and you don't want to say anything else about it, the Greek writer defaults to the aorist. When the writer wants to make a specific point, the other tenses come into play.

However, the aorist can be more nuanced than that. While its basic meaning is to look at an event as a whole from the outside, it can also carry specific meanings that are indicated by context.

When used with its default meaning, we call it a Constative aorist. For example, Jesus got into a boat and went into the region of Magadon (Matt 15:39). Other times, it has a Gnomic sense, describing something that is always true. “The grass withers and the flower falls off“ (1 Pet 1:24).

Sometimes, context shows that the emphasis is on the beginning of the action. If you illustrate the aorist as a circle, you could draw an arrow pointing to the left side of the circle — unless your language goes right to left and then the arrow would be pointing to the right side of the circle. This is called the Ingressive use of the aorist. In the parable of the wedding feast, when the invited guests refused to attend, Matthew writes that the king “became furious” (ὠργίσθη, 22:7). Most translations simply write that he “was angry,” which is certainly appropriate. A few say the king “was enraged” (NRSV, CSB, NIV), slightly emphasizing the idea of becoming angry. But perhaps a clearer translation is that the king became angry since the text describes his reaction to the news.

By the way, one of the nice features of is that when you look at a verse, there is an option to show how all the Bible versions translate the verse. You can see that some say, “became angry.”

So yes, the aorist is the default tense and does not necessarily say anything more than an event happened or happens. But sometimes, context places the emphasis on the beginning of the action. As always, context is king (pun intended).

P.S. Not to disparage the word “vanilla,” let me emphasize that vanilla is a flavor. One of the ongoing debates in my marriage is that vanilla is in fact a flavor. My chocolate-loving wife used to argue that vanilla is not a flavor; it’s just vanilla. This is one of the few times I was proved right since you buy vanilla “flavoring” with all the other flavorings. Robin grudgingly agreed after ten years. :-)