Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Aorist is so much more than a past tense

This is one of the basic points we try to make in first year Greek, but in the rush to simplify the language sufficiently for a first year student, sometimes the subtly of this point is missed.

Just to be clear, I still believe the augment indicates past time. I haven’t gone over to the other camp on this point. And yet the aorist is so much more than “past time,” and in fact time is significantly secondary to the real gist of the tense. Students need to be reminded of this periodically.

I like Con Campbell’s word picture of the aorist. You are in a helicopter over the parade, looking at the parade as a whole. Buist Fanning talks about seeing the action from the outside as a whole rather than from inside the action (i.e., being part of the parade).

Because this is the basic genius of the aorist, it can have a phenomenally wide range of usage. You can be looking at the action as a whole but paying special attention to the beginning (“ingressive”) or to the end (“consummative”). It can describes something that simply is regardless of any time reference (“gnomic”).

But my favorite is to proleptic (futuristic) use of the aorist. Because time is secondary, the aorist can describe a future event and emphasize the certainty of the action. It is not a common usage, but it does show how we need to keep the idea of “time” in its proper place.

Some times we will go to translate an aorist as a past tense and the result is just silly. Rev 10:7 says, “But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet the mystery of God will be accomplished (ἐτελέσθη), just as he announced to his servants the prophets” (NIV, NRSV is also future). ἐτελέσθη is aorist, but it obviously does not describe a past event. The NASB and HCSB go with the present, “is finished.” The ESV weakens it to the subjunctive, “would be fulfilled.”

But my all-time favorite is the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased (εὐδόκησα)” (Matt 3:17. NRSV). The aorist is not saying that God “was” pleased with Jesus (perhaps implying he was no longer pleased — that would be heresy), but that the sum total of his life, perhaps culminating in his humble submission to a sinner’s baptist, was pleasing to the Father.

When I stand before my heavenly Father some day, it is the aorist that I want to hear. “I am pleased with the entirety of your life, Bill. εὖ, δοῦλε ἀγαθὲ καὶ πιστέ.”


So, would the use of aorist in Matthew 5:16 for the verb lampō be in the gnomic? And how do you make the differentiation? I was reading an article titled "The Abused Aorist" by Frank Stagg published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 91, No. 2 (Jun., 1972), pp. 222-231 (it can be found online, here: Stagg says the aorist "draws no boundaries." In his explanation, if I understand correctly, it simply informs the reader that the parade happens (to use Campbell's example). If the aorist doesn't enforce any particular time reference or period, is all the tense and longevity to be inferred by the reader within the context of the text being read?

Thank you, Bill, for your explanations and examples. I was having difficulty understanding the aorist, middle, subjunctive. This will now be my primary site when I need help with Greek grammar.

Are you in agreement with the widespread translation: "an appeal to God for a good conscience," in the middle of the above cited verse? I'm sorry my computer lacks the Greek font for "eperOtayma," but my minimal knowledge of koine suggests a better rendition might be: "A good conscience's RESPONSE to God." What say you?

Thank-you Bill!

There are so many interpretations of Mark 3:29, many of which hinge on how the aorist verb is being used. I think reading it as gnomic or consummative would make much more sense than other options. What is your take?

Hi Bill Matthew 4:1 seems to imply that the sole purpose of the Holy Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness is to be tempted by the devil. Mark and Luke accounts simply say that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit in the wilderness and was tempted by the devil. Is the aorist tense in Matthew 4;1 (to be tempted) a clue into the bigger picture that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, and while He was there, He was tempted by the devil. Kindly elaborate. Thank you very much!

Thank you for explaining the aorist so clearly. I've always suspected there was more to Luke 6:8 than the simple past tense. Best regards.

For the believer, this verse is chockful of joy and hope, Can we be certain that since we are joined to Christ via baptism and faith that this is a reality that has been established by Christ in his death and resurrection and that now we live in Christ beyond that boundary of death as he is beyond the boundary of death as well? "You have died..." is a true aorist. correct?

I’m so excited to have found your website! I was searching for the best understanding of the aortist tense so as to get an accurate understanding of Eph 6:14-17 where this verb tense is used in each sentence. I have found myself really bothered by the idea that you have to literally, verbally speak the names of the armor in order to put them on. I realize many pieces of this armor are mentioned in the OT and thus not a new concept and so I wonder if Paul is just reinforcing the concept what’s already been given or if we indeed need to put it in daily. I looked up the Greek and it showed all these verbs are in aortist, I’m understanding it to be a form of past tense, which reinforces my hunch. I would very much like to hear your insight as a Greek scholar. Shalom!

Hello! I’d like to know your take on this passage. My working theory is that the sense in which the old things παρῆλθεν is similar to your observation above regarding Matthew 3:17. I believe many take this passage to mean the old “has passed away” rather than “is dead.” The reason for this theory is my belief that our old nature is dead but not gone. I see us existing with two natures, both of which already possess an eternal state - one dead and one living. We retain our old nature in addition to the new one, and we can walk in either state. What are your thoughts on this?

The discussion between the pretribulationist camp and the pre-wrath camp, among other things, is about the aorist meaning of revelation 6:17. Has this"has come" to do with the first seal (past time), or is it an announcement of the sixth seal: it will soon happen (near future). The literature is confusing. Can anybody clarify this for me. Thanks