Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

Exegetical Insight (Chapter 28)

When the aorist participle is used adverbially, it is one of the flexible syntactical constructions in Koine Greek. It can be used to indicate almost any type of adverbial clause and is therefore one of the most common grammatical constructions in the New Testament. But its flexibility also creates some real problems for translators and biblical exegetes (as well as beginning students of Koine Greek). Since the meaning of the aorist adverbial participle is always determined by its relationship to the main verb in context, some of the most heated arguments in the interpretation of the New Testament center around the meaning of an aorist participle.

There is probably no better example of such an argument than the ongoing debate about the correct understanding of the aorist participle pisteuvsanteV in Acts 19:2. The meaning of this participle determines the meaning of Paul’s question: Ei∆ pneu:ma a{gion ejlavbete pisteuvsanteV~ The King James Version translated this question: “Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?” One of the common uses of the aorist participle is to indicate an action that occurs before the action of the main verb. The King James translation understands the aorist participle in this way and indicates that the believing would have occurred before the receiving of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals have used this translation to support their claim that receiving the Holy Spirit is an event distinct from and subsequent to believing in Christ. But traditional Protestant exegetes have argued that this interpretation is based on a misunderstanding of the use of the aorist participle. Koine Greek frequently uses the aorist participle to express action that is part of the action of an aorist finite verb, and this is clearly the case in Paul’s question. Believing and receiving the Holy Spirit are both part of one experience. Most recent translations agree with this understanding of pisteuvsanteV and follow the Revised Standard Version’s translation: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

So which interpretation is right? It is essential to recognize that both are based on legitimate understandings of the use of the aorist adverbial participle in Koine Greek. Even in context, it is virtually impossible to prefer one over the other, and theological concerns usually determine which interpretation is chosen. So both interpretations can be considered correct understandings of Paul’s question in Acts 19:2. The moral of this little exegetical note is that when dealing with the aorist adverbial participle, flexibility and a willingness to consider the validity of interpretations that differ from one’s own are just as important as a knowledge of the complexities of Greek grammar.

J. M. Everts