RE: Attention aspect geeks

From: Jonathan Robie (
Date: Tue Apr 08 1997 - 15:46:45 EDT

Rolf Furuli (
Tue, 08 Apr 1997 15:54:37 +0000

> Allow me another remark on the older grammars.
> Mark wrote:
> The difference between Fanning`s work and the older grammars
> is that he helps us to do necessary abstract thinking, while
> the grammars to a great degree prevent the reader from doing
> just that. Fanning`s principal contribution is that he
> differentiates between Aktionsart and aspect IN A SYSTEMATIC
> WAY. These words are also mentioned in the older grammars,
> but in their definitions of the aorist and the other
> conjugations only Aktionsart-terms are used.

One real advantage of a systematic explanation is that it can
give us simple ways to understand things and teach them.

Let me share a personal experience. I have been struggling to
understand the aorist for years, and definitions I have tried
to use were just confusing for me. Either the definitions were
just plain wrong, or they didn't help me. I started out with
one really wrong understanding: that the aorist means a sudden,
complete action. In the church I grew up in, some people saw
this as a reason for believing in eternal security: once you
are saved, there is no unsaving you, because the Bible talks
about us being saved in the aorist.

When I started learning Greek, I was surprised to find that this
isn't what most scholars believe, and started struggling to figure
out what they *do* believe. I learned that the model they had used
in my church seemed to be derived from Robertson's point analogy,
that the aorist describes punctiliar action. I think that Robertson
really knows his stuff, but his point analogy was confusing for me.
I couldn't figure out how reigning for a thousand years could be
regarded as a point, how the gnomic aorist could be regarded
as a point, how the aorist could sometimes function much like
a perfect, etc. Maybe I just never quite understood his point
analogy; at any rate, I never figured out how to apply it to the
range of aorists that I find when I read, and I don't think that
Robertson gave adequate guidance to help me know how to apply this
analogy to each situation. Incidentally, I really value Robertson's
judgement on how to interpret various passages, I just don't know
how to relate that to his point analogy in many cases, and so I
could look up what Robertson had to say on various passages, but
I couldn't derive the same on my own.

I then moved over to another model: treating the aorist as a simple
past tense, the "mere occurrence of some action in the past". Of course,
sometimes this action in the past is in the future, and sometimes it
is timeless, and I had no idea how to understand this.

I was looking for a simple, consistent explanation that I could use
as a model for reading the Bible. I thought the aorist must mean
*something*, but I didn't have a clear picture what it meant.

For me, Mari Olsen's work was a breakthrough. Suddenly, I knew
what I thought the aorist means. I'm not positive that my model
is correct, but I *do* know that it is concrete enough that I
know what it says about how to interpret the aorist, and that means
that I can adjust it if I come across evidence that suggests I am
wrong. What I have read about Fanning strikes me as similarly
precise and useful.

> Jonathan wrote
> > "The aorist views an action from the time of its
> > completion. In most cases, the action is in the past, but
> > it can also depict a future action, a present action, or an
> > action not fixed in time, always viewing it from the time
> > of its completion."
> The question of whether or not the aorist indicates past
> time complicates the definition of aspect, but your words
> above may illustrate the need for abstractions,i.e. strings
> to hang things on. I don`t know if this is intentional or
> not, but there is a great difference between speaking of
> `completion` (=completed) and `complete`. What is completed
> has an intrinsic time value, it is past time relative some
> event, what is complete is time indifferent. So in our
> interpretation of particular aorists it makes a big
> difference whether our abstraction of the perfective aspect
> contain `complete` or `completed`.

I'll have to go back and reread exactly what Mari means by the coda,
but my current understanding, right or wrong, is that the aorist
depicts the action at the time of completion, not after it has
been completed. As a matter of fact, this distinction is pretty
important to my understanding of ingressive aorist, gnomic aorist,
etc. "Viewing it from the time of its completion" *is* a string that
I hang things off of. Do you see any disadvantages to thinking of
it this way? When you say that it "may illustrate the need for
abstractions", I'm afraid I don't know what you mean.

I'm not positive that my current model is correct, but I am pretty
sure that I know what my current model *is*, so I've reached a useful
starting point.


Jonathan Robie
POET Software, 3207 Gibson Road, Durham, N.C., 27703
Ph: 919.598.5728 Fax: 919.598.6728
email:, <--- shockwave enabled!

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