Re: Prohibitions in the imperative mood

From: Carlton Winbery (
Date: Wed Oct 07 1998 - 13:32:58 EDT

>Bret A. Hicks wrote:
>> I was studying 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 this morning and came across
>> the negative imperatives:
>> MH SBENNUTE - do not extinguish (vs 19)
>> ME EXOUTHENEITE - do not despise (vs 20)
>> As I was researching this, I remebered the discussion on whether
>> prohibiions on present imperatives (especially as contrasted with aorist
>> subjunctives) signify that one is supposed to stop doing what they are
>> presently doing ("Stop extinguishing the Spirit"; "Stop despising
>> prophecies") or whether they are really merely prohibitions ("Do not
>> extinguish the Spirit"; "Do not despise prophecies").
>> The opinion of scholars seems to be divided. Roberston, both in his
>> Word Pictures (Volume 4, page 37) and his Grammar (pages 851-852), and
>> Brooks & Winbery (pages 127-128; they even use the verse in question as
>> an example) seem to see the use of MH with the present imperative as
>> indiciating that a present action must be stopped. On the other hand,
>> Mounce (pages 309-310) and Young (Intermediate NT Greek, page 144)
>> indicate that this is reading too much into the grammar.
>> Interestingly enough, I notice that the older grammars seem to
>> accept the distinction, while the newer ones see it as doubtful. Is
>> there a shift in understnading prohibitions with present imperatives, or
>> is the matter simply one that is debated among grammarians? Is it
>> reading too much into the grammar to suppose that this use indicates
>> stopping a present activity, or is this a distinction that should be
>> maintained? Any help would be greatly appreciated. (If this topic has
>> been discussed at length in the past, a point in the direction of the
>> dates/posts would be greatly appreciated as well.)
>English is a little strange here ~ The aorist is the simple injunctive
>"Do not despise...", whereas the present tense prohibition says "Do
>not be despising..." Implicit in the present prohibition is the idea
>that there is some despising going on, whereas in the aorist, such an
>idea is not implied. So the "Stop despising..." translation arises
>for the present injunctive.
>A little English example might help. To tell people "Do not kill one
>another" is a general injunctive, whereas to tell them "Do not be
>killing one another" seems to mean that they are killing one
>another. This distinction, however, easily blurs in English, because
>an English speaking person CAN mean either with either. Modern Greek,
>I am told, reserves the aorist injunctive as the sharp and immediate
>command to 'stop immediately', while the present form is more of a
>general prohibition. I do not know if k Greek uses the aorist as a
>sharp command... Carl?

One of the early books I studied (indeed consumed) was E.D. Burton, Syntax
of Moods and Tenses in NT Greek. I have read the more recent treatments
and books on aspect and except for a certain looseness in Hellenistic
Greek, I am unconvinced that Burton was not close to the general functions
in most of what he did (without a computer).

  He says;
>>>164. (a) The Aorist Subjunctive forbids the action as a simple event
>>>with reference to the action as a whole or to its inception, and is most
>>>frequently used when the action has not been begun. Acts 18:9 and Rev.

165. (b) The Present Imperative (180-184) forbids the continuance of the
action, most frequently when it is already in progress; in this case, it is
a demand to desist from the action. Mk. 6:50 and Jn 5:14.
        When the action is not yet begun, it enjoins continued abstinence
from it. Mk 13:21 and Mt. 24:23.<<<

Now citing Burton does not "prove anything," but my reading of the GNT
seems to support what he says.

Carlton L. Winbery
Fogleman Professor of Religion
Louisiana College
Pineville, LA 71359

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