Re: Re. The aorist!

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Mon Nov 23 1998 - 08:47:32 EST

<x-rich>At 7:47 AM -0500 11/23/98, Paul F. Evans wrote:



Help me out here. I am really afraid to ask this question for fear of
striking up a re-ignition of the great aspect discussion of '96!
However, I am interested in an opinion.


In taking basic first year Greek I was told that the aorist was a
punctilliar (spelled correctly?) tense signifying past action completed
in the past. However, after many years of NT study (I should know
more), I have come across many grammars that bill the aorist as the
generic tense which says nothing particular about the action it
describes. The theory seems to be that if the writer wished to say
something special about the action of a verb he would choose a tense
other than the aorist. Obviously I have discovered that the aorist is
only a past tense in the indicative or imperative moods. If the aorist
is a a punctilliar tense, describing past completed action, it would
be little different from the prefect, because obviously done is done
and the results would persist.


My question is whether the aorist is a sort of generic tense which
describes nothing special about the action of the verb, and whether it
is true that a writer would choose another tense when he wanted to
specify something specific in that sense.


If this is a dumb question forgive me! Only, I come across a
significant body of literature that makes much about the use of the
aorist for its theology and others who discount such (I am interested
only in discussing the nature of the aorist here).


Actually I think this is a pretty good question, but one, alas, on
which QUOT HOMINES TOT SENTENTIAE (roughly, "opinions are one to the
customer"). I'll offer one opinion; no doubt differing and
diametrically opposed views of others will follow ;-) Isn't it nice to
be talking grammar instead of theology--although some may defend their
grammatical perspectives as territorially as if they were actually
theological perspectives?

Two notes, accompanied by a forewarning that some would hold that the
long view of Greek grammar is more or less irrelevant and that
it--Greek grammar--should be considered exclusively from the synchronic
perspective. Obviously I disagree:

(1) I was astounded only two years ago to learn what should, upon
observation and reflection, have been obvious: that the so-called
"secondary" endings of the Greek verb are mis-labeled; in fact, the
simple 'basic' endings of the Greek verbs are what traditionally have
been called "secondary":

        -M -MEN (-MES)

        -S -TE

        -T -NT

This would appear to be the 'unmarked' set of endings, in distinction
to which the three other sets are 'marked':

        (a) MP "secondary"--marked (partially, at least) by addition of -O to
'basic' endings:

        -MHN -MEQA

        -SO -SQE

        -TO -NTO

        (b) Active "primary"--marked (partially, at least) by addition of -I
to 'basic' endings:

        -MI -MEN

        -SI -TE

        -TI -NTI

        (c) MP "secondary"--marked (partially, at least) by addition of -AI to
'basic' endings:

        -MAI -MEQA

        -SAI -SQE

        -TAI -NTAI

I don't know whether the conclusion follows with necessity or not, but
at least the conclusion suggests itself (m/reflexive?) to me that at
some point in the prehistory of Greek the aorist and imperfect active
were 'basic' indicative verb forms (Robertson even suggests at some
points that aorist and imperfect forms were not very sharply
differentiated--e.g., is EFUN, EFUS, EFU(T) Imperfect or Aorist?

(2) What "most" (I hesitate to say more than tentatively what the
majority ever thinks about anything!) grammarians agree upon is that an
aorist indicative, far more often than not, states a past action/event
as a fact. Where many grammarians differ is over the question whether
this is a temporal reference that is inherent in the aorist indicative
morphology or whether it simply represents far and away the most common
usage of a form that may, under the right circumstances (depending on
the nature of the particular verb and other indicators such as adverbs
or particles) refer to a present, future, or past prior action/event.
What's usually said is that the Augment on an indicative aorist or
imperfect always indicates reference to past time, but this very point,
while it IS usually said, has been disputed by some, not without some

(3) (This is really my second point; the preceding was lagniappe.) With
reference to your last statement, Paul: "If the aorist is a a
punctilliar tense, describing past completed action, it would be little
different from the perfect, because obviously done is done and the
results would persist," I would add that there's SOME evidence that the
Aorist and the Perfect are losing their differentiation in the period
during which the NT is being written. Even much earlier the Aorist
functioned regularly to indicate prior past (pluperfect) acts/events
and there are exceedingly few real pluperfects in the GNT. In Latin the
fusion of the Perfect and Aorist tenses happened in the prehistoric
phase of the language; certainly such a fusion is far from full
realization in the Greek of the NT period. One of the things I have
been intending to explore, when I have sufficient time, is whether
there is evidence to show that the Aorist regularly indicates
completion of action in NT Greek while the Perfect tense(s) are used
rather to indicate the stative consequences of completion.

"My 2 cents."

Carl W. Conrad

Department of Classics/Washington University

One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018

Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR



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