[b-greek] Middle or Passive: does it make any difference?

From: Carl W. Conrad (cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu)
Date: Tue Nov 20 2001 - 10:15:12 EST

[My subject-header derives from a little book published by Arthur
Schlesinger Jr. during the fall semester of my first year of graduate work
at Harvard; it was a heady time there that fall both before and after that
year's election; the book was entitled: "Kennedy or Nixon: Does it make any

Mark Wilson has raised an issue with regard to my posting yesterday of
comments on the 45 GNT texts with aorist -QH- verb forms, and specifically
about my #10 under "Middle":

>def. #7, middle; Phoebe "made herself to be" or "turned out to be" a
>patroness; she acted deliberately, not by happenstance...

In response I said that I think that if I hadn't been so fundamentally
concerned in that exercise to acknowledge any instances of -QH- forms of
GINOMAI that are authentically passive while identifying as well those that
can NOT be deemed passive, I probably would have marked the above instance
as intransitive. "She has been a patron for many as well as for myself."
Aorist of GINOMAI because EIMI has no aorist. On the other hand, since so
many intransitive verbs ARE what I'd call "subject-focused," i.e.
middle-or-passive, I wanted to underscore that this is NOT passive, that
Phoebe's assumption of the role of PROSTATIS is not something assigned her
but a role assumed of her own accord; that's why I'd call it
"middle"--meaning that EGENETO could as well have been used (although I'd
say that EGENETO can be and often is authentically passive).

Perhaps i should have limited my comment to saying that EGENHQH in Rom 16:2
is clearly NOT passive or even that it is really INTRANSITIVE. And yet, and
yet ... although the verb form EGENHQH doesn't necessarily display a
semantic middle force, a little reflection makes it clear that she wasn't a
patron(ess) because she was made to be so by some force outside herself.

Mark said that he really didn't think that a passive voice would imply
happenstance, or that Phoebe hadn't acted deliberately. He then suggested
that the passive sense "just viewed or portrays the subject AFTEr the point
in time; the middle captures. She "made herself to be X" (middle) and
subsequently "has been made X (passive)."

But I DON'T think the passive sense simply looks at the end-result in terms
of a fait accompli while the middle sense views it in terms of the
subject's intention so to act. The passive sense indicates, as Iver puts
it, that Phoebe was a patient and experiencer of something done to her; the
middle sense indicates that she was ENGAGED in what's happening THROUGH her
behavior. Consider a hypothetical situation: Let's say that the crew on a
commercial vessel carrying wine jars found an amphora with a crack in it
through which wine was leaking out slowly but surely; someone tossed it
overboard. Later someone asks, "Hey, I stowed 300 amphorae of wine in this
hold and there are only 299 there now; what happened to the other?" He is
told--in Greek--that it APWLETO: "it was wasted!" Did somebody waste it?
Did it waste itself? We might say, "it went bad" or we might say, "it was
jettisoned." There's a different perspective, maybe, but the Greek form
APWLETO (just like EGENETO or EGENHQH) doesn't specify whether the amphora
developed a crack of its own accord or whether somebody put it down in the
hold clumsily so that it cracked; it simply indicates that what happened is
that the amphora APWLETO. If it's important for someone to know how it
happened, that can be specified APWLETO hH AMFORA hUPO TWN NAUTWN or
APWLETO hH AMFORA hUPO TOU KUBERNHTOU. But without an agent indicated, the
verb-form simply doesn't specify whether the pot "sprung a leak" on its own
or "was damaged" by abusive handling. And that, I think, is why the aorist
verb-forms, both MHN/SO/TO and -QHN/QHS/QH are open-ended with respect to
agency--they focus on the experience of the subject, not upon who performs
the action.

Later Mark said that my comment, "she acted deliberately, not by
happenstance" appeared "to equate pragmatics with semantics, or portrayal
with reality."
I think that Mark may well be right in that observation. What I should have
said is that, IF we must assert that EGENHQH in this instance is EITHER
middle OR passive, then it CAN'T be passive because we cannot reasonably
suppose, from what Paul tells us about Phoebe, that her behavior was
coerced so that she did not do what she did intentionally, and, that being
the case, we should judge EGENHQH here to be middle. But in fact the
verb-form itself doesn't
provide us with any reason to judge one way or the other; given the right
contextual indicators, EGENHQH here might conceivably be judged passive: we
could be told that her parents and loving friends shaped Phoebe from her
youth to be helpful and to take responsibility: they MADE her what she CAME
TO BE. That's conceivable. It's also possible (but I wouldn't suggest it
myself) that Phoebe was PREDESTINED by her creator to be helpful to others
as well as to Paul. But the Greek verb is neutral in that regard--and I
guess that's really the point I want to make: that it's wrong to delimit the
semantic function of -QH- forms to the passive.

Finally Mark suggested that Phoebe's actions, whether or not the verb in
this instance is deemed Middle or passive, "should not be an either/or
proposition. Even if understood as Passive, she may very well have acted

And thereby I am reminded of Spinoza's 17th century distinction between
NATURA NATURANS and NATURA NATURATA: his assertion that every happening
within nature can be looked at as a curved lens may be viewed from either a
convex or concave perspective; insofar as it's NATURA NATURANS, all that
happens is in the middle voice, because nature is "doing her own thing";
insofar as it's NATURA NATURATA, all that happens is in the passive voice,
because nature is as she is because of what's been done (by whomsoever!).

And that leads me to two final observations:

(1) I think probably that the endeavor to identify whether a MHN/SO/TO or
QHN/QHS/QH aorist in NT Greek is in fact semantically middle or
semantically passive is guided more by our wish to get the voice in the
target language right than by any clear indication in the Greek text of
semantic middle or passive or intransitive; and

(2) It really looks like Koine Greek of the NT era simply did not make an
effort to distinguish middle and passive clearly: at least five tenses
don't differentiate at all, and my contention is that the aorist and future
didn't differentiate in terms of morphoparadigm either.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Emeritus)
Most months: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu OR cwconrad@ioa.com
WWW: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/

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