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I've read that one of the difficulties of translating New Testament Greek is the presence of the aorist tense of verbs in Greek. I think I understand what is meant by "aorist tense" in that it seems to mean there's no indication of the action in question happening in the past, present or future. Am I understanding the meaning of aorist tense correctly?

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closed as off-topic by Dan Mar 31 at 20:46

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "Questions without a specific Bible passage are off-topic as we cannot apply hermeneutical methods to text if there is no text." – Dan
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

VTC as this is a general reference question. –  Dan Sep 5 '13 at 22:08
Actually, this question is actually off topic according to our About page. –  Dan Sep 6 '13 at 22:13
Tried to delete the question but I cannot. –  Onorio Catenacci Sep 7 '13 at 13:25
By the way @Dan just because there's something on Wikipedia doesn't make this totally off-topic. Reread my question: part of my question is regarding how the aorist verb impacts translation. –  Onorio Catenacci Sep 7 '13 at 17:16
True Onorio, but if you look at our About page you'll see that we don't allow questions about the Greek language. But in regards to general reference, I followed the chart in the meta post I linked to. –  Dan Sep 7 '13 at 21:03

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Wikipedia has a nice summary of the aorist and more details can be found in the the article on the ancient Greek aorist in particular.

This is from the first link.

In the Ancient Greek, the indicative aorist is one of the two main forms used in telling a story; it is used for undivided events, such as the individual steps in a continuous process (narrative aorist); it is also used for events that took place before the story itself (past-within-past). The aorist indicative is also used to express things that happen in general, without asserting a time (the "gnomic aorist"). It can also be used of present and future events; the aorist also has several specialized senses meaning present action.

Non-indicative forms of the aorist (subjunctives, optatives, imperatives, infinitives) are usually purely aspectual, with certain exceptions including indirect speech constructions and the use of optative as part of the sequence of tenses in dependent clauses. There are aorist infinitives and imperatives that do not imply temporality at all. For example, the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:11 uses the aorist imperative in "Give (δός dós) us this day our daily bread", in contrast to the analogous passage in Luke 11:3, which uses the imperfective aspect, implying repetition, with "Give (δίδου dídou, present imperative) us day by day our daily bread."

An example of how the aorist tense contrasts with the imperfect in describing the past occurs in Xenophon's Anabasis, when the Persian aristocrat Orontas is executed: "and those who had been previously in the habit of bowing (προσεκύνουν prosekúnoun, imperfect) to him, bowed (προσεκύνησαν prosekúnēsan, aorist) to him even then." Here the imperfect refers to a past habitual or repeated act, and the aorist to a single one.

There is disagreement as to which functions of the Greek aorist are inherent within it. Many authors hold that the aorist tends to be about the past because it is perfective, and perfectives tend to describe completed actions; others that it is essentially a mixture of past tense and perfective aspect.

Hermeneutic implications

Because the aorist was not maintained in either Latin or the Germanic languages, there have long been difficulties in translating the Greek New Testament into Western languages. The aorist has often been interpreted as making a strong statement about the aspect or even the time of an event, when, in fact, due to its being the unmarked (default) form of the Greek verb, such implications are often left to context. Thus, within New Testament hermeneutics, it is considered an exegetical fallacy to attach undue significance to uses of the aorist. Although one may draw specific implications from an author's use of the imperfective or perfect, no such conclusions can, in general, be drawn from the use of the aorist, which may refer to an action "without specifying whether the action is unique, repeated, ingressive, instantaneous, past, or accomplished." In particular, the aorist does not imply a "once for all" action, as it has commonly been misinterpreted.

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I do not see why pasting some stuff off Wikipedia counts as an answer. When my students paste things off Wikipedia they automatically fail. –  fdb Dec 10 at 0:22
@fdb I have to agree this is a bit sketchy. But the real problem is the question. This question specifically and the genre of generic language questions in general was discussed at length on meta and we've pretty much settled that they are outside the scope of the site. There is not much point in debating the merits of answers to questions that are closed for being off topic—unless they are fixed and opened the whole thing is likely to hit the recycle bin eventually. As long as new answers cannot be posted, the pros and cons of existing ones is kind of a moot point. –  Caleb Dec 19 at 12:30

To the grammarian it may seem like beating a dead horse to protest that the aorist does not necessarily reflect the nature of the action or event it covers. But the horse is not dead; he is very much alive and cavorting rather freely in exegetical and theological pastures. The fallacy of "theology in the aorist tense" stubbornly persists, even in the writings of distinguished scholars.

Thus begins the article by Frank Stagg, "The Abused Aorist", Journal of Biblical Literature 91 (1972): 222-231. (It is also available online by permission at BiblicalStudies.org.uk.) This article should be required reading in seminaries everywhere.

Among other things, Stagg provides a catalogue of several pages discussing "abuses" observed in works of major commentators. Here's one example, from p. 224:

A. N. Wilder falls into the aoristic trap in his interpretation of 1 John 2:1, "But if any one does sin (i.e., commits an act of sin [aorist tense]; contrast habitual sin in the present tense, 3: 6, 9 and 5: 18....)"12 John may imply a distinction between a single act of sin and habitual sin, but the aorist tense does not require this. It permits it.
12 A. N. Wilder, "The First, Second, and Third Epistles of John," The Interpreter's Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1957) 12, 227.

With these and many other such cases, Stagg demonstrates the "abuses" that a misunderstanding of the aorist can produce. He also has a discussion of the broader range of uses of the aorist, and surveys the main NT Greek grammars on the subject. He concludes (p. 231):

It does not follow that the aorist tense is without exegetical significance (compare, e.g., aor. subj. and pres. impv.). ... [T]he aorist may or may not be punctiliar, and the presence of the aorist does not in itself give any hint as to the nature of the action behind it.

So, to answer the question in brief: yes, the OP is essentially correct his understanding of the aorist in Koine Greek. And perhaps that means things have improved since Stagg wrote his article in 1972!

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Well, I think the aorist has a specific meaning according to the circumstance and that a semelfactive perfective interpretation gives itself in many instances. The Latin perfectum is more or less the same as the aorist in the past, and for many verbs it is based on former aorist forms, especially the s-aorist. What is not continued in Latin is the true old perfectum, even though the Latin perfectum forms are partly based on this too.

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