The aorist tense "presents an occurrence in summary, viewed as a whole from the outside, without regard for the internal make-up of the occurrence."1 Wallace explains,
This contrasts with the present and imperfect, which portray the
action as an ongoing process. It may be helpful to think of the aorist
as taking a snapshot of the action while the imperfect (like the
present) takes a motion picture, portraying the action as it unfolds.
[A footnote points out,] There is a difference between seeing the
aorist as undefined and seeing it as a summary tense, though the two
are closely related. In our view the aorist summarizes. It is thus not
undefined or unmarked. That is to say, it is not necessarily the
“default” tense that one would use unless he or she had reason to use
another. The key issue, it seems, is the tense-mood combination.
Outside the indicative, the aorist is hardly unmarked (statistically,
the present runs neck-and-neck with it). However, in the indicative,
the aorist does appear to function this way, at least in narrative
literature. The imperfect, (historical) present, perfect, and
pluperfect are all used in narrative, along with the aorist. But the
aorist is by far the most common. Thus, the analogy with a snapshot
seems appropriate, enabling the student to get a handle on the basic
notion of the aorist’s aspect.2
Wallace goes on to share a helpful analogy:
Suppose I were to take a snapshot of a student studying for a mid-term
exam in intermediate Greek. Below the picture I put the caption,
“Horatio Glutchstomach studied for the mid-term.” From the snapshot
and the caption all that one would be able to state positively is that
Horatio Glutchstomach studied for the mid-term. Now in the picture you
notice that Horatio has his Greek text opened before him. From this,
you cannot say, “Because the picture is a snapshot rather than a
movie, I know that Horatio Glutchstomach only had his Greek text
opened for a split-second”! This might be true, but the snapshot does
not tell you this. All you really know is that the student had his
Greek text open. An event happened. From the picture you cannot tell
for how long he had his text open. You cannot tell whether he studied
for four hours straight (durative), or for eight hours, taking a ten
minute break every 20 minutes (iterative). You cannot tell whether he
studied successfully so as to pass the test, or whether he studied
unsuccessfully. The snapshot does not tell you any of this. The
snapshot by itself cannot tell if the action was momentary,
“once-for-all”, repeated, at regularly recurring intervals, or over a
long period of time. It is obvious from this crude illustration that
it would be silly to say that since I took a snapshot of Horatio
studying, rather than a movie, he must have studied only for a very
Wallace further elaborates on the aorist in the indicative mood:
In the indicative, the aorist usually indicates past time with
reference to the time of speaking (thus, “absolute time”). Aorist
participles usually suggest antecedent time to that of the main verb
(i.e., past time in a relative sense). There are exceptions to this
general principle, of course, but they are due to intrusions from
other linguistic features vying for control....
Outside the indicative and participle, time is not a feature of the
In conclusion, we must avoid the dangers of saying too much or too little when the aorist tense occurs. The aorist doesn't exist "in a vacuum," so we must pay attention to when context is guiding us towards different meanings as it combines various linguistic features. But we must also avoid saying too much (i.e. saying the aorist always means "once-for-all" or "momentary" action).
1 Fanning, Verbal Aspect, 97. Cf. also McKay, “Time and Aspect,” 225.
2 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 555.
3 Ibid., 555.
4 Ibid., 555.