Aorist Indicative: English Equivalents Of The Greek Aorist Indicative


(1) It should be observed that the Aorist for the Perfect and the Aorist for the Pluperfect are not variations from the normal use of the Greek Aorist. Viewed strictly from the point of view of Greek Grammar, these Aorists are simply Historical, Inceptive, or Resultative Aorists. The necessity for mentioning them arises merely from the difference between the English and the Greek idiom.

The Greek Aorist corresponds to the English simple Past (or Imperfect or Preterite, loved, heard, etc.) more nearly than to any other English tense. But it is not the precise equivalent of the English Past; nor is the Greek Perfect the precise equivalent of the English Perfect; nor the Greek Pluperfect of the English Pluperfect. This will appear distinctly if we place side by side the definitions of the tenses which in general correspond in the two languages.

The English Perfect is used of any past action between which and the time of speaking the speaker does not intend distinctly to interpose an interval.2

The Greek Perfect is used to represent an action as standing complete, i.e. as having an existing result, at the time of speaking.

The English Pluperfect is used to mark the fact that the event expressed by it preceded another past event indicated by the context, and this whether the earlier event is thought of as completed at the time of the later event, or only indefinitely as a simple occurrence preceding the later event.2

The Greek Pluperfect is used to represent an action as standing complete, i.e. as having an existing result, at a point of past time indicated by the context.

The English Past is used of any past action between which and the moment of speaking an interval is thought of as existing. It affirms nothing respecting existing result.

The Greek Aorist is used of any past event which is conceived of simply as an event (or as entered upon, or as accomplished), regardless alike of the existence or non-existence of an interval between itself and the moment of speaking, and of the question whether it precedes or not some other past action. It affirms nothing respecting existing result.

It is evident from this comparison that the English Perfect has a larger range of use than the Greek Perfect.

Thus a past event between which and the time of speaking no interval is distinctly thought of may be expressed by the English Perfect, whether the result of the event is thought of as existing not; but it can be expressed by the Greek Perfect only in case such result is thought of. So also the English Pluperfect has a wider range than the Greek Pluperfect. For while the Greek can use its Pluperfect for an event which preceded another past event only in case the result of the earlier event is thought of as existing at the time of the later event, the English freely uses its Pluperfect for all such doubly past events, without reference to the existence of the result of the earlier event at the time of the later one.

On the other hand, the Greek Aorist has a wider range than the English Past, since it performs precisely those functions which the Greek Perfect and Pluperfect refuse, but which in modern English are performed not by the Past but by the Perfect and Pluperfect. The Greek Aorist, therefore, in its ordinary use not only covers the ground of the English Past, but overlaps in part upon that of the English Perfect and Pluperfect. Hence arise the so-called Aorist for Perfect and Aorist for Pluperfect.

If the attempt be made to define more exactly the extent of this overlapping, it will appear that a simple past event which is conceived of without reference to an existing result, and between which and the time of speaking the speaker does not wish distinctly to suggest an interval, — the interval may be ever so long, in fact, — will be expressed in Greek by the Aorist, because the result is not thought of, and in English by the Perfect, because the interval is not thought of. Cases of this kind arise, e.g., when the event is said to continue up to the time of speaking, so that there is actually no interval [Matt. 27:8; διὸ ἐκλήθη ὁ ἀγρὸς ἐκεῖνος Ἀγρὸς Αἵματος ἕως τῆς σήμερον, therefore that field has been called Field of Blood until this day. See also Matt. 28:15; John 16:24]; or when the event is so recent as to make the thought of an interval seem unnatural [Luke 5:26; Εἴδομεν παράδοξα σήμερον, we have seen strange things to-day. See also Mark 14:41; Acts 7:52, νῦν . . . ἐγένεσθε]; or when the time of the event is entirely indefinite [Matt. 19:4; Οὐκ ἀνέγνωτε, have ye not read? See also Rev. 17:12; exx. are frequent in the New Testament]; or when the verb refers to a series of events which extends approximately or quite to the time of speaking [Matt. 5:21; Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις, ye have heard that it was said to the ancients; the reference is doubtless to the frequent occasions on which they had heard such teachings in the synagogue. See also 1 Esdr. 4:26, 27].

Instances of the Greek Aorist for the English Pluperfect arise when a past event which is conceived of simply as an event without reference to existing result is mentioned out of its chronological order, or is expressed in a subordinate clauses The Greek employs the Aorist, leaving the context to suggest the order; the English usually suggests the order by the use of a Pluperfect. See exx. under THE AORIST FOR THE (ENGLISH) PLUPERFECT. Cf. Beet, The Greek Aorist as used in the New Testament, in Expositor, xi. 191-201, 296-308, 372-385; Weymouth, The Rendering into English of the Greek Aorist and Perfect, in Theological Monthly, iv. 33-47, 162-180.

(2) In many cases in which the Greek Aorist is used of an event antecedent to another past event already referred to, English idiom permits a simple Past. A Pluperfect is strictly required only when the precedence in time is somewhat prominent. The Revisers of 1881 have used the Pluperfect sparingly in such cases. It might better have been used also in Matt. 9:25; Mark 8:14; John 12:18 (had heard).

(3) An Aorist which is equivalent to an English Perfect or Pluperfect may be either an historical, or an inceptive, or a Resultative Aorist. If historical, it may be either momentary, comprehensive, or collective.

In Luke 15:32, ἔζησεν, and in 1 Cor. 4:8, ἐπλουτήσατε, are inceptive Aorists which may be properly rendered by the English Perfect; probably also ἐβασίλευσας, in Rev. 11:17, should be rendered, thou hast become king.

In Rom. 3:23, ἥμαρτον is evidently intended to sum up the aggregate of the evil deeds of men, of which the apostle has been speaking in the preceding paragraphs (1:18-3:20). It is therefore a collective historical Aorist. But since that series of evil deeds extends even to the moment of speaking, as is indeed directly affirmed in the πάντες, it is impossible to think of an interval between the fact stated and this statement of it. It must therefore be expressed in English by the Perfect tense, and be classed with Matt. 5:21 as a collective Aorist for (English) Perfect. Of similar force is the same form in Rom. 2:12. From the point of view from which the apostle is speaking, the sin of each offender is simply a past fact, and the sin of all a series or aggregate of facts together constituting a past fact. But inasmuch as this series is not separated from the time of speaking, we must, as in 3:23, employ an English Perfect in translation. This is upon the supposition that the verb ἥμαρτον takes its point of view from the time of speaking, and the apostle accordingly speaks here only of sin then past, leaving it to be inferred that the same principle would apply to subsequent sin. It is possible, however, that by a sort of prolepsis ἥμαρτον is uttered from the point of view of the future judgment [κριθήσονται], and refers to all sin that will then be past. In this case the Future Perfect, shall have sinned, may be used in translation, or again the Perfect, common in subordinate clauses in English as an abbreviation of the Future Perfect. Whether the same form in Rom. 5:12 shall be rendered in the same way or by the English Past depends upon whether it is, like the other cases, a collective Aorist, representing a series of acts between which and the time of speaking no interval is interposed, or refers to a deed or deeds in the remote past in which the “all” in some way participated. So far as the tense- form is concerned there is no presumption in favor of one or the other of these interpretations, both uses of the tense being equally legitimate. The nature of the argument or the author’s thought, as learned from sources outside the sentence itself, must furnish the main evidence by which to decide.

(4) The Aorist euvdo,khsa in Matt. 3:17; 17:5; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22; 2 Pet. 1:17, may be explained –
(a) as a Historical Aorist having reference to a specific event as its basis. I was well pleased with thee, e.g. for receiving baptism. If all the instances were in connection with the baptism, this would be the most natural explanation. But for those that occur in connection with the account of the transfiguration this explanation falls, and is probably therefore not the true explanation of any of the instances.
(b) as a comprehensive Historical Aorist covering the period of Christ’s preincarnate existence. Cf. John 17:5, 24; see W. N. Clarke, Com. on Mark 1:11. If the passages were in the fourth gospel, and especially if they contained some such phrase πρὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου, this explanation would have much in its favor. The absence of such limiting phrase, and the fact that the passages are in the synoptic gospels are opposed to this explanation.
(c) as a comprehensive Historical Aorist, having the force of an English Perfect, and referring to the period of Christ’s earthly existence up to the time of speaking. But against this is the absence of any adverbial phrase meaning up to this time, which usually accompanies an Aorist verb used in this sense. Cf. (1) and THE PRESENT OF PAST ACTION STILL IN PROGRESS (2).
(d) as an Aorist which has by usage come to have the meaning which is strictly appropriate to the Perfect, I became well pleased with thee, and l am [accordingly] well pleased with thee. Cf. 47. There are a few passages of the Septuagint that seem at first sight to favor this explanation. See Ps. 101:15; Jer. 2:19; Mal. 2:17. Cf. also Matt. 12:18; Luke 12:32. The force of this evidence is, however, greatly diminished by the fact that all these instances are capable of being explained without resort to so unusual a use of the Aorist, that both in the Septuagint and in the New Testament there is in use a regular Present form of this verb, and that the Aorist in the majority of cases clearly denotes past time.
(e) as an Inceptive Aorist referring to some indefinite, imagined point of past time at which God is represented as becoming well pleased with Jesus. But since this point is not thought of as definitely fixed, English idiom requires a Perfect tense. Cf. (1), (3). It may be described, therefore, as an Inceptive Aorist equivalent to an English Perfect, and may be rendered, I have become well pleased. This, however, can only be a vivid way of saying, I am well pleased. If then this view is correct, the rendering of the English versions is a free but substantially correct paraphrase. A true Perfect would affirm the present state of pleasure and imply the past becoming pleased. The Aorist affirms the becoming pleased and leaves the present pleasure to be suggested. This explanation, therefore, differs from the preceding (d) in that it does not suppose the Aorist of this verb to have acquired the power of expressing an existing result, but judges the existing result to be only suggested by the affirmation of the past fact. This is rhetorical figure, on the way to become grammatical idiom, but not yet become such. Manifestly similar is the use of προσεδέξατο in Isa. 42:1, and of εὐδόκησεν in Matt. 12:18. Indeed, if Matt. 12:18 represents a current translation of Isa. 42:1, our present passages were probably affected in form by this current rendering of the Isaiah passage. Similar also are ἐκάθισαν in Matt. 23:2, and ἔμαθον in Phil. 4:11. In neither case is there any clearly established usage of the Aorist for Greek Perfect; in neither is there apparent any reference to a definite point of past time; in both the real fact intended to be suggested is the present state.


2 The English Perfect and Pluperfect by their auxiliaries have and had distinctly suggest completed action in the proper sense, viz, the possession of a thing in the condition indicated by the participle, and substantially this is the meaning often conveyed by these tenses. Thus, I have learned my lesson, differs but little in meaning from I have my lesson learned. But this is by no means the only use which may be made of these tenses in modern English. They have, in fact, ceased to be Perfect tenses in any proper sense of that word. Compare, e.g., the Pasts and Perfects in the following examples: The army arrived. The army has arrived. Many men fought for their country. Many men have fought for their country. He often visited Rome. He has often visited Rome. Only in the first example is existing result suggested by the Perfect tense. In each pair the distinguishing mark between the two sentences is that while the Perfect tense places the event in the past time without defining whether or not an interval has elapsed since the event, the Past tense places it in the past time and suggests an interval.

Similarly, the English Pluperfect affirms only the antecedence of its event to the other past event, leaving it to the context or the nature of the fact to show whether at the past time referred to there were existing results or not. Thus in the sentence, I showed him the work which I had done, it is implied that the results of the doing remained at the time of the showing. But in the sentence, He did not recognize the persons whom he had previously seen, it is not implied that any result of the seeing remained at the time of the non- recognition.

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