Two Letters on the Greek Aorist in translating the New Testament.

J. N. Darby.

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My dear brother,

Mere grammar will not do without the usus loquendi; nor do languages answer to one another in their habit of thought. I had purposely put "has," "have," etc., where aorists are, very often, and as yet I think I am right. I have seen -'s book, not read it through; but it is grammar, not Greek. Take ἐσταύρωσαν (Gal. 5:24) as an example: he spoils the whole matter by his principle. The aorist means very often the future, as no one can doubt. Again, in many cases the imperative aorist has a sense impossible to give in English. The present is Do, or Do not, something now; the aorist, Do not be in the state of one who has done it. Perhaps I express it imperfectly, but it is the idea. The aorist is of no time; but we have not properly a tense with no time. Hence we must put the aorist often into a time tense in English, future, historic, or what is called perfect; but the Greek perfect is much more defined than the English — more distinctly the subsistence of what has been done. A Christian "crucified the flesh" is not a present continuance, and indeed has no sense. It is about some Christian somewhere. It is more the French perfect. Je fus à Paris. They that are Christ's crucified the flesh. What does that mean? I repeat, there is no aorist in English. In the participle you must often say "having." It is in fact with undetermined time; which, where it is instant, may be translated present; when consequent on another, must be future in English, and when it is not simply a past historical fact, in the air, but, brought into present bearing and relationship, must be "has." Συνεσταύρωμαι "was and am"; ἐσταύρωσαν, "they have" done it. In John 15:6, the sense is future, but, as it is a constant fact, present would serve in English, a certain fact is looked at as a fact, so James 1:2; but there are cases where you must in English translate in the future. In Mark 10:3-4, I prefer "has," because it is a present obligation; but in the two last you must make it present — habitual without time. In Matthew 10:4, ὁ καὶ παραδοὺς αὐτόν is mere description, and one can say, in English, who also betrayed Him; but we say it in English because it is past now or supposed so to be. Nor do I think that the aorist means simply a future as such; but there are cases where in English we must put a future, because English cannot always abstract and put it in no time.

145 So it is of the present participle with an article, Matthew 2:20, οἱ ζητοῦντες, "the seekers": we must say, who sought. They were not seeking then, for they were dead.

In page 15 (2 Cor. 5:14) the Authorized Version gives the right sense but freely, the "five" no sense at all. All died because Christ died; and it is not all believers, for those who live are distinguished; but I question if he be not right as to the τῶ, verse 15, applying to both. But I have not had time to examine it. Died, as to Christ, is an historical fact, one died: so rightly. Ἀπέθανον is a consequence. Perhaps "had died" were better than "have." I cannot say, judging this is an historical fact in itself

I think in result the making the aorist a mere historical fact, as "crucified," a great mistake in grammar and in intelligence.

I cannot at this moment give you an example where, in English, the aorist must be given as a future, but I met one the other day. I am glad, I trust, to learn anything and willing to learn from anybody. But my critics,  -  amongst them, have not as yet convinced me. In looking over John and part of Matthew, I have put out "has" in one case and put it in in another.

As to James 4:5, I cannot see it now, but I have found it so difficult that I shall be glad of light from anyone; weigh it I did, but never was satisfied. Forgive haste.

Your affectionate brother in Christ.


DEAR  - ,

—  had proposed to me to do what you suggest. I have no objection. Since this question was raised, I have paid attention as I passed along preparing for the new edition of the New Testament; and it is clear to me it is wholly impossible to make an English aorist which has no time. It may be very often translated as an historical tense, and here I have often hesitated between the historical tense and the auxiliary verb. In the passive form it is often impossible to use either. Sometimes the perfect future, "will have," may serve. But see in Matthew 24:2 ἀφεθῆ: still it is the aorist. But the English looks at it from the time of the speaker. It may be alleged that a prophecy looks at fulfilment as already there; but you must say "there shall not be left one stone upon another." When another event is named or supposed, it is imperfect in its sense, and so has to be expressed. Very often, as I have said, the historical sense is in the participle; in English, you must put the perfect form or present; "having called" (or "calling") the disciples, he said to them. In the imperative I have no doubt there is a difference of sense; but how to be expressed in English? "If thy hand offend thee, cut it off," is an aorist; have it cut off, have it in that state, not properly do it. This is very common: so of the eye, "pluck it out and cast it from thee." In English, present and aorist are alike, τοῦτο ὅλον γέγονεν "took place." There is a perfect which in English must be made what they call an aorist, because it is historical.

146 Take Matthew 1:24-25; you have a row of tenses where the imperfect becomes historic: no doubt in Greek it is habitual in sense, but in English must be historic or aorist. In chapter 2:2 "we have seen" is far better in English than the historic tense "saw." Then you get a whole string where it is historical, as to which English uses imperfect or aorist, "saw," "came," etc., in verse 2 ἤλθομεν is "have" or "are come." If I say "came," it is a history of what had happened before. In the passive, nothing at all answers in English to aorist. Chapter 2:16, "was mocked," "had been mocked"; so verse 17, ἐπληρώθη "then was" is imperfect; so verse 18 ἠκούσθη. What tense in English is verse 19, τελευτήσαντος? But the grammarians say it is used. Thus Jelf. The aorist, in all the moods except the indicative and the participle, is usually expressed in Latin and English in the present, etc. And the consequences of aorist are often supposed to continue (that is, where it is not merely historic), and then we must say "has," or the like. So with participles of time, "when," etc., he says, as I have already said, it has the sense of futurum exactum. John 18:24 it is pluperfect, which is very common. In John 15:6 it is present or future. Luke 1:1: it is far better as "have." In Mark 3:21 ἐξέστη, it is perfect, or present; "he has gone out of his mind," or "is beside himself." So in infinitives (and imperfect) it has no past sense, as here κρατῆσαι. In Mark 3:26 ἀνέστη, "have," or "be," or "rise up," στῆναι in English present. I have no doubt to a Greek mind there is a difference, and, when I read Greek, I feel it. The mistake is in thinking that we have an aorist.

147 I repeat, habitually the historical tense answers to it. "He saw," "went," "came," but when? The rest of the sentence requires to an English mind a time: we English are obliged to give it. Nor do I see that it is in this sense less future than perfect or pluperfect. It is never any of them really; it is the rest of the sentence attaches its time force to the undefined fact of existence which the aorist expresses. In general in English we date grammatical time from our speaking, pluperfect, imperfect, future perfect (exactum), from some other noticed event. These always refer to, and compare the act as to time with some other stated or supposed fact. "He was doing it when," etc. He had done it already then. "He will have been at Rome three weeks to-morrow." This seems to me the secret of so-called tenses in Hebrew. They think from the first fact mentioned, "he went and ate," "ate" goes into so-called future, because it is after "went," and then a Vau conversive: only it goes out into details. All, save as excepted, apply time to present time of speaking.

Excuse such a long grammatical disquisition, but it is in reply to your suggestion as to the elements of the case. At any rate, you will see that, though more instinctively than from grammatical research, it has not been overlooked; and the researches made did not find me without a judgment, though of course I may have failed in applying it, and in some cases have much hesitated. But the sense is different. "We saw his star in the east and came," is historical of the past; we "have run" is a fact (and much more an aorist than "saw," though the fact of "having seen" cannot cease, and so far hence perfect). Then you must say "and have," or "are come," and it is really a present, even if I say "have"; and "have" and "are" are the same — both perfects in Greek. You will find, let me add, the tenses, aorist or future or perfect, interchanged in the same sentence. For this reason the mind may define more naturally or purposely.

Ever yours sincerely in the Lord,

J. N. D.

I should fear a little for use a perpetual marginal calling in question of text.


As many are very much occupied with the Greek aorist just now, allow me to suggest some thoughts as to it. As to Greek scholarship I should yield the palm to anyone, I may say, who has made it especially his study, though conversant with the language, as one may be who for years had laid it aside for other occupations, and has only resumed it for the study of the New Testament. But when the question is one of translation, the power of a second language has also to be settled, and its forms may not exactly answer to those of Greek. Still there are certain conditions of human thought which are the same in all languages, because all languages are the expression, as such, of the human mind. I do not speak of the effect of inspiration on them, but merely of the vehicle of thought in itself. But this shews that metaphysical analysis has its part as well as the empiricism of particular grammars. I shall confine myself to English, unless any particular suggestion may offer itself.

I shall begin by stating, what may seem very paradoxical, that tenses have nothing to do with time properly speaking. Verbs, and still more accurately participles, refer not to objects, that is, to nouns, but to acts (voices I do not speak of here).

There are only two tenses, as there are two participles: one is accomplishing an act; the other views the act as accomplished. "I dine," that is accomplishing; "I dined," here the act is viewed as accomplished. "I dine every day in the year at three o'clock," that is the accomplishing of the act, and in so far present, that is, viewed as present; the time is expressed by every day in the year, each viewed as present, but, in fact, many not yet come. But "I dine" is a real aorist, only an aorist of accomplishing, not of what is accomplished. When I say "I dined," the act is viewed as accomplished. But it relates the act as such, the mere act is accomplished; and if I can put my mind into the position of viewing it as accomplished in the mind's eye, a future act as to time will take this form. I take an example which Howell cites as to this question. "He told me he was sent by his principals to Paris, and returned next week." Now, "returned" is de facto at a future time, next week. But the mind views the arrangement as one whole in the mind, and so accomplished. The moment you get into the historical form, not in a mental view of a whole looked at as a plan, and so existing complete in the mind, you must put the present or future. "He was sent by his principals to Paris, and returns," if vividly presented, or "will return," if prosaically stated, "next week." But when I look at it as a whole in his plan, the act is looked at as in that accomplished, and I say "returned." The nature of the time remains the same.

149 Further, there is no real future tense, because there nothing is accomplishing or accomplished, or it could not be future. Hence I can affirm no act accomplishing or accomplished. What does the mind do? It takes the pure verb which represents the act simply as an act, "dine," and puts present purpose before it. "I will" (that is present will) "dine with you to-morrow"; the verb is present, a thing accomplishing, "I will." Philologists tell us that in other languages terminations were originally words, but I confine myself to English now. In Greek it seems evident that change of form is used for the tenses, auxiliary verbs being occasionally used, besides the case of the pluperfect.

Participles give very definitively the accomplishing and the accomplished act; "dining," "dined." This, with the auxiliary verbs, gives great accuracy of expression — "I am dining," "I have dined." The former is an exact present; whereas "I dine," being merely the accomplishing, the act may apply to any time at which the mind realizes the act. It is an aorist present. But in the exact present the verb is not the act but the participle, "dining." The verb is simply the expression of the present existence of the act. Not that "am" by itself expresses time but existence; yet if the accomplishing is in existence, it is of course present. I say, "I am a man." That is not time, but "what"; only it must not have ceased to be, because existence is stated. And in the highest of all expressions it is in contrast with time — "I am." The other auxiliary verb, which must be the main object of enquiry, is "I have." This too has two tenses, "have," "had"; one possession now, the other possession past; the present, as usual, is the fact, not time: only it has not ceased to exist to the mind, as "I have a book." But I can use this too for all times, provided it be viewed in the mind as going on. "I have breakfast every day at nine o'clock." But it is used, though a present, with a past participle, which gives a very logical definite force to it in English. "I have written a letter." The participle views the thing as done, the letter is written. "I have" affirms present realization of the fact. Hence, in English, it has a moral force, not historical, not properly referring to time, though to a thing done, not doing or to be done. That man "has stolen." This is not historical. For that I should say "That man 'stole' my watch." It is characteristic of the man. "You have beaten your brother." "I have not; I never touched him." "I have not" is denial of the fact morally; "I never touched" is historical.

150 Therefore we say, "I wrote it yesterday," not "I have written." We say simply "I have written a letter." Hence it may be used for the Greek perfect, where the participle can be applied mentally to a subsisting effect. "He has taken the city," historically as a fact. I say, "He took the city, but lost it again the next week." "Took" is merely the accomplished fact, "taken" is a past fact, "has" present possession of the fact. But it is by no means in English a Greek perfect always, that is, a past fact continuing. It is often a fact in itself wholly past, but realized morally as a present thing. "I have written to you in this article on the subject of the aorist"; in Greek, ἔγραψα; in English, "have written"; because, though the writing be done once for all, an accomplished fact, it is treated morally as a present thing between my reader and me. "I have"; here the Greek aorist must be translated by what people are pleased to call a perfect. If I say "I wrote," present realization is gone. It is the revelation of the past fact, but present realization is not necessarily a Greek perfect. It may, and very often is, an aorist in Greek. When I read the New Testament, I may throw it back into historical fact naturally enough. But often we lose thus the power of it, because the writer is treating the matter as a morally present subject of consideration between him and those written to; yet the aorist may and very often is used.

Thus in "I have prayed for thee," ἐδεήθην, "I prayed for thee" (which people want us to use for aorist) gives no right sense at all. "Prayed" is past, but the Lord is using it as a present matter between the apostle and himself. "I have transferred these things in a figure," μετεσχημάτισα. (1 Cor. 4:6.) "I have espoused you," ἡρμοσάμην. Where it is an actual continuing act, it is perfect. "I have used none of these things," κέχρημαι, he still was not using them (1 Cor. 9:15); but in the same sentence, "neither have I written," οὐκ ἔγραψα. "Neither wrote I" would falsify the sense. In some cases one may hesitate: thus, 2  Corinthians 11:7, ἐποίησα, εὐηγγελισάμην. It may be taken historically (aorist, so called), or as present realization in the mind, of an accomplished fact: "Committed I sin," "announced the glad tidings"; or, as a present question as to a past fact: "Have I committed sin?" "I have announced freely." It is a matter of discernment as to what the writer means, not of Greek tenses. But in a multitude of cases the use of the historical tense in English for the aorist falsifies the sense. First, the application of rules for Greek tenses (often a matter of the writer's feeling at the moment) to English grammar (as if the tenses were the same) leads all wrong; and, secondly, the force of English tenses has not been clearly seen, (of which I am satisfied there are but two, but which from the use of auxiliaries with participles acquire a peculiar force) has not been really analyzed, when Greek aorists are pretended to be represented by them.

151 How far this is connected with so-called tenses in Hebrew, where it is known there are only two, I leave to further investigation. The rules for the use of Vau conversive seem to me strangely vague and unsatisfactory. Try it with Psalm 18, and see what you can make of it.

I have taken the Greek examples merely as they occurred. Hundreds of other examples, perhaps stronger ones, may be found. When it is a present moral question, "have" is better than the so-called aorist, though the fact be simply past fact. The question is, Is it treated morally or historically in the mind? "I have written to him twenty times" has not the same shade of meaning as "I wrote to him twenty times." The latter in strict use would require a note of time. "I wrote to him twenty times last year, and I never got an answer." "I have written to him twenty times, and he has never answered me," is the moral fact. "Written" is past; but "have" makes it morally present. I may say "I wrote to him twenty times, I have never got an answer." "Wrote" is the historical fact; "have never got" is a moral view of what he has done, present with me.