The True Theory of the Greek Aorist,

By William Howell, of the Bristol Grammar School, etc.

1873 348 The attention of Christians interested in the study of the Greek Testament is directed to this little pamphlet; especially at a time when some essays on Greek syntax have given a one-sided bias to minds inexperienced in such pursuits. Undoubtedly the rigid rule ("never translate the aorist by 'have'") is extremely compendious and would save a world of difficulty. But unhappily it is an error, for there are very frequent cases both in the sacred writings and in profane where the rule fails; and this, for the simple reason that the English preterite is not equivalent to the Greek aorist. The assumption that it is must therefore be, as it is in fact, attended by such an abundance of unquestionable exceptions as to disprove the supposed rule. But there is the less reason to say more now, as the subject has been already handled in these pages. In the first division of the tract Mr. H. discusses the statements of Buttmann, Donaldson, Jelf, and others. He endeavours to show from the usage of English (where a so-called present may also express past and future, and where a past may express a future), that the Greek aorist, confessedly indefinite, may be something more than is alleged. He seeks to nullify the precise position of modern grammarians by the conclusions of each and all. This however is rather negative criticism; and the question cannot be decided by lively sallies on the one side, any more than by slips or mistakes on the other.

In the second part of the inquiry, Mr. H. asks, What is this inherent power of the aorist? His answer is, that "the aorist tenses were designed as supernumerary tenses to be used for any and all the other tenses according to the taste of the writer." In support of this the following points are offered:
1. These aorists were first employed in a comparatively advanced stage of the development of the Greek language, the second aorist being more ancient than the first.
2. They have displayed their character by a gradual and eventually an utter extinction of the ancient perfect and pluperfect tenses.
3. It is admitted by authorities that they have been more or less employed instead of all the other tenses.

Euphony and expressiveness, he thinks, may have given birth to the first aorist.

The following eighteen illustrations Mr. H. cites chiefly from the historical books of the New Testament. These I proceed to examine as of interest and importance to the Christian. He wishes to prove that the present, etc., might have fairly done duty instead of the aorist; my aim is to show that the aorist is employed with propriety, even though in some cases another tense might have been used with little or no sensible loss.
1. Matt. iii. 3: hetoimasate (1 aor.), Prepare ye the way, etc.; poieite (pres.), make His paths straight.
Heb. xii. 13: poiesate (1 aor.), make straight paths.
2. Matt. vi. 25: merimnate (pres.), take no thought.
Matt. vi. 31: merimnesete (1 aor.) idem.
3. Matt. x. 11: kakei meinate (1 aor.), there abide.
Luke ix. 4: ekei menete (pres.), idem.
4. Matt. xi. 15: d, akoueto* (pres.), he that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
[*So everywhere in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.]
Rev. ii. 7: akousato* (1 aor.), — an ear, etc.
[*So everywhere in Revelation.]
5. Matt. xvii. 17: pherete moi (pres.), Bring him hither to me.
Mark ix. 10: pherete pros me (pres.), idem.
Luke ix. 41: prosagage (2 aor.), idem.
6. Matt. xxi. 2: poreuthete (1 nor.), Go into the village.
Mark xi. 2: hupagete (pres.), idem.
Luke xix. 30: idem, idem.
7. Matt. vi. 11: dos (2 aor.), Give us this day our daily bread.
Luke xi. 3: didou (pres. mid.), idem.
8. Heb. iii. 1: katanoesate (1 aor.), Consider the high priest.
Heb. 12:3: analogisasthe (1 aor.), Consider Him that endured.
Heb. vii. 4: theoretie (pros.), Consider how great this man was.
Heb. x. 24: katanoomen (pres.), Let us consider one another.
9. Matt. xxi. 46: kai zetountes auton kratesai, they sought to lay hands on Him.
Mark xii. 12: kai edzetoun auton kratesai, idem.
Luke xx. 19: kai edzetesan epibalein, idem.
John vii. 30: edzetoun oun auton piasai, they sought therefore to take Him.
10. Acts ix. 26: epeirato kollasthai, he assayed to join himself.
Acts xvi. 7: epeirazon...poreusthai, they assayed to go.
Heb. xi. 29: peiran labontes, assaying to go.
11. Matt. xxvi. 4: synebouleusanto (1 aor. ind.), consulted that they might, etc.
Mark xiv. 1: edzetoun (imp. ind.), sought how they might.
12. Luke vii. 38: exemasse (imp. ind.), did wipe, etc.
John xii. 3: exemaxe (1 nor. ind.), wiped, etc.
13. Matt. xiii. 3: speirein (pres. inf.), a sower went forth to sow.
Mark iv. 8: speirai (1 aor. inf.), idem. So Luke.
14. Matt. xi. 9: exelthete (2 nor. incl.), what went ye out to see?
Luke vii. 24: exelelythate (per. m.), idem.
15. Matt. ix. 13: ou gar elthon (2 aor.) kalesai, I came not to call.
Mark ii. 17: — idem, — idem.
Luke 5:32: ouk elelutha (per. m.) kalesai, idem.
16. 2 Cor. i. 12: anestraphemen (2 aor. p.), we have had our conversation.
Eph. ii. 3: idem, we had, etc.
17. John iii. 32: kai ho heorake kai ekouse, and what he hath seen and heard.
18. John xv. 6: ean me tis meinei en emoi, eblethe exo, if a man abide not in me, he is cast forth; the future beblesetai would have given the same sense. Farrar, Greek Syntax.

1. It would be strange indeed if the aorist in the first verb, the present in the second, were used with no precise object, seeing that the LXX have thus rendered the prophet; and so it appears in all the synoptic evangelists, who are by no means used merely to repeat their original. To me it seems plain that, while the paths are left for continuous or repeated action in detail, the way of Jehovah is viewed as having been made ready with promptness. The same principle applies to Hebrews xiii. 13, and the more strikingly, because the aorists of 12 and 13 are followed by an emphatic use of the present in 14.

2. The disciples were not to be anxious (pr.) as a habit as to food and raiment: a look at the birds, an observation of the lilies, however transient, might well reprove it. They were not to be anxious (aor.) at all, said the Lord — not for the morrow. (Ver. 34.) It is a stronger statement, excluding even a single instance.

3. The phrase of Matthew seems correctly due to heos an exelthete, which puts a term; whereas Luke's is expressly different and equally exact, kai ekeithen exerchesthe. Either might be said with truth, but they are not of the same value, and there is no ground for charging with looseness the phraseology of one evangelist more than another.

4.The Lord was still speaking in the Gospel; in the Revelation it is a final warning given peremptorily in each assembly's case.

5. In Luke it is a precise order to the father, and so also singular. In the two first it is more general, as marked in the tense as well as the number.

6. In Matthew xxi. 2 the true reading is probably not poreuthete but poreuesthe (Aleph, B, D, L, Z, 33, 13, 61, 69, 126, 157, 346, Orig. Euseb.), and so the tense is the same as that of hupagete in Mark and Luke.

7. The aorist for the single act (semeron) in Matthew is just as proper as the present for the habit (to kath' hemeran) in Luke. They could not be interchanged without altering each clause.

8. The two aorists are acts viewed as consummated, or in themselves; the two present as calling for continuous consideration.

9. The effort is rendered more definite in Luke by the use in him only of en autei tei horai which accounts for exetesan there only.

10. The aorist in Hebrews xi. 29 is strictly correct as being the historical fact. The imperfect in Acts denotes continued or repeated effort in the act.

11. A similar remark applies to the aorist in Matthew xxiv. 4, as compared with the imperfect in Mark xiv. 1.

12. So in Luke vii. 38, it is the graphic power of the imperative, whilst John xii. 3 presents no more than the fact historically.

13. If a sower go forth on his task, it might be said either speirein or speirai, viewed continuously or as a point; in fact Aleph, D, L, M, X, with more than sixty cursives, have speirai in Matthew xiii. 3; while in verse 4 of both Gospels en toi speirein is used necessarily because it is a course of action, not an act in itself. Thus we see, even when either might be used, that there are limits.

14. The difference is that the perfect gives vigour to style where it is suitable or desired by presenting the fact with its effects up to the present, the aorist gives the past only. In Luke therefore it should be "have (or, are) ye gone out," etc.

15. So with the next set: "I am not come to call" represents Luke. ["I have dined," to use an illustration of our author's, could only be used with propriety of today.]

16. There is no need to translate anestraphemen differently in 2 Corinthians i. 13 and in Ephesians ii. 3, "we bore ourselves," or "had our way of life" suiting both; and so in fact Mr. Green and Dean A., two of the most recent translators, recognize no difference.

17. I see no reason for doubting here also the distinction between the perfect and the aorist, the former expressing a permanent effect, while the latter does not go beyond the act or circumstance itself.

18. No doubt, in ordinary Greek, the future would as a rule be found in the apodosis; but this does not warrant one to say that the future would have given the same sense as the aorist, or another to infer that the aorist is equivalent to a future, or a present, or a perfect. It seems to my mind that our Lord used what best expressed His mind, and that none but the aorist could here convey with the same force the man cast out who abode not in Him. It may be called rhetorical; but it vividly gives the instant issue, as He saw it, of abandoning Him: other results follow at length, and they are so expressed.

What appears to have misled our author is the difference of idiom. For it is one thing to give a fair English version, another to trace the precise force and shades of difference in the Greek. To suppose that imperfects, aorists, and perfects, can be used indifferently in the same sentence is to destroy the precision of language. To explain why each is used rather than any other is exactly the business of a scholar, not to explain them all away. And in New Testament Greek it must be remembered that the believer in inspiration is entitled to have the assurance that every minute difference is used with divine exactness and with a purpose worthy of Him who wrote it.