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The Aorist Is so Much More than a Past Tense — Mondays with Mounce 218
This is one of the basic points we try to make in first year Greek, but in the rush to simplify the language sufficiently for a first year student, sometimes the subtlety of this point is missed.
Just to be clear, I still believe the augment indicates past time. I haven’t gone over to the other camp on this point. And yet the aorist is so much more than “past time,” and in fact time is significantly secondary to the real gist of the tense. Students need to be reminded of this periodically.
I like Con Campbell’s word picture of the aorist. You are in a helicopter over the parade, looking at the parade as a whole. Buist Fanning talks about seeing the action from the outside as a whole rather than from inside the action (i.e., being part of the parade).
Because this is the basic genius of the aorist, it can have a phenomenally wide range of usage. You can be looking at the action as a whole but paying special attention to the beginning (“ingressive”) or to the end (“consummative”). It can describes something that simply is regardless of any time reference (“gnomic”).
But my favorite is to proleptic (futuristic) use of the aorist. Because time is secondary, the aorist can describe a future event and emphasize the certainty of the action. It is not a common usage, but it does show how we need to keep the idea of “time” in its proper place.
Some times we will go to translate an aorist as a past tense and the result is just silly. Rev 10:7 says, “But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet the mystery of God will be accomplished (ἐτελέσθη), just as he announced to his servants the prophets” (NIV, NRSV is also future). ἐτελέσθη is aorist, but it obviously does not describe a past event. The NASB and HCSB go with the present, “is finished.” The ESV weakens it to the subjunctive, “would be fulfilled.”
But my all-time favorite is the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased (εὐδόκησα)” (Matt 3:17. NRSV). The aorist is not saying that God “was” pleased with Jesus (perhaps implying he was no longer pleased — that would be heresy), but that the sum total of his life, perhaps culminating in his humble submission to a sinner’s baptism, was pleasing to the Father.
When I stand before my heavenly Father some day, it is the aorist that I want to hear. “I am pleased with the entirety of your life, Bill. εὖ, δοῦλε ἀγαθὲ καὶ πιστέ”
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.
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