Course: Greek Tools for Bible Study
Lecture: Greek Verbs
Week 4a: How Do We Describe Action?
Today we are going to look at the indicative verbal system and look at the actual tools.
Ahead of us is Week #5, where we will look at non-indicative verbal system, participles and what-not, as well as word studies. It is actually quite a lot of fun. It is an incredibly important week because, while I think all this stuff is interesting and helpful, the ability to find out what words mean is what you will stick with you the longest.
Then in Week 6, we will finish up the case system and look at how to read commentaries. We have learned a lot of bits and pieces, but there are quite a few things I need to share with you about how commentaries work. When you pick up a commentary and read it, your question most of the time will be, “Why are you talking about that?” We need to talk about those things so that you can know what to skip and what to read. Then we will talk about the history of the Bible and the different Greek, Latin, and English texts, and get somewhat into the "King James Debate." Hopefully not too far, but enough so you can understand why translations are different.
Today we will look at verbs and how to use the paper and electronic tools. We are going to look at Chapter 14, which focuses on basic things dealing with grammar of Greek verbs. Then 15, 16, 17, and 18 are the five tenses that we will look at in Greek. We are going to look just at the present, and then the two past tenses in chapter 17.
Chapter 14: Greek Grammar: Verbs
“Paradigm” and “Agreement”
There is quite a lot on this chart. I do not want you to memorize it, but to be familiar with how things function. This is called a paradigm, and a paradigm is the listing of all the forms of a verb within a certain category. This is the present active paradigm. If you have a verb and you want to make it present tense and active mood, this is one of the tools to help you do that. There are actually different kinds of endings and what-not you can do. It is much more complicated than this, but you do not have to memorize all that stuff! You can just look in your tools. The tools say it is a present active verb.
ἀκουώ (''akouō'') is the verb that means “I hear,” which you could get from cognates in English, “acoustics” and similar words. Verbs are made up of different parts. They have person. Now we looked at this a bit when we looked at pronouns, but there’s 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person. 1st person singular is “I.” 1st person is the person speaking, so it’s “I” or “we” in all its forms. 2nd person is “you,” the person spoken to. Then 3rd person is everything else.
Greeks start with a stem, like ἀκου- and then put an ending on it. Now I’m simplifying this a bit, but that is basically it. You have ἀκου- that means “hear,” and –ω is the 1st person singular ending. It is called a personal ending, and they stick it on the end of the verb. So you can have ἀκουώ that means “I hear,” or you can have ejgw; ἀκουώ which means “I hear.” In other words, you can form a Greek sentence without an expressed subject because the subject is in the verb.
So you take the stem of the verb and put a personal ending on it. 2nd person would be like ἀκούεις (''akoueis'') where the ending is -εις (epsilon-iota-sigma), which means “you hear.” 3rd person singular is ἀκούει, -ει (epsilon-iota) makes it 3rd person. So ἀκούει (''akouei'') would be used if you have “he, she, or it hears” or anything else: “the book hears,” “the dog hears”; all them you consider 3rd person.
There are just a different set of ending for plural. You have –ομεν, -ετε, and -ουσι. So ἀκούομεν is 1st person plural, present active, meaning “we hear.” Do you see how the verbs are put together?
Okay, verbs have person and number, which is important because verbs have to agree with their subject. We do that with 3rd person singular in English, remember? In English, if the subject is 3rd person singular, we make the verb agree by adding an –s. “I eat” goes to “he eats.” That is agreement. We do not have much of it in English, but everything agrees in Greek, and so the verb has to agree with the subject, in person and number. That is why you have to have all the different endings.
Again, that is just more information for you, because you are going to see these forms change, as well as parsings. If somebody says, “How’s this parsed?” If it is a verb, they want to know person and number, because that is how Greek will hook the verb to the subject. It does not work like that in English, because English is all word order. If you say, “He likes her,” who is the affectionate one? He or her? Well, “he” because we determine the subject by word order, the word before the verb. Greek does not care about word order, as you have been seeing. There is a little rhyme or reason for Greek word order, but they use these endings to hook the verbs to the subjects.
Just to make it a little clearer, let's look at ἀκούομεν. You have the stem. (It is of no real significance; it is not going to affect you.) The omicron is actually a connecting vowel. The -μεν is the personal ending.
The single most important thing you need to understand about verbs is something called aspect. We touched on it before, but it is going to be paramount now. As you read commentaries, and as they talk about the verbs and what the verbs mean, as they look at tenses and what-not to try to explain the meaning of the verb, they are not going to be very concerned about time.
In Greek you have future tense verbs, present tense verbs and different kinds of past tense verbs. You have tenses that indicate time, but in the Greek verbal system, time is secondary or non-existent. In other words, a present tense verb doesn’t necessarily indicate an action occurring in the present. That is all time, and that is secondary in the Greek verbal system.
In stead of time, aspect is primary. In other words, when a Greek person goes to pick the right tense, they are thinking about the time, but they are primarily thinking about aspect. Now, I emphasize this because aspect is not a big deal in English. We use it, often only as a nuanced difference between forms. But in Greek, like many languages, it is the thing that is trying to be expressed in the Greek verb.
Unfortunately, English can’t handle the Greek aspectual system. There is simply no way to bring the primary nuance of a Greek verb into English. A translation like the NASB is going to work harder at making it explicit, but other translations are going to let the flow of the English try to convey the nuances of the Greek tense. And so, we are going to see a lot of places where the translations are different because of aspect.
There are three aspects. The first aspect is the continuous aspect. The continuous aspect is the form of the verb that you use when you want to convey that an action is an ongoing process; that it is linear; that it is not something that just happens or happened, but it is something that you are explaining to the hearer or to the reader as an action that occurred over a period of time. In English we could say, “I am eating” or “I was eating.” You are conveying a verbal idea that is linear, that is continuous. We will look at examples in a second.
The second aspect is the undefined aspect. The undefined aspect says, “I don’t care. I don’t care if it was a process. I don’t care if it was something else. I’m just telling you that something happens or something happened (if you want to put it in the past.)” The undefined is used to convey no aspectual significance. Here is where it gets a little tricky. I can use an undefined verbal form to describe a continuous action. If I wanted to describe Niagara Falls, I probably would use a continuous verbal form. It is, “The water is flowing over Niagara.” It is a process, ongoing. I could just as easily use an undefined aspect. Does that mean the water stopped? No. It just means that aspect is not important to me.
So, language is a portrayal of reality. Therefore, in the words and the forms that I use to convey what I want to convey, some things are important in certain contexts and other things are not. If something is undefined, the author just does not tell you whether it was a process or something else.
Thirdly, we have the perfect aspect. The perfect aspect is, in English, formed with “have” and “has.” It is hard to pin this one down because aspect was not taught in most of our Grammar classes, and so we were not taught to think this way. If you change “I eat” to “I have eaten,” what is the difference? It is really hard, right? And when we put something in the perfect aspect, when we use “have” or “has,” you are saying that the action was recently completed (and that is the really important part; that it is completed), and there is some ongoing implications out of it. Just listen to people use “have” and “has,” and after awhile you can start to hear it.
So, continuous is a process. Undefined is just a point in time, not meaning it is punctiliar and not meaning it happened once quickly. (We will get onto it later on.) Finally, the perfect aspect means that something was brought to completion, but there are ongoing implications (and in English, it was recently brought to completion; Greek does not have that.)
Aspect of “Teach”
Let’s look at some verses and see how this works out. I chose verses that are not overly awesome in terms of their theology, but I wanted to make sure this was really clear because commentary writers are going to be talking a lot about apect.
In Mark 1:21, the verb διδάσκω (''didaskō'') is “I teach.” The ESV translates it, “And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching.” Why do you think they move from “and taught” to “and was teaching”? What nuance of Mark’s gospel are they trying to bring out? Is the verse trying to picture Jesus as just getting up and teaching something and sitting down? No. Mark is telling us that it was an ongoing process, that He was teaching and going into the synagogue repeatedly. Now for how long? Well, that is all contextual. You have to look at the context and find how long of a process it is. But Mark is trying to let us know that Jesus went in and there was an ongoing process of teaching.
Other translations would say, "He entered the synagogue and taught." They think the flow of the narrative and the meaning of the word teach, that obviously it was an ongoing process to an English reader. So some translations (and the ESV tended a bit towards this) allowed English to carry the nuances and the meaning of the word. Other translations, like NASB, are always trying to make this stuff explicit.
Let’s take that same verb and see it in Mark 6:30, again the ESV, “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done.” ἐποίησαν (''epoiēsan'') is an undefined aspect and ἐδίδαξαν (''edidaxan'') means “and taught," and is an undefined aspect. Now obviously, when the apostles were out, they did a lot of things and they taught a lot of things, but that is not the point of the verse. The point of the verse is to convey the information that these things happened, so the author writes it with an undefined aspect. It is not denying that it was a process; it is just saying, “That’s not what I’m trying to convey right now.”
As far as I could find, ἐδίδαξαν does not occur in the New Testament with the perfect aspect, or I would provide a verse for it. It would be like, “I have taught you all you need to know.” That is how you would take διδάσκω and put it in the perfect aspect.
Mark 1:21 is a good example of how different translations try to handle aspect. On one side they want to write readable English, and on the other side they understand there are nuances present in the verbs, but English does not allow it to come over neatly often.
Again the ESV, “And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching.” The NASB says, “and began to teach,” so there is that process. He began to teach; there is something going on. The NRSV says that “he entered the synagogue and taught.” In other words, they are translating διδάσκω as if it were an undefined aspect. I am sure they are arguing, “Well, look at the flow of the narrative. Obviously it was an ongoing process. You cannot just teach and that’s it.” Some people feel that saying “was teaching” is awkward English. If there was the slightest hint of misunderstanding then the ESV made it explicit.
The best example is the verse in Galatians that says, “And Peter ate with the Gentiles. The brothers from Jerusalem came back (came up). He withdrew and Paul confronted him.” And it is, “Peter ate with the Gentiles.” Well, you have no way to know whether that was “he ate once” or “he ate a lot of times.” And frankly, I always thought it was “he ate once,” but it is not; It is continuous aspect. It is explicitly continuous. Because of my misunderstanding (that was the argument), we translated it, “Peter used to eat” or something like that, to try to bring out that significance. In other words, Peter had established a habit of eating with the Gentiles, and then he withdrew from that habit when they (people) came up from Jerusalem.
Undefined vs. Punctiliar
I want to stress this. I mentioned it earlier, but I really want stress it again: the difference between undefined and punctiliar. Now punctiliar is an English grammar term; it is not a Greek grammar term, but it is often used relative to Greek words. Many people will say an undefined aspect in Greek is punctiliar. It happened in point of time, it happened. It is not a process; it is a point in time. The difference between “waves lapping up along the side of a boat” and “a tidal wave hitting the boat,” okay, “hitting the boat” – that’s punctiliar.
Romans 12:1 NRSV, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” The verb “present” is undefined in its aspect. For one reason or another, it was not important to Paul to be more specific. When you see that, it is important that you not assume it is necessarily punctiliar. “Is this a point in time confession? Is this a confession you make before God, to give Him yourself, and that’s it?” See, that would be punctiliar. You will hear people making grand sermons under incorrect assertions: “Well, it’s an undefined aspect. It’s a punctiliar action. Romans 12:1 is calling you to an altar call. Come down. It says, you know, ‘present your bodies’ and that’s it. You make your confession before God.”
Well, if you know Romans 12, you know that cannot possibly be accurate. Romans 12 is an ongoing process all the way through the chapter. Being renewed from the inside out, and all the different things that happens in Romans 12. As you look at the theology of what it means “to present,” you will see that it is an ongoing process. But for some reason, Paul did not find it especially important to make it explicitly continuous, so he left it undefined. Again, let me emphasize, just because it’s undefined doesn’t mean it’s punctiliar. It could be, but the verb would not be what is indicating it is punctiliar. It is the grammar, the meaning of the verb, and the context.
Chapter 15: Present Indicative
Continuous or Undefined
Let’s move on in Chapter 15 and look at the present indicative verbs. The present tense is the form they put the Greek verb in when they want to describe an action that ''normally'' occurs in the present time. Here is what is tricky with the present: the present can indicate both a continuous action or an undefined action, even a punctiliar action. In other words, there is this beautiful aspectual differentiation in Greek, and then you come to the present tense. They say, “Figure it out for yourself.” In other words, if you want to describe an action occurring in the present, you are going to need other indicators, if you want to make the aspect explicit. Exactly the same form, ἀκούω means “I hear” or “I am hearing.” Leave it up to context or other words to make the aspect significant.
When we get into the past tense, you will see just the opposite. Greek has two past tenses; one is always continuous and one is always defined. They felt the need (if you can say it that way) to be explicit in the past, but for some reason did not feel the need to be explicit this way in the present; they chose to use other indicators for the present.
Let’s again look at some of the different verses. What I am starting with are verses that use the present tense verb to describe something that is punctiliar, very much a point in time. And then the time wlement is going to be drawn out as we go through the illustrations.
Present Indicative (“Instantaneous”)
Paul is on trial in Acts 25:11; he says, “If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to Caesar [them]. ἐπικαλοῦμαι to Caesar!” “I appeal to Caesar.” Just by saying “I appeal.” He made his appeal and they cannot override it, and they have to send him to Rome.
So, there is virtually no continuous aspect in that verb at all.
Present: Progressive (“Narrow-Band”)
Okay, let’s stretch it out a little. One of the technical terms is ''narrow-band'', this verb is going to indicate a process, but it’s a pretty narrow. There is not a lot of time for the verb to occur.
Paul tells the Romans, “I am speaking the truth–I am not lying.” Okay, see the time element? It is just a little more continuous because it has to do with what he has been talking about.
The present tense can be used to describe lots of other kinds of actions, as well. It is not only used to indicate normal, ongoing actions. One of the best examples is 1 Thessalonians 5:17. The NRSV translates it, “Pray without ceasing.” προσεύχεσθε is a present tense verb and it clearly is continuous. However, unless you are a monk (and even then), you cannot pray without ceasing, can you? Of course, we all know how you understand this. This is a repetitive idea that you pray on a regular basis.
You can notice the translators struggling with “Pray without ceasing.” You mean never ever stop? Certainly there are people in the history of the church that have understood that, right? That is part of the Monastic movement. “Pray continually.” “Pray constantly.” Well, there simply is no way to say that in English concisely, and English has to be short to be powerful, and so the translators start using more words to say “Pray on a regular basis.” Who wants to buy that Bible? (You know the claim, “They took my favorite verse and ruined it!”) You can see them struggling with the problem of iterative present.
By the way, the commentary writer will say, “προσεύχεσθε is an iterative present,” and go on, expecting that you understand what that means. When you see those words, you can look them up. I am not giving you all the categories because there are grammars that give you all the categories. I am just giving you the most common ones. If you see words like ''iterative'' and you have forgotten them, you can flip back in GRU and look them up.
The present tense can be used to describe a repeated action.
The next step removed is called the ''customary present''. This is the present tense to describe an axiom, not necessarily what happens, but what is "just the way things are." It is really important that you notice this because when you use the present tense this way, you are not necessarily thinking of any specific individual. You are laying down a rule.
“No one who abides in Him sins,” (there is your present tense), “no one who sins has ever seen Him or knows Him.” All right, we came to this in the ESV, and knew we needed to do something with the passage. This paragraph in John 1 is actually the ESV's most paraphrastic translation in all of the New Testament. We discussed it for a long time, asking, “Are people going to misunderstand this? If we translate it, ‘No one who abides in Him sins’, are they going to understand that John’s talking about a life of sin, of constant sin, of ongoing sin?” And the answer was, “No, they’re not. People will look at that and will come up with doctrines of perfection.” We were uncomfortable because we had to be interpretive for about ten verses.
We translated, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning.” In other words, a true disciple of Jesus Christ does not live in constant sin. We were convinced that is what it meant. We were convinced that people were going to misunderstand the simple “sins.”
NIV went in the same direction, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. And no one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” We said “keeps on sinning”; they said “continues to sin.”
There is no reason for you to carry all these words in your head, unless you really want to. However, it is important to understand how aspect functions. There is not a whole lot of difference between some of these things. I mean, if you wanted to categorize this as an iterative, they are still saying basically the same thing. But on a verse like “pray unceasingly,” you really can feel the difference between an iterative and progressive or ongoing or whatever you want to call it.
A few more present tenses. Here we are going to go all the way. “Appeal to Caesar” is way over here as punctiliar. Now we are all the way at the other end; it’s called gnomic. Sometimes the present can be used to describe what is gnomic, what is always the case. In other words, there is zero time significance in this use of the present.
“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom.”
“The wind blows wherever it wishes, and you hear its sound.” See, there is absolutely no time element in those verses at all. Time is completely gone; it is purely aspectual. This is just the way things are.
Then, just to show you why Greek tenses are only secondly concerned with time, we have a thing in Greek called an historical present. We actually have it in English, too. If I were going to tell you about why I had a shoulder operation, I’d say, “Well, it’s a beautiful day, and I am up in the mountains skiing, and the snow is falling, and it is bright and sunny, and I’m skiing through the trees like an idiot…” Could you hear what I did? It happened twenty years ago, but I am using the present. Why do I do that? It makes it vivid, it drives the story home.
Greek does this same thing, such as in this particular passage. You get down to “and he said,” λέγει is present tense. But the whole context is something about the past is being told. So translations almost always translate this kind of present as a past tense.
The present can also be used when a future concept is in mind. “Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give’ ” Well, it may be coming in the next sentence, but it is still future. δίδωμι is a present tense verb. “ ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk.’ ”
John 4:25, the Samaritan woman said, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming.” It is a present tense verb, but the coming of the Messiah is in the future. She did not know how far it is, but she is pulling it back into the present tense because she is so certain that it is going to happen. We do the same thing in English, but generally we do it with intonation.
Chapter 17: Imperfect and Aorist
Two Past Tenses
We are going to speed through Chapter 17 a bit faster. As I said earlier, Greek has two past tenses. The imperfect is always continuous. The aorist is always undefined.
I think the imperfect is unfortunately almost always ignored in translation. The RSV, almost without fail, ignores the imperfect; they just do not translate it as an imperfect. I expect the argument was that the flow of the English conveys the idea that it is an ongoing process. Antithetically, the NASB is almost always explicit. “He began teaching” “He was teaching” They are going to make the tense and its aspect explicit.
“And they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.”
ESV, “And they were baptized” I used this illustration before, didn’t I? The NASB wants to be more explicit, “being baptized.” That’s their translation philosophy. ESV is a little more pulled back; “were baptized” conveys the same idea within the context, so we left it “were baptized”.
This is an interesting example. Beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, “And he opened his mouth and taught them saying”; ἐδίδασκεν is an imperfect.
First of all, notice the NIV says, “And he began to teach them.” They thought the Greek behind “and he opened his mouth” was just an idiom that had no significance, and so they did not translate it. However, this is significant language saying, “What I’m about to say is very important.” It is a Hebraic idiom. So the ESV kept the idiom, “And he opened his mouth…”.
Anyway, look at the different ways of handling “taught.” An ingressive imperfect says that it is a process, but it is the beginning of the process, which is most important in this context. The ESV just said “taught.” (I lost that vote.) The NASB says, “He opened His mouth and began to teach.” See, they are trying to say that it is a process; the teaching went on, obviously, for the next three chapters, but this is the beginning of it. That is why you are going to find the NASB putting “began” in a lot of places in the New Testament. They will always put it in italics, following the old King James tradition; that is their way of saying, “We are adding in a word.” They are trying to tell us that this is an imperfect, not an aorist, and I appreciate them trying to do that.
NIV just says, “he began.” They view it as an ingressive as well. “And he began to teach them, saying…”
Customary. “Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.” It was their custom. It was a repeated event. They did it over and over again up until when Jesus was 12.
Imperfect: Voluntative (desire) and Conative (attempt)
Here are some interesting ones, ''voluntative'' and ''conative''. In other words, the imperfect can be used to describe what someone desires to do or is trying to do. Now, obviously, it is going to be context that is going to tell you.
The NIV on Matthew 3:14, “But John tried to deter…” See, they are saying it is a conative. John actually tried to stop Jesus from being baptized. The NRSV, “John would have prevented him…” is more a voluntative. “Gee, I’m not really sure we are supposed to do this, Jesus. It is my wish that I do not baptize you.” “You need to baptize me.”
They are struggling because the verb is simply “to deter, to prevent.” Well, you know that John did not deter him, did not prevent him. So what do you do? Well, he was trying to do it, or he was wanting to do it.
Here is another one: Luke 1:59, “On the eight day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name…” Well, the verb just says, “and they were naming him after his father Zechariah.” Well, you cannot do that because we know that he did not get the name Zechariah; he got the name John. “Well, but the verb just says…” And here’s a good illustration, “Well, I just want a Bible that’s non-interpretive, that just translates word for word.” Okay, “and they were naming him after his father.” They were going, they were trying, they wanted to name him Zechariah, but they weren’t allowed to.
Let's look at some examples of the aorist now. (It’s pronounced err-ist, not ā-or-ist.) The aorist is undefined. It is not telling you that it is or is not punctiliar; it is just not going to tell you. The aorist tends to stand on the outside and look at an action as a whole. Here is my favorite example:
“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I…” Well, εὐδόκησα (eudoksa) is an aorist. That is past tense. So, “with him I was well pleased.”
“That’s what it says,” somebody will say. “Well, it is an aorist; it is a past tense verb. See, that just shows you Jesus really was a sinner, which is why he was having to submit to John's baptism. God was pleased with Him in the past, but He’s saying ‘I was pleased but I’m not now.’ ” That idea sounds stupid, because it is.
Yes, it is an aorist, which is normally a past tense event, but the aorist can put its arm around something and view it as a whole. It does not care whether it is a process or not, and what the voice from heaven is saying, “I’m pleased with Jesus from His birth to His baptism; I am pleased with Him.” So we put it into an aorist. Unfortunately, we do not have that construction in English, so we say, “I am well pleased.”
Just a reminder: the aorist is indefinite, but focuses on the beginning of this indefinite act.
“They came to life” is just the word “they live.” But you cannot say, “They lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” because now they are dead here. Well, “they came to life”; they are just saying it’s an ingressive aorist.
We have gnomic aorists, just like gnomic presents. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
“But wisdom is shown to be right by the lives of those who follow it.” No time significance, right? These are axioms. These are general truths.
Aorist: Proleptic (future)
The aorist can be used to describe an action that is actually in the future. When they do, they are trying to say, “We are so sure of this that we can state it as a past event.”
“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you…” (and you can see what the NIV had to do) “have received it” – ejlavbete is an aorist; it is a past tense verb. However, you have not actually received it yet; it is still out in the future, but you know for sure that you are going to receive because you have asked in prayer, that they pull it into the past tense to emphasize the assuredness of the reception.
Okay, that is quite a bit. I skipped Chapters 16 and 18. The perfect is the most important chapter that you need to look at. It is how Greek expresses a completed action with ongoing results.
Jesus says from the cross “tetevlestai” – “It is finished.” “Everything I have come to accomplish has been brought to completion and there are ongoing consequences.”
Make sure you look at those chapters. You will be able to understand them just fine.