Sharpening Your Greek: A Primer for Bible Teachers and Pastors on Recent Developments, with Reference to Two New Intermediate Grammars

Gregory R. Lanier
Assistant Professor of New Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

On the first day of “summer Greek” I had students open their newly-purchased Greek New Testaments (GNT hereafter) and — after giving them a short introduction to the alphabet — asked them to take turns reading aloud John 1:1–18. Though we only made it through verse three, and though they stumbled through nearly all of it, the point was simply this: you are not learning Greek so that you can memorize paradigms, plough through a 400-pg introductory grammar, do workbook exercises, take some quizzes, get a grade, and move on with your life. The goal is not word studies or parsing or identifying case endings or picking the right genitive category. Those are means but not the end. The τέλος is something far greater: to love reading the GNT as the inspired Word of God for the rest of your life and ministry. To read, say, John 1 as it came from the apostle’s own hand and stand in awe.

Being no fool, I know that many students who start and even finish a series of courses on Greek will soon, and sometimes intentionally, allow the weeds of daily ministry challenges to choke out whatever facility they once had. But many men and women who, having once tasted the gift of the study of biblical languages and shared in the spirit of seeing the fruit of such work for the kingdom of God, do not. They retain a desire to keep growing in how they responsibly engage with the GNT. This primer on some recent developments in Greek is for them.

The need for such continuing education for those in ministry is constant. However, the proximate stimulus for this piece is the nearly simultaneous publication of two books on intermediate Greek syntax in 2016. In attempting to bring us all up-to-date on contemporary research into κοινή, the authors of both works make compelling cases for — or sometimes simply presuppose — certain positions on important topics that may be quite different from what most pastors or Bible teachers in our neck of the woods once learned. Such findings have significant implications.

Acknowledging that even those who do “keep their Greek” are not falling over one other to read a combined 850 pages of intermediate grammar, I will structure this piece in two parts. In Part One, I will review each book individually and then reflect on them jointly. In Part Two, I will summarize nine recent developments in the study of Greek: (1) verbal aspect, (2) tense, (3) Aktionsart, (4) middle voice and so-called “deponency,” (5) lexical semantics, (6) CBGM and changes to NA-28/UBS-5, (7) pronunciation, (8) discourse analysis, and (9) software tools. The primer, though lengthy, is structured in such a way that its sections are largely self-contained and can be digested individually or used as a reference later on. It does not pretend to be exhaustive but, rather, aims to encourage the reader of the GNT to go the next level in sharpening his/her tools.

Part One: Reviews

In June and August 2016, a cadre of NT scholars following in a great Baptist tradition going back to A.T. Robertson[1] released two intermediate Greek textbooks. Andreas J. Köstenberger, Benjamin L. Merkle, and Robert L. Plummer[2] published Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016; 550pp). Acknowledging they became aware of the other project only after embarking on their own (p. xv), David L. Mathewson and Elodie Ballantine Emig published Intermediate Greek Grammar: Syntax for Students of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016; 307pp). Both teams of authors serve at key Baptist seminaries[3] and — apparently independently — set out to update and improve upon the justly famous 1996 grammar of yet another Baptist, Daniel B. Wallace,[4] as well as other early-1990s grammars that remain influential.[5] Though there has been an explosion of work on the GNT and κοινή in the intervening twenty years, few if any intermediate-level grammars have emerged. Both volumes aim to fill that void. Let us examine them individually and then jointly.

  1. Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek

Going Deeper has arguably become the more well-known volume already and received an uncommon number of endorsements for a book of this genre. Philosophically the authors aim to produce a volume that a student could read with comprehension and enjoyment (versus simply putting it on the shelf as a reference) and that a Greek instructor could use turn-key. They largely succeed at the former aim, as all three authors write well and strike, on the whole, a good balance between theory and practice. To achieve the latter aim, they have included in each chapter some unique features: an up-front “going deeper” section to whet the reader’s appetite on a given subject,[6] practice exercises, vocabulary lists (15–49x frequency in the GNT),[7] a built-in reader with running syntactical notes, and supplemental teacher aids (quizzes, etc.) provided on the companion website.[8] The built-in reader sections, while tempting to skip for those pressed for time, should not be neglected, as the authors have done a great job providing comments on the selected Scripture portions that not only integrate material from the chapter but also offer broader insights.[9]

The book includes fifteen chapters tackling major issues in Greek syntax: two on general issues, four on nouns/adjectives, six on verbs, one on “everything else” and two on general exegetical practices. The organization of the chapters is sometimes a bit puzzling,[10] but the cumulative effect works out in the end.

The first chapter on “Greek Language & Textual Criticism” is a distinctive and refreshing starting point for a book like this. It provides a competent survey of the history of κοινή and introduces some basic principles of textual criticism, which would serve as a refresher to someone who has had prior exposure to the transmission history of the GNT but would not supplant more detailed introductions to textual criticism found in standalone volumes.

The next four chapters cover nominative/vocative/accusative, genitive, dative, and the article/adjective. The discussions of each major case are well-informed and supported by examples for which they provide an English translation[11] and, occasionally, some commentary. Each chapter focuses — as do prior grammars — on discussing various syntactical categories for each case. For example, the authors outline eight categories for the accusative and sixteen for the genitive.[12] They do, however, consciously reduce the number of categories, as a response to the tendency in Wallace’s grammar (among others) to proliferate them.[13] (We will return to this below.) The treatment of the article is particularly helpful in dispelling common misconceptions regarding use/non-use of the article and providing balanced discussions of the Granville Sharp Rule, Colwell’s Rule, and Apollonius’s Canon. Throughout these chapters they include numerous summary charts that, for the visually-inclined, help summarize a lot of data concisely.

Their introductory chapter on the verb system (ch. 6) features the interesting choice to lead with person, number, voice, and mood — saving the tense and aspect discussion for later. The decision to delay those more hotly-debated topics in an intermediate grammar is an interesting one,[14] but the authors appear to do this in order to ground the reader in some basic categories — finite/non-finite, transitive/intransitive, modality, subject-verb agreement, etc. — before kicking the tense and aspect hornets’ nest. There may be wisdom in this approach, but it was admittedly peculiar to read their entire discussion of, say, the indicative mood  without any real reference to tense and aspect.[15]

The authors then spend an entire chapter on tense and verbal aspect (ch. 7) and provide a competent overview of the issues involved. They join many recent grammarians in affirming that Greek is aspect prominent and endorse the definitions of aspect provided by a wide range of scholars.[16] They affirm three distinct aspects (imperfective; perfective; stative, which they treat as a hybrid of the other two) and supplement their discussion on aspect theory with one on how aspect is morphologized (that is, encoded in the spelling of the inflected verb) as well as how aspect relates to the role a given verb may play at the discourse level (e.g., main line vs. supporting information). Somewhat surprisingly, the aspect discussion is followed by one paragraph on tense or “time of action”! With respect to the long-standing debate between (a) those such as Stan Porter, Con Campbell, and Rod Decker[17] who argue that tense/time-of-action is not part of the semantics of the verb but is purely pragmatic (determined by contextual factors) and (b) those such as Buist Fanning[18] who argue that tense is, in some way, part of a verb’s semantics in the indicative, Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer basically side with Fanning but are sympathetic to some of the insights of the other view:

Within the above-sketched aspectual framework, time is indicated in NT Greek in the indicative by the presence or absence of the augment. … In addition, time may be indicated by contextual information such as so-called ‘deictic indicators’ (p. 236).

After this short note on tense, the authors spend a few pages discussing “type of action”[19] conveyed by a lexeme itself and its context, which helps continue to clear the air of some misconceptions about “punctiliar” aorists or “continuous” presents. While lengthier discussions of both tense and type of action would have been justified, the irenic tone of the authors amid this (at times overheated) debate is quite welcome, as they attempt to draw on the best from each of the major scholars involved. We will revisit each issue in Part Two below.

The next two chapters deal with the present/imperfect/future (ch. 8) and aorist/perfect/pluperfect (ch. 9). They spend a good deal of time going through the various categories of use (e.g., nine different kinds of presents, five futures, seven aorists, and six perfects), and on the whole their discussions are illuminating and supported with good examples. It is, however, a bit striking that their discussions of various syntactical features that would, at least per Porter/Campbell/Decker, militate against their conviction that tense is morphologized in the verb — e.g., “historical present,” proleptic aorist, futuristic present — are somewhat brief.[20] They follow these chapters with robust treatments of the participle (ch. 10) and infinitive (ch. 11), offering a clear and robust refresher course on their complexities.

The “everything else” chapter (ch. 12) — though a bit cumbersome insofar as it treats so many disconnected things — provides generally sound discussions of pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, and particles. Their comprehensive chart on prepositions+case is quite useful (p. 408–410), as is their functionally-oriented discussion of conjunctions.

The authors then move into a discussion of Greek exegesis beyond the word. This practice has become increasingly common in introductory and intermediate grammars, and for good reason: as the authors note, one of the most important findings of modern linguistics is the importance of broader units of a text for the task of interpretation. Whereas most grammars (their own included) spend a lot of time on identifying categories and nuances of meaning at the word or phrase-level, Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer make a valiant effort to instruct the reader on how to analyze the GNT at the sentence and discourse-level. They cover Greek clause construction (independent-dependent; conditionals;[21] subject-predicate-complement; and so on) and offer short introductions to sentence diagramming (with examples), arcing,[22] and phrase diagrams.[23] They conclude with about two pages on discourse analysis, which proves far too short to be illuminating. The follow-up chapter (ch. 14) on how to do proper word studies is a helpful complement to the preceding chapter and features four principles that, in my mind, should be written on the heart of every reader of the GNT: “don’t make any word mean more than the author intends”; “prioritize synchrony over diachrony”; “do not confuse words and concepts”; and “do not view word study tools as inerrant” (pp. 478–480).

The authors conclude this substantial work with several exhortations to “help students think deliberately about how to become people who spend their entire lives reading, studying, and teaching from the GNT” (p. 491). They recommend using a “reader’s edition” of the GNT (versus interlinear), making a restrained use of digital tools, reading the GNT devotionally, and developing the habit of working with the original languages every time you prepare a lesson or sermon. To each of these I can simply say a hearty “Amen.”

  1. Mathewson/Emig, Intermediate Greek Grammar

The authors of Intermediate Greek Grammar share similar motivations and conclusions with the authors of Going Deeper, but the resulting product is quite different. Mathewson and Emig outline several important philosophical principles underlying the book: provide an accessible treatment of particular areas of κοινή that need “updating” (especially aspect); promote a “minimalist” approach to Greek syntax that retains a reverence for the inspiration of Scripture while avoiding “maximalist” tendencies of uncovering “the most meaning possible in each grammatical form or construction” (p. xvii);[24] treat κοινή like any normal language, recognizing that one-to-one “literal” rendering of Greek into English is never 100% possible (nor is it for any other language); clearly distinguish semantics (meaning of a grammatical unit) from pragmatics (function/use in a given context); and focus less on assigning  grammatical labels/categories — a task they describe somewhat sarcastically as “pin the label on the grammatical construction” (p. 2) — and more on explaining how a given syntactical construction is being used in context. Compared to Going Deeper, Mathewson and Emig’s final product is spartan but still thorough. Each chapter is quite simple: technical description of the grammatical concept; a limited number of sub-sections focused not so much on categories as on ranges of use (though the distinction is sometimes thin); a few illustrative examples including the Greek, a translation, and brief comments; and one “for practice” example.

The book includes thirteen chapters and is organized in a more familiar way, moving from nouns/pronouns, to adjectives/adverbs, to prepositions, to verbs, and finally to clauses.

The first chapter covers the entire case system for nouns and is well-informed. The authors provide interesting perspectives on the nominative (least-marked form that simply designates an entity without specifying relationship),[25] genitive (heavily-marked form that restricts), dative (form that establishes relationship), and accusative (form that limits, usually with reference to a verbal action). Perhaps rightly, the authors take prior grammarians to task for over-emphasizing fine distinctions in categories (e.g., instrumental>means vs. instrumental>agent vs. instrumental>cause for dative) that they believe are often pointlessly specific and usually debatable anyhow. Instead, they paint with a broader brush and encourage the reader to understand the basic profile of the syntactical construction rather than spend all their effort picking the right category. For instance, in contrast to Wallace’s thirty-three categories of the genitive,[26] they provide five (descriptive, possessive-source, subjective-objective, epexegetical, and partitive). On the whole the chapter is thought-provoking, though at times it suffers from unevenness in level of detail.[27]

The next two chapters on pronouns and adjectives (chs. 2 and 3) are pretty standard. However, one significant contribution the authors make is a higher degree of incorporation of discourse-level analysis in the syntactical discussions themselves, rather than saving them for the end. For instance, their discussion of the role of personal, demonstrative, and relative pronouns in structuring discourses is quite helpful.

The chapter on the article (ch. 4) departs from prior grammars (esp. Wallace) in being more hesitant to draw hard-and-fast rules about use/non-use. As in other discussions throughout the volume, the authors prefer to place more weight on context than on the syntactical feature in itself, which provides a welcome balance to other approaches that seem to suggest that figuring out arthrous vs. anarthrous constructions is almost mathematical. The chapter on prepositions (ch. 5) follows a similar path in encouraging readers of the GNT to avoid “overinterpreting” the theological freight of a preposition.[28] While encouraging students to avoid the temptation to “insist on precise distinctions and fine shades of meaning between prepositions” (p. 92) such as ἐκ/ἀπό or εἰς/ἐν, they nevertheless provide a fairly standard summary of the range of meaning of the major prepositions.

In contrast to Going Deeper, this volume places a discussion of tense and aspect up-front in their sequence of chapters on the Greek verb (ch. 6). The authors openly side with Porter/Campbell/Decker on the non-temporal nature of the Greek verb’s syntax even in the indicative:

Time and kind of action are indicated not by the verb tense-forms but by the broader context … Though there is still some disagreement on the issue of whether Greek indicative verb tenses indicate time, our grammar will side with advocates of verbal aspect [citing Porter].[29]

They, like Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer, argue for three aspects (perfective, imperfective, and stative), but they defend their position on tense by — following Porter’s strategy — providing a series of examples that seem to militate against the standard view that, say, aorist indicatives encode past-time reference and present indicatives encode contemporaneous-time reference. Their discussion of the importance of aspect in discourse structuring is helpful. In keeping with their approach for the noun/adjective system, the authors largely attempt to avoid assigning categories to verbs (e.g., ingressive aorist, gnomic present, and the like), but it is worth noting that they end up using similar language to describe broader “uses” (e.g., “aorist used of extended action,” p. 122). On the whole, their treatment of the verb system will be stimulating reading even for those who may disagree with them.

The subsequent four chapters provide detailed descriptions of voice[30]/person/number (ch. 7), mood (ch. 8), infinitives (ch. 9), and participles (ch. 10). Each chapter does an admirable job bringing to bear their views on verbal aspect both within and outside the indicative mood, which is a major step forward for intermediate grammars even if one disagrees with them at times.[31]

The authors next include very helpful chapters on clause construction (chs. 11–12), with a particularly learned treatment of conjunctions and subordinate clauses. Their final chapter on discourse considerations (ch. 13) is far more robust than that found in Going Deeper and includes summaries of four main discourse features that any student of the GNT should master: cohesion (how conjunctions, repetition, pronouns, etc. bring unity to a pericope/chapter), textual boundaries (how transitions, shifts in aspect, and other features mark changes in subject matter to define textual units), prominence (how aspect, constituent order within a clause, use of unnecessary pronouns, and deictic markers push information in a discourse to the background or foreground), and participants (how characters in a narrative are brought to and from the main “stage”). The interested reader would still need to go to a standalone volume to know how to do discourse analysis, but their introduction provides a helpful starting point. The book ends somewhat abruptly here, followed by an appendix on principal parts of key verbs in the GNT.[32]

III. Interacting with Both

As has been indicated at various points above, Going Deeper and Intermediate Greek Grammar attempt to do the same basic thing — provide a more up-to-date intermediate grammar that is conversant with post-90s advances — but have their own strengths and weaknesses. Going Deeper is obviously longer, but the added length is a benefit in some cases: its treatments of various syntactical constructions are generally more robust, and the additional content (vocabulary lists, extended examples, etc.) make it a one-stop-shop for the student and instructor. The slightly disorganized treatment of the verbal system is a weakness, even if (on the whole) the authors’ approach to tense and aspect is the more balanced of the two. Intermediate Greek Grammar, on the other hand, is much shorter and, on the whole, less enjoying to read; it best serves as a reference. It does a better job than Going Deeper, however, at integrating discourse features and verbal aspect into the discussions, which goes a long way towards helping the reader move from theory to the “so what.”

At the end of the day, Wallace’s longer grammar still deserves to be on the shelf of every serious student of the GNT, as its wealth of information remains unsurpassed (even by the combination of these two volumes). Yet I would commend either of these new grammars to the Bible teacher, pastor, and student, since they do make helpful contributions, each in its own unique way. However, if forced to pick one, I would probably go with Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer for its readability and fullness.

Before moving on from the book reviews, it is important to pause and reflect on five key areas of common ground shared by both volumes that, I believe, are quite significant for the serious student of the GNT. Emerging out of two decades of substantial research on κοινή, Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer and Mathewson/Emig independently arrive at the same basic place on the following key issues:

  • Advocating for aspect prominence of the Greek verbal system. Though they land on different sides of the tense debate, both sets of authors argue with some definitiveness that verbal aspect is the key to understanding the Greek verbal system. While recent introductory grammars have become more conversant on this, such a move is a meaningful departure from (or, at least, a substantial clarification of) prior intermediate grammars. This is significant because students who have come through their Greek instruction in the past, say, ten years have become more aware of the tense-aspect debate but are stuck in a strange limbo. Some introductory grammars treat aspect but are burdened with inaccuracies (e.g., Mounce); many major commentaries (even recent ones) presuppose tense-prominence and speak very little about aspect; the pre-1990s intermediate grammars tend to confuse categories of tense, aspect, and Aktionsart; but contemporary GNT scholarship is increasingly aligned about aspect prominence (even if disagreement lingers on tense). In other words, the student may be left perplexed about what page we are on. Both of these books help plow a clearer path forward.
  • Rejecting deponency.” We will cover this in detail below, but it is striking that both volumes make decisive strides in the direction away from the so-called “deponent” Greek verb and towards treating such middle-only verbs as true middles. In doing so, they add their voice to a burgeoning minority that deserves to be heard.
  • Emphasizing contextual sensitivity over pinning the category on the syntactical donkey. As indicated above, both books to varying degrees bring some much-needed sanity to a learning environment plagued by proliferation of categories that are, admittedly, nearly impossible to memorize and keep straight. One is awestruck by the 100+ categories for cases, adjectives, verb tenses, prepositional phrases, infinitives, participles, and so on found in modern grammars from Robertson and BDF to Wallace. Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer attempt simply to reduce them by consolidation (which is a start), while Mathewson/Emig try to move away from them altogether. Either way, they share the same basic philosophy. Greek words do not come to us from, say, Paul with labels (Logos Bible Software notwithstanding!). Thus, the task of the student is not done when he/she has (probably through consulting Wallace or another grammar, which do not always agree on the nomenclature, definition, or assignment of the labels anyhow) picked a label, such as “accusative of time” or “genitive of space.” Even assuming that the label has been picked accurately, this is simply the starting point, not the destination. The student should focus more time on what is it doing in the context? than simply what is it?
  • Promoting analysis over translation. Throughout each book, the authors regularly emphasize that many of the subtleties of the Greek — ranging from aspect in non-indicative verbs to the middle voice — are not always straightforward to pick up in simple English translations. Translators should do their best, but sometimes it is nearly impossible to render in short glosses such things that, on the whole, English lacks. Thus, the pastor/teacher should focus as much, if not more, time focusing on exegesis and explanation than on simply producing their own English translation. The student should work the Greek, not simply try to make a stilted translation and move on. This is not a new insight, but the authors present it in a refreshing way. We have dozens of very good English translations, so producing one’s own (i.e. in sermon preparation) is really only a starting point. Where we want to get, rather, is a real understanding of the Greek text as Greek. This takes more work, but the benefits are substantial.
  • Pressing beyond local syntax towards the broader unit of meaning. Most grammars (both introductory and intermediate) tend to take an atomistic approach: focusing on categorizing and explaining individual words or short phrases. This is, of course, necessary, but one notable shift in both of these volumes is their desire to teach the GNT reader to move beyond the word-level to allow the discourse-level to impact their understanding of syntax at a micro-level.

With this as a launching point, we now move to our “primer.”

Part Two: Primer

The primer that follows covers in some detail nine issues which the present author believes should be on the radar screen of every pastor or Bible teacher. I will do my best to present a thorough summary and evaluation of the “state of the question,” with some reflection (by no means exhaustive) on some of the implications.

  1. The Κοινή Verb System

Without a doubt the Greek verbal system has received the most scrutiny in recent decades.[33] Among the various topics receiving intense study, four stand out: aspect, tense, Aktionsart,[34] and the middle voice. We will survey each in turn, but first we must establish the groundwork for how the study of the Greek verb got to this point.

It comes as a surprise to few students of Greek that English (along with German and French) is more or less tense prominent. Our verbs primarily, though not exclusively, encode when an action occurs, or its “location in time” with respect to the speaker: past (prior to the time horizon of the speaker), present (contemporaneous to the speaker), and future (after the time horizon of the speaker). These location-in-time encodings can be overridden — such as when a speaker shifts tenses in indirect speech reporting or uses a present-tense form of a verb to narrate something that happened in the past — but in general they have prominence in English. We shift tenses by changing endings or adding helping verbs:

While English verb morphology can approximate verbal aspect (e.g., with –ing), such features are usually vague and easily confused with, say, kind of action. Thus, while it is not entirely true that English has no aspect altogether, it is widely agreed that tense is prominent. The same is true, basically, for German and French. However, numerous other languages, including many Slavic languages, are not tense prominent at all.[35]

The implications of this for the study of κοινή are substantial, as recent research has pointed out. For two centuries Greek grammars have been written by scholars whose native language is tense prominent but, as scholars have argued for over twenty years now, Greek appears to be aspect prominent instead. That is, grammars have been describing an aspectual verb system (Greek) in languages that are tense-driven without fully realizing the disconnect.

Beginning largely with Porter and Fanning in the late 1980s (who were influenced by Comrie and others previously),[36] the GNT scholarly community has come to recognize that the inflected meaning of a Greek verb (e.g., what an aorist active indicative third singular verb means in context) is constituted by three factors:

Aspect Tense (proper) Aktionsart
Subjective portrayal of or vantage-point towards the verbal action (not how the action actually takes place) Location in time, whether absolute (past, present, future), or relative (before, during, after), or N/A How the verbal action actually takes place, based on the lexeme, literary context, and event itself

Of these three, aspect is considered prominent and appears across all verb forms, both within and outside the indicative mood. Tense (proper) remains debated, which we will discuss below. Aktionsart, which has often been confused with aspect and/or tense by various grammarians in the past, is a complementary feature combining both semantics (lexical/syntactical) and pragmatics (contextual use).

The astute observer will recognize that the use of “tense” in the way outlined above introduces a problematic ambiguity in how we label the so-called “tenses” that any first-year Greek student memorizes. What we call Greek “tenses” — present, imperfect, future, aorist, perfect, pluperfect — do not map 1:1 to “tense (proper)” but also crossover into aspect.[37] Moreover, two of the standard aspectual categories sound confusingly like “tenses”: imperfective (aspect) vs. imperfect, and perfective (aspect) vs. perfect. Thus, following the lead of Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer and Campbell, in what follows I will use the term “tense-form” to describe the morphology (how a verb is spelled) and “tense (proper)” to describe location-in-time. This is still far from ideal, but it is a start.

  1. Aspect

For the English-speaker, even defining verbal aspect present challenges, since it is not typically how we conceptualize the verb. So we will begin with a few definitions from key scholars to help flesh out the issue:

  • Bernard Comrie (non-biblical linguist): “aspects are different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation.”[38]
  • Buist Fanning: “Verbal aspect … is that category in the grammar of the verb which reflects the focus or viewpoint of the speaker in regard to the action or condition which the verb describes. It shows the perspective from which the occurrence is regarded or the portrayal of the occurrence apart from the actual or perceived nature of the situation itself.”[39]
  • Stanley Porter: “Synthetic verbal aspect [is] a morphologically-based semantic category which grammaticalizes the author/speaker’s reasoned subjective choice of conception of a process.”[40]
  • Rodney Decker: “[The] choice of aspect is subjective, based on the speaker’s choice as to how he wants to portray an action and is expressed internally in the morphology of the chosen verb form.”[41]
  • Constantine Campbell: “An author or speaker views an action, event, or state either from the outside or from within. … Verbal aspect represents a subjective choice. … An author chooses which aspect to use when portraying a particular action, event, or state.”[42]
  • Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer: “Verbal aspect is the subjective perspective or viewpoint from which an author communicates the action of a given verb.”[43]
  • Mathewson/Emig: “[Aspect conveys] how the author chooses to conceive of or view the action. Aspect concerns the author’s perspective on an action.”[44]

In short, verbal aspect is concerned not with when or how an action occurred in reality, but with how the writer chooses to portray that action specifically in terms of the relationship between him/her (or the reader) and the unfolding of that action. Common to nearly all the above definitions is the use of a “spatial” metaphor to articulate aspect[45]: (a) describing an event “from the outside,” that is, viewing it as a whole event, with the beginning-middle-end all in view at once (external viewpoint), or (b) describing an event “from within,” that is, viewing it as it were developing right before one’s eyes, with the beginning having already taken place but the ending not yet in sight (internal viewpoint).

A few pictorial analogies may help, though they are not flawless. The first example has become standard in discussions of verbal aspect. The other two offer different angles on aspect, and they work best if one approaches the “external viewpoint” graphics as not merely the final product but as capturing the sense of completeness of the entire verbal action represented in the photo.

In short, aspect deals with how “the speaker chooses to view or portray the action (1) as in its development, as in process of being carried out; or (2) as a single whole, as summarized in one event from beginning to end.”[46]

Nearly all scholars in present discussions agree that both of these aspects are present in Greek, along with a debated third.

Perfective aspect—the external viewpoint. With a perfective verb (not to be confused with a verb in the “perfect” tense-form), the author chooses to portray the verbal action with a sense of completeness, from the outside, without reference to or emphasis on its development. It is a summary or all-encompassing vantage point on the verbal action in which the beginning and ending are in view (usually) but not emphasized, nor any point along the way.

Imperfective aspect—the internal viewpoint. With an imperfective verb (not to be confused with a verb in the “imperfect” tense-form), the author chooses to portray the verbal action with a sense of incompleteness, from the inside, as if it were developing right in front of you. The imperfective aspect emphasizes the unfolding of the verbal action as if he/she (or the reader) were in some sense watching it take place.

We can diagram these two aspects as follows[47]:

                (Stative) aspect—a combination? The third possible aspect, also denoted “combinative” by some scholars, remains debated,[48] which is why I leave it in parentheses. For those who advocate that it is a true aspect, the stative combines elements of the external and internal vantage-points: the verbal action is understood to have a measure of completeness (regardless of time) that yields a state of affairs that is still unfolding, with emphasis placed on the latter. Here another diagram may help:

In a three-aspect system (as outlined above), our familiar κοινή tense-forms fall into place as follows:

Perfective Imperfective (Stative)
Aorist Present Perfect
Future[49] Imperfect Pluperfect

It is widely agreed that verbal aspect in Greek is semantically encoded — and thus morphologized (that is, included in the spelling)[50] — across all moods and verb forms.[51] This is accomplished with an aspectual prefix and/or infix.[52] Perfective aspect is marked with -σ- (active/middle) or -θ- (passive). Imperfective aspect is unmarked. (Stative) aspect is marked by reduplication (λυ-) and -κ- (active). We can demonstrate these patterns with the following representative λύω chart[53]:

As can be observed from the chart, aspect markers (bold/underline) are present across all five verb forms, corroborating the contention that aspect is always relevant even outside the indicative, even if it is difficult to bring out in a single English gloss. For instance, in some cases an adverbial aorist (perfective) participle may be, from a relative-time perspective, chronologically prior-to the action of the main verb (in whatever tense-form), due the sense of “completeness” conveyed by the aspect; in other cases, perfectivity may describe a holistic action viewed from the outside in the context of which the main verb is operating.[54] As another example, imperfective aspect with an imperative verb may suggest that action being commanded (or prohibited) has a sense of ongoing development or durative/repeated activity (e.g., “flee [φεῦγε] to Egypt,” Matt 2:13), while a perfective imperative simply takes a summary view of the commanded action shows no concern for how it actually unfolds (e.g., “save [σῶσον] yourself, if you are the son of God,” Matt 27:40).

  1. Tense (proper)

Commonplace within the study of Greek is the notion that absolute time — that is, when something is portrayed as happening relative to the time horizon of the speaker — is only relevant, if at all, in the indicative mood.[55] As mentioned in Part One, the playing field has long been divided between two positions. Some argue that Greek tense-forms (aorist, etc.) do not “semantically encode temporal reference alongside aspect,” [56] but rather tense (proper) is a pragmatic feature that is determined by context, especially additional words in a sentence indicating time. In other words, for Porter et al., the familiar dictums that aorists refer to past-tense actions or presents to present-tense actions are mistaken; there are too many exceptions to the rule. Others argue that the Greek tense-forms do encode tense (proper), but that these can be overridden for various reasons; the exceptions, in other words, prove the rule (!). Importantly, everyone agrees that that Greek does communicate not only aspect but also tense (proper); the debate, however, revolves around how the latter is grammaticalized.[57]

One way through the maze that I find helpful is to maintain aspect prominence but, for the indicative, to understand tense (proper) as a semantic feature that is capable of being overridden for various reasons.[58] All three aspects, and the tense-forms that belong to each, have a default temporal value that accounts for perhaps 75-80% of instances; while aspect cannot be overridden, the default time-of-action can, as with “historical present” or “proleptic aorist.”[59] Tense (proper) is morphologized only for past-time through the ἐ- augment or “past-time indicator,” which, as shown in the chart above, appears in the indicative mood as follows:

Perfective              aorist tense-form                   λυσα, λυθην

Imperfective         imperfect tense-form                λυον

(Stative)                pluperfect tense-form               λελύκειν

Thus, the default tense (proper) of each tense-form in the indicative, along with their typical morphological patterns, may be summarized as follows:

The assignment of the perfect tense-form to “present-time” may be surprising for those less familiar with verbal aspect, but upon reflection it makes sense. As indicated above, the perfect tense-form conveys (stative) aspect by focusing on the unfolding implications (default: in the present) of a verbal action that is otherwise conceived from an external perspective (e.g., completeness). Often this verbal action is in the recent past, but it does not have to be. Rather, it is simply understood as a whole or completed action (perhaps even contemporaneous with the speaker) that yields an ongoing state of being.

It is also notable that Greek features three tense-forms whose default time-of-action is in the past; some have even argued that the basic sense of Greek for tense (proper) is not past-present-future, but rather past (three tense-forms) vs. non-past (three tense-forms).

  1. Aktionsart

A final feature that impacts inflected meaning of a Greek verb is kind-of-action, or Aktionsart. Recent research into verbal aspect has also helped clarify the distinction between it and Aktionsart and, thus, exposed points where prior Greek grammarians often confused the two.[60] Aktionsart refers not to the author’s subjective portrayal of a verbal action (=aspect) or to the time when an action occurred (=tense [proper]) but, rather, to how the verbal action actually takes place. That is: does it happen all at once? Does it happen over a period of time? Is it repetitive? And so on. Aktionsart is not morphologized in the Greek verb but is a function of three things: the lexical meaning(s) of the verb itself, how the event actually occurs in reality (if indicative), and the surrounding literary context where the verb is used. While grammarians may tend to promulgate fine distinctions among various Aktionsarten, in the spirit of simplicity (following the lead of Mathewson/Emig), I would argue that three categories basically cover the waterfront: instantaneous, progress/telic, and continuous. One should, however, keep in mind a broader distinction between verbs used transitively (that is, an “agent” acting on “patient”) and those used intransitively (that is, only an “agent” acting, without an explicit “patient”). The following chart illustrates the key distinctions in Aktionsart:

Many verbs by virtue of their lexical meaning tend to gravitate to only one Aktionsart; for instance, due to the inherent nature of the verbal action that they describe, μένω and ζάω are usually continuous and πίπτω tends to be instantaneous, regardless of tense-form. Others can be used in any of the Aktionsarten, forcing the interpreter to pay special attention to context and their lexicons.Thus, one can say that an aorist verb is “punctiliar” but not because it is aorist; rather, it is an Aktionsart distinction (instantaneous) versus an aspectual one. Or one might say that a present verb is “iterative,” but again this is not because it is present; rather, it arises from the combination of imperfective aspect and instantaneous Aktionsart.

To summarize, the job of the interpreter of the GNT is to understand the inflected meaning of any given verb as a combination of the three features outlined above: aspect, tense (proper), and Aktionsart.[61] Only the former two are directly encoded in the verb’s inflected form (e.g., imperfect active indicative first plural), so the student must be sensitive also to a given word’s semantic range as well as the broader context. It is not so simple as spotting a present tense-form and drawing a conclusion about “continuous” or “progressive” (which are Aktionsart distinctions) and present time-of-action (which can be overridden). All factors must be taken into consideration, but especially verbal aspect.

The challenge we find ourselves in, however, is that many popular introductory grammars and most scholarly commentaries have yet to incorporate recent linguistic insights into how they approach Greek verbs in practice. Decker’s grammar makes a good start, as it organizes the teaching of the verb system around aspect; it will be unsatisfactory, however, for those who still hold to tense (proper) as a semantic feature.[62] Moreover, Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer make the suggestion (following Nicholas Ellis)[63] that instructors of Greek should teach students first to identify verbal aspect and only then the tense-form (and, from there, tense [proper] in the indicative). While appealing at first blush, the challenge is that you do not know what the aspect is until you identify the morphology/tense-form itself, and it is precisely there that the standard nomenclature about “tenses” muddies the waters. Commentators will eventually catch up, one would expect. Whatever the case, much work remains to be done on how to go about moving from an English tense-prominent system to a Greek aspect-prominent system in both our learning and exegesis of κοινή — which will no doubt continue to be exacerbated by the confusing use of “tense” for tense-forms (“present,” etc.). But some progress is being made.

We have covered a lot of theoretical ground that, for those who are less familiar with these issues, may seem daunting. It is! Before moving on, then, it is necessary to illustrate the principles outlined above with some representative examples. With 28,000+ verbs in the GNT and 95,000+ in the LXX, we must obviously be selective. The interested reader will need to consult the works cited above for more.

  • Aorist — perfective aspect, default past-time, non-punctiliar
Rom 5:14 βασίλευσεν ὁ θάνατος ἀπὸ Ἀδὰμ μέχρι Μωϋσέως. Death reigned from Adam until Moses.

Contrary to the common traditional opinion that aorist verbs are “once-for-all” or “punctiliar,” the aorist of βασιλεὐω is clearly neither, since the “reign” of death here lasted for centuries! The perfective aspect views the entire situation from Adam to Moses as one constituted by, from start-to-finish, the reign of death due to sin. Interestingly, the verb’s Aktionsart is flexible; it is occasionally used in the LXX to indicate how a king begins to reign (or even how one is appointed by others to reign; e.g., 1 Sam 15:35) but usually describes the totality of one’s reign (e.g., 2 Sam 8:15). The context of Rom 5:14, particularly the start-finish temporal indicators (ἀπό…μέχρι), corroborates the conclusion drawn regarding aspect.[64]

  • Aorist — perfective aspect, overriding the default past-time
Matt 3:17 ἰδοὺ φωνὴ ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν λέγουσα· οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν ᾧ εὐδόκησα.[65] Behold, a voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased.”

The aorist of εὐδοκέω cannot, in this context, refer to a situation in which God the Father “was” well-pleased with the Son in the past only (what would that even mean?), nor is it likely to be “punctiliar” or “once-for-all,” given the verb’s typically continuous Aktionsart. Thus, the default past-time of the aorist is being overridden here. The aspect, however, remains key: God is describing how, holistically (e.g., from an external viewpoint) he is pleased with the entirety of Jesus’ life, past-present-future. Thus, it makes all the sense in the world to use perfective (aorist) rather than imperfective (e.g., εὐδοκεῖ, cf. Ps 149:4), since the latter would somehow suggest that God’s being-pleased with Jesus is in the process of unfolding, which would make little theological sense. Here, then, we see a clear case where translation is not the end of the process. In English we are almost forced to render this verb with a present-tense verb, but a short English gloss like “I am well-pleased” cannot by itself bring out the perfectivity of the aspect; at best, it leaves it open for interpretation. The job of the exegete, then, is to bring out the aspectual force in teaching.

  • Aorist — perfective aspect, overriding the default past-time
John 13:31 λέγει Ἰησοῦς· νῦν ἐδοξάσθη ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐδοξάσθη ἐν αὐτῷ· Jesus said, “Now the son of man is glorified and God is glorified in him,
John 13:32 καὶ ὁ θεὸς δοξάσει αὐτὸν ἐν αὐτῷ and God will glorify him in himself.”

Given the temporal indicator νῦν, it is obvious that Jesus is not referring to an act of glorifying that happened in the past; yet, the aorist passive is used rather than the present (cf. Luke 4:15). Hence, Jesus must be referring to something happening in the present-time (from his viewpoint) but viewing it holistically, from an external perspective, rather than as an unfolding process. He is in some way giving a preview that the entire series of events (from Judas’ betrayal through the arrest) that constitutes the “glorify” action. What is further fascinating is that the future is used in the next verse v32 (δοξάσει), thus maintaining perfective aspect but shifting perspective to a future time frame relative to the present one.

  • Present, imperfect, and aorist — narrative structuring via aspect
Matt 3:6 καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν. And they were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Matt 3:7 Ἰδὼν δὲ πολλοὺς τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ Σαδδουκαίων ἐρχομένους ἐπὶ τὸ βάπτισμα αὐτοῦ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς. But seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them.


The main verb of v6 is the imperfect indicative ἐβαπτίζοντο, which aspectually portrays the action of John’s baptism as something unfolding; the default past-time is also maintained. The imperfectivity of the present participle indicates that the confession of sins is being portrayed as simultaneously unfolding alongside the baptism (versus an aorist participle, which might imply temporal sequence). As we move to v7, we also see how the imperfective verbs in v6 play the role of providing background information, for the narrator shifts attention (δέ) to the main action that is conveyed with two aorist (perfective) verbs, one which is an adverbial participle (ἰδων) and one which is the main indicative (εἶπεν). The focus in this entire scene, then, falls on John’s verbal conflict with the religious authorities (their arrival, like the activity of baptism, is also portrayed with an imperfective verb), which stands in sharp relief to the masses of repenting Jews in the background.

  • Perfect — (stative) aspect, non-past tense (proper)
Gal 5:10 ἐγὼ πέποιθα εἰς ὑμᾶς ἐν κυρίῳ ὅτι οὐδὲν ἄλλο φρονήσετε. I am convinced about you in the Lord that you will think nothing else.

In the context of the argument so far in Galatians 5, it would make little sense for the perfect πέποιθα to convey that Paul “became convinced” at some point in the past (which has present effect), as is traditionally understood of the perfect. Rather, Paul’s choice of aspect here portrays the entirety of his confidence in the church (not the temporal process by which he arrived at such confidence) and, in particular, the ongoing state of that confidence. This latter emphasis on incompleteness, in turn, helps to frame Paul’s shift to the future tense-form (φρονήσετε) with respect to that in which he places his confidence (namely, the response of the Galatians).[66]

  1. “Deponency” and the Middle Voice

As mentioned at the end of Part One, both recently-published grammars join an increasing chorus of scholars calling for an end to the use of “deponency” when referring to certain kinds of Greek verbs. For over a century, Greek grammars have taught that a variety of verbs, which appear to lack active morphology  but, rather, usually appear only as middles, should be called “deponent.” That is, they have “laid aside” their active form, and the middle plays the role of the active.[67] The active form “has been discarded in a particular tense, but the meaning that would have been intended by that form has been transferred to another voice, [namely the middle].”[68] Mounce defines “deponent” as a “verb that is middle or passive in form but active in meaning.”[69] The lexical form of such verbs will accordingly use –μαι rather than the more familiar active –ω, since the latter is unused. Well-known examples include ἀποκρίνομαι, δέχομαι, βούλομαι, γίνομαι, ἔρχομαι, and πορεύομαι. Some have claimed that the majority of verbs that appear in the GNT with middle or passive morphology are actually active in meaning.[70]

Given the entrenched status of “deponency” in the study of κοινή, recent critiques of “deponency” should be given serious consideration. Before turning to the key arguments, it is first worth observing at the outset that the situation with respect to active/middle/passive morphology is actually far more complex than the simplistic middle-taking-active-meaning theory of “deponency” implies. Consider the following example verbs and their voices, focusing on indicatives:

Such observations form the starting-point for a growing minority of scholars who argue that “deponency” itself should be laid aside and that such verbs should be treated as true middles, rather than as “deponents” that always have active meanings. Let us summarize the key arguments.[75]The chart reveals fascinating patterns, and other examples could be adduced. Some traditional “deponents” (e.g., δέχομαι) have middle/passive morphology but do not always convey what has traditionally been called “active” meaning; rather, they can also express true passive voice as well.[74] Others may have middle-only morphology in one tense-form but passive-only in another, despite not having a truly passive sense (e.g., πορεύομαι and ἀποκρίνομαι). Some are middle-only in the present but capable of having active morphology in other tense-forms (e.g., ἔρχομαι), while others are the opposite and have active morphology in the present but only middle or passive in other tense-forms (χαίρω and ἀναβαίνω). And some verbs change meaning altogether when they switch from active to middle in the same tense-form (e.g., αἱρέω/αἱρέομαι). So the voice situation can be, put succinctly, rather convoluted.

  • Teaching/reading Greek through an English lens. Most grammarians in the past century have been quick to note that the Greek middle is, at the outset, a bit of a foreign thing to English-speakers (or German and French, for that matter). Such languages lack an explicit grammatical constructions for expressing the middle voice and, instead, operate on an active vs. passive Greek, thus, grammaticalizes something that is essentially absent altogether in these other languages. Hence, the root issue for any student of Greek is simply this: what is the middle voice in Greek to begin with? What does it convey? The temptation to treat so many verbs as “deponent” — that is, middle/passive in form but “active in meaning” — actually begs the question entirely. How do you know it is “active in meaning” if you have not clearly distinguished the voices clearly in Greek? This leads to a second issue.
  • Mistakenly applying a Latin term. The choice to label these verbs “deponent” may have been an (unintentional) error at the outset that has muddied the waters about the concept as well. The term is borrowed from Latin, where it is used to explain how verbs with passive-only morphology play the role of an active verb.[76] The phenomenon, then, looks similar on the surface to our situation in κοινή. But the problem is that Latin (like English) lacks a middle voice altogether, whereas Greek has all three! Thus, a Latin grammatical category has been smuggled into Greek[77] to explain a syntactical feature — the oddities of the middle voice — that is not in Latin at all! This has only perpetuated the confusion about “middle form but active meaning.” Moreover, the meaning of deponere (“lay aside”) in itself assumes that the Greek verbs in question at one point in time actually did have an active form but, by the time we get to κοινή, have somehow lost them. Recent research has shown, however, that this is simply not the case for nearly all of these verbs; they never had an active form that could be “laid aside.”
  • Collapsing the middle in Greek. Amid the context outlined above, English grammars have typically tried to position the κοινή middle as a tweener between active and passive and collapsed it entirely into closest proxy we have, namely, “reflexive” (e.g., “John shaved [himself]). For the English-speaker (or Latin student), this approximation seemed logical enough. But grammarians then surveyed Greek middles and found that most of them seem to lack this “reflexive” sense. As a consequence, it was concluded that the middle must actually lack any real force in Greek altogether, confirming the hypothesis that nearly all so-called “deponent” middles are, ultimately, simply “active in meaning.” The problem, as recent scholars have pointed out, is that Greek normally achieves reflexivity with the reflexive pronoun ἑαυτοῦ across all voices.[78] The middle voice, then, has been collapsed without reason.
  • Rebuilding the middle voice assubject-affectedness.” Helped along by the seminal work of Rutger Allan, it has become clearer that the basic sense behind the Greek middle is not “reflexivity” (though that can be part of it) but, more broadly, “subject-affectedness.”[79] That is to say, the middle voice in Greek conveys a variety of different ways in which the agent is self-involved in the doing of or result of the verbal action. The subject is “internal to the process” and is “affected” — indirectly or directly impacted in some way — by the action: doing it for his/her own interest; being fully involved in the process; doing it to oneself; allowing it to be done to oneself; and so on. The challenge, then, is that Greek words directly morphologize this middle-ness of “subject-affectedness” in the verb form itself, but in (for example) English it may very well take several words to bring out the sense, not a simple word-for-word gloss. But the whole notion of “deponency” has short-circuited things by assuming that a simple English gloss, which may be active in form, exhausts the meaning of the Greek middle. Such a move, in light of recent research, appears fallacious. We should not confuse the meaning of Greek with an English translational shorthand, any more than we would for anything else in Greek.[80]
  • Recognizing that most middle-only verbs in Greek are not actually active in meaning.” In view of all of the above, recent research has revisited traditional “deponent” verbs and concluded that, upon close inspection, a compelling case can be made that they do seem to exhibit this sense of subject-affectedness and are not, simply, “active in meaning.” Miller provides a helpful taxonomy of dozens of common so-called “deponents” in the GNT that can better be understood as true middles bearing a variety of senses: reciprocity, reflexivity, self-involvement (in the outcome), self-interest, direct recipient (e.g., sensory verbs), state-of-being in which the subject is the “center of gravity” of the action, and so on.[81] In other words, such verbs seem inherently to carry a middle sense in certain contexts; put differently, the Aktionsart of certain verbs — a combination of lexical meaning and context — causes them naturally to default to the middle voice.[82] A few examples may clarify[83]:

ἀποκρίνομαι  the one answering is involved in the outcome of his/her answer

ἀρνέομαι        in most cases the act of denial directly impacts the person doing the denying and the one being denied

δέχομαι          inherently receiving/accepting something invovles self-interest or impacts oneself

βούλομαι        the subject is inherently affected by the act of willing/desiring

ἡγέομαι          holding an opinion or thinking is inherently self-involved

In short, while active voice can include subject-affectedness (with or without the reflexive pronoun), the middle voice in Greek is explicitly marked for it.

  • Clarifying our understanding of middle-passive morphology. One piece of the puzzle that has remained somewhat perplexing through all of this is the following. As any first-year Greek student knows, most tense-forms (present, imperfect, perfect, pluperfect) do not make a morphological distinction between middle and passive but use the same endings for both. Context dictates whether a given instance is truly middle or passive, for spelling alone does not answer that question. In the aorist or future, however, we have a distinct passive spelling (with the θ infix). The problem arises when some verbs use passive forms apparently in lieu of middle forms (e.g., χαίρω> ἐχάρην) but without a clear passive sense, as traditionally understood (e.g., “X is being [verb]ed by Z”). How are these to be explained? A compelling case has been made that these distinct aorist/future passive (θ) forms were latecomers to Greek and began “taking over” for the middle.[84] In other words, these distinct spellings started playing the same kind of game (only in reverse) as the other tense-forms, where the middle morphology serves as the passive as well. In both situations, then, context dictates the true voice where morphology is ambiguous. If so, it may be better to understand Greek not as an active vs. passive polarity (as with English) but as an active vs. middle polarity, where the middle is actually a spectrum of subject-affectedness from low to high. At the “high” end, context indicates that the subject is so “affected” that he/she is actually the direct recipient of the action from a different (stated or implied) agent. In short, in four tense-forms, the entire middle spectrum is spelled the same; in two tense-forms, a distinct θ spelling can explicitly mark this “high” end (the traditional “passive”), but not always. The following rough diagram attempts to illustrate this:

Surveying all the above considerations, there has been a recent push to move away from “deponency” altogether and treat such verbs as true middles. For instance, Pennington concludes, “Let the middle voice have a voice. As a principle, we should assume a middle form is truly middle unless there is contrary evidence.”[85] Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer remark, “[We are] recognizing the wide use of the category of ‘deponency’ by other Greek scholars, [but are] seeking to bring students to a better understanding of most (and perhaps all) supposed deponent verbs as actually Greek middles.”[86] Mathewson/Emig write, “The concept of deponency is unnecessary, and what we have traditionally called deponent verbs should be seen as true middles with middle meaning.”[87] Conrad urges students, “assume it is ‘middle’ unless the context or construction points clearly to passivity; respect the differences between ancient Greek and any modern language.”[88] Finally, Decker’s recent introductory grammar does not mention “deponency” at all but, in line with the preceding discussion, encourages students to see such verbs as “middle-only” and parse them accordingly (either as middle or passive, depending on morphology and contextual usage).[89] This may very well the best path forward.

In short, the English translation for many of these verbs may, ultimately, be “active” in English, but that is not the end of our task, as argued in Part One. We must work to draw out the full sense of the middle.[90]

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[1] A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research (4th ed.; Nashville: Broadman, 1934). Each of these new publications acknowledge a huge debt of gratitude to Robertson.

[2] Plummer hosts the popular “Daily Dose of Greek” website (

[3] Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Köstenberger, Merkle); Southern Baptist Seminary (Plummer); Denver Seminary (Mathewson, Emig).

[4] Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996; 827pp.). An abridged form is published as The Basics of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000). Wallace is a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary.

[5] Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994); and Richard A. Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994). Both groups of authors are strongly influenced by Porter, but Wallace is more often their explicit sparring partner on key issues.

[6] Perhaps taking a cue from (though implementing it more effectively than) William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek: Grammar (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).

[7] Obviating the need for, say, Bruce M. Metzger’s Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).


[9] The pericopae covered are as follows: (ch. 1) Mark 1:1–13; (2) Matt 18:10–20; (3) Rom 3:19–31; (4) Jude 1–3, 17–25; (5) John 2:1–11; (6) James 5:12–20; (7) Matt 2:19–23; 6:9–13; (8) Acts 2:37–47; (9) John 11:30–44; (10) 1 Pet 5:1–11; (11) 1 Tim 6:11–19; (12) Tit 2:1–10; (13) Heb 5:11–6:6.

[10] E.g., the first chapter on the verb features lengthy discussions on subjunctive and imperative moods; present, imperfect, and future constitute one chapter, while by aorist and perfect constitute another; pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, and particles are combined into in one chapter.

[11] One notable feature is the tendency to switch among a variety of English translations (NIV, ESV, HCSB, NKJV, NASB) without any clear reasoning why they prefer one over another for a given example.

[12] Incidentally, while the authors perhaps wisely avoid going into too much detail on the objective/subjective genitive debate for πίστις Χριστοῦ, I find it disappointing that they bury their discussion almost entirely in a brief note within the graded reader (p. 114). For what it is worth, they land on objective genitive but do not argue why (simply citing Moo, Schreiner, Dunn, and Murray).

[13] To drive this point home, the authors provide a lengthy appendix (pp. 511–523) in which they tabulate and compare the syntactical category labels used in major 20th C grammars (incl. Robertson, Dana & Mantey, Moule, Blass-Debrunner-Funk, Brooks & Winbery, Porter, Young, Wallace, and Black).

[14] As we will see, Mathewson/Emig do precisely the opposite.

[15] Apart from a single table at the end of the chapter (p. 213) that simply sets up the next.

[16] We will cover this more fully in Part Two.

[17] Stanley E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood (Studies in Biblical Greek 1; New York: Peter Lang, 1989). Constantine R. Campbell, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008). Rodney J. Decker, Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark with Reference to Verbal Aspect (Studies in Biblical Greek 10; New York: Peter Lang, 2001).

[18] Buist M. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

[19] I find it puzzling that the authors choose not to use the technical term Aktionsart (mentioned only once, and not even in this chapter). They may have reasons for avoiding it, since the label remains debated, but to fail even to mention it (almost) altogether is a somewhat glaring omission.

[20] E.g., They simply remark in a footnote that the unexpected use of an unaugmented present verb for a past-time situation is “rhetorical, not semantic or syntactical” (p. 261 n 21). But that is precisely the point to be proven, not presupposed.

[21] I find their restrained treatment of conditionals — encouraging students to focus more on context than on simply classifying first, second, and third-class conditionals — to be a breath of fresh air.

[22] Popularized by John Piper (

[23] Denoted the “tab method” by Dr. Bob Cara at RTS-Charlotte. For what it is worth, the present author finds sentence diagramming and arcing to induce sweaty palms and a headache. The “tab method” is far simpler (and, thus, more likely to be used by a busy student or pastor) and, incidentally, seems to be the implicit method of choice for much scholarly research.

[24] They comment further, “Inspiration does not somehow transform the language into something more than it was before” (p. xix)

[25] Unfortunately they fail to define “markedness,” which is not likely a linguistic concept familiar to most of their target audience.

[26] Wallace, Greek Grammar, 72.

[27] E.g., their discussion of πίστις Χριστοῦ is rather short (one paragraph on p. 16; they refuse to pick between objective and subjective) but their discussion (in a later chapter) on accusatives in passive constructions spans multiple pages (pp. 146–148).

[28] Gently rebuking some tendencies to postulate too much “prepositional theology,” they remark, “theology cannot merely be read off of prepositions; it must be derived from larger expressions of thought. Certainly, any important theological concept will be communicated and supported by sentences, paragraphs, and larger units of discourse rather than ‘nuanced’ in prepositions. Prepositions at most allow for, support, or point to important theological teachings; they do not ‘prove’ them or bear these theological concepts” (p. 91–92).

[29] This statement itself is not entirely a fair representation of the landscape of the debate (which is unfortunate for an intermediate-level grammar). Nearly all recent scholars who argue that the Greek verb’s syntax does, to some degree, encode temporal reference nevertheless agree that verbal aspect is prominent and, thus, should also be considered “advocates of verbal aspect” (e.g., Fanning).

[30] Including an excursus on so-called “deponency” (p. 151–152), about which more below.

[31] However, most of their discussions would benefit from more precision in how they describe things; for instance, they regularly use “aorist-tense” but mean “perfective,” and at times they will say “tense/aspect” (as if there is no difference). This is not entirely their fault, for (as we will discuss below) much confusion arises from the standardized use of “tense” as a label for aorist/present/perfect/etc. morphology, even in aspect-prominent systems. Going Deeper makes strides here by more clearly distinguishing “tense-form” (for the morphological labels we are stuck with for now), “tense” proper (location in time), and “aspect “ (perfective, imperfective, stative).

[32] Which is a bit of a peculiar addition since every introductory grammar includes the same material.

[33] The most thorough up-to-date analysis is provided by Steven F. Runge and Christopher J. Fresch (eds.), The Greek Verb Revisited: A Fresh Approach for Biblical Exegesis (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015). This book publishes the papers from a conference held in Cambridge, England, entitled “Linguistics & the Greek Verb” (July 10–11, 2014), which I was privileged to attend. Buist Fanning kicked off the conference with a charitable review of the past two decades of debate with Stan Porter. Interestingly, both Campbell and Porter were noticeable absences.

[34] Roughly “kind of action.” Various proposals have been put forward for a better English technical term to replace the German, but none have stuck. Some scholars (including the authors of Going Deeper, as noted above) avoid the label but capture the same sense by calling this feature “type of action” or something similar. For simplicity we will use the technical label, acknowledging that it is debated.

[35] One of my first-year Greek students is a Bible translator for a Cambodian dialect, and she was delighted to delve into the aspect/tense debate from the outset because her target language is entirely aspectual and has no tense distinctions at all.

[36] Technically the aspect debate was first broached within NT/Greek scholarship years earlier by Mateos and McKay (see a brief overview of the history of aspect theory in D.A. Carson, “An Introduction to the Porter/Fanning Debate,” Pages 18–25 in Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics: Open Questions in Current Research [eds. Stanley E. Porter and D.A. Carson; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993]), but it the Fanning/Porter debate from 1990 onward put it on the map for most scholars.

[37] An unfortunate legacy of applying labels derived from tense-prominent languages (like English) to a non-tense-prominent language like Greek!

[38] Bernard Comrie, Aspect (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 3. Though dated, this short book remains influential, as it studies verbal aspect across numerous languages, with no special preference for Greek.

[39] Fanning, Verbal Aspect, 84–85.

[40] Porter, Verbal Aspect, xi.

[41] Rodney J. Decker, “‘The Poor Man’s Porter’: A Condensation and Summary of Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood (by Stanley E. Porter)” (unpublished paper, October, 1994), 5.

[42] Campbell, Basics, ” 19–20 (emphasis original).

[43] Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer, Going Deeper, 230 (emphasis original).

[44] Mathewson/Emig, Intermediate Greek Grammar, 112 (emphasis original).

[45] Chris Thomson’s contribution to Runge/Fresch, Greek Verb Revisited, has questioned the usefulness of such “spatial” metaphors, but for many students they still have explanatory power.

[46] Fanning, Verbal Aspect, 35.

[47] Note that the dashed arrow with “start” and “finish” is illustrative at this point; we will refine this further when we turn to Aktionsart.

[48] E.g., Campbell denies that “stative” exists and lumps all such verbs into “imperfective”; Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer and Mathewson/Emig treat “stative” as a distinct aspect.

[49] The future remains debated, and many scholars consider it aspectually vague. While Wallace argues tentatively that it offers “an external portrayal, something of a temporal counterpart to the aorist indicative” (Greek Grammar, 566), others argue it is in a class of its own and do not treat it as having any of the aspects (Mathewson/Emig, Intermediate Greek Grammar, 137; Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer, Going Deeper, 230). While acknowledging that firm conclusions are hard to come by, I will include the future in the “perfective category” in what follows, for three reasons: (a) the morphological similarities between the future tense-form and the aorist (discussed below); (b) the temporal futurity (which no one disagrees on) of the future tense-form in itself connotes completeness from the perspective of the speaker/audience for whom the future verbal action is viewed at a distance; (c) instances where a future seems to suggest ongoing action are best explained by appealing to Aktionsart rather than imperfectivity. Here I agree with Wallace (567 n 1) but hold to it lightly (as does he).

[50] Here I agree with Campbell that “verbal aspect in Greek is … a synthetic semantic category. What this means is that aspect is realized in the morphological forms of verbs” (Basics, 20).

[51] Even for athematic (-μι) verbs, though κ-aorists may appear on the surface to be an exception.

[52] Some grammars describe the latter as a “suffix,” but that is not technically correct, since the inflected endings (e.g., 1s/2s/3s, or Case/Number/Gender) are the true “suffixes.” These rules hold true unless, of course, the infix “disappears” due to liquids, square of stops issues, and so forth. Technically the infix is still there, but letter-combination rules have hidden it.

[53] Expanding upon (and revising) that found in Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer, Going Deeper, 232–233.

[54] See a helpful discussion on this re: πορευθέντες in Matt 28:19–20 in Mathewson/Emig, Intermediate Greek Grammar, 214.

[55] Relative time (antecedent, concurrent, subsequent) is sometimes relevant for adverbial participles.

[56] Constantine Campbell, “Verbal Aspect and Aktionsart,” Pages 105–133 in Advances in the Study of Greek: New Insights for Reading the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 114. His recent discussion strikes a helpful tone that avoids unnecessary either-or’s among the various parties (esp. Porter/Fanning). However, I remain unconvinced by his proposal of “remoteness” (another spatial metaphor) to describe the pragmatic feature of temporal reference.

[57] Following the debate further on this point would require us to delve too far into linguistic theory than is likely helpful for this primer. Porter on linguistic grounds rejects a semantic system that cannot account for all the data, so for him the exceptions to normal tense (proper) patterns are unacceptable; Campbell essentially follows suit but is somewhat more flexible. Fanning, on the other hand, is more concerned with actual observed uses rather than cramming everything into a purely theoretical system.

[58] Such an approach draws on insights both from Campbell (who argues that “remoteness” is “semantic [and] normally express[es] temporal reference on the pragmatic level” [“Verbal Aspect,” 115]) and Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer (who argue that the tense-forms do encode aspect and tense [proper] but that the latter can be canceled). Campbell, in other words, seems to affirm that the default values for “remoteness” of the various tense-forms are the same as traditionally understood, though pragmatic considerations can override the default. Thus, the more “friendly” views of Campbell (and Decker) are actually, on close inspection, closer to Fanning et al. than often admitted.

[59] This, of course, would not (and does not) satisfy purists like Porter.

[60] For a helpful summary, see Campbell, “Verbal Aspect.” This is particularly problematic in Mounce’s popular introductory grammar, which regularly describes aspect with words such as “continuous” that are better suited for Aktionsart.

[61] Though I might quibble with his understanding of tense (proper), Campbell’s Basics provides an excellent method for analyzing verbs in the GNT along these three dimensions.

[62] Rodney J. Decker, Reading Koine: An Introduction and Integrated Workbook (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014). Porter’s recent grammar does the same but has been considered far too complex for most introductory students (Stanley F. Porter, Jeffrey T. Reed, and Matthew Brock O’Donnell, Fundamentals of New Testament Greek [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010]).

[63] See his contribution on pedagogy and aspect in Runge/Fresch, Greek Verb Revisited.

[64] Though the verb is never used in the imperfect in the NT or LXX (and only 1x in the perfect across both corpora), a quick TLG search reveals several dozen examples in each tense-form; hence, Paul had other tense-form options at his disposal.

[65] The initial ευ does not lengthen when the past-time prefix (ε) is added because it is a diphthong.

[66] It is also worth noting that the next verse shifts from two present indicatives to another perfect.

[67] “Deponent” comes from the Latin deponere (“shed, remove, take off”).

[68] Neva F. Miller, “A Theory of Deponent Verbs,” Pages 423–30 in Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Eds. Barbara Friberg, Timothy Friberg and Neva F. Miller; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 425.

[69] Mounce, Basics, 152.

[70] Mounce, Basics, 153 (“Actually, the vast majority of middle forms in the New Testament, approximately 75%, are deponent”). Similarly, in his influential intermediate grammar Porter concludes: “The majority of middle voice forms in the Greek of the NT may well be deponent, although there is a surprisingly large number of ambiguous instances” (Idioms, 71); see below, however, where Porter has updated his position.

[71] TLG yields a single aorist active indicative (ἐπόρευσε, possibly for rhyming purposes in Euripides’ Medea). I was unable to identify any aorist middle indicatives (out of 3,300 occurrences), though aorist middle participles are common.

[72] Aorist middle is far less common than aorist passive in the NT/LXX (11 vs. 237), but not in broader Greek usage (see TLG).

[73] A future middle (e.g., χαρεῖμαι) is possible but very rare (0x NT; 2x LXX; <5 in TLG out of 3,800+).

[74] See the passives of δέχομαι in Lev 19:7; 22:23; Sir 35:16.

[75] What follows is a summary of the arguments presented in Köstenberger/Merkle/Plummer, Going Deeper, 196–197; Mathewson/Emig, Intermediate Greek Grammar, 151—152; Constantine R. Campbell, “Deponency and the Middle Voice,” Pages 91–104 in Advances in the Study of Greek: New Insights for Reading the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015); Jonathan T. Pennington, “Is Deponency a Valid Category for Koine Greek?” Presented at the Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics Group, Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, November, 2003; ibid., “Deponency in Koine Greek: The Grammatical Questions and the Lexicographical Dilemma,” Trinity Journal 24 (2003): 55–76; Bernard A. Taylor, “Deponency and Greek Lexicography,” Pages 167–76 in Biblical Greek Language and Lexicography: Essays in Honor of Frederick W. Danker (Eds. Bernard A. Taylor, John A.L. Lee, Peter R. Burton, and Richard E. Whitaker; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004); Miller, “Theory”; Carl W. Conrad, “New Observations on Voice in the Ancient Greek Verb,” Unpublished whitepaper (2002). As many of these scholars have observed, Robertson called into question deponency nearly a century ago (Grammar, 811–812), but many apparently failed to listen.

[76] The converse is also possible: a verb with active morphology taking on a passive meaning.

[77] Which is understandable, given that classical education in times past included instruction in both languages.

[78] As a rough indicator, [vb-active] + ἑαυτοῦ is used about 7x as often as [vb-middle] + ἑαυτοῦ in the GNT (and about 4x as often in the LXX).

[79] Rutger J. Allan, The Middle Voice in Ancient Greek: A Study in Polysemy (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Amsterdam, 2002), 11–12. The dissertation can be found online at

[80] More on this below in §5.

[81] Miller, “Theory,” 427–429.

[82] Mathewson/Emig note, “Most of these verbs probably have middle forms to reflect the semantics of the verb itself: involvement, interest, or participation of the subject in the action. That is, the subject-focused meaning of certain verbs lends itself to middle forms” (Intermediate Greek Grammar, 152). Similarly Campbell comments that voice may be a “pragmatic outworking of the combination of morphology, lexeme, and context. In this way, voice may seen in parallel to Aktionsart” (“Deponency,” 102).

[83] For a longer list, see Pennington, “Deponency,” 64–65.

[84] Taylor, “Deponency,” 171. Chrys Caragounis argues that “the original distinction between the middle and the passive begane to wane after [Attic] times. … The passive [for aorist and future] won owing to … the fact that the passive forms … were more regular and thus easier than the middle forms. … With the triumph of the passive over the middle, the passive endings … evidently came to represent both passive and the middle voices” (The Development of Greek and the New Testament: Morphology, Syntax, Phonology, and Textual Transmission [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006], 153).

[85] “Is Deponency Valid,” 7.

[86] Going Deeper, 197.

[87] Intermediate Greek Grammar, 152.

[88] “New Observations,” 13.

[89] Reading Koine, 252–253.

[90] Updating his view since Idioms (see prior footnote), Porter writes, “In our view, every verb expresses the meaning of its voice form, even when other forms — such as the active voice — may not exist. That is, in interpreting the meaning of a verb form, we should try to understand its voice. Often in English an active-voice translation is used for a Greek middle-voice form … which does not mean that the Greek voice itself has left no nuance of its presence. The Greek middle voice is still being expressed, even if the English translation does not capture its complete sense in Greek” (Porter/Reed/O’Donnell, Fundamentals, 125).