Review: The True Theory of the Greek Aorist

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The attention of Christians interested in the study of the Greek Testament is directed to this little pamphlet; especially at a time when some essays on Greek syntax have given a one-sided bias to minds inexperienced in such pursuits. Undoubtedly the rigid rule (“never translate the aorist by ‘have'”) is extremely compendious and would save a world of difficulty. But unhappily it is an error, for there are very frequent cases both in the sacred writings and in profane where the rule fails; and this, for the simple reason that the English preterite is not equivalent to the Greek aorist. The assumption that it is must therefore be, as it is in fact, attended by such an abundance of unquestionable exceptions as to disprove the supposed rule. But there is the less reason to say more now, as the subject has been already handled in these pages.
In the first division of the tract Mr. H. discusses the statements of Buttmann, Donaldson, Jelf, and others. He endeavors to show from the usage of English (where a so-called present may also express past and future, and where a past may express a future), that the Greek aorist, confessedly indefinite, may be something more than is alleged. He seeks to nullify the precise position of modern grammarians by the conclusions of each and all. This however is rather negative criticism; and the question cannot be decided by lively sallies on the one side, any more than by slips or mistakes on the other.
In the second part of the inquiry, Mr. H. asks, What is this inherent power of the aorist? His answer is, that “the aorist tenses were designed as supernumerary tenses to be used for any and all the other tenses according to the taste of the writer.” In support of this the following points are offered:
1. These aorists were first employed in a comparatively advanced stage of the development of the Greek language, the second aorist being more ancient than the first.
2. They have displayed their character by a gradual and eventually an utter extinction of the ancient perfect and pluperfect tenses.
3. It is admitted by authorities that they have been more or less employed instead of all the other tenses.
Euphony and expressiveness, he thinks, may have given birth to the first aorist.
The following eighteen illustrations Mr. H. cites chiefly from the historical books of the New Testament. These I proceed to examine as of interest and importance to the Christian. He wishes to prove that the present, &c, might have fairly done duty instead of the aorist; my aim is to show that the aorist is employed with propriety, even though in some cases another tense might have been used with little or no sensible loss.
7. Matt. 6:1111Give us this day our daily bread. (Matthew 6:11): δὸς (2 aor.), Give us this day our daily bread. Luke 11:33Give us day by day our daily bread. (Luke 11:3): δίδου (pres. mid.), idem.
-12:3: ἀναλογίσασθε (1 aor.), Consider Him that endured.
-7:4: θεωρεῖτε (pres.), Consider how great this man was.
-10:24: κατανοῶμεν (pres.), Let us consider one another.
9. Matt. 21:4646But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet. (Matthew 21:46): καὶ ζητοῦντες αὐτὸν κρατῆσαι, they sought to lay hands on Him.
John 7:3030Then they sought to take him: but no man laid hands on him, because his hour was not yet come. (John 7:30): ἐξήτουν οὖν αὐτὸν πιάσαι, they sought therefore to take Him.
—16:7: ἐπείραξον... πορεύεσθαι, they assayed to go.
Mark 4:33Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: (Mark 4:3): σπεῖραι (1 aor. inf.), idem. So Luke.
17. John 3:3232And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony. (John 3:32): καὶ ὅ ἑώρακε καὶ ἤκουσε, and what he hath seen and heard.
18. John 15:66If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. (John 15:6): ἐὰν μή τις μείν? μείνη iv εμοί, ἐβλήθη ἔξω, if a man abide not in me,' he is cast forth; the future βεβλήσεται would have given the same sense. Farrar, Greek Syntax.
1. It would be strange indeed if the aorist in the first verb, the present in the second, were used with no precise object, seeing that the LXX have thus rendered the prophet; and so it appears in all the synoptic evangelists, who are by no means used merely to repeat their original. To me it seems plain that, while the paths are left for continuous or repeated action in detail, the way of Jehovah is viewed as having been made ready with promptness. The same principle applies to Heb. 13:1313Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. (Hebrews 13:13), and the more strikingly, because the aorists of 12 and 13 are followed by an emphatic use of the present in 14.
2. The disciples were not to be anxious (pr.) as a habit as to food and raiment: a look at the birds, an observation of the lilies, however transient, might well reprove it. They were not to be anxious (aor.) at all, said the Lord—not for the morrow. (Ver. 34.) It is a stronger statement, excluding even a single instance.
3. The phrase of Matthew seems correctly due to ἕως ἄν ἐξέλθητε, which puts a term; whereas Luke's is expressly different and equally exact, καὶ ἐκείθεν ἐξέρχεσθε. Either might be said with truth, but they are not of the same value, and there is no ground for charging with looseness the phraseology of one evangelist more than another.
4. The Lord was still speaking in the Gospel; in the Revelation it is a final warning given peremptorily in each assembly's case.
5. In Luke it is a precise order to the father, and so also singular. In the two first it is more general, as marked in the tense as well as the number.
6. In Matt. 21:22Saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me. (Matthew 21:2) the true reading is probably not πορεύθητε but πορεύεσθε (à, Β, D, L, Ζ, 33, 13, 61, 69,126, 157, 346, Orig. Euseb.), and so the tense is the same as that of ὑπάγετε in Mark and Luke.
7. The aorist for the single act (σήμερον) in Matthew is just as proper as the present for the habit (τὸ καθ' ἡμεραν) in Luke. They could not be interchanged without altering each clause.
8. The two aorists are acts viewed as consummated, or in themselves; the two present as calling for continuous consideration.
9. The effort is rendered more definite in Luke by the use in him only of ἐv αὐτῇ τῇ ὥρᾳ which accounts for ἐξήτησαν there only.
10. The aorist in Heb. 11:2929By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned. (Hebrews 11:29) is strictly correct as being the historical fact. The imperfect in Acts denotes continued or repeated effort in the act.
13. If a sower go forth on his task, it might be said either σπείρειν or σπεῖραι, viewed continuously or as a point; in fact à, D, L, Μ, X, with more than sixty cursives, have σπεΐραι in Matt. 13:33And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; (Matthew 13:3); while in verse 4 of both Gospels ἐν τιῷ σπείρειν is used necessarily because it is a course of action, not an act in itself. Thus we see, even when either might be used, that there are limits.
14. The difference is that the perfect gives vigor to style where it is suitable or desired by presenting the fact with its effects up to the present, the aorist gives the past only. In Luke therefore it should be “have (or, are) ye gone out,” &c.
15. So with the next set: “I am not come to call” represents Luke. ["I have dined,” to use an illustration of our author's, could only be used with propriety of to-day.]
17. I see no reason for doubting here also the distinction between the perfect and the aorist, the former expressing a permanent effect, while the latter does not go beyond the act or circumstance itself.
18. No doubt, in ordinary Greek, the future would as a rule be found in the apodosis; but this does not warrant one to say that the future would have given the same sense as the aorist, or another to infer that the aorist is equivalent to a future, or a present, or a perfect. It seems to my mind that our Lord used what best expressed His mind, and that none but the aorist could here convey with the same force the man cast out who abode not in Him. It may be called rhetorical; but it vividly gives the instant issue, as He saw it, of abandoning Him: other results follow at length, and they are so expressed.
What appears to have misled our author is the difference of idiom. For it is one thing to give a fair English version, another to trace the precise force and shades of difference in the Greek. To suppose that imperfects, aorists, and perfects, can be used indifferently in the same sentence is to destroy the precision of language. To explain why each is used rather than any other is exactly the business of a scholar, not to explain them all away. And in New Testament Greek it must be remembered that the believer in inspiration is entitled to have the assurance that every minute difference is used with divine exactness and with a purpose worthy of Him who wrote it.