Making Sense of Time and the Greek Tenses

The Greek tenses can really be confusing at first. The key, really, is to understand that they don’t mean what English tenses mean. Both the present and the aorist aren’t really indicating the time of the action. They’re indicating the way the speaker is viewing the action, the speaker’s focus in looking at the time, clock, antique, deadline, hours, minutes, schedule, timeraction. This is what we mean by verbal “aspect.” So a present verb focuses on the action as an ongoing process, as repeated, as timeless, or as just beginning. An aorist verb can be used to talk about the same action, but the aorist simply focuses on the action as a whole. That means the aorist tense actually has less distinct meaning. So it’s often the default tense to be used if you don’t need to draw attention to any particular feature of the action. The present tense is the one that adds extra information to a clause, indicating a more specific focus on certain features of the action. In terms of translation, that means that you’ll often use simple English tenses for the aorist, and more complex English expressions for the present:

Aorist Present
word common translation word common translation
εἰπεν “she speaks” λεγει “she is speaking” or “she begins to speak”
δoυναι “to give” διδοναι “to give repeatedly” or “to continue giving”
ἠλθον “they went” ἐρχονται “they were going” or “they often went”

What you’ll notice here is that although we call them “tenses,” the present and aorist don’t actually indicate time. In many cases, the time of the action (present, past) has to be inferred from context. An aorist verb can be used for action in the present, and a present-tense Greek verb can be used for action in the past.

What does generally indicate time is the augment at the beginning of the verb. The augment only shows up on indicative aorist verbs, not on other moods (imperative, infinitive, participles). That’s why indicative aorist verbs like ἠλθον or ἐβλεψα are generally translated with past time, while aorist infinitives like ἐλθειν or βλεψαι are generally translated in present time (or as happening at the time of the main verb). Aorist imperatives like ἐλθετε or βλεψατε similarly are usually translated in present time. Because infinitives and imperatives don’t have the augment, and it’s that augment that really is a past-time indicator. Since the augment indicates past time for those indicative aorist verbs, present indicative verbs are usually translated as present time. In fact there’s another tense (the imperfect) that just adds the augment to the present stem and only appears in the indicative mood, giving us a way for indicative verbs to use “present” aspect, to emphasize that actions as ongoing, repeated, etc., but still signal that the actions happened in past time.

So the upshot of this is that tense (present/aorist) indicates aspect, not time. Only the augment indicates time, and it only shows up in the indicative mood. Even then the augment isn’t an absolutely consistent time marker. You can, for example, have present indicative verbs (without the augment) that express actions in the past. We call this the “historical” use of the present indicative. But your default translation of indicative verbs should follow the presence or absence of the augment when it comes to time.

If you want to dig more deeply into the Greek tenses and verbal aspect, check out my YouTube videos:

  • getting started with verbs: https://youtu.be/GxU0VwfL3aU
  • the aorist tense: https://youtu.be/ZGUDM0ZDElk
  • the imperfect tense: https://youtu.be/Wp-sn-ouQ78
  • the future tense: https://youtu.be/DYAeNSV9JuE
  • the perfect tense: https://youtu.be/dG6ZimEu1fo

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