Basics of Biblical Greek

To properly understand the Bible, knowledge of the original language is helpful to gaining the proper meaning of the text. While I am no Greek scholar, I post this here for quick reference.

Number and Person: Before discussing tense, voice, and mood, it is first necessary to have an understanding of person and number.

  1. Person: This is what determines whether
    1. The subject is the speaker (first person)
    2. The subject s being spoken to (second person)
    3. The subject is being spoken about (third person)
  2. Number: This is what determines whether a verb is singular or plural.
 

Number

Singular

Plural

Person

First

I

We

Second

You

Y’all

Third

He, She, It

They

Tense: Tense plays a very crucial role in the study of New Testament exegesis. Dana and Mantey understood its significance in saying that “no element of the Greek language is of more importance to the student of the New Testament than the matter of tense” Tense deals both with time and kind of action. Ancient Greek focused more on kind of action; however, time does play a role in verb tense when the mood is indicative.

The aspect of a verb correlates with the kind of action. It determines whether the verb’s action is punctiliar, linear or perfected. These are described in the following table.

Punctiliar:   The action relates to a specific point in time.
Linear:

—————

The action is in the progress of occurring.
Perfected:

Results

The action is both punctiliar and linear in that it refers to action relating to a point in time, yet has results that are in the progress of occurring.
  1. The Present Tense: The present tense usually denotes continuous kind of action. It shows ‘action in progress’ or ‘a state of persistence.’ When used in the indicative mood, the present tense denotes action taking place or going on in the present time. The continuous present is usually translated as “I am following” while the undefined is best translated as “I follow.” Another example: “In Whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in spirit.” (Ephesians 2:22) or “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.” (Hebrews 10:25).
  2. The Imperfect Tense: The imperfect tense shows continuous or linear action just like the present tense. It always indicates an action continually or repeatedly happening in past time. It portrays the action as going on for some extended period of time in the past. This is best translated as “I was following.” Another example: “For you were once darkness, but now light in the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:8).
  3.  The Aorist Tense: This tense is hardly a tense at all. The aorist is said to be “simple occurrence” or “summary occurrence,” without regard for the amount of time taken to accomplish the action. This tense is also often referred to as the “punctiliar” tense. Punctiliar in this sense means “viewed as a single, collective whole,” a “one-point-in-time” action, although it may actually take place over a period of time. The word aoristos derives from an alpha privative (ie. negation) and the verb horizô (meaning “to bound”) thus meaning “without boundaries.” With the indicative mood it is often best translated as a simple past: “I follow.” Another example: “God…made us alive together with Christ.” (Ephesians 2:5) or “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6).
  4. The Future Tense: This tense generally denotes action that will occur in the future. This is best translated as “I will follow.” Another example: “We know that if he is manifested, we will be like Him, for we will see Him even as He is.” (1 John 3:2).
  5. The Perfect Tense: The basic thought of the perfect tense is that the progress of an action has been completed and the results of the action are continuing on, in full effect. In other words, the progress of the action has reached its culmination and the finished results are now in existence. Unlike the English perfect, which indicates a completed past action, the Greek perfect tense indicates the continuation and present state of a completed past action. The perfect is often translated as “I have followed.” Another example, Galatians 2:20 should be translated, “I am in a present state of having been crucified with Christ,” indicating that not only was I crucified with Christ in the past, but I am existing now in that present condition, or “…having been rooted and grounded in love,” (Ephesians 3:17).
  6. The Pluperfect Tense: The pluperfect (‘past perfect’) shows action that is complete and existed at some time in the past, (the past time being indicated by the context). This tense is only found in the indicative mood and is rarely used in the New Testament. Both the completed action and the results of that action occur in the past. The usual translation for the pluperfect is “I had followed.” Or another example: “…and they beat against that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.” (Matthew 7:25).
  7. The Future Perfect: There is also a future perfect tense in Greek which is very rare in the New Testament. It is only formed by periphrasis in the New Testament is much like the past perfect, only the completed state will exist at some time in the future rather than in the past.

Voice: Biblical Greek has three voices which indicate whether the subject is the performer of the action or the recipient of the action, active, middle, and passive:

  1. The Active Voice: This occurs when the action of the verb is being performed by the subject. If the subject of the sentence is executing the action, then the verb is referred to as being in the active voice. For example: “Jesus was baptizing the people” (paraphrase of John 3:22; 4:1,2). “Jesus” is the subject of the sentence and is the one that is performing the action of the verb; therefore the verb is said to be in the “Active Voice.”
  2. The Middle Voice: When the subject of the verb does action unto itself, or for its own benefit, the middle voice is used.  In overly simplistic terms, sometimes the middle form of the verb could be translated as “the performer of the action actually acting upon himself” (reflexive action). For example: “I am washing myself.” “I” is the subject of the sentence (performing the action of the verb) and yet “I” am also receiving the action of the verb. Many instances in the Greek are not this obvious and cannot be translated this literally.
  3. The Passive Voice: The passive represents the action of the verb being done unto the subject but not by the subject. If the subject of the sentence is being acted upon, then the verb is referred to as being in the passive voice. For example: “Jesus … was baptized by John in the Jordan” (Mark 1:9). “Jesus” is the subject of the sentence, but in this case He is being acted upon (i.e. He is the recipient of the action), therefore the verb is said to be in the “Passive Voice.”

Mood: There are four moods in Greek. They demonstrate the relationship between the action of the verb and reality. They denote whether the action is factual, potential, wishful, or a command.

  1. The Indicative Mood: The indicative mood is a statement of fact or an actual occurrence from the writer’s or speaker’s perspective. Even if the writer is lying, he may state the action as if it is a fact, and thus the verb would be in the indicative mood. It may be action occurring in past, present, or future time. This “statement of fact” can even be made with a negative adverb modifying the verb. This is the mood of assertion or presentation of certainty. The indicative mood is the only one to give designation concerning time (past, present, and future). The majority of all verbs used in the New Testament occur in the indicative mood. The writer/speaker may desire or ask for the action to take place. For example: “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 12:11) or “God is not mocked.” (Galatians 6:7)
  2. The Subjunctive Mood: The subjunctive mood indicates probability, desirability, or objective possibility. The action of the verb will possibly happen, depending on certain objective factors or circumstances. It is oftentimes used in conditional statements (like, “If… then…” clauses) or in purpose clauses. But if the subjunctive mood is used in a purpose or result clause, then the action should not be thought of as a possible result, but should be viewed as a definite outcome that will happen as a result of another stated action. For example: “Let us come forward to the Holy of Holies with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” (Hebrews 10:23) or “In order that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known through the church…” (Ephesians 3:10)
  3. The Optative Mood: The optative is the mood of possibility and has relatively few appearances in the New Testament because (by the time the New Testament was written, the subjunctive has taken over some of the classical usages of it). Some of its usages include, a wish/prayer or a potential statement. The optative is two steps away from reality whereas the subjunctive is only one step away. For example: “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23)
  4. The Imperative Mood: The imperative mood is a command or instruction given to the hearer, charging the hearer to carry out or perform a certain action. For example: “Flee youthful lusts.” (2 Timothy 2:22)

Infinitive: An infinitive is a verb that can be used to function as a noun and is therefore referred to as a “verbal noun.” An example may be, “to follow.” Neither person nor number is found in the infinitive and it does not have mood designation. The Greek infinitive is the form of the verb that is usually translated into English with the word “to” attached to it, often used to complement another verb. For instance, “For to me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21), the words “to live” are an infinitive in Greek and are functioning as the subject of the sentence (a noun).

Participle: A participle is considered a “verbal adjective.” It is often a word that ends with an “-ing” in English (such as “following,” “speaking,” “going,” or “seeing”). It can be used as an adjective, in that it can modify a noun (or substitute as a noun), or it can be used as an adverb and further explain or define the action of a verb. For example:
In an adjectival use: “The coming One will come and will not delay.” (Hebrews 10:37) or in an adverbial use: “But speaking truth in love, we may grow up into Him in all things.” (Ephesians 4:15).

Read more from William D. Mounce and Blue Letter Bible and NTGreek.org

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