Verbal aspect and the aorist indicative
Having set up some theoretical categories in my first two posts, I’ll now offer a brief introduction to verbal aspect and the aorist indicative. The aorist tense-form is regarded as perfective in aspect. Perfective aspect is like a reporter who describes a street parade from a helicopter. It provides an all-encompassing, or summary, view of an action. This means that the aorist provides an external view of an action. It presents events in summary, from a distance, and does not view the details of how the action took place.
Just because the action is presented in summary does not mean that it happened quickly. Contrary to the beliefs of some, aorists may portray actions that in reality took a long time. Take the example that I mentioned in my last post, from Romans 5:14.
The period of time set by the phrase “from the time of Adam to Moses” indicates that death’s reign occurred over a very long interval. There are many years during which this event took place. This example demonstrates that the use of the aorist does not indicate that an action occurred in an instant. Rather, the event is simply viewed from a distance in summary.
It is important, then, to dispel an old myth about the aorist. The term “punctiliar aorist” is a common one, and refers to one legitimate use of the aorist. Unfortunately some scholars have mistakenly concluded that the term “punctiliar” describes the aorist tense-form in general. They think that the aorist always depicts a punctiliar, once-off, instantaneous action. The aorist in Romans 5:6 is sometimes treated this way in commentaries.
Some commentators write that because an aorist is used here, Romans 5:6 proves that Christ’s death was a once-off event, never to be repeated, and therefore Christ could not be reoffered time and time again in the Roman mass. While not wanting to deny the once-for-all nature of Christ’s death (cf. 1 Peter 3:18), the aorist in Romans 5:6 does not prove the point at all. If we look ahead a few verses, we come to 5:14 (see above), where we see an aorist that plainly depicts death reigning from the time of Adam to Moses. To reiterate, this is not a once-off action. It is not punctiliar.
By understanding that the key meaning of the aorist is to express perfective aspect, we will avoid certain exegetical mistakes, like thinking that all aorists are punctiliar. I would argue that the perfective aspect of the aorist is also more important than the signalling of time. The fact is, not all aorists refer to the past, but I won’t go into that now.
Since the aorist is perfective in aspect, it is capable of a range of Aktionsart functions that flow out of perfective aspect. There are lots of factors that need to be considered when working out what an aorist is doing in the text (see my book for more details), but for now we’ll just look at some key uses of the aorist.
Summary. Aorists often depict a process or action in summary. This means that we are just told that something happened. There’s no indication of how the action took place, or how long it took. This is the most common usage of the aorist indicative, and is a natural expression of perfective aspect.
Punctiliar. Aorists sometimes depict a punctiliar action. This is also a natural expression of perfective aspect. Perfective aspect combines with a punctiliar lexeme to create a punctiliar Aktionsart. A punctiliar lexeme is a word that describes an action that is, by its very nature, once-off and instantaneous, like punch, kick, throw.
Gnomic. Aorists can also depict gnomic actions, which are universal and timeless. A gnomic Aktionsart is created through the combination of perfective aspect and a context in which generic statements are made. Gnomic aorists are not just found in timeless contexts—they are often best translated as present in temporal reference.
There’s much more that could be said about verbal aspect and the aorist, but that’s what the book is for! In my next post, I’ll offer a brief introduction to the present indicative.
Constantine Campbell (Ph.D., Macquarie University) is lecturer in Greek and New Testament at Moore Theological college in Newtown, New South Wales, Australia.