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Verbal Systems and Stems: Active, Aorist, Perfect

The Greek verbal world is divided up into three systems, called present, aorist, and perfect. Each of these systems has a distinctive stem that indicates which system a verb belongs to.

Whenever you learn a verb in Greek, you must make absolutely sure that you learn both the present stem of that verb and also the aorist stem of that verb. The perfect system is much less important in Biblical Greek, so you should definitely concentrate your attention on the present system and on the aorist system. Learning the perfect stem is less important, since in general perfect stems can be easily recognized (unlike the present and aorist stems, which generally must be memorized).

The present system, aorist system and perfect system are based on differences in the aspect of the Greek verbs. Aspect is the quality of the action, not its sequence in time.

So always remember: aspect and tense (time) are not the same thing! When a Greek verb is built on the present stem, it is not necessarily in the present tense! The present is a quality of action - not a time. And when a Greek verb is built on the aorist stem, it is not necessarily in the past tense! The aorist is a quality of action - not a time.

Here are some general notes about how you can try to understand the meaning of aspect, although the only way to really learn this is from reading Greek... from reading lots of Greek.

Present aspect. Present aspect is like watching a movie or video. The present stem shows you the action as it unfolds. The present aspect emphasizes the process of the verbal action as you watch it happening. Think about the present stem as ongoing action.

Aorist aspect. Aorist aspect is like a photograph, a single snapshot image. The aorist stem simply indicates verbal action. There is no emphasis on the process of the action unfolding. The aorist is the most neutral aspect. Think about the aorist stem as action.

Perfect aspect. The perfect aspect calls attention to the completion of the action. When you see a perfect stem, you are dealing with action that has been completed, or with the consequences of that completed action. Think about the perfect stem as completed action.

What you need to focus on is getting a "feel" for the different stems. If you speak a Slavic language, this is easy for you - because the entire Slavic verbal system (in Russian, Polish, etc.) is built on aspect, much as it is in Greek. If you are an English speaker, you are just going to have to meditate on this. You are probably never going to be able to translate Greek aspect into English words... but you can learn to experience Greek aspect by letting go of English and thinking about the world in a new way.

Remember: your goal here is probably not to translate the Bible into English - that's been done already, for better or worse. Your goal instead should be to experience the meaning of the Bible in Greek... and verbal aspect is a tremendously important component of that experience. So rather than thinking about how to translate these verbs into English, look instead at how they interact with each other in the Greek text. As a writer goes back and forth between using present, aorist and perfect verbs, see if you can tell what meaning he wants to convey by this choice of verb. This means you will have something to ask yourself with every Greek sentence that you read, since every sentence contains a verb... and every verb can teach you something about the meaning of aspect in Greek.

Biblical Greek Online. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one. Page last updated: April 9, 2005 8:06 PM

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