NTGreek.org Blog | Biblical Greek Tidbits, Info, and Answers to Questions

Question: Our pastor used to teach us that the action of the aorist participle precedes the action of the main verb; is this right or am I confused?

Thank you for your question. As stated elsewhere, Greek has been called a participle-loving language. I have argued that no one can really understand biblical Greek unless they understand participles; so, taking up this question is a worthwhile endeavor and I commend you for it.

Let me start of by saying that this is an excellent question about (what can be) a confusing topic; but it is crucial to understand the answer to this question if we are to gain a deeper understand of Greek grammar (and the New Testament). The answer requires some explanation of a few different topics and then should become clear. (Although you may understand many of these points, I am writing this for a larger audience that may not be familiar with these issues.)

Preliminary Items to Understand:

First of all, it is important to understand what a participle is and how it relates to a finite verb. As stated elsewhere on this website, a participle is a verbal adjective; as such, it often modifies a finite verb. A participle is a non-finite verbal form.

The verbal concept of “tense” in Greek embodies two different elements, “time” and “kind of action“. “Time”, of course, means past, present, or future; just as in English. “Kind of action” refers to whether the action is continuous, a simple occurrence, or a completed action. (Anyone wanting to read about this more can see: http://www.ntgreek.org/learn_nt_greek/inter-tense.htm )

The element of “time” in a Greek verb is only prevalent and primary if the verb is in the indicative mood. (Please read that last sentence again and think about it; it is the key to understand time in the Greek verb system.) Only a finite verb can be in the indicative mood (or in any verbal mood). Being a non-finite verbal form, a participle does not have “verbal mood”. (And thus, of course, cannot be in the indicative mood.) Therefore, the matter of “time” is only a secondary consideration with a participle. The primary element of tense for verbs outside the indicative mood (including participles) is “kind of action”.

Summary of Above Items: So, based on the above paragraphs: the participle is outside the indicative mood and thus its tense refers to the participle’s “kind of action”; time is only a secondary consideration. Thus a present participle does not mean something happening in present time; a present participle is describing continuous-type action (regardless if when that action happened; past, present, or future.) Likewise, an aorist participle does not *necessarily* refer to an action that happened in past time; it refers to action described as a “simple occurrence”, regardless of the time in which it happened. (I know that is not what you asked, but I wanted to state that clearly here.) We are now half way to our answer; one more concept needs to be discussed.

Classification of Participles: In your endeavor to understand a Greek passage, I urge you to classify or categorize every single occurrence of a participle you read (and in my second year Greek classes I require this). I have created a chart to help in this task; it can be found here: http://www.ntgreek.org/pdf/adverbial_participles.pdf

Participles can fall into a number of broad categories of use, acting as an adjective or as an adverb. If the participle is not acting as an adjective, then it may be adverbial (modifying a finite verb). (The adverbial use of the participle is described on the first page of the Classification of Participles chart listed above.)

An aorist participle can be used as an Attendant Circumstance or as a number of different Adverbial uses, such as Temporal, Means, Conditional, Causal, and Concessional, as well as others. In many of these uses, the action of the aorist participle does *not* take place before that of the main verb. However, when it is used as a Temporal Adverbial participle, then the time element of the participle’s “tense” is more prominent than with most of the other uses of the participle (where the “kind of action” may be more important). In this case, you can say that the action of the aorist participle precedes that of the main verb. (However, please note that if the main verb is also in the aorist tense, then the modifying aorist participle may indicate contemporaneous time.)

The Temporal Use of the Participle – Bottom-Line Answer: If there is a Temporal use of an aorist adverbial participle (as described in *Wallace, pp. 623-627), then (and only then) can we truly say that the action of an aorist participle precedes that of the main (finite) verb that the participle is modifying. (A present temporal use would indicate action contemporaneous with the finite verb, and a future temporal use would indicate subsequent action from the main verb.)

* Reference: Wallace, Daniel B. (1996). Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An exegetical syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, Michigan

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One of the unique and helpful resources that you will find on NTGreek.org is the page of “Quick Reference Sheets” for various Greek grammatical topics. This page lists documents that are in PDF format and are meant to be printed out (or otherwise available for quick reference) and kept handy as you are reading or studying a Greek passage of scripture.

These sheets are meant to help you quickly identify or differentiate some of the exegetically significant grammatical classifications of various parts of speech. For instance, knowing the type and meaning of a certain participle or the use of the genitive case in a passage can make a significant difference in the meaning of the passage.

Some of the sheets point out the structural elements used to form various grammatical structures, such as when dealing with conditional sentences or various uses of the subjunctive mood. They will give both clues to identifying a grammatical element, a short explanation of what it means, and some examples of where it is used.

One of my favorite sheets is the one that helps a person identify the type of participle used in the passage. Greek is a participle-loving language; without understanding Greek participles a person cannot really understand Greek. The quick reference sheet “Classification of Adverbial Participles” is two pages and lists all possible adverbial participles (based on Daniel Wallace’s classification).

I created most of these sheets when I was teaching advanced (2nd year) Greek. I would require my students to identify every use of a participle, subjunctive mood, conditional sentences, etc. These sheets came in very handy for quickly identifying these aspects of the language and thus helped students learn Greek more easily. When doing in-depth analysis of any passage, I encourage you to keep these quick reference sheets at hand!

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Preparing to Learn Elementary Greek

I have been asked by a number of people about the best way to prepare for taking a beginning Biblical Greek class. I would like to address two areas in answering this question: your attitude and some practical steps of preparation before your class starts.

Attitude and Commitment

A large part of your success in learning Greek will have to do with your attitude and commitment. Having a long-term commitment to learn a little bit each day will be more profitable than trying to start out at a sprint and eventually having to drop out of the race. I have heard it said that, “Learning Greek is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.” This is true, but I feel it may be more accurate to say that, “Learning Greek is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent repetition and reiteration.” The repetition of a few vocabulary words and verb charts each day will be much more profitable than trying to cram for a quiz each week or so. In other words, the long-term commitment to learn a little bit every day is what is critical. Greek will prove to be much less difficult of a language if you are persistent!

Please also realize that learning is a continuum. Even after studying Greek for 10 years, people may refer to you as “knowing Greek”, but your realization will probably be, “I know it better than I did a few years ago, but I am still in the process of learning.” The same will be true after one year or even six months of elementary Greek. Be encouraged with how much you do learn; don’t be discouraged by how much you have yet to learn!

Technical Terminology (Grammar)

There are some practical things you can learn now which will help prepare you for what you will encounter in your first year of Greek. One area that challenges many people during a beginning language course is what I will refer to as “technical terminology”. Every field of specialty has its own particular set of vocabulary to refer to its elements. This terminology helps to save time in talking about aspects of the subject and enables one to have the ability to more accurately define and communicate technical details. For instance, in the medical field, I would have more confidence in a surgeon that asks a nurse for a scalpel, than in one that asks for “that sharp thing-a-ma-jiggy over there”. Technical vocabulary plays an important role in any field of specialty. The same is true with learning a language. The technical vocabulary of learning Greek is “grammatical terminology.” (And you thought that your Jr. High English grammar would never come back to haunt you!) Understanding the meaning of English grammatical terms (such as “noun”, “pronoun”, “verb”, “infinitive”, and “participle”) will greatly enhance your ability to comprehend the same (or corresponding) ideas in Greek. Whether or not you know the meaning of these terms now, you certainly will need to know them by the time you finish your first year of Greek. I hope that the “perfect passive participle” will become your good friend! I have often said that I learned English grammar when I studied Latin and Greek.

There are a number of ways that you can go about learning these terms and thus have a head start on your beginning Greek class. I have found a small book entitled, “Essential English Grammar” (by Philip Gucker, ISBN 0-486-21649-7). It’s a book that is directed toward the adult learner. The beauty of this book is its short and concise definitions, its “Dictionary of Grammatical Terms”, the exercises (and corresponding answers) found at the back of each chapter, and its inexpensive price. (Last I checked, retail was about $5.) If you learn and understand Part 1 of this small book (through page 85), you will have a good basic understanding of English grammar and be well prepared for the grammar you will need to master in your beginning Greek class.

Another way to help learn Greek (and English) grammatical terms is by using the “New Testament Greek” web site (http://www.ntgreek.org/). There you will find a page that lists all grammatical terms used on the site. It attempts to explain these grammatical terms in simple English and to give Biblical examples, applied to Greek where appropriate. [From the main web page, go to “Learn Greek” and then see the link for “List of All Terms.”] (As an alternative to this, see the section entitled “A Further Head Start for You Ambitious Ones” below.)

The Greek Alphabet

Another item that can cause difficulty for the beginning student during the first few days of Greek class is the task of learning the Greek alphabet. This is usually assigned to be done in the first week (if not on the first day). The Greek alphabet is similar to the English alphabet but there are enough differences to create a challenge, especially when trying to master it during the first week of class. I suggest that you try to get a jump on learning the Greek alphabet. If you know what beginning Greek book you will be learning from, then you should probably buy that book and use it to help you learn the alphabet. If you don’t know what book you will be using (or have a few extra dollars and want another great resource for beginning Greek), then I highly suggest you get “Greek for the Rest of Us” by William D. Mounce (or alternatively “A New Testament Greek Primer” by S.M. Baugh or “Teach Yourself New Testament Greek” by Ian Macnair). I mention these books because they teach you all the skills you need to know about the Greek alphabet without needing the aid of a teacher (such as relative letter height and how you produce the handwritten form of each letter.)

You should be able to say the alphabet (i.e. to pronounce each letter in order) and know the sound it makes. You should also be able to recognize each letter in printed form and, if you are able, you should also learn how to write each letter. So, there are four skills you need to acquire: (1) say the alphabet in order, (2) recognize the printed letter, (3) know the sound each letter makes, and (4) be able to write the letters. If you have limited time, you should at least learn the first two of these skills.

A Further Head Start for You Ambitious Ones

There is a fantastic little book entitled, “Greek for the Rest of Us” by William D. Mounce (subtitled, “Mastering Bible Study without Mastering Biblical Languages”). I highly recommend this book for anyone that wants to understand Greek so that they can understand the Bible. If you are planning on going on to study Greek (and want a great jumpstart) or just want to learn enough Greek to do word studies and understand biblical commentaries, then this book is a must. It will take you through all the basic Greek terminology, tell you about some great Bible study methods, help you choose appropriate Bible versions and commentaries, and help build a framework for understanding Biblical Greek.


Thus with a proper attitude, the resolve to make a long term commitment to learn Greek, and some time of preparation, you will be well on your way to a profitable first year of learning New Testament Greek (and probably struggle much less than if you did not do this preparation). The journey you are preparing to embark upon may not always seem exciting, but the benefits gained by making this commitment of your time and resources can be invaluable to your knowledge of God’s Word and to your contribution in furthering His Kingdom.

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Dear Readers of NTGreek.org,
I wanted to inform you that I have decided to use a blog (found at http://blog.ntgreek.org) instead of the bulk email service to communicate with those interested in NTGreek.org. (The older NTGreek email address at ChristianEmailService seems to have been stolen by spammers.) I trust this blog will prove to be a more convenient and secure method of communication than using bulk email.  

There are a couple ways to keep updated with the content posted on NTGreek.org. (1) The least effective method is to periodically visit the blog to see if there have been new posts. (2) The best way is to subscribe to the NTGreek.org blog site so that new posts will automatically be downloaded and available to you. Subscribing to the blog is done by clicking on the “RSS” link on the blog page; you can “subscribe” to have new blogs sent to your blog reader (like MS Outlook or another RSS reader). See the bottom of this post for some suggestions (and links to more information) if you are familiar with this process.

Besides answering new questions about Biblical Greek, my plan is to take some of the information (including the questions and answers) already on NTGreek.org, and put it into this blog format. I think this will make this information more easily accessible for the long run.

Please let me know if you have any questions about this. You can email me at corey at ntgreek dot org. Thanks, Corey Keating 

The blog address is http://blog.ntgreek.org 

Information on Subscribing to Blogs via RSS:
(I can’t vouch for all these sites other than they appear to provide some good information and clear directions.)

Using Internet Explorer as RSS Reader: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/RSS/default.mspx

MS Outlook 2007 as RSS Reader: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/outlook/HA012304631033.aspx
Using Older Versions of MS Outlook
: http://www.online-tech-tips.com/ms-office-tips/how-to-view-and-read-rss-feeds-in-outlook-2000xp2003-and-outlook-express/ 

Using a Generic RSS Reader to Subscribe to Blog:

If this does not do it for you, try typing your question in Google.com

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