The Time Element of Aorist Participles
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
Updated August 2010