GREEK VERB TENSES (Intermediate Discussion)

"No element of Greek language is of more importance to the student of the New Testament than the matter of tense. A variation in meaning exhibited by the use of a particular tense will often dissolve what appears to be an embarrassing difficulty, or reveal a gleam of truth which will thrill the heart with delight and inspiration. Though it is an intricate and difficult subject, no phase of Greek grammar offers a fuller reward. The benefits are to be reaped only when one has invested sufficient time and diligence to obtain an insight into the idiomatic use of tense in the Greek language and an appreciation of the finer distinctions in force." (Dana & Mantey, pgs 176-7). These comments by Dana and Mantey are to be taken seriously if the student of the New Testament desires to get any benefit from the study of Greek; this is an area that offers much reward. Never neglect to notice the tense of each Greek verb and note its significance and bearing upon the meaning of each passage.

In English, and in most other languages, the tense of the verb mainly refers to the 'time' of the action of the verb (present, past, or future time). In Greek, however, although time does bear upon the meaning of tense, the primary consideration of the tense of the verb is not time, but rather the 'kind of action' that the verb portrays. The most important element in Greek tense is kind of action; time is regarded as a secondary element. For this reason, many grammarians have adopted the German word 'aktionsart' (kind of action) to be able to more easily refer to this phenomenon of Greek verbs.

The kind of action (aktionsart) of a Greek verb will generally fall into one of three categories:
1) Continuous (or ‘Progressive’) kind of action.
2) Completed (or ‘Accomplished’) kind of action, with continuing results.
3) Simple occurrence, (or ‘Summary occurrence’) without reference to the question of progress. (This is sometimes referred to as 'Punctiliar' kind of action , but it is a misnomer to thus imply that, in every instance, the action only happened at one point of time. This can be true, but it is often dependent on other factors such as the meaning of the verb, other words in the context, etc.).

It is an important distinction to understand, as discussed below, that the only place in which 'time' comes to bear directly upon the tense of a verb is when the verb is in the indicative mood. In all other moods and uses the aktionsart of the verb tense should be seen as primary.

See the chart below for a brief summary of the kind of action shown by each Greek verb tense and its corresponding time of action when it occurs in the indicative mood:

Kind of Action and Time of Action for Each Verb Tense

Tense Name

Kind of Action

Time Element (In Indicative Mood)


Progressive (or 'Continuous')



Simple (or ‘Summary’) Occurrence



Completed, with Results

past, with present results


Progressive (or 'Continuous')



Simple Occurrence


Past Perfect

Completed, with Results


Future Perfect

Completed, with Results


Aktionsart versus Time

The 'time' aspect of the tense of a verb really only comes into affect when the verb is in the indicative mood. When a verb is outside of the indicative mood, then the aktionsart (‘kind of action’) of the tense is usually emphasized and should be carefully noted, and its bearing upon the passage should be considered. (In referring to 'verbs outside of the indicative mood' in this context, it means both actual finite verbs in the imperative, subjunctive, and optative moods, and participles (verbal adjectives) and infinitives (verbal nouns)). The participle may have temporal significance in relation to the time of the finite verb in the sentence. See the section on participles for a discussion of this aspect.

For instance, outside of the indicative mood it is often customary to use the tense that implies a 'simple occurrence', the aorist tense. The aorist places no emphasis on the progress of the action, but only shows a simple occurrence (or summary occurrence), the action viewed as a whole. If the writer does not wish to emphasize or focus on the progress of the verb's action (whether continuous or completed) he will use the aorist tense. The term 'aorist' means 'unspecified' or 'unlimited'. It signifies nothing as to the progression or completeness of an action, it just indicates 'happenedness' or simple occurrence. If one has the mistaken concept that aorist tense means past time, many passages of the New Testament will be very confusing if not altogether nonsensical. (Only in the indicative mood does the aorist indicate past time). Many times the action of a verb in the aorist subjunctive or aorist imperative forms, for instance, will actually take place at a future time, not a past time.

For example, in Matthew 14:29, when Jesus was walking on the water, He told Peter "Come", which is in the aorist imperative form in Greek. Although Jesus used a verb in the aorist tense, He surely was not telling Peter to come at some time in the past, as 'came' would indicate; but He was telling him to do something at the present time. If Jesus would have desired to put some special emphasis on the progress of Peter's coming to Him, He could have said "Be coming" in the present imperative. Since the present tense indicates progressive or continuous kind of action, using the present would have indicated something to the affect that each and every step Peter took would have been a task or accomplishment in itself. This is one of the many examples which show that outside of the indicative mood, oftentimes the aorist tense is used (although the present tense is used quite frequently also). The diligent seeker of New Testament truth will take careful note of this most crucial aspect of Greek verb usage. 

An Overview of Aktionsart with Time with the Different Tenses

If the writer is referring to an action that happened in past time, he could refer to it as either progressive (by using the imperfect tense) or as merely a simple occurrence, with no emphasis on the action's progress (by using the aorist tense).

For action happening at the present time, only the 'present tense' is available. Whether the writer is wishing in any particular instance to emphasis the progressive aspect of the verb or just indicate a simple occurrence at the present time, there is only one choice of tense to use. Therefore, one must consider the context and the basic meaning of the verb to determine whether the emphasis is on the continuous aspect of the action or merely on the present time element. It may be that no real emphasis on progressive action is intended but, for a statement requiring the element of present time, there is no choice but to use the 'present tense'. (Of course outside the indicative mood the emphasis almost certainly will be on the progressive element of the verb, since the aorist tense could readily be employed).

The future tense is mainly found in the indicative mood and therefore primarily refers to the future time. Since the future tense functions very much like a potential mood (because the action is only as of yet conceived), there is no reference to the progress of the action. In this sense the aktionsart of the future tense closely resembles that of the aorist, being merely a simple occurrence.

The perfect tense has to do with the completed progress of an action and its corresponding finished results. That is, it shows a present state of affairs (from the writer’s perspective), based upon an action in past time (when using the indicative mood). There is no tense in English that has this same meaning. Oftentimes the student of English will fail to realize the importance of the perfect tense and will tend to blend it with the aorist in translation. This is mainly due to English idiom and the customary practice of translating the Greek perfect as the English perfect. This can be a big mistake and can blur the point or emphasis of a New Testament passage. Since the perfect tense is used less frequently than other tenses, it is exegetically more significant. When it does occur, there is usually a definite and deliberate reason it was chosen by the writer. The emphasis may be on the culmination of the action's progress or on the resulting state of affairs brought about by the action.

The aktionsart of the past perfect (pluperfect) is the same as in the perfect tense. The difference is that it refers to this 'completed' condition at some time in the past. It may seem strange, based upon the foregoing discussion of aktionsart versus time, to define his tense as something that happened in past time. This is due to the fact that the pluperfect is used exclusively in the indicative mood - thus the past time element - and the discussion of the perfect tense explains the aktionsart of the past perfect also. The use of the pluperfect is rare in the New Testament.

The explanation of the future perfect (which 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. Its use is also very rare in the New Testament.

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