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Aorist, Present, and Sequence (John 15:6)

Gone are the days of thinking the aorist must refer to a past event. Even though it is a default tense, it still has a wider range of meaning than most first-year students of Greek may suspect. I have often pointed out that English tends to see verbs in a row sequentially — verb A happened, then verse B, then verse C — Greek doesn’t and it uses a different mechanism.

By the way, what do I mean “default”? The simple way to look at it is if the speaker wants to state that something happened but doesn't want to be more specific, then the aorist is used. But if it is an imperfective action and the speaker wants to emphasize that it is continuous, then the imperfect tense is used. If the speaker wants to emphasize that the action was completed with ongoing consequences, then the perfect is used. So think of the aorist as the default, tense, and it may mean nothing more than something happened.

However, in our passage, something else is going on, and what should alert the reader is the change in tenses. Jesus says, “If anyone does not abide (μένῃ, present) in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away (ἐβλήθη, aorist) and withers (ἐξηράνθη, aorist); men gather (συνάγουσιν, present) them (αὐτά) and throw (βάλλουσιν, present) them into the fire, and they are burned (καίεται, present).”

One way to view these verbs is to categorize them as gnomic, but then why the shift in tense? In reality, the aorist actions are as continuous as are the present actions. The answer is that the throwing away and the withering happens first, and then the gathering, throwing and burning are sequentially second. To the English year, the actions of the verbs would be understood sequentially, but Greek uses a different mechanism. It puts the first set of actions in the aorist and the second section of actions in the present. That's one way to indicate sequential actions without using an adverb.

There are at least three other things that are also happening in this verse that are helpful to notice. First, ἐξηράνθη (aorist passive) is generally translated as an active even though ξηραίνω is not listed as a deponent. If you check BDAG, you’ll see that several of the definitions contain the idea of “become.” For example, “pass[ive] in act[ive] sense become dry, dry up, wither.” If you don’t have a copy of BDAG where you can peruse the definitions, you need to get one.

Another interesting thing is how translations treat αὐτά. Some are content to just use “them” (NASB, CSB), but that leaves an awkward sentence. “They gather them,” using a personal “them” for the neuter αὐτά. Others supply the antecedent: “the branches” (ESV); “such branches” (NRSV, NIV, NET, NLT).

All translations have to massage the text from time to time to make a sentence understandable., but they are not adding to the text. There is information in the Greek that is lost in the English “them.” The gender of αὐτά is the linkage back to its antecedent κλῆμα, even though κλῆμα is singular and αὐτά is plural. Why the change? An individual person is “like a branch,” but unfortunately there are many branches that wither and are burned.

Meaning trumps first-year grammar.


Professors: Request an exam copy of Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, Fourth Edition, here.

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