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Hellenistic Greek © 2010
Lesson 20: The Middle Voice,
The Aorist Middle

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The Lesson at a Glance

Middle Voice

Ancient Greek had a set of voice forms that English does not. We call these the middle voice. When the Greek middle voice verb form is used, the subject of the verb is seen as acting upon itself or for its own benefit. 

Both of the sentences below could be expressed using a middle voice verb form in Greek.

John bought himself a new car.
Jane accepted the offer.

Lexical Middle Voice

Some verbs do not have active voice forms. These verbs are traditionally called "deponent" (defective). You will see in this lesson that many of them are in fact not defective, but simply have a meaning that is better expressed through the middle voice form than the active voice.

Verbs whose lexical form ends in -ομαι are called "lexical middles" in this grammar.

Transitivity

The following two meanings of run contrast in terms of transitivity.

James runs his buisiness well

This meaning of run is transitive. It represents something you do to something.

James runs to school

This meaning of run is intransitive. While James runs to school, run is not something he does to the school. His running does not affect the school.

Transitive verbs have direct objects. Intransitive verbs do not.


Grammatical Discussion

The voice of a verb indicates the role that its grammatical subject plays in relation to the action or state of being expressed by the verb. The middle voice is used mainly to imply that the subject benefits or suffers directly from the action expressed by the verb. It is often the case, though not always, that the subject also represents the cause of that action.

ἀπενίψατο τὰς χεῖρας
He washed his hands (Matthew 27:24)
ἐπαύσαντο
They stopped (Luke 8:24)
οὐκ ἐνεδύσατο ἱμάτιον
He wore no garment (Luke 8:27)
He was naked
διεμερίσαντο τὰ ἱμάτιά μου ἑαυτοῖς
They divided my clothes among themselves (John 19:24, quoted from Psalm 22:18, Psalm 21:19 in the LXX)

Understanding and Translating the Middle Voice

Many English-speaking students find the middle voice difficult to understand because English does not have a middle voice verb form. Where Ancient Greek used the middle voice, we often use an active voice verb and sometimes, but not always, a reflexive pronoun (one of the -self pronouns as discussed below).

To know how to translate middle voice forms, English speakers must understand the possible functions of these forms. Grammarians have traditionally distinguished between at least three main functions or usages of the Greek middle voice: reflexive, reciprocal, and "intensive" (non-reflexive, non-reciprocal).

Do you notice a similarity with the passive voice? We will see later that the traditional distinction between middle and passive voice forms for the aorist is problematic. As the course proceeds you will become more comfortable in recognizing when to translate these forms as middle and when as passive. For now, concentrate on learning the meaning of the middle voice and the verb forms traditionally called middle.

What unifies all three of these functions is the notion that the subject of the verb expresses the recipient or beneficiary of the action expresseed by the verb.

English Reflexives and the Greek Middle Voice

Consider the following English sentences:

PuppyShe bought a puppy
She bought herself a puppy
She bought her a puppy

Why is it that in the sentence "She bought herself a puppy" we understand that the word "herself" refers to the same person as "she," the subject of the sentence, but in the sentence "She bought her a puppy" we do not infer that "her" and "she" refer to the same person?

When we speak, we do not usually think about grammatical patterns. We just use them. This is the way it works with any language. Studying the patterns does help us, though, when we are learning a language without being able to hear it all day every day.

In this course, learning the patterns of grammar will enable you to understand why native speakers of ancient Greek understood the language the way they did.

We understand the sentences in this way because of a simple pattern in English grammar: If the subject of a sentence represents the same person as a word in the predicate portion of the same sentence, then that word in the predicate is replaced by an appropriate pronoun ending in -self (a reflexive pronoun).

In the sentence "She bought her a puppy," we do not assume that the pronoun her refers to the same person as the subject, since if it did, the author would have written herself instead of her.

While Hellenistic Greek, like English, had reflexive pronouns that could be used in this way, it also had a verb form that could accomplished this same purpose and much more. It signaled to the listener or reader that the subject of a sentence represents in some sense the benefactor of the action expressed by the verb. This could be accomplished simply by using the middle voice form of the verb. No pronoun was necessary. 

Many English sentences that have a reflexive pronoun, could be expressed in Hellenistic Greek without a pronoun by using the middle voice, but the Greek middle voice was also used in other ways. For this reason, you cannot assume that a middle voice verb in Greek should be translated as a reflexive clause in English.

Greek Middle Voice Plurals and English Reflexive and Reciprocal Usage

When the subject of a sentence is identified directly with a noun or noun phrase in the predicate portion of a sentence, Linguistics call the usage "reflexive."

Jessica patted herself on the back [for making a 100 on the Greek test].

When the subject is plural, however, there is more than one way we could see the the relationship between the subject and the noun or noun phrase in the predicate. The sentence could be about a group of people each of whom acts for his or her own benefit, in which case we call the usage reflexive, or a group in which each member acts for the benefit of another member, in which case we call the usage reciprocal.

Reflexive

The guests served themselves.

English reflexives use pronouns with -self. or -selves.

Reciprocal

The bride and groom served each other some wedding cake.
The students congratulated one another [for learning the middle voice].

English reciprocals use each other or one another.

In most languages a single argument cannot represent two different semantic roles such as AGENT and PATIENT. In Ancient Greek, however, the middle voice makes this possible.

Because this is not possible in English, we must insert a reflexive or reciprocal pronoun when translating middle voice forms that project dual semantic roles for their subject—even if no reflexive pronoun is present in Greek.

In Hellenistic Greek, both reflexive and reciprocal statements could be communicated by using the middle voice verb form, but because these functions require different forms in English, these usages are not translated the same way. Observe the following examples:

Reflexive

ἐθερμαίνοντο


And they warmed themselves (John 18:18)

Reciprocal

οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβήτεροι. . . συνεβουλεύσαντο


The chief priests and the elders. . . consulted one another (Matthew 26:3—4)

In Greek, the context usually makes it clear whether a plural middle voice form should be understood as reflexive or reciprocal.

Most Common Middle Voice Usage

Most middle voice verbs are neither reflexive nor reciprocal. Here the subject is presented as acting alone, of its own accord, or for its own benefit, yet without being identified with the object of the action expressed by the verb. The subject represents the AGENT, but not the PATIENT in these instances. Observe the following examples:

εἵλατο ὑμᾶς ὁ θεός
God chose you (2 Thessalonians 2:13)

Here “chose” translates an aorist middle form (2nd aor. mid. of αἰρέω, choose). Paul uses the middle voice to express the view that God chose the people for God's own reasons, not to suggest that God is the one chosen. The presence of ὑμᾶς ("you"), functioning as the direct object, means this clause cannot be reflexive. Θεός represents the AGENT (the one doing the choosing), but not the PATIENT (the person or thing chosen).

[ὁ Ἰησοῦς] ἥψατο τῆς χειρὸς αὐτῆς
And [Jesus] touched her hand (Matthew 8:15)

“Touched” translates an aorist middle form (of ἅπτω, touch, grasp). Matthew uses the middle voice to portray Jesus as acting alone, and of his own accord: He alone healed Peter's mother-in-law whose hand he touched. Here again, the presence of a direct object (τῆς χειρὸς αὐτῆς, her hand) means the usage cannot be reflexive.

This is the most natural and frequent use of the middle voice. Only in very appropriate contexts should it be understood and translated as reflexive.

Lexical Middles (Traditionally called Deponent)

Some verbs do not have active voice forms. These are listed in the lexicon and in the vocabulary lists in this grammar with the present middle voice ending -ομαι. Such verbs have traditionally been called deponent (defective). This is an unfortunate term since there is nothing defective about these verbs. Their meaning is simply well suited for the Greek middle voice or the passive voice, so they do not need Greek active voice forms.

The verb ἔρχομαι does have active voice forms in the aorist. In the present, though, it never does. Its meaning does not prevent if from having active voice forms, it just makes their absence easy to understand.

You have already learned the verb ἔρχομαι (I come, go), for example. It has no active voice forms in the present tense. Still, its translation into English is clearly active voice.

Since the person who goes somewhere is also the person who benefits or suffers directly from that action, it is easy to see how this verb could have only middle voice forms in some tenses in Greek.

The English verbs, "come" and "go" share an important element of meaning:

James goes to class.
James comes to class.

In these sentences, James is both the person who performs the action expressed by the verb and the person who benefits (or suffers) from it. This fits well with the Greek middle voice, and Greek verbs that share this argument structure sometimes lack active voice forms.

The vocabulary list for this lesson contains a list of eight lexical middles that occur more than one hundred times each in the New Testament. You should learn these verbs well. Notice that while they have middle voice forms, their translation is active.

When learning vocabulary it is always important to notice which ending the form in the vocabulary list has. Most verbs are listed with active voice endings. One listed with a middle voice ending is a lexical middle. Learn which verbs are lexical middles, since this information will be needed for understanding and translating Hellenistic Greek.

When you encounter an unknown verb with a middle voice form in your readings, you should assume that it is not a lexical middle. If you do not recognize the verb as a lexical middle, make sure your translation indicates that the subject in some sense benefits from or suffers from the action indicated by the verb. If this is not possible, look the verb up to see if it is a lexical middle.

Transitivity

Many verbs that lack active voice forms in Greek would be extremely awkward, if not impossible, to translate into English as anything other than active. The reason for this difficulty is sometimes a difference in the way English and Greek represent transitivity.

Another way of defining transitive is to say transitive verbs assign a semantic role such as AGENT or PATIENT to more than one noun or pronoun obligatorially, but the specifics of this definition will have to wait till a more advanced lesson.

A transitive verb is one that has an object in the active voice.


Subject

Verb

Object


I

ate

dinner

An intransitive verb does not have an object in any voice.


Subject

Verb

Object


Birds

fly


Of course some verbs can be used as either transitive ("I ate dinner") or intransitive ("I ate").

English uses active voice forms to express intransitive verbs. In fact, making a verb passive will automatically make it transitive in English.


Example Sentence


Transitivity (and Voice)


Laurie sang.


Intransitive (Active)


[The song] was sung by Laurie.


Transitive (Passive)

In Ancient Greek, however, some verbs are lexical middles: they appear as middle even if they are intransitive—even when they have no object and assign only one semantic role. If these verbs are intransitive, their English translations must have an active voice form.


παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα

Aorist Middle


They came to Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1)

Active translation


ἐπορεύθησαν εἰς Θεσσαλονίκην

Aorist Passive


He went to Thessalonica (2 Timothy 4:10)

Active translation


Formation of the Aorist Middle

The aorist and imperfect middle indicative are formed using an augment (ε) plus the verb stem, a connecting vowel (or σ plus connecting vowel), then the secondary middle endings. Study the examples below.


Augment

Stem

Connecting Vowel (and Aspect Formative)

First
Person
Suffix

Full Form

English Gloss
1st Aorist

παυ

σά

μην

ἐπαυσάμην

I stopped
2nd Aorist


γεν

ό

μην

ἐγενόμην

I was
Imperfect


πορευ

ό

μην

ἐπορευόμην

I was going

As you will see later, the imperfect uses the same stem as the present, but the 2nd aorist does not. For this reason, the 2nd aorist and imperfect can never be identical, even though they use the same augment, connecting vowel, and personal endings.

Notice that the 1st aorist has its characteristic σ before the connecting vowel (α). The 2nd aorist and imperfect use ο as the connecting vowel.

The Secondary Middle Endings

The basic suffixes (endings) for the aorist and imperfect middle are those traditionally called the secondary middle endings. They appear as follows:

Person

Singular

English Gloss

Plural

English Gloss

First

-μην

I

-μεθα

we

Second

-σο* (ω or ου)

you

-σθε

you

Third

-το

she, he, it

-ντο

they

*When the second person singular ending (-σο) is preceded immediately by a connecting vowel (ο or α),  the σ becomes intervocalic (between two vowels). In such situations, it is omitted, and the connecting vowel contracts with the ο in the ending (α + ο = ω; ο + ο = ου). You will see later that the σ is not omitted if the preceding vowel is part of the verb stem, as is the case with μι conjugation verbs.

1st Aorist Middle Indicative


Singular

English Singular Gloss

Plural

English Plural Gloss

1st Person

ἐπαυσάμην

I stopped

ἐπαυσάμεθα

We stopped

2nd Person

ἐπαύσω

You stopped

ἐπαύσασθε

You stopped

3rd Person

ἐπαύσατο

She stopped, He stopped, It stopped

ἐπαύσαντο

They stopped

Practice Recognizing 1st Aorist Middle Forms.

2nd Aorist Middle Indicative


Singular

English Singular Gloss

Plural

English Plural Gloss

1st Person

γενόμην

I was

γενόμεθα

We were

2nd Person

γένου

You were

γένεσθε

You were

3rd Person

γένετο

She was, He was, It was

γένοντο

They were

Because γίνομαι is intransitive, and its English translation is also intransitive, the usual sense of the middle voice is lost.

As is the case with a number of other Greek intransitive verbs, γίνομαι has no active voice forms and has traditionally been called "deponent." In this grammar, we refer to such verbs simply as lexical middles. That is, their lexical form is middle voice.

Practice Recognizing 2nd Aorist Middle Forms.

Vocabulary

Study the words in this list, complete the guided reading and translation activity that follows this vocabulary list, then return to the list to see how many forms you recognize.


39

ἅπτω, ________, ἡψάμην

I touch, hold, grasp (always middle voice in this sense); I ignite, light (a lamp)

33

ἀρνέομαι, ἀρνήσομαι, ἠρνησάμην

I deny (something); I reject (something or someone)

8

ἐπιλανθάνομαι, ________, ἐπελαθόμην

I forget

23

περιβάλλω, περιβαλῶ, περιέβαλον

I dress (someone or something), I put (clothes) on (someone); (mid.) I wear, get dressed

52

σπείρω,
________, ἔσπειρα

I sow (seeds)




New Intransitive Verbs. The following verbs do not occur with direct objects. English uses the active voice with intransitive verbs, so these verbs are translated as active, even when the Greek text has the middle voice.

669

γίνομαι, γενήσομαι, ἐγενόμην

I am; I become, come into being; (3rd person only) It happens


The aorist middle indicative of γίνομαι appears 233 times in the New Testament. Learn it well.

15

παύω, παύσομαι, ἐπαυσάμην

I stop, cease




Lexical Middles Occurring More than 100 Times in the Greek New Testament. Notice that while the present tense (lexical form) of these verbs is middle voice, in several cases, the aorist form is not. You have seen some of these verbs before. Review them now.

231

ἀποκρίνομαι, _______, ἀπεκρινάμην

I answer

669

γίνομαι, γενήσομαι, ἐγενόμην

I am; I become, come into being; (3rd person only) It happens
(See above under "Intransitive Verbs.")

209

δύναμαι, δυνήσομαι, ________

I can; I am able to

Notice that the present tense form of δύναμαι ends with -αμαι rather than ομαι. You will learn later that the α is a part of the stem of δύναμαι, and the ending is actually -μαι.

631

ἔρχομαι, ἐλεύσομαι, ἤλθον

I come, I go
(See lesson 12.)

116

ἀπέρχομαι, ἀπελεύσομαι, ἀπήλθον

I leave, go away, depart, go
(See lesson 12.)

194

εἰσέρχομαι, εἰσελεύσομαι, εἰσήλθον

I go in, go into, come in, come into, enter
(See lesson 12.)

218

ἐξέρχομαι, ἐξελεύσομαι, ἐξήλθον

I leave, go out, come out, depart
(See lesson 12.)

150

πορεύομαι, πορεύσομαι, _________

I go, travel, proceed




More Review

427

ἀκούω, ἀκούσω, ἤκουσα

I hear, listen to, learn, obey, understand
(See lessons 8 and 9.)

108

ἀνίστημι, ἀναστήσω, ἀνέστησα

I raise
(See lesson 14.)

86

ἄρχω, ἄρξω, ἤρξα

I begin, start (middle voice); I rule (active voice)
(See lessons 8 and 9.)


Notice that ἄρχω has a different meaning in the middle voice from the one it has in the active voice. You learned the active voice meaning earlier. The aorist middle appears 60 times in the New Testament. Learn it well. The middle voice meaning of this verb is intransitive, so it's English translation must be active voice, even though the Greek form is middle.

1318

λέγω, ἐρῶ, εἶπον

I say, speak, tell, ask, answer
(See lessons 12 and 17.)

79

πέμπω, πέμψω, ἔπεμψα

I send
(See lessons 9 and 18.)

568

ποιέω, ποιήσω, ἐποίησα

I do, make
(See lesson 12.)





Reading and Translation

1. οἱ μαθηταὶ. . . ἐπελάθοντο ἄρτους λαβεῖν
The disciples. . . forgot to bring bread (Matthew 16:5)

The verb ἐπιλανθάνομαι (aor. ἐπελαθόμην) appears only in the middle voice. Can you see why? When one forgets, who is directly impacted by that? There is nothing defective (deponent) about this verb. The middle voice form just reflects its meaning extremely well.

What voice is the verb περιέβαλον in number 2?

2. [πορφύρα = purple]
ἱμάτιον πορφυροῦν περιέβαλον αὐτόν
They put a purple robe on him
They dressed him in a purple robe (John 19:2)

Can you tell why the verb περιεβάλετο is middle voice in this sentence? Why did the author not write περιέβαλον?

3. [ὡς = as, like; οὐδέ = not even; Notice the difference between ἕν (the number one) and the preposition ἐν.]

οὐδὲ Σολομὼν ἐν πάσῃ τῇ δόξῃ αὐτοῦ περιεβάλετο ὡς ἕν τούτων.
Even Solomon in all his glory did not dress like one of these.

4. Matthew's Gospel includes a story about Peter at the time of Jesus' trials, in which Peter is confronted by a young girl in the crowd. She asserts that he is a disciples of Jesus. Then we find the following sentence. [ἔμπροσθεν = in front of]
ὁ δὲ ἠρνήσατο ἔμπροσθεν πάντων
But he denied [it] in front of everyone (Matthew 26:70)

The verb ἀρνέομαι (aor. ἠρνησάμην) never appears in the active voice. Do you see why? When you deny or reject something, you are making a statement about yourself—your beliefs, your allegiences, etc. When you report that someone else denied something, you are saying that person made a statement about him- or herself. There is nothing defective (deponent) about this verb. The middle voice just fits its meaning very well.

Notice that συνεβουλεύσαντο is plural in the text to the left, making a reciprocal interpretation possible.

5. [συμβουλεύω = advise, give counsel]
συνεβουλεύσαντο
They advised one another
They took counsel together (Matthew 26:4)

Intransitive Verbs

Remember that with intransitive verbs, the English translation is always active voice, even if the Greek text has a middle voice verb.

6. ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς κηρύσσειν
Jesus began to teach (Matthew 4:17)

7. [γαλήνη = stillness, calm (especially of the sea)]
Luke tells of a time when Jesus was on the Sea of Galilee with his disciples when a great storm came along. He says Jesus spoke to the wind and the water, and...
ἐπαύσαντο καὶ ἐγένετο γαλήνη
They stopped, and there was calm.

8. Καὶ ἐξῆλθον οἱ Φαρισαῖοι
And the Pharisees came (Mark 8:11)

9. [συζητέω (σύν + ζητέω) = I argue, I question]
ἤρξαντο συζητεῖν
They began to argue
They began to question (Mark 8:11)

10. Καὶ ἐξῆλθον οἱ Φαρισαῖοι καὶ ἤρξαντο συζητεῖν αὐτῷ
And the Pharisees came and began to argue with him
And the Pharisees came and began to question him (Mark 8:11)

Lexical Middles

11. Ὁ δὲ [Ἰησοῦς] ἀπεκρίνατο αὐτοῖς
And Jesus answered them (John 5:17)

12. [ὑμεῖς = you (nom. pl.); προδότης = traitor; φονεύς = murderer]
ὑμεῖς προδόται καὶ φονεῖς ἐγένεσθε
You have become traitors and murderers (Acts 7:52)

13. [λευκός = white]
τὰ δὲ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο λευκὰ ὡς τὸ φῶς.
His garments were white as light
His garments became white as light (Matthew 17:2)

While the Greek text of Matthew 7:28 follows good, normal Hellenistic Greek style, the English translations provided do not follow good English style. They are overly wordy. The same meaning is communicated better as: "When Jesus finished saying these things. . . ." This translation, though, leaves the word ἐγένετο untranslated. This Greek verb is often used where good English demands no verb at all. In such places, it should be left untranslated. No meaning is lost by omitting it in these cases.

14. [τελέω = I finish; ὄτε = when]
Καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τοὺς λόγους τούτους. . .
And it happened when Jesus finished [saying] these things. . .
And it came about when Jesus finished these words. . . (Matthew 7:28)

15. Καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν ἐκείναις ταῖς ἡμέραις ἦλθεν Ἰησοῦς ἀπὸ Ναζαρὲτ τῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ ἐβαπτίσθη εἰς τὸν Ἰορδάνην ὑπὸ Ἰςάννου.
And [it happened] in those days [that] Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John (Mark 1:9).

Compare numbers 16 and 17. One uses a singular middle form. The other uses a plural passive form. Yet the only difference in their meaning is the number. This issue will be discussed in the next lesson.

16. [ὕδωρ, ὕδατος = water; ὑμᾶς = you (plural, accusative case)]
ἀπεκρίνατο. . . ὁ Ἰωάννης· ἐγὼ. . . ὕδατι βαπτίζω ὑμᾶς
John answered. . . : I baptize you with water (Luke 3:16)

17. ἀπεκρίθησαν αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ. . .
His disciples answered him. . .

In this clause from Luke 16:12, is Jesus speaking to one person or more than one? Can you tell from the form of ἐγένεσθε? If not, review the middle voice endings listed above.

18. πιστοὶ οὐκ ἐγένεσθε
You were not trustworthy
You were not faithful (Luke 16:12)


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