Paul Himes, «The Use of the Aorist Imperative in the Pastoral Epistles», Vol. 23 (2010) 73-92
In light of recent developments in the study of Koine Greek, this paper proposes to examine the difference between the aorist imperative and the present imperative in the Pastoral Epistles. The first section of the paper surveys the various scholarly positions on the imperative mood (including the prohibitory aorist subjunctive). The second portion of this paper examines every use of the aorist imperative and the aorist prohibitory subjunctive in the Pastoral Epistles, while the third section draws some conclusions based on this analysis. This paper concludes that the aorist tense should be regarded as the default, generic tense (but not necessarily the “background tense” as verbal aspect theory argues), and that its only significance lies in its insignificance. In contrast, however, the present tense does seem to possess a durative/habitual sense.
90 Paul Himes
Secondly, it is difficult to see how the aorist imperative (both positive
and prohibitory) would necessarily be more “solemn” or “crisp” than the
present. In 2 Tim 4,1-5, for example, the solemnity of the occasion is
marked not by the use of the aorist imperative but rather by the weighty
διαμαρτύρομαι ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ that begins the
entire section66. Indeed, the present here (“be sober-minded”) has just as
much a right to “solemnity” as the other imperatives! Boyer makes an
excellent point when he argues that to claim the aorist is more intense
or urgent is to “glamorize the aorist.” Indeed, “it is contrary to the basic
significance of the aorist to make it special in anyway”67. Any sense of
urgency or “ crispness” would come not from the tense of the verb but
from the inherent meaning(s) of that particular verb.
Thirdly, it would seem best to reject any interpretation of the aorist
imperative that necessarily calls for punctiliar action as opposed to other
kinds of action. While Heidt’s observations may fit for some passages, they
do not fit for all or even for Koine Greek in general. Matt 3,3 (“prepare
the way of the Lord,” ESV); Matt 5,16 (“let your light shine”); 1 Cor
6,20 (“so glorify God in your body”); LXX Gen 16,9 (“humble yourself
under her hands”; this writer’s own translation)68; and Prov 7,2 (“guard
my commandments”; this writer’s own translation) are some of many
examples where clearly a “one-time” action is not in view.
Yet the general consensus on the present imperative, that it usually
has a durative force, seems to be accurate. Out of the 68 occurrences of
a present imperative in the Pastorals, every one can easily be understood
in a durative sense, with the possible exceptions of 1 Tim 5,9 and 5,19
(5,17 is not a problem because it involves more than one elder; the others,
by contrast, involve a singular noun and thus might indicate a one-time
action). Ultimately, then, the present imperative would seem to possess
aktionsart in that the speaker or writer desires continuous or habitual
action. If indeed it is more than just a matter of style, one may posit
that the present imperative distinguishes itself from the aorist due to its
durative, habitual, or continual sense.
What, then, are we to make of the aorist? This writer would suggest
applying Stagg’s and others’ observations to the imperative just as much as
to the indicative. The aorist imperative and aorist prohibitory subjunctive
See W. A. Richards, Difference and Distance in Post-Pauline Christianity (Studies
in Biblical Literature; New York, 2002) 117, who calls this section of the verse a “solemn
charge... calling on God and Christ Jesus, the coming judge, as witnesses to the responsibil-
ity the sender is now laying on the recipient.”
Boyer, “Imperatives” 45.
Though the aorist imperative immediately prior could indeed be viewed as punctiliar.