Stop Doing Latin During Greek!

Like most first-year Greek students, I had deponent verbs drilled into my head during undergrad studies. As we’ve been going over it again, this little gem makes me smile and well illustrates the telephone game nature of teaching:

In Koine Greek there are a number of verbs that do not appear in all three voices. A common pattern is for some verbs to have middle/ passive endings but no active ones. For example, ἔρχομαι occurs with middle/ passive endings, but it did not develop active endings. Another suppletive form, ἦλθον, is used for the aorist of ἔρχομαι.

This phenomenon is often labeled “deponency.” This term comes from the Latin deponere, “to lay aside,” since it was thought that the active endings had been laid aside. But it is not clear that so-called deponent verbs ever had active endings that were later laid aside, whatever this might mean. The traditional explanation of deponency in Greek is that the middle/ passive endings substitute for the active endings of these verbs. Hence, “deponent” verbs are often described as “middle/ passive in form, but active in meaning” (see Dana and Mantey 163; Wallace 428; Mounce 152). However, according to Constantine Campbell, “A paradigm shift is taking place in our understanding of Greek voice, with particular reference to the concept of deponency.”

Early on, A. T. Robertson said that the name “deponent” was “unsatisfactory” (811) and that “it should not be used at all” (332). Some scholars have followed Robertson’s lead and have called into question the legitimacy of deponency as a feature of the Greek voice system for at least two primary reasons.b (1) This label may often reflect the English meaning and translation of these verbs with an active sense, with the attendant conclusion that the middle form must be “active in meaning.” However, just because a middle-voice verb is translated with an active English voice and seems to have active meaning does not mean that semantically the Greek verb is not truly middle in meaning. (2) The appeal to “deponency” is an imposition of a category from Latin (which has no middle voice) on Greek and therefore should be avoided, since there is no evidence that Greek verbs ever had active endings that were “laid aside.” We conclude that the concept of deponency is unnecessary, and what we have traditionally called deponent verbs should be seen as true middles with middle meaning.

Instead of “deponent,” perhaps we should call these “middle-only verbs.” Most of these verbs probably have middle forms to reflect the semantics of the verb itself: involvement, interest, or participation of the subject in the action. That is, the subject-focused meaning of certain verbs lends itself to middle forms. For example, δέχομαι (I receive, I welcome) seems to be inherently reflexive (Wallace 429). The verb ἔρχομαι (I come, I go) is usually touted as a common example of deponency, but it probably retains a middle meaning (movement of oneself in a direction, internal agency). And a verb like ἐργάζομαι (I work) may suggest the notion of acting in one’s own interest. On the other hand, we should probably refrain from analyzing these verbs as if the author were drawing particular attention to or foregrounding the subject, and we should avoid giving too much interpretive weight to these middles, since the author did not have a choice among the full range of voices. Meaning implies choice!

A number of middle-only verbs appear to take passive forms when in the aorist: they end with -θη- and are often incorrectly called “passive deponents” c (e.g., ἀποκρίνομαι becomes ἀποκρίθην, βούλομαι becomes ἐβουλήθην, and πορεύομαι becomes ἐπορεύθην). According to Chrys Caragounis, the passive was overtaking the middle voice, and the passive -θη- endings did double-duty for both the middle and passive voices.d Decker explains these as dual-voice forms.e Whatever the reason, these are not actually “passive deponents” but middle verbs with -θη- endings. When these verbs (such as those mentioned above) occur in the aorist, they take -θη- endings but should be translated and interpreted like any other middle-voice verb. (Mathewson, David L.; Emig, Elodie Ballantine. Intermediate Greek Grammar: Syntax for Students of the New Testament. pp. 126-27.