Your Intro Greek Teacher Was Wrong: deponent verbs don't exist

Where Did The Greek Deponents Go? Answer - they never existed in the first place.

I learned Greek from David Alan Black’s book Learn to Read New Testament Greek. But over the course of teaching introduction to Greek and developing mobile apps to learn Biblical Greek, I have become familiar with all of the major intro Greek grammars and have now written my own too. For your information, Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek remains king, but Black’s grammar remains in heavy usage, followed by Croy’s Biblical Greek Primer. (This is not an official ranking - rather I rank it by the sales of my FlashGreek apps which I think provides a pretty good picture of adoption in the the US)

All three of these top-used grammars teach about the Greek deponent - a verb that is middle/passive in form but active in meaning (*but see my update note at the bottom*). The word most often used as the example in the grammars is ἐρχομαι. Daniel Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (a book the sits open a lot during my study) teaches deponency in this way as well.

Up until over a year ago, I also taught this since I was at the time using Gerald Stevens’ New Testament Greek Primer, and it was even in my initial draft of New Testament Greek Stripped Down. But Tim McLay (editor of my text) pointed out a number of articles to read about deponency. These readings caused me to change my mind on deponency. If you are interested, I recommend the following articles:

  • Pennington, Jonathan T. “Deponency in Koine Greek: the grammatical question and the lexicographical dilemma.” Trinity Journal 24/1 (2003), 55–76.
  • Pennington, Jonathan T. “Setting Aside ‘Deponency’: rediscovering the Greek middle voice in New Testament studies,” Pages 181–203 in Linguist as Pedagogue . 2009.
  • Taylor, Bernard A. “Deponency and Greek Lexicography,” Pages 167–176 in Biblical Greek Language and Lexicography: Essays in Honor of Frederick W. Danker. Edited by Bernard A. Taylor. 2004.

Stanley Porter, many moons ago now in Idioms of New Testament Greek (pgs 70 ff.), had already discussed this issue. This is reflected in his new intro Greek grammar Foundations of New Testament Greek as well as my own grammar. But neither my grammar nor Porter’s grammar are in heavy usage.


What’s the Issue?

As I mentioned, deponent verbs are taught as verbs that are middle in form (i.e. take middle/passive endings) but are active in meaning. This is not actually the case. These verbs identified as deponent actually are middle in meaning – they are regular old middle verbs. But in the process of English translation they sound active. Here is a quote from Porter’s intro Greek grammar:

Some verbs do not have all three voice forms in every tense, and some older grammars label such verbs deponents. Deponency is understood to mean that the middle voice form (or sometimes the passive voice form) performs the function of the active voice, Some grammarians, however, have questioned the category of deponency, as do we. In our view, every verb expresses the meaning of its voice form, even when other forms — such as the active voice — may not exist. That is, in interpreting the meaning of a verb form, we should try to understand its voice. Often in English an active-voice translation is used for a Greek middle-voice form (e.g., “I became/become” translating ἐγενόμην), which does not mean that the Greek voice itself has left no nuance of its presence. The Greek middle voice is still being expressed, even if the English translation does not cap- ture its complete sense in Greek.

What have been identified as deponent verbs are middle verbs after all, the proper designation being lexical middle. They are usually verbs which the subject does to or for oneself - like ἐρχομαι which means “I come/go.” You come or go somewhere based on your own self interest.

So by now you can see the issue. The top used intro Greek grammars teach about deponent verbs, a category of Greek verb that does not actually exist. Only the two most recent intro Greek grammars, which have not been widely adopted, teach (or don’t teach as the case may be) the middle voice properly. Which means that every year, seminaries and colleges continue to churn out students with this understanding. In the grand scheme of things, it is of course a minor point. But one which I and others hope to remedy.

Have any questions? Ask in the comments!


UPDATE: David Alan Black's blog type webpage (June 21st section) mentions my post and notes that I have not fairly represented him. He does use the term deponency, but nuances it. I take your correction Dr. Black! And thanks for your textbook – it is the textbook I learned Greek from!


photo credit: Kim Scarborough via photopin cc
Posted by Danny Zacharias.
Posted on June 2, 2014 and filed under Biblical Studies.