37. The Greek Middle Voice

Tom Hamilton

The importance of the Greek Middle voice in our understanding of the New Testament writings has perhaps not yet been fully realised. This is because if languages change, and govern our ability to think and express thought, then our ability to both express certain linguistic aspects of New Testament Greek in up-to-date English, and therefore to maintain subtle distinctions in textual meaning for readers to understand, could be affected by such a language change. There are many examples of this even in modern languages, where subtle distinctions in a foreign language cannot be properly expressed in English and so are lost.

As we don’t have a Middle Voice in English, we find it hard to conceive of anything which is not either Active or Passive, whereas the richness of the Greek at the time of the New Testament allowed for far greater expression in the voicing of the verb, so communicating subtleties in meaning which Paul’s readers, for example, would have understood but which we would easily miss (and so misunderstand) by not having the suitable language to express.

Things which Paul and Peter (e.g. 2 Pet 3:16) termed as being “hard to be understood” (and to be put into words – 1 Cor 2:13) demand our utmost precision in translation in order to maintain the subtle distinctions which affect either our understanding or misunderstanding of important truths such as, for example, the nature of our involvement in our own salvation (which has been at the centre of many debates in church history). It is such a truth the Middle Voice throws essential light upon.

History of the Middle Voice

In ancient Greek there were only two voices – Active and Middle. This developed into three voices -Active, Middle and Passive (which were in use at the time of the New Testament writings). Latterly, the Middle Voice was dropped, leaving Active and Passive, with only a remnant of the Middle Voice. (This is more-or-less the same voicing as in English).

The Significance and Meaning of the Greek Middle Voice

Consider the following two examples


A) I am helped by God B) God helps me (neither saying anything about my own feelings or involvement in the matter) C) I let myself be helped by God or I get help from God or I go to God to get Him to help me


A) I serve a meal (to you) B) I am served a meal (by you) C) I have myself served a meal (by you, but with my instigation)

The aspect of the voicing of the verb in a language is very important because it tells us about the vital role of the subject of the verb. In the examples above, the third sentence in each example (C) gives us a subtle shade of meaning away from passive and active which, although can be expressed in English, can only be expressed with many words and in a clumsy sort of way. In the Middle Voice, it is contained within the verb itself, and can be expressed with much more subtlety.

The general distinction between the three voices, Active, Middle and Passive is as follows:-

Active – The subject acts

Passive – The subject is acted upon (sometimes the “agent” of the verb action is mentioned, sometimes not)

Middle – The subject is acting in relation to itself (as with the Passive voice, there is often an agent who is “doing” the verb action, but this agent is not necessarily mentioned, although sometimes is implied or would have been understood by the original reader.)

Problems in translation

History has not left us an ‘original grammar’ of the New Testament which can explain to us the finer details, so we are left in a position of having to make educated guesses. In addition to this, the English language has difficulty in expressing the distinction between both the Middle and Active and the Middle and Passive voices. The fact that the Greek language possessed such a Middle Voice, however, and the fact that the writers of the New Testament (particularly Paul) chose to use it as distinct from the Active and Passive voices, shows that an absence of such a capability of expressing the Middle Voice is a problem to say the least.

In choosing to use the Middle Voice as distinct from sometimes the Active and sometimes the Passive voice, however, the writers have shown to us that they wished to convey a meaning which preserved a distinction between a totally active subject, and a totally passive one. Such a distinction is absolutely essential to our understanding of the New Testament, for without it we are left struggling, for example, with a lot of imperatives given by Paul which we find sometimes out of character with his insistence and emphasis upon our total dependence upon God and the necessity of the work of grace in the power and operation of the Spirit.

The Middle Voice indicates that the subject is active, but only in relation to himself/herself. What this relation is the Middle Voice does not say. Sometimes the subject is more-or-less passive (but not completely) and sometimes more-or-less active (but not completely). Between these two lie many different shades of meaning, and these have been expressed by some New Testament grammarians in terms such as – the direct middle, indirect middle, reciprocal middle, deponent middle, reflexive middle, causative middle, and others. Whatever terms we can give these different shades of middle voice, however, there are clearly distinctions from verse to verse, and I suggest only the following can tell us this distinction:-

1. The context (both general and specific)

2. The meaning of the verb itself

3. Comparing with other scriptures The following examples will serve to exemplify the importance of maintaining the distinction created by the New Testament writers’ use of the Middle Voice. ‘L2’ will, in these examples, refer to English.

EXAMPLE 1 – (Romans 4:20)

Here, in this verse, we are told that Abraham “was strong in faith, giving glory to God.”

The usual translations indicate a strength in Abraham (by use of the adjective “strong”). In the Greek, however, the verb ENDUNAMO is used, meaning to “infuse strength into something”. It is found in the middle voice, and some would term it an example of a “reflexive middle”. This would give it the meaning that Abraham “strengthened himself in faith”, leaving Abraham playing a very “active” part in the strengthening of his faith. However, such a rendering would have been possible by the use of an Active verb together with a reflexive pronoun. So whether a reflexive middle exists could be open to debate.

We may thus reject such an “active” rendering, but neither was Abraham merely “passive” in the relationship. Relationships can never be totally passive. Abraham was certainly involved and was active in certain respects. However, his activity was always in complete harmony with his dependence upon God Himself. This, perhaps, is our key to understanding what was meant here in the use of the Middle Voice – a dependent and a needful, but not a completely passive Abraham.

How can we adequately translate this verse? Firstly, the word “faith” in the Greek is in the dative case. This has two possibilities. Was it Abraham’s faith that was strengthened? Or was it the instrument used in the strengthening of Abraham? (i.e., was it “strengthened in faith”, or “strengthened by faith”. Faith, in Eph 2.8, is God’s instrument whereby He saves us by grace). Secondly, how do we express Abraham’s own role in relation to this process of strengthening? We know it was not either totally active or passive. I suggest, with our limited L2 equivalent language, the following two possibilities:-

“Abraham had himself strengthened with respect to his faith” or “Abraham had himself strengthened by faith”

(In each case, a weak and dependent Abraham).

EXAMPLE 2 – (Eph 6:10-18)

“Finally brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the full armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”

The again very reflexive translation of the Middle Voice in these verses leaves this verse too with a very “active” meaning. The armour of God here is portrayed as being available and at the believer’s disposal. There were, however, armourbearers in those days, and David himself was clothed in Saul’s armour, so the ‘agent’ of the verb’s action is not necessarily the subject. Here, again, an active verb coupled with a reflexive pronoun could have been used to convey the meaning as it is popularly given (“put on” – verse 11, ENDUSASTHE).

I suggest that, a meaning closer to the passive is more accurate.

“Have yourself clothed with the full armour of God” (in other words, “get your armour from Him”).

Paul, in this passage, chose to use the middle voice in seven of the verbs, indicating the important but subtle distinction in meaning away from the active voice. There was an urgency, but not one which Paul intended to cause the believers to turn to themselves, but to the Lord out of relationship. The genitive “of God” here, could also be a genitive of source, i.e., that the armour comes from Him.

In this same passage (verse 10), the imperative middle ENDUNAMOUSTHE is used again (like in the previous verse with Abraham), and should be translated:-

“Have yourselves strengthened in the Lord” or perhaps

“Have yourselves made strong by the Lord”

but not

“Be strong in the Lord…” which implies an adjective (which is not there in the Greek).

EXAMPLE 3 – (Romans ch 12:1-2)

“I beseech you, therefore, brethren, that you…. and be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds …”

The two verbs, SUSCHEEMATIDZESTHE and METAMORPHOUSTHE are both significant. The first means. to mould after something, and the second means to change form, also being found in the book of Galatians (ch 5). In this latter passage, Paul says that he “travails in birth again”, until Christ “be formed” in them. The verb here, is from the same root verb. It signifies an outward transformation to become the same as an inward reality. The Galatian Christians, “bewitched” as Paul describes it, by permitting the leaven of legalism into their midst, had unwittingly hindered the work of grace which was transforming them (lit “transfiguring” them, meaning “to change outward form”) into the image of Christ within them. Not only that, but they had lost the evidence of the Spirit in their midst and the miraculous signs accompanying it.

The verb of our focus, here, MORPHOOMAI, signifies an inward transformation becoming an outward one, whereas the former verb, signifies a conformation or moulding, or pressure from without. The former indicates a natural or easy transformation, the latter a conformation as a result of pressure, a “squeezing” effect.

The question here, is how we can adequately translate into L2 the middle voice imperative. The use of it here, signifies some sort of yielding or letting involved which has not been conveyed in our translations. There is, in each verb, a recognition called for in the believers, by the use of the Imperative. In the first, a recognition of an outward form of pressure, and in the second an inward reality which could transform them outwardly by the “making new” (Gk ANAKAINOSIS meaning new in respect of quality) of their minds. The one, the former, they were to stop and no longer yield to, and the other, the latter, they were to recognise and to yield themselves to.

Perhaps we could translate it as follows:-

“Don’t yield yourselves to be moulded after the fashion of this world, but instead yield yourselves to having your outward form transformed, which will lead to a manifestation of what is within you, by the fact that your minds will be renewed.”

Thus, in this example from Romans, we have given the translation a more “active” meaning, for the believers were not totally passive, but were involved in the verb’s action, even though the actual conformation, in each case, was not being effected by themselves. This “recognition” and involvement in the verb’s action (whether by yielding, presenting, letting, seeking for or to “have done”) is very frequently contained in the meaning of the Greek Middle Voice. It gives a subtle shade of meaning which is vital to our correct understanding of many passages in the New Testament. Consider the following examples:-

EXAMPLE 4 – (Galatians 1:10)

“I marvel that you are so soon removed from Him who called you into the grace of Christ unto a different gospel” The verb construction “are removed”’ here, METATITHEMI, is not passive, but Middle, and should be translated as “are allowing yourselves to be taken away from…”. Here again, the believers, in paying heed to the teachers who were misguiding them, were playing a part in their own defection from the grace of Christ, and so were a part to blame.

EXAMPLE 5 – (Galatians 5:7)

“Who hindered you that you should not obey the truth” This, in the same book as our previous example, is another example where the word “obey” is not an accurate portrayal of the Galatian’s involvement in the verb’s action.

The verb PEITHESTHAI, a present middle infinitive, means to yield trust. There had been a correspondence over a certain period of time between Paul and the Galatians. The subject was the gospel. Gradually, as with Abraham, there had been developed a trust or persuasion, and a yielding to the grace of God which the gospel has for its object. The teachers whose influence the Galatians had yielded themselves to, had interfered with and hindered this correspondence by which they were gradually, like Abraham, becoming fully-persuaded by the truth.

Perhaps we could translate this verse as follows:- “Who hindered you from allowing yourselves to become fully persuaded by the truth”.

EXAMPLE 6 – (Colossians 1:5,6)

In our final example, we have a good illustration of a “causative” Middle Voice. The subject here, is the “word of the truth of the gospel” (verse 5 onwards), which the Colossians had heard, and which had come to them, as it had “in all the world” (vs6).

Paul’s focus, here, is not the “vehicle” of the word, but the “coming” of the word itself. The picture is clearly one of Isaiah 55, where God Himself has sent forth the Word out of His own mouth, which has gone and will never return to Him void. Its purpose is to bring forth fruit. It will accomplish that for which it was sent, and therefore that for which it had come to the Colossians. Paul says it “brings forth fruit and increases, even as it does also in you from the day you heard it and knew (recognised) the grace of God in truth”.

These two verbs, KARPOPHOROUMENON and AUXANOMENON are both present middle participles. The present middle participle signifies an effect which goes on, continuing as long as it is uninterrupted. The Middle Voice signifies that it has a causative effect. The causative effect is contained within both the verbs themselves, which mean to bear fruit and to increase respectively.

The meaning is thus, that the Word of the gospel itself was causing and would continue to cause them to bear fruit and to increase, grow or develop (auxanomenon). The word brings forth fruit of itself. In the same chapter, a few verses later in verses 10 & 11, Paul’s focus changes from the word to the believers themselves. He speaks of his prayers for them and uses two significant verbs, AUXANOMENOI and DUNAMOUMENOI. The form of these two verbs is the same as in our previous verses. It means here, taking its middle voice, that the believers would be caused to develop. The dative phrase translated “in the knowledge of God” can be taken objectively, i.e. that this development was in the knowledge of God, or (as I prefer), causatively, i.e. that this development was by the knowledge of God. The second verb, DUNAMOUMENOI, “strengthened” is a present middle participle, and means an “enabling” or “strengthening” concerning which they played a part. What exactly this involvement was, the Middle Voice does not say.

The Greek and Hebrew Languages

Both languages have a similar voicing system, and therefore are capable of expressing subtle shades of meaning which, although difficult to translate into up-to-date English, can be both appreciated and considered. It seems to me that there lies in the language itself many answers to, for many, yet unanswered questions. The involvement of the subject in the verb’s action is essential to our understanding, and, in all of the verses we have considered in this work this should be plain. There are many more.

Perhaps God chose these two in their times, Hebrew and the Greek of the New Testament, as perfect and pliable vehicles for the expression of the divine thought. Furthermore, the development of a bridge was necessary for the gospel to reach the ends of the earth. Undoubtedly, the making of the Septuagint must have influenced this development. Our respect for this will not only honour Him who inspired the writings then, but also pay dividends in our understanding and may well provide clues which will help resolve doctrinal issues which lie, for example, in the classic Arminian vs Calvin debate, and in the understanding of the dependent nature of Paul’s “imperatives”.

Concepts which are strange and difficult to be communicated in our language may have been natural to the reader in Paul’s time, and it may only be by careful study and consideration of these that, in time, we will arrive at the original meaning of them and so resolve many apparent inconsistencies in the New Testament writings.

(Republished from Tishrei Vol 2 No 3, Spring 1994, The Nature of Scripture)



, , ,