Recently, one of the areas of Greek grammar I have been coming back to again and again is the issue of voice. More will be coming down the pipes here about voice, but I wanted to start with making some basic observations about a passage which caught my eye, 1 Corinthians 11.31-32. The passage reads as follows:

31 εἰ δὲ ἑαυτοὺς διεκρίνομεν, οὐκ ἂν ἐκρινόμεθα· 32 κρινόμενοι δὲ ὑπὸ [τοῦ] κυρίου παιδευόμεθα, ἵνα μὴ σὺν τῷ κόσμῳ κατακριθῶμεν.31

Now if we judged/evaluated ourselves, even then we would not be judged/condemned. 32When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined, so that we may not be condemned with the world.

First, note that in these two verses there are three related verbs: κρίνω and two derivatives, διακρίνω and κατακρίνω. These verbs all share the same limitations when it comes to the different voice-morphology which they have as they all end in the same verb, κρίνω. Note also the various voice forms present in the text.

Second, note that in v. 31 we find an active voice form διεκρίνομεν (imperfect in the modal use of a secondary tense, i.e. a 2nd class “contrary to fact” hypothetical conditional) used with the reflexive pronoun ἑαυτούς. This stands alongside the middle-passive forms ἐκρινόμεθα and κρινόμενοι. How do these various forms relate?

Finally, we have what is traditionally called a passive voice form in κατακριθῶμεν, an aorist subjunctive. The -θ is a passive set of endings (on traditional view). How do we understand this form in relation to the passive-meaning but indistinct forms κρινόμενοι (and παιδευόμεθα) which come before it?

What is going on with all these different voice forms?

Ignoring the important need to define what we mean by voice (coming up in a future post 😊), let’s press on with a few basic observations here.

Description of the voice forms in 1 Cor 11.31-32

Working through verb by verb, let’s consider what is going on in each form.

εἰ δὲ ἑαυτοὺς διεκρίνομεν

Here the subject is acting upon itself: “if we judge ourselves.” This meaning is called the direct-reflexive middle. Somewhere along the line in learning Greek, I picked up the idea that the Greek middle voice is how Greek expresses these sorts of “direct-reflexive” meanings. In point of fact, only a few Greek verbs can use the middle voice to indicate the subject is acting directly upon his/herself. These are verbs of “grooming” such as λούομαι “I wash myself,” κείρομαι “I cut my hair,” etc.[1]

To represent the meaning of “acting upon oneself,” most verbs work like διακρίνω here: active voice + a reflexive pronoun. In Koine Greek, the actual usage of the middle voice does not have room for a direct-reflexive meaning for most types of actions which can be talked about.

οὐκ ἂν ἐκρινόμεθα…κρινόμενοι δὲ ὑπὸ τοῦ κυρίου

Next, we have two forms of κρίνω. The first, ἐκρινόμεθα, is imperfect indicative and the second, κρινόμενοι, is a “present” (imperfective aspect) plural participle. In traditional terminology, we would say they are in the passive voice. This is because they are passive in meaning here: the subject experiences the action of the verb and has no part in performing it. However, this traditional naming schema can easily hide a fundamental complexity in the Greek verbal system: there is no morphological voice distinction in the present or imperfect tenses (imperfective aspect forms), nor in the perfect and pluperfect (perfect aspect forms). In fact, it is only in the Aorist and Future that there are three distinct morphological forms.[2]  So to use the names active, middle, and passive is not entirely satisfactory, unless we make it very clear whether we are talking about meaning or morphology as these are not the same thing. This reality should not be ignored in the way we work to think about how voice works in Greek.

In a traditional way of chopping up voice, we are told that the following paradigms are either middle or passive:

Present middle or passive forms

Imperfect middle or passive forms

The same forms can have meanings which are distinctly passive and meanings which are distinctly middle, depending on the meaning of the verb and the context.

In this case in 1 Cor 11.31-32, both instances have passive meaning. That the participle is passive is obvious from the syntax—it has an agent “by the Lord”. Only passives have an agent since their subject is a patient (being acted upon) rather than an actor. In middle verbs, by contrast, the subject is an actor of sorts. Regarding ἐκρινόμεθα in v. 31, there is not really a distinct middle meaning for this verb (at least that would make sense in this context), and passive meaning works great here, so we run with passive.

As a general note on how we think about Greek voice, it is worth pausing for a second and considering that the imperfective aspect (present and imperfect “tenses”) and perfect aspect (perfect and pluperfect “tenses”) systems of Greek do not make morphological voice distinctions between middle and passive meanings. An important implication of this fact is that clearly distinguishing the difference between a subject acting in its own interest (middle voice meaning) and a subject being acted upon by a different agent (passive voice meaning) is not all that important in Greek. While we must account at some point for the (complex) distinction made in the perfective aspect system (aorist and future “tenses”), we can hang our hats on the important point that the middle vs. passive distinction in Greek was apparently not felt so important by Greeks as our grammatical taxonomies might suggest, as there are not separate forms to make that distinction in the majority of the verbal system.


Here we have a form with the -θ(η) morphology. Most of the uses of verbs with this “passive” morphology are in fact passive in meaning, but not all of them in all verbs. To be quick to call these sorts of endings “passive” leads us into problems in describing the voice system in general. Also, as already pointed out here, it leads one to wonder why in the world “middle” and “passive” are not distinguished in other parts of the verbal system. I would speculate that there is something peculiar to the way the perfective aspect (aorist and future “tenses”) represents the world that led to the adoption of these endings into the verbal system in that aspect system and not the others.[3]

Summary thoughts

In these two verses we see many facts about the voice system in Greek which call for further exploration and explanation.

The most important of these is that Greek lacks a precise morphology to meaning relationship with the different voice forms. With our traditional naming categories (still present in most grammars) of active, middle, and passive, I would expect a more decisive way of representing things in Greek than what there is. In the aorist (and future) the -θη set of endings generally handle passive meaning, as in v. 32, but even in the aorist and future they also work in ways that are not passive at all. In the rest of the verbal system, though, there is no morphological distinction between the different voice meanings. In other words, there were imaginable contexts (at least in some periods of Greek) where a form like ἐκρινόμεθα or κρινόμενοι could be used with a middle meaning of “pick out, choose,” or something like that (the degree of flexibility of different voice meanings varies from verb to verb).

Also of interest, we noted that the meaning which—at least from an English perspective—appears to be the quintessential middle, the “direct-reflexive,” actually cannot be carried out by the morphological middle for most Greek verbs.

Mulling on these basic orienting facts raises lots of question about how the voices in Greek work. How do the “middle” and the “passive” relate to each other? What does the middle mean such that for some verbs a middle form expresses the direct-reflexive meaning of acting upon oneself, while for most verbs the middle voice can’t be used to express that notion?

That will be food for thought for another day.

[1] In the NT, the direct-reflexive use of the middle voice forms is not common at all.

[2] This is part of the reason I find the position attractive that the future is a perfective aspect form in Greek. Since the -θη endings are a later development in the history of Greek, it seems reasonable that the same set of features which led to their spread in the aorist would also lead to their spread in the future and none of the other forms. As the aorist is perfective aspect, this suggests that the future is also a perfective aspect. Future time also pairs well with perfective aspect: a non-past perfective action (one which is not currently underway and which is viewed as a complete action without profiling the event boundaries) most naturally is construed as future time.

[3] Note: in terms of historical development, the standard understanding is that the -μαι/-σαι/-ται endings are older and the -θη endings are a more recent development in the history of Greek. Indo-European had two voices: middle and non-middle (“active”). Greek inherits these and builds on them with a “passive” formation in the perfective aspect system.