In Part 1, I summarized Mathewson’s approach to voice in NT Greek. Here I want to switch gears and give a more discursive response to the work, in terms of what is helpful and what raises bigger questions rather than settling them.

First, a couple strong points that make this work attractive.

Review of the Literature

First, Mathewson includes a great summary of some important recent research. He gives a few pages to summarize the work of Rutgar Allan, Rachel Aubrey, and a recent dissertation by Bryan Fletcher. He does a truly excellent job compacting the technical and often difficult to follow analyses in these works into a short summary highlighting what they say, why they say it, and some of the implications. Kudos on this section.

Here I will pause to register one brief disappointment. Of course, no one can read everything and in so short a space as this study, one must be very selective about what studies they take the time to interact with. However, one will quickly note the degree of airtime which Porter, O’Donnell, and others working in the SFL paradigm get throughout the work, while some important works outside the world of NT scholarship are not even mentioned. I have in mind here the important work by Liona Tronci, for instance (see her bibliography for some other significant and recent studies of the Greek voice system in antiquity). That she published in the Journal of Greek Linguistics makes it unlikely that a concentrated search for relevant sources would fail to come up with it. Especially since Tronci and other studies she interacts with challenge some of the foundational assumptions of Mathewson’s SFL approach, I am sorry to not see them here.

But, like I said, the summaries he gives are pretty amazing examples of the summary genre.

Study of Voice…not just Middle(passive) voice

A second thing I really like about this volume is that Mathewson studies the voice system of Greek, not just the middle/middle-passive. The middle/middle-passive has received a fair degree of attention in recent times, and rightly so. However, Mathewson aims to tip the scale back by focusing not on the limited question “what does the middle voice mean?” but on the more holistic “how does the voice system in Greek function?” In this study, Mathewson aims to account for voice as a whole system within the Greek language. This is a welcome endeavor. Anyone who has pushed through the important (and often daunting) works by Allan or Aubrey must reckon, eventually, with the question, “how do these analyses fit within a view of Greek voice in general?” With Mathewson’s work, that is not any issue.

Some areas which raised more questions than they answered

Many of the thoughts which came to mind in reading Mathewson’s study were of the “yes…but,” variety. No one approach solves every problem. Mathewson clearly sets out to tackle voice from a Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) perspective and he does not stray from that plan:

I am not claiming that no other linguistic models could be followed, or that this is the only correct model, in this volume SFL proves fruitful in exploring voice in ancient Greek.

Voice and Mood, 25

I’m sure that SFL is great, and there has been lots of work on NT Greek (not really other periods of Greek) from the SFL perspective. This is a tribute to the influence of Stanley Porter on contemporary NT Greek studies. The fact that SFL is not really used in Classical Greek study (to my knowledge, that is), is a testament to its idiosyncratic influence in the NT world.

For my part, I see the SFL approach as adding value to the discussion, though I do not work in the SFL paradigm. I work in a stream more influenced by a different type of functional approach, namely Simon Dik’s functionalism, with a heavy dose of assumptions imported from Grammaticalization theories and Cognitive Linguistics (I’m a dabbler in linguistics and do not pretend to be a master of any of these; however, I clearly draw on them extensively and they have strongly shaped the way I consider language to function). So, some of this response to SFL is merely that I see certain aspects of its approach as inherent weaknesses, even while it has obvious strong points.

The main weakness I see with SFL is that it tends to be system-heavy. A glance at Mathewson’s verbal network in Post 1 summarizes the system of voice in Greek. I see three areas which raise problems that are not addressed in this study.

The semantic contribution of verbs

Regarding the semantic contributions of verbs, I am convinced that in other areas of the Greek verbal system certain verbs more or less play by different rules because of their inherent meaning. In other words, there is a broad system and the system always interacts with the semantics of individual verbs, producing generally predictable results…but not always. Some verbs are idiosyncractic, or perhaps follow a pattern that once made sense in a different period of the language, but is no longer operative in Koine outside of a few isolated instances. The SFL approach tends to focus on the system and give short-shrift to exceptions.

One example here. The voice flowchart is nice and helpful for verbs in general, but there are obvious semantically motivated exceptions. Consider the verb ἀποθνήσκω. It means “I die.” Let’s take 1 Cor 15.31 as an example here:

  • καθ’ ἡμέραν ἀποθνῄσκω
  • I am dying every day

In what sense is the subject here an agent? In what sense is the subject an active cause of the action of the verb? The clear answer is that “I” is not an agent here. In Mathewson’s terms, “I” is the medium within which the action of the verbal complex plays out. Thus, the verb should be middle voice, as per Mathewson’s system. However, it is not. We have to be able to account for this somehow. Not working within the SFL paradigm, I don’t know how exceptions to the system are handled (they tend to be ignored, in many works I have seen).

In the recent Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek, they take the approach of arguing that the active voice is “unmarked” for subject affectedness and the middle-passive voice is “marked” for subject-affectedness. This provides a way to explain why there are verbs like ἀποθνῄσκω which are active voice but have meanings that function within the middle voice world in terms of the agency and causality ascribed to the subject.

This exception (and others like it) does not invalidate Mathewson’s approach, of course, but it does recognize that there are semantic considerations which impinge upon how the voice system in Greek actually plays out. We need a mechanism to account for these exceptions to the system.

The strength of SFL approaches, as I have seen them, is in the system. The struggles are in the details.


I also don’t find Mathewson’s discussion of another big issue in the Greek voice system entirely satisfactory. Deponency has become a hot issue. I project it will continue to be a hot issue, as I see two different approaches taken even among those working on voice in Greek within modern linguistic approaches. While deponency is on the ropes (or leaving the arena) in NT grammatical discussion, it is still assumed and used by other Greek grammarians.

On my current thinking, Mathewson is right that deponency, at least as traditionally discussed in NT Greek grammars, should be on its way out. My question here is not with his treatment of deponency as such, but rather with his essential non-treatment of it. Mathewson mentions deponency in the middle voice in two short pages. That’s it. No significant examples, no extended discussion, just in and out and on with life. It is not clearly spelled out how these verbs fit within the verbal system which he has sketched out.

More significantly, this minor treatment belies the issue. The study of middle voice in the voice system of the NT (and Greek more broadly), is largely a study of deponent verbs. Whatever we call them, we have to acknowledge that a good many of these verbs simply function different from “normal” verbs in the verbal system.

While the semantics of the middle voice, as laid out by Mathewson, are insightful, we still need to address these verbs in a more focused way. This leads to my final big question regarding Mathewson’s treatment.

How live was “choice” in the verbal network?

Bucking recent trends, Mathewson argues that there are three voices in Koine Greek, not two. This distinction follows the two main arguments I discussed in this post here. First, there is a clear semantic difference between some middle and passive meanings and second, in the aorist and future there are three sets of endings. Mathewson appeals to Greek not normally tolerating “formal redundancy” to argue that there ought to be a distinction in meaning between the “middle” and the “passive” voices (47-48).

The question in my mind begins with the historical observation that in Archaic Greek (prior to Homer) there appears to have been only an Active and Middle voice. In Modern Greek, there is only an Active and a Passive Voice. For much of Antiquity, a “middle” voice exists that is more or less systematized throughout the language. Mathewson’s basic argument that Greek does not tolerate “formal redundancy” is simply a faith claim that had to be wrong at some point in the language as the voice system changed. At some point the passive morphology displaces the middle morphology, which implies that there is a period of time in which the two sets of distinct endings lose their distinction to the point that one set is viewed as redundant. This does not happen overnight, though. It could be argued that this process of losing the Middle Voice is well underway in the Koine Period.

To put things another way. The presence of the middle voice at all in Koine Greek is largely do to verbs which are (1) “deponent” and/or (2) semantically specialized. As discussed at this post, the Active-Passive voices in Greek have a syntactic relationship with each other, while the Middle voice often has no syntactic relationship with the other voices. It is semantically specialized. It functions like a lexical item, rather than a voice variation within the same verb.

A question which Mathewson’s treatment does not wrestle with is whether the middle and passive voice are really “voice” variations at all. In what sense is middle voice a live option in Koine Greek? In what sense is that buoyed up by deponent verbs? This needs more treatment. While I think his general discussion of the middle voice is insightful and helpful, it skirts the broader issue of to what degree middle voice was actually “live” in Koine Greek, as opposed to severelly lexically limited.


Obviously, Mathewson’s 70 page study is quite short, so I am not faulting Mathewson on what he leaves out. To make this study work, he has to leave out lots of complexities that bedevil describing voice in Greek. This response is more of my dialogical response to the work.

As a general overview, I want to leave any reader who has made it this far with the impression that this work is really good. Go and get it. Read it. Think about it. It is short, insightful, and a helpful voice in the discussion about voice. That being said, it can’t be the final word (nor was it written with that aim). It is another stepping stone on the seemingly endless journey of making sense of Greek voice.