My understanding (please correct me if I'm wrong) is that in koine greek passive & middle voice are declined the same, so there is no visible difference, it is up to the reader to correctly interpret authorial intent.

What should the reader / interpreter look for beyond internal coherence of thought? Are there particular words or other clues that usually indicate one or the other?

The digital apparatus I'm using indicates one or the other but that's their interpretation, and while I'm assuming they know what they're doing, I also what to understand why they're suggesting on interpretation or the other.


4 Answers 4


As fdb says, the middle and passive voice aren't completely identical: in two specific tenses (the future and aorist), they're distinct. For example, "I will be released" is λυθήσομαι, while "I will release myself" is λύσομαι; "I was released" is ἐλύθην, while "I released myself" is ἐλυσάμην. In these specific instances, a theta before the ending tells you that it's passive, and the lack of a theta tells you that it's middle.

In most tenses, though, the two are completely identical, and you have to rely on context to tell which is which.

In the passive, you'll often see an agent marked—"I was released by the guards". In Greek, this is represented by ὑπο plus the genitive. If you see that, you can be confident it's a passive construction.

In the middle, you'll sometimes see a direct object in the accusative (when the meaning is closer to "I did this for my own benefit" than "I did this to myself"). Passive verbs in Greek can never take direct objects, so if you see this, you can be confident it's a middle construction. However, quite a lot of middle-voice verbs won't have objects, so this is a sufficient but not necessary condition.

If neither of those holds true, and there's not a good reason to assume passive, assume the middle voice as a default. In places where English and Latin use the passive, Ancient Greek often uses the middle voice instead. It's an order of magnitude more common than the passive, and I'd imagine a native Athenian in the fifth century BCE would make the same assumption.


Look for a construction that is incompatible with middle or passive voice. If the verb has a direct object, by definition it cannot be passive. If the sentence has an agent expressed through 'upo, that's a clear sign of a passive construction. Those should disambiguate the majority of cases.


First of all, it is not correct that middle and passive voice have completely the same forms. In the Koine, as in classical Attic, the middle and passive have distinct forms in the aorist and future tenses. In the other tenses the forms are the same, so the meaning has to be deduced from the context, bearing in mind that there is often a potential ambiguity.


Actually modern research has shown that it is better to think of the future and aorist as also only having a distinction between the active and middle voice, and not having a distinct passive voice. The θη morpheme encodes middle voice and begins to be used for verbs that are on the less transitive end of the spectrum of middle verbs. Over time, this morpheme shifted to encode a meaning more like the english passive in most cases. However, there are plenty of examples in koine literature of θη verbs that are clearly not passive (ἀπεκρίθη, for example). See the book The Greek Verb Revisited ed. by Steve Runge for a fuller treatment. I believe Rachel Aubrey wrote a detailed chapter on this subject.

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    I haven't read the chapter you mention, but this doesn't seem right since there are quite a few verbs that contrast aorist/future middle vs. passive, as ἐλυσάμην / ἐλύθην etc.
    – TKR
    Commented Jul 19, 2021 at 3:50
  • Unfortunately, my University Library is still closed because of the pandemic and I have not been able to access Aubrey's paper. It is specifically about the θη verbs in the koine, and in the broader context of Hellenistic Greek. I would be very hesitant to dismiss it without closer examination.
    – fdb
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 14:36

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