Participles have been called the workhorse of the Greek language. They occur far more frequently in Greek discourse compared to English, and in ways that don’t work naturally in English. Here’s how Wallace describes the situation:
Wallace’s final comment about versatility will be the point of departure for the series of posts that follow. We’ll take a look at participles from a functional linguistic perspective in order to see how a core quality of participles can unify our understanding of their diverse uses.
Greek participles are a morphological hybrid, featuring components of both verbs (tense and voice and mood) and nouns (case, number and gender). Wallace treats them as “verbal adjectives” (ibid.) construed in a broad sense, and for good reason as we will see.
One of the most helpful ways I’ve found to better understand something is by considering what it is not. In other words, let’s take a look at what other forms might be used instead of a participle. Then we will be in a much better position to understand the unique contribution this hybrid nature of participles offers that other forms do not.
Participles are often found in noun phrases, either substituting for a simple adjective or for the noun itself. In other words, participles may be used in place of an adjective or a noun. So what does a participle offer that adjectives and nouns do not? Dynamism! The “nouniness” of participles (case, number and gender) allow them to convey the very same morphological information as any noun or adjective. But participles have the added bonus of including an action. Where nouns and adjectives are largely static, participles can paint a dynamic portrait. To put it crassly, the choice of a participle over an noun or adjective represents to choice of an action-oriented image versus a simple label, illustrated below.
Use of a verbal adjective allows writers to paint an image that might be nearly impossible using simple nouns or adjectives. Just consider the dynamic image created by Paul in Philippians 1:6 by changing the reference from the simple noun “God” to a dynamic participle. Compare the image that each evokes.
Philippians 1:6 (SBLGNT) πεποιθὼς αὐτὸ τοῦτο ὅτι ὁ ἐναρξάμενος ἐν ὑμῖν ἔργον ἀγαθὸν ἐπιτελέσει ἄχρι ἡμέρας Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ·
“God” calls to mind any number of images, whereas the participle “He who began a good work in you” significantly constrains the possibilities.
It makes you think about God in a particular way based on the activity pictured in the participle. No simple noun could do that.
Another powerful portrait from participles is found in Acts 15 justifying Paul’s decision to split with Barnabas:
Acts 15:36–39 (SBLGNT) Μετὰ δέ τινας ἡμέρας εἶπεν πρὸς Βαρναβᾶν Παῦλος· Ἐπιστρέψαντες δὴ ἐπισκεψώμεθα τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς κατὰ πόλιν πᾶσαν ἐν αἷς κατηγγείλαμεν τὸν λόγον τοῦ κυρίου, πῶς ἔχουσιν. 37 Βαρναβᾶς δὲ ἐβούλετο συμπαραλαβεῖν καὶ τὸν Ἰωάννην τὸν καλούμενον Μᾶρκον· 38 Παῦλος δὲ ἠξίου, τὸν ἀποστάντα ἀπʼ αὐτῶν ἀπὸ Παμφυλίας καὶ μὴ συνελθόντα αὐτοῖς εἰς τὸ ἔργον, μὴ συμπαραλαμβάνειν τοῦτον. 39 ἐγένετο δὲ παροξυσμὸς ὥστε ἀποχωρισθῆναι αὐτοὺς ἀπʼ ἀλλήλων, τόν τε Βαρναβᾶν παραλαβόντα τὸν Μᾶρκον ἐκπλεῦσαι εἰς Κύπρον,
Acts 15:36–39 (LEB) And after some days, Paul said to Barnabas, “Come then,let us return and visit the brothers in every town in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, to see how they are doing.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take John who was called Mark along also, 38 but Paul held the opinion they should not take this one along, who departed from them in Pamphylia and did not accompany them in the work. 39 And a sharp disagreement took place, so that they separated from one another. And Barnabas took along Mark and sailed away to Cyprus,
Notice the shift from calling him John (Mark) in verse 37 to the portrait painted by the participles in v. 38. What a difference! Contrast this to what would have happened if Luke had continued calling him by his proper name.
Master Participles and More . . .
These examples illustrate the power of participles used as nouns or adjectives to paint a dynamic portrait. If you are interested in learning more about how participles and other devices are used to affect how we conceive of things, the chapters on Overspecification and Changed Reference in Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament provide a great overview. If you are interested in searching the Greek New Testament for more examples, be sure to check out the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament. The image just above is taken from the High Definition Commentary: Philippians, a unique project designed to help you better understand and communicate ideas like this.
Participles can also serve as adjectival modifiers, accomplishing the same kind of action-based portrayal as we observed with nouns, the difference between a simple label and a dynamic description.
There seem to be a couple of motivations for using participles in this way.
The first motivation we could call efficiency. Let’s say a writer wants to quickly introduce a participant and attribute certain activity to them. One strategy would be making each different action its own clause, e.g.,
- There was a virgin.
- She was promised to be married to a man.
- The man’s name was Joseph.
Describing the characters in this way is not only longer, it also focuses more attention on the activity than on the person. The version we find in Luke 1:27 uses a participle (and a relative clause) to convey the same information, but casts the action more as qualities that the characters possess than as things they have done. Luke also uses a relative clause to introduce Joseph’s name.
Luke 1:26–27 (SBLGNT) Ἐν δὲ τῷ μηνὶ τῷ ἕκτῳ ἀπεστάλη ὁ ἄγγελος Γαβριὴλ ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ εἰς πόλιν τῆς Γαλιλαίας ᾗ ὄνομα Ναζαρὲθ 27 πρὸς παρθένον ἐμνηστευμένην ἀνδρὶ ᾧ ὄνομα Ἰωσὴφ ἐξ οἴκου Δαυίδ, καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς παρθένου Μαριάμ.
Luke 1:26–27 (LEB) Now in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin legally promised in marriage to a man named Joseph of the house of David. And the name of the virgin was Mary.
Another motivation might be the characterizing function that participles can accomplish. The information they contribute can restrict the possible referents of the expression, helping us identify “who is doing what to whom.” This might explain the concentration of participles found in Luke 6:49, where participles function as substitutes for both nouns (underlined) and adjectives (bold):
Luke 6:49 (SBLGNT) ὁ δὲ ἀκούσας καὶ μὴ ποιήσας ὅμοιός ἐστιν ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδομήσαντι οἰκίαν ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν χωρὶς θεμελίου, ᾗ προσέρηξεν ὁ ποταμός, καὶ εὐθὺς συνέπεσεν, καὶ ἐγένετο τὸ ῥῆγμα τῆς οἰκίας ἐκείνης μέγα.
Luke 6:49 (LEB) But the one who hears my words and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation, which the river burst against, and immediately it collapsed—and the collapse of that house was great!”
One could also argue that efficiency was a motivation, based on how the ordering of the propositions would need to change:
- There was a man.
- He built a house without a foundation.
- The are other people.
- They hear the words of Jesus but do not do them.
- These people are like the man first mentioned.
Okay, I’ll admit I made this more complex than I had to, but it’s to illustrate a point. Participles allow us to cover huge amounts of informational territory all within the convenience of a single clause.
One final motivation to mention is the recharacterization of someone or something akin to Phil 1:6 mentioned above. Here the information in the participles is not restricting the potential person, but activating a new and specific picture of them to shape how we think about them in the context. Consider the impact of the participles in James 1:5 (a twofer!):
James 1:5 (SBLGNT) Εἰ δέ τις ὑμῶν λείπεται σοφίας, αἰτείτω παρὰ τοῦ διδόντος θεοῦ πᾶσιν ἁπλῶς καὶ μὴ ὀνειδίζοντος, καὶ δοθήσεται αὐτῷ·
James 1:5 (LEB) Now if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask for it from God, who gives to all without reservation and not reproaching, and it will be given to him.
The participles are not helping us determine which god James is referring to. Instead they shape how we think about him. Of all of the potential images that might come to mind in the context of asking him for something, James portrays him as the giving God, giving to all without reservation. He is also the “not reproaching” God. This is great news for those of us who might be too intimidated to ask him for things like wisdom. After all, what if our request makes him angry? The portrait that James paints of God serves to disabuse us of wrong ideas like this, and participles offer a great alternative to adjectives and nouns for creating evocative pictures.
Master Participles and More . . .
To learn more about how participles and other devices affect how we conceive of things, check out the chapters on Overspecification and Changed Reference in Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament. You can also search the Greek New Testament for more examples of these concepts using the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament.
Participles as Verbs: Part 1 Backgrounding action within a clause
Even though we may talk about grammar in what sound like strict categories, in reality the boundaries can be very fuzzy at times. Grammarians typically divide their discussion of participles into two sections based on whether they modify nouns or verbs, or adjectival versus adverbial. We are going to begin looking at this latter category, but some of the adjectival participles become long and complex enough that they look a lot more like the adverbial ones. The important takeaway is what the participles are doing, not the label one chooses to assign them.
When participles are used to modify full-fledged, finite verbs, the writer’s choice to use a participle means they chose NOT to use a main verb like an imperative or indicative. So in the same way that the adjectival use of participles represented the writer’s choice NOT to use an adjective or noun, the same kind of choice has been made here. Since one of the prime tenets of discourse grammar is that “choice implies meaning,” let’s drill down a bit into the implications of choosing a participle over a finite verb.
Even though all actions in a discourse are, well, actions, they are not all of equal importance. Think about what it would be like to tell a story or describe something without varying your intonation or using extra words. It would be like listening to Joe Friday from Dragnet.
Robert Longacre famously claimed that discourse without prominence would be like pointing to a black canvas and claiming it was a picture of black camels crossing a black sand desert at midnight. At its core, prominence is all about prioritization of information. There are two basic ways to accomplish this. The first way is to place the thing you want highlighted in the foreground, to make it stand out from the rest.
Okay, well maybe not like this but you get my point. Taking one step (or falling) forward made this soldier stand out from the rest. Making something stand out is what we most commonly think of when it comes to prioritization.
But there’s another strategy that is too often overlooked in our preoccupation with prominence and emphasis. We could accomplish much the same kind of prioritization by pushing the less-important information into the background. So instead of having the main actions “take a step forward,” so to speak, we could BACKGROUND the less-important actions by having them all take a step backward. The net result is the same—some actions stand out while others don’t. The key difference is that backgrounding an action is more like lowering your voice from the normal volume compared to raising your voice to emphasize something. Thus, backgrounding an action essentially downgrades its importance compared to the norm rather than emphasizing something compared to that same norm.
Here are some examples of what I’m talking about. Take a look at Mark 5:24–34 from the Lexham High Definition Commentary. The grayed-out text labeled “Circumstance” represents the actions conveyed in Greek using participles instead of main (indicative) verbs.
All of the backstory to the woman’s situation is recounted using participles instead of main verbs. This backgrounds the action with respect to the one main action of this complex clause: the woman touching Jesus’s cloak (highlighted at the end of verse 27). If all of the backstory had been conveyed using main verbs it would be much harder to know what action to pay attention to, which was most important of the EIGHT actions conveyed. Notice how “touch” becomes thread through the rest of the story, with Jesus asking “Who touched me?” and the disciples responding essentially, “Who hasn’t?” This doesn’t mean that “touch” is the most important action in the whole story; all the participles do is prioritize the action within the one clause. That’s pretty helpful when there are EIGHT to choose from! Mark’s using grammar to background all but one of the actions.
Selectivity versus Prioritization
It is critical to keep in mind that backgrounding an action is not the same as saying it is UNimportant. It is merely LESS important than the main action. After all, if it really was unimportant the writer could just as easily have left it out, right? Think about all of the details omitted from the gospels: we never hear about the weather unless it’s really important as in Mark 4:35–41! We don’t know much at all about Jesus’s childhood other than what Matthew and Luke chose to include. So prioritizing the action is not the first step; writers need to decide whether to include it before they prioritize it.
Now let’s take a look at the versions of the same story from Matthew and Luke. Each of the gospel writers differ in what details they chose to include, but they all prioritize them the same. “Touch” is the main verb in each version, regardless of how many details they backgrounded. Compare Mark 5:25–34 to Luke 8:43–48, and Matthew 9:20–22, respectively.
Note that Luke doesn’t include any details about the physicians making her condition worse instead of better, but does include her spending all her money and the length of time she had suffered. Luke also excludes details about woman hearing reports of Jesus, but the same action is selected as the main verb of this larger complex: touching. Now take a look at Matthew’s version:
Matthew’s version is more like what we’d expect from Joe Friday—just enough to get the picture of her situation without anything extra. Nevertheless, Matthew’s version still agrees with the others when it comes to the prioritization.
Why are there differences in the amount of detail? It might be attributable to differing degrees of access to the information, but it may also be a case of the writer exercising the same kind of editorial prerogative that we do today in selecting what to include in a story. But the important thing is paying close attention to the grammatical choices the writer makes.
If you look at the High Definition New Testament (HDNT) text from the ESV you’ll see that most of the backgrounded participles are translated as main verbs in English. Why? Because Greek isn’t English; we don’t use participles like this. But the great thing about the HDNT is that you can still see key details of the Greek text preserved in the display. Every particle used to background an action in the New Testament is grayed out in the same way to remind you about the writer’s choice.
If you enjoyed today’s post, make sure to like and share it with your fellow grammarians. Check out the Lexham High Definition New Testament and the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament Bundle to make your research stand out. And don’t forget to check back every week for the next installment of HiDef Mondays.
Backgrounding Action-the Sequel
In the last post we talked about how not all actions are created equal, so writers need some means of clearly prioritizing them so that readers can make correct judgments about them. We looked at the use of what grammarians generally call “participles of attendant circumstance,” or what I label as nominative circumstantial frames in the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament. This use of the participle has several common traits:
- The participles are all functioning as verbs rather than nouns or adjectives (if you haven’t read these first two posts, you should).
- If a main or finite verb been used for this action (indicative, imperative or subjunctive mood), at least grammatically it would have been on the same par as the main action. Use of the participle demotes the action, backgrounding it with respect to the main verb on which it grammatically depends.
- The participles are in the same grammatical case as the subject of the main clause, i.e. the nominative case. This means that the subject of the main clause is also the subject of the backgrounded participial clause.
If that made any sense at all, then good! It means you’ve learned something and made your mother proud.
Today I want to look at one other group of these circumstantial participles, the “absolutes.” Regardless of what we might call them, there are some important and simple takeaways to be gleaned.
The circumstantial participles that are generally called “absolutes” are all in a different grammatical case than the nominative, most often the genitive case. In other words, the absolutes differ from the others in point 3 above, but only in point three. So why use a different case, what is the point? I’ll refer you to Big Bird and Susan to help you better understand:
You see, by using a case other than the nominative, the writer is able to clearly communicate that the subject(s) of the participle are not the same subjects as the main clause. In truly “absolute” cases the subject of the participial clause is not involved in any way within the main clause as in the following examples:
- Γενομένης … ἡμέρας (Acts 12:18) “becoming … day”
- ἡλίου … ἀνατείλαντος (Matt 13:6) “sun … rising/rose”
- Ὀψίας … γενομένης (Matt 8:16; Matt 14:15, 23; Matt 16:2; Matt 20:8; Matt 26:20; Matt 27:57) “evening … coming about”
- Πρωΐας δὲ γενομένης (Matt 27:1) “early morning … coming about”
These are subjects that you would really expect to continue, but rather scene-setting information that sets the stage for the main action. Backgrounding this action as less important makes perfect sense.
But there is another use of the absolutes that is a lot more interesting, and it can bring about the same kind of suspense-building repetition we commonly use in storytelling in English and many other languages. For instance:
I was home all alone when I heard a noise upstairs. I decided to go and take a look. And as I was walking up the stairs…
Okay, this is where you internally scream “Don’t go up the stairs, something BAD is going to happen!!!” When we hear this kind of repetition, this circling back through what we were just told, it creates the expectation that something surprising or important is about to happen. Slasher movies accomplish the same thing by playing that creepy music that let’s you know someone is about to (almost) die.
But note that in my English example, the repeated clause “as I was walking up the stairs” is a dependent clause, not a main clause based on the use of “as.” This is the same kind of backgrounding in English as what we will see in the following Greek examples, along with repetition of the immediately preceding action. It brings about the same slowing and suspense-building as we see in English. Take a look at the repetition in Mark 14:43 below. The grayscale in the HDNT indicates a backgrounded participial clause, and the circular arrows mark what is called tail-head linkage. Jesus had been the key character in the scene up to this point, until it shifts to Judas. The backgrounded repetition slows things down and ties things together:
We see a similar kind of near-repetition in verse 45 where we already expect Judas to go and kiss Jesus based on the preceding verse. Backgrounding the “going” prioritizes the action in the clause so that his kiss is the only main action. And as a freebee, the changed reference to “the betrayer” in verse 44 is a participle, the kind described in the beginning of this article.
Just a little bit later in this chapter the same technique is used to shift from the scene of Jesus being mocked and beaten back to Peter’s coming betrayal. These are simultaneously occurring threads of the story, but text does not allow for a picture-in-picture window like our TVs do. Instead, backgrounded participles and tail-head linkage combine to achieve that “meanwhile, back at the ranch” kind of switch from one concurrent scene to another.
Peter is not part of the main clause of verse 66, so the participle reminds us about where we last saw Peter. The same holds true in verse 67, though he is the addressee of the girl’s speech.
In both of these examples the tail-head linkage creates a close connection with what precedes (where part of the preceding clause becomes the circumstantial head of the next one). The use of a non-nominative case in the participial clause also signals that the subject will be different from the subject of the main clause.
Here are a few more examples I will leave for you to look up. Expressions like Ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος “(while) he was still speaking” (Luke 8:49; Luke 22:47, 60) and ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ λέγοντος “saying these things” (Luke 9:34; John 8:30; John 18:22; Acts 10:44; Acts 13:17; Acts 24:36 also generally create the same kind of effect and are genitive absolutes.
If you want to learn more, here are some suggested resources:
- Backgrounding using participles, Chapter 12 of DGGNT or the introductions of the LDGNT or the Greek-free HDNT.
- Tail-head linkage, Chapter 8 of DGGNT or the introductions of the LDGNT or the Greek-free HDNT.
- If you’d like the analyzed version of the text, the HDNT comes included with the LDGNT, and each include a glossary and introduction.
Here’s a video introducing the OT versions of the same resources.
Participles That Elaborate
The first post of this series described how Greek participles can serve as substitutes for nouns, and then for adjectives. Adverbial participles—those functioning as an alternative to main or finite verbs in a clause—bring about different effects depending upon their location in the clause. The adverbial participles that precede the main verb generally convey situational information (see here and here), what grammarians typically label attendant circumstances. From a functional standpoint, these circumstantial participles are backgrounded with respect to the main action. They could have been independent main actions in their own right, but use of a participle represents the writer’s choice not to do that. This choice also prioritizes the participle’s importance vis-a-vis the main verb. This technique keeps the spotlight on one main action instead of potentially dispersing it over several actions. The participles preceding the main verb may also bear little semantic connection to the main action, i.e. they are largely independent. These two traits—backgrounding and independence—form the point of departure for the discussion that follows.
Adverbial participles that follow the main verb typically bear a much closer semantic connection to the main verb, and consequently tend to elaborate on the main action. The close conceptual relationship means the participles expand on what is meant by the main action, offering practical detail about about what it looks like or how one might go about doing it. Consider the usage in Matt 28:19—20 illustrated below from the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament. The text πορευθέντες in grayscale signifies the backgrounding achieved by using a participle before the main verb. Note that “going” has little relation to “making disciples.”
But look at the semantic relationship between disciple making and baptizing/teaching people to obey. This elaborating function is not a rule but a general principle that holds true in most cases. As with anything, there are exceptions. And instead of backgrounding the action, the participles that follow generally offer illustrative detail of what is meant by the main verb. There is still a prioritizing that occurs, in that disciple making is the overarching umbrella under which baptizing and teaching operate. Had all three been rendered as imperatives Jesus would have been giving us three commands rather than one.
Another great example is found in Phil 2:2—3, where the participles that follow practically illustrate what being likeminded looks like.
All of the actions that follow have a natural thematic connection back to the governing idea of making Paul’s joy complete by being likeminded. It involves positive things like being united in spirit and considering others more important than yourselves. He also lists things to be avoided like doing things out of selfish ambition or empty conceit.
Elaborating participles should not be understood as exhaustively listing what the main action looks like as much as illustrating what it looks like. It is a starting point rather than the finish, as illustrated in Eph 5:18—21:
All of the actions that follow elaborate on what it looks like to be filled by the Spirit.
Applying These Principles in the Pulpit
When I am preaching or teaching, I use rhetorical questions to help people understand the relationship of the elaborating participles to the main action, even if the translation we are using translates the participles as though they were main or finite verbs. Questions like “What does this practically look like?” or “Like what?” can serve as a bridge without needing to go into detail about grammar or discourse principles.
Another implication of the main verb versus participle distinction is the structuring of my outline. I need to make sure that the main/finite verbs are my points and that the participles are sub-points nested underneath them. The writer’s grammatical prioritization of the action must be respected as much as possible. If Paul or Matthew had wanted to place the actions on an equal status, each could have reflected that intention in the kind of verb chosen. The choice not to use a finite verb thus has exegetical and homiletical implications.
If you enjoyed today’s post get into the classroom with Dr. Runge with his Mobile Ed courses, LA 211: Introducing New Testament Discourse Grammar and NT 346 Exegetical Study: Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.